The Allies’ success in World War II owes a great debt to the women who outfoxed, out-shot, and outran their male counterparts across the globe. Perhaps most intriguing of these women, although little-known today, is Christine Granville, the Polish-born daughter of a ne’er-do-well count and a Jewish mother, whose real-life romantic entanglements, fearless sorties, and close escapes are enough for reams of dramatic stories.
Born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908 to an aristocratic, but broke, family of Polish nobility on her father’s side and a successful, but socially limited, Jewish banking family on her mother’s side, Christine, as she later came to be known, seemed destined to be able to handle whatever situation life threw at her. Likeable, beautiful, and driven by a strong sense of fun, she used her resources before the war to become an expert equestrian, a top-notch skier, and even a national beauty queen.
But her ancestry meant she would never quite fit in. According to Clare Mulley, the author of a biography about Granville called The Spy Who Loved, it would be this outsider foundation that later drove Granville to accomplish great things. As Mulley explained to Mental Floss, “although beautiful and well-connected, her mother had been born Jewish, and Christine was never fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society.”
The Nazi invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 was, of course, a game-changer. Trapped in London with her diplomat husband, Jerzy Giżycki, and desperate to help the war effort in any way she could, Granville found a contact in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and pressed herself into service. She became Britain's first—and longest-serving—female special agent during World War II. Her facility for languages, her intelligence, and her calm under pressure all proved to be great assets in her espionage work, as she made her way in and out of Nazi-held territories. Even her long-time interest in skiing proved useful, allowing her to sneak into war-torn Poland by traversing the mountains just ahead of enemy soldiers.
Along the way there would be close calls, romantic intrigues, and triumphs that would become the stuff of spy novels. These included her escape from a Gestapo interrogation by faking a case of tuberculosis: Spies had been informed that Germans were terrified of catching the contagious disease, so Granville simply manufactured some symptoms during her detention by biting her tongue until it bled and then “coughing up” blood in the presence of her captors. Afraid to have someone in her condition in their custody, she was promptly let go and returned to her spying duties.
According to Mulley, Christine had one particularly impressive feat among her many accomplishments. “Christine became legendary within SOE [Britain's Special Operations Executive] for her single-handed rescue of three fellow agents from Gestapo prison, just hours before they were due to be shot in July 1944. One of the men was her lover, Francis Cammaerts, the leader of SOE in the south west of France, who went on to help coordinate French resistance support for the Allied troops arriving to liberate occupied France from the south.”
Active in no less than three theaters of war, Granville survived six years of dangerous fieldwork in an occupation where the average life span was six weeks. As a reward, she was decorated by both Britain and France. Sadly, however, her story ends with a twist that would put even writers like John le Carré to shame. She was killed by a man whose romantic overtures she spurned. As Mulley explains, “Christine met her untimely end in a south London hotel in 1952. Her murderer claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession.’ He was wrong. Nobody possessed Christine, not her father, not either of her husbands, and none of her many lovers. If anything, she was possessed by her drive for freedom.”
Her legacy, even if little-known and under-sung, endures. Thought to have inspired at least two of James Bond author Ian Fleming’s characters (the author never met her, but he may have heard of her exploits through his own MI5 contacts), Granville remains a figure who deserves further exploration. Mulley argues that she deserves more than the sensationalist treatment of paperbacks and action movies, adding that “her legacy lies in her inspirational example of a Pole fighting for Britain and her countries’ allies, and as a woman serving so effectively behind enemy lines. All too often women in the resistance are presented in romantic terms, as brave and beautiful. Christine had both these qualities, but she also made a hugely significant contribution to the Allied war effort."
A version of this article originally ran in 2016.