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The most decorated woman of WWII was – without a doubt – a free-spirited Nazi Resistance fighter. Yet, Polish Countess Krystyna Skarbek remains unheralded in her homeland, and nearly everywhere else, even though her amazing exploits thwarted Nazi war efforts in Europe and North Africa, and saved thousands of lives in Britain, France and Poland without firing a single shot. The remarkable, true story of the enigmatic Polish countess whose life came to a tragic end in the lobby of a seedy London hotel in 1952 more than deserves accolades that transcend generations.
Krystyna Skarbek Granville is an exceptional role model for all women who expect to be considered on an equal footing with any man. In fact, she is all of us. She saw men as partners, not opponents. And men could see that. A liberated woman long before that term got its current cachet, she was level-headed, clear-eyed, and no-nonsense. Oh, she had a sense of fun! (You can bet on it.) But, she made sure the men around her treated her and every other female with due respect. This Jewish Polish countess thrived in and appreciated various cultures, becoming chameleon-like, in places like Budapest, Vichy France, and Cairo.
Not content to serve on the sidelines, she was both athletic and astute enough to be in the thick of the action. Enjoying her honeymoon in Addis-Ababa in September of ’39, she volunteered to go to Budapest to help form an underground railroad that would escort Polish pilots out of her occupied homeland. These thousands of airmen then continued on to Egypt and were transported to England where they took up the slack in the Battle of Britain. These fellows were those about whom Churchill spoke when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Krystyna’s forays over the Tatra Mountains from late 1939 through early 1941 earned her the respect of everyone from the mountaineer Resistance fighters to the British Ambassador to Hungary, Sir Owen O’Malley.
On one of her last missions, she secreted out of Poland the microfilm evidence her Resistance unit, the Musketeers, provided of the Nazis’ planned Operation Barbarossa, the sneak attack on their supposed ally, Stalin’s USSR. Krystyna’s escape from Hungary to Cairo was a rushed affair fraught with peril because Hitler was luring Budapest to his side, thus closing the borders; the Gestapo was actively hunting her; and her failing health with its incessant coughing threatened to expose her hiding place, the trunk of O’Malley’s limousine.
But, once in Cairo, she and her lover, Andrzej Kowerski, were put on ice for more than two years because the Polish government-in-exile suspected them of being double agents in league with the Germans. In part, this stemmed from her contact in Warsaw with the Musketeers, whose leader was Stefan Witowski.
Now, you may notice Krystyna was married but left her then-husband behind to start her wartime adventures. Quite the opposite of the usual plotline where the man leaves the woman to march off to war, isn’t it? Her love affair with Andrzej lasted the rest of her life but both of them were known to have a “wandering eye.”
Andrzej, whose nom de guerre was Andrew Kennedy, had lost part of his left leg before the war, but insisted on learning parachuting in order to become a parachute instructor first in Algiers and then in Bari, Italy.
Eventually cleared of suspicion, Krystyna was allowed to join the SOE and learn to become a radio operator. As a Polish aristocrat, she had vacationed in France during her childhood and was as fluent in French as a native. The combination of her military instruction and her Francophile passions made her a natural to be sent into Vichy France.
The gears of her last operation were set into motion shortly after D-Day, when in early July she parachuted into the Vercors plateau, near the French Alps. She was to replace the radio operator Col. Francis Cammaerts (aka Roger de Vigny of the French Maquis) had lost to the Gestapo. It was here Krystyna became Jacqueline Armand, code name Pauline.
On the heady news of the success of the Allies’ D-Day invasion, the French Resistance (known as the Maquis) had declared the area the Free Vercors Republic. Krystyna was given the unhappy task of delivering the message they’d receive no assistance from London or Algiers. Having ousted the Germans prematurely, the Maquisards had jumped the gun and their appeals for weapons and munitions were denied.
Shortly after her arrival, the Germans regrouped and a Wehrmacht division, with two companies of Russian and Ukrainian troops, attacked the Maquisards on the Vercors heights and on the plateau. The French were undertrained and ill-equipped for the fight. The battle in Vassieux was a rout and hundreds of French lost their lives. The bloody suppression of the Vercors insurrection further inflamed the Maquis in the region.
Thus began la petite guerre of the guerrillas who remained, engaging in harassing and ambushing Wehrmacht units, rather than in large-scale frontal operations. Roger and Pauline coordinated all these efforts over the space of the next five weeks.
The Germans exacted their revenge with the Gestapo relentlessly hunting and rounding up what Maquisards they could find. Meanwhile, the Maquis command received word the Allies needed them to attack a fortress in the mountain pass between France and Italy called the Col de Larche. The citadel was manned by Polish Silesian conscripts.
Knowing the decimated French couldn’t possibly muster an assault, Krystyna as Pauline accepted the challenge. She went alone to persuade the Silesian conscripts into turning against their German commanders and taking over the fortress. Liberating the Col de Larche allowed the Allies free entry via the Maritime Alps from Italy into southern France, thus saving tens of thousands of American and British soldiers’ lives.
Meanwhile, Roger and two other British undercover officers were arrested in a Gestapo sweep, and jailed in the town of Digne. Krystyna decided to rescue the British agents, at all costs. She took it upon herself to strike a deal with Roger’s jailers, a French police officer Schenck and a Belgian Gestapo officer by the name of Waem. By exposing herself in such a fashion, she risked her own immediate arrest and execution – as always, she was dancing on the edge of the sword.
Having nothing to bargain with, she bluffed: declaring herself a British agent and Field Marshal Montgomery’s niece, she warned that an Allied invasion from the south was imminent, and the likes of Schenck would be “handed over to the mob,” unless they cooperated with her.
It was a desperate wager but, amazingly, it paid off. French and US troops landed on the Riviera as predicted, and Schenck and Waem hurriedly accepted her offer of two million francs and a guarantee of protection in return for the three prisoners’ lives. The money was air-dropped in, and the next day Waem drove Roger and his bewildered companions out of the prison, just hours ahead of their scheduled execution. After passing a roadblock, they recognized Krystyna waiting for them by the roadside, and Waem was allowed to make his escape as she had promised.
Thanks to Roger’s Maquis network, US forces liberated Digne, Gap and Grenoble by the end of August, and SOE’s job in the region was done. But the war was not yet over for Krystyna. That September, the SOE got the go-ahead to send several “political” missions to now Soviet-occupied Poland, with the intention of providing a more objective view of the situation, and confirming or denying alleged Soviet atrocities.
Awarded an honorary WAAF commission, Krystyna was sent to SOE’s base at Bari, Italy, from where she was to fly into her country as a courier. However, the first team (that didn’t include Krystyna) arrived in December and was overrun by Soviet forces in January. All subsequent missions were cancelled.
Now stateless, Krystyna became a British citizen in December, 1946. Some of her émigré friends were worried about her precarious situation and encouraged her to join Andrzej, now living in Germany. Despite their unparalleled, unbreakable bond, she never pursued the idea of marrying him… until it would be too late.
In the years that followed, she was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the George Medal, and OBE. But none of those would be enough to house and feed her. She had one dead-end job after another, including as a salesclerk at Harrods. She also spent a lot of time in Kenya. It was as if she was anchorless and rudderless in the postwar years. Or, perhaps this was the typical fate of many whose families had been killed off.
Eventually, she took a job as an ocean-liner stewardess between Southampton and Wellington, New Zealand. Her boss on the ship was a 43‐year‐old Dennis George Muldowney. With his slight physique, he made a pathetic, lonely figure after his wife had divorced him on the grounds of cruelty. It soon became clear Muldowney was obsessed with Krystyna and wanted to be with her, whatever the cost.
Always having hated domestic chores, Krystyna must have found her onboard duties hard, if not impossible, to bear. But, she strived to put distance between this odd Irishman and herself. At Andrzej’s invitation, Krystyna planned to fly to Belgium on Monday, June 16, 1952: it’d give her a break and hopefully shake Muldowney off.
Upon returning to her hotel after a night out with friends, she found her stalker waiting for her. He followed her up the stairs and, on the landing, plunged a knife into her heart. Hotel staff wrestled him to the ground and Krystyna died a moment later.
Andrzej later confirmed he and Krystyna were planning to reboot their relationship in the hopes of marrying. Her burial at St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green was attended by two hundred mourners, including Andrzej and Francis Cammaerts, aka Roger. Nearly four decades later, when Andrzej died December of 1989, he arranged to have his ashes buried at the foot of her grave. He had never married.
Krystyna was an athletic gamine with moxie. If she had been younger, thus avoiding the war, she might have been a skier in the 1948 Olympics, it being the first time women were allowed to compete. Had she been born during the 1950s or ’60s, she could have been a career diplomat because (Lord knows!) she knew how to negotiate. But the times were not on her side and a world war broke out. She could have ridden it out in the safety of Africa or in an underground station during the London Blitz. But she elected to do neither of those things.
She knew she had talents and connections that would prove vital to Poland’s war effort. She’s among the very few to risk their lives to get airmen out of her occupied Poland so they could rescue England from the Germans’ air assault. She has to be the one and only woman to have ever fought the enemy on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. That takes moxie.
We have a saying: behind every great man, there’s a great woman. In this instance, we have the reverse – behind this great woman, there was a great man. Andrzej Kowerski was that great man.
They both had flaws and knew all too well each other’s flaws. But he determined to love her anyway. He stood by her, no matter her decision. How modern a marriage that would have been, had she been able to avoid Dennis George Muldowney that June night!
Copyright 2018 Christine Skarbek
American journalist Christine Skarbek is Krystyna’s distant cousin and has jointly written a screenplay based on the countess’ life entitled, On the Edge of the Sword, based on interviews she had with Krystyna’s wartime associates in 1990. Her collaborators on the project are her world-traveler son Rick Clinite, and noted Polish novelist and scriptwriter, Dominik W. Rettinger.