It was the summer of 1952 and the British people to were shocked to the core. A report of the brutal murder of a woman in a Kensington hotel sparked a media frenzy, and quickly whipped the populace into a state of panic.
The victim was a Polish beauty queen, named Krystyna Skarbek. Codename: Christine Glanville.
Having turned secret agent for the British, Krystyna (a Countess by birth, no less) saved innumerable lives during the Second World War. Over the course of her wartime career she had a knack for repeatedly escaping dangerous situations, which is why it made her death even more surprising…
So, Who Was Krystyna Skarbeck?
Krystyna was born in Warsaw in 1908 to a dissolute aristocrat and a Jewish banking heiress, and was brought up in the rustic splendour of a country estate. She relished her childhood and spent much of her time outdoors, enjoying all of the trappings of life in the country. As she grew up she became more and more confident; a trait that stood her in good stead for her life of espionage.
Fast forward to the age of 21, and Krystyna was living with her mother and brother in Warsaw. The depression had collapsed the bank that her mother should have inherited, and their lifestyle rapidly diminished. Since her father was a frightfully poor aristocrat, he had left the nest and left the family all alone.
However, resourceful Krystyna married twice. Her first husband, Gustav, tired of her independence and strong-willed appetite for freedom. However her second husband, Jerzy, was a better match, since they both loved to completely disregard convention. Therefore, it came as no surprise that when Krystyna heard about the German invasion of Poland; she didn’t think twice at leaving Jerzy to volunteer defense against her homeland.
Underhand Fighting In The Midst Of The Enemy
Krystyna presented herself to the British intelligence operation in London, and soon after was asked to ski into Nazi-occupied Poland armed with British propaganda. The aim of the mission was to inform Poles that they had not been abandoned. Krystyna traversed the Tatra Mountains, with a Polish ex-Olympic skier, and beat some rather scary odds to deliver the documents to their intended destination.
The Tatra Mountains, Poland.
Whilst working for Special Operations Executive (or SOE – the secret wartime sabotage unit), Krystyna was based in the Alps, where she trekked between the French and Italian sides, transmitting vital information about enemy activity. She narrowly evaded capture on numerous occasions and was even released from Gestapo control after biting her tongue hard enough to draw blood, to feign tuberculosis.
Her most infamous dabble in espionage came in 1944. By this time, there was a bounty on Krystyna’s head. But that didn’t stop her. Undercover, she casually waltzed into a Gestapo-controlled French prison and secured an interview with a corrupt French ‘gendarme’. Against all odds, she managed to secure the release of three of her colleagues, who were about to be executed.
Life After The War
Sadly, after the war, Krystyna’s life changed dramatically. She was abandoned by the intelligence services. Despite her war efforts, she was neither a citizen of the UK or able to return to Poland (which was under Stalinist control). Therefore, she began working as a waitress in London, then moving as a Steward on a cruise liner.
It was on one of her cruises that she met fellow steward, Dennis Muldowney. He became obsessed with Krystyna, but she wasn’t willing to commit. Krystyna had always been a free spirit, and her affairs and trysts are well documented. But for Dennis, who had been abused as a youngster, Krystyna represented the sophistication and glamour that was so important to him. On their return London, Dennis hid in wait for Krystyna at the Shelbourne Hotel, and stabbed her straight through the heart, before hanging himself.
The grave of Krystyna Skarbek in Kensal Rise, London.
Sources: en.wikipedia.org, britmovie.co.uk
It would have taken a lot of nerve to go behind enemy lines and fight for democracy, especially as a woman. Of all the dangerous situations Krystyna had walked into during her time as a spy, it is ironic and surprising that she met her end at the hands of a jilted lover. And on this International Women’s Day we should celebrate women, like Krystyna Starbek, who proved that even in a man’s world, woman are just as capable, just as braveand can do the most extraordinary of things!