The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville. By Clare Mulley. Macmillan; 426 pages; Â£18.99. To be published in America by St Martin’s Press. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
IN 1939, according to British Secret Service records, “a flaming Polish patriot”¦expert skier and great adventuress”¦absolutely fearless” submitted a courageous plan to the British. She was to ski into Nazi-occupied Poland from Hungary, over the Tatra mountain range dividing the two countries. Poland had fallen to the Germans, and the woman proposed to take British propaganda into Warsaw to bolster the Polish spirit of resistance. She would then ski back out with secret information about the disposition of German SS and Wermacht units around the capital.
The woman was Krystyna Skarbek, a glamorous, resourceful and extraordinarily brave Pole, who had been a Warsaw beauty-queen candidate at 19, and then married a feckless but charming Polish aristocrat. In 1939, determined to help her country, she immediately travelled to London and demanded to be taken on by the British Secret Intelligence Service’s Section “˜D’. This was to become the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, in 1940, tasked with sabotage and undercover missions in Axis-controlled Europe.
The legend of Christine Granville was born. Naturalised as a Briton under this name, her wartime exploits in occupied Poland, France and eastern Europe were to see her become one of the most famous female Allied special agents of the war. She reputedly inspired Ian Fleming’s courageous and beautiful Bond girl Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale”.
Devastatingly attractive to men, her character ignited by adrenalin and danger, she skied into and out of Poland numerous times, was parachuted into occupied France, awarded the George Medal, OBE and French Croix de Guerre, and saved the lives of her fellow officers, including one of her many lovers, just hours before their planned execution by the Gestapo.
One of her lovers was the aristocratic Polish artillery officer and Resistance fighter Colonel Wladimir Ledochowski. Having dined on flamingo soup in the zoo in occupied Warsaw the night before the Nazis arrived, one of his first assignments was trekking into Hungary with Granville. He recalled kissing her for the first time as they crossed into relative safety in Slovakia. Granville immediately stood on the snowy border post, opened her arms, and cried out “more, more”.
“It was”, says Granville’s biographer, Clare Mulley, in this assiduously researched, passionately written and highly atmospheric biography, “not just more kisses that she seemed to be demanding, but more freedom and more adventure: more of the very stuff that gave her life meaning.”
Ms Mulley has done an excellent job of presenting the tangled anecdotes and realities of this secret agent’s life, which ended in 1952. One who lived by the sword of obsessive adventure, danger and passionate love affairs, Granville was to die by the sword of obsession, too. She was murdered by a schizophrenic stalker and ex-lover in a South Kensington hotel.
“The Spy Who Loved” is not just the story of a uniquely brave and complicated patriot, but also a scholarly and tautly written account of secret operations in occupied Europe.