MY HIS­TORY HERO

Chil­dren’s au­thor and poet Sir Michael Mor­purgo chooses 1908–52

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Sir Michael Mor­purgo is a chil­dren’s au­thor and poet. In the Mouth of the Wolf, il­lus­trated by Bar­roux, is pub­lished in May by Eg­mont Read more about the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive on page 20

Michael Mor­purgo chooses Krystyna Skar­bek

Born in Poland, Krystyna Skar­bek – also known as Chris­tine Granville – was an agent for Bri­tain’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive (SOE), which con­ducted es­pi­onage, sab­o­tage and re­con­nais­sance op­er­a­tions in Nazi-oc­cu­pied Europe. Cel­e­brated for her dar­ing wartime ex­ploits, she was stabbed to death by a spurned ad­mirer in Lon­don in 1952, aged just 44.

How did you first hear about Krystyna Skar­bek?

Be­cause of two ex­tra­or­di­nary un­cles of mine, Pi­eter and Fran­cis Cam­maerts, who had an English mother and a Bel­gian fa­ther. Pi­eter joined up at the start of the war and was killed in 1941. Fran­cis joined the SOE and in March 1943 was dropped into France, where he set up a re­sis­tance net­work. In July 1944, be­fore the Al­lied land­ings on the Mediter­ranean coast, Krystyna was sent to join his unit. They worked to­gether closely, pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion and car­ry­ing out sab­o­tage mis­sions that were cru­cial to the Al­lied ad­vance in their area.

What kind of per­son was she?

Krystyna be­came a re­sis­tance fighter af­ter Poland, her coun­try of birth, was in­vaded in 1939 by Ger­many and the Soviet Union. She was clever, charis­matic, spoke sev­eral lan­guages and, just as im­por­tantly, got on with and un­der­stood peo­ple. She also looked strik­ing; ev­ery­one in the SOE who came into con­tact with Krystyna fell in love with her – my un­cle in­cluded, even though he was mar­ried.

What made Krystyna a hero?

She had enor­mous courage and was com­mit­ted to get­ting the Ger­mans out of her coun­try. She loved to wreak havoc on the enemy, blow­ing up trains and cre­at­ing chaos. She had a pas­sion for lib­erty that in­spired those around her. She was as strong as any man, and when she set her mind to a task she’d fol­low it to the end. Lastly, she was a woman in what was mostly a man’s world; a fe­male se­cret agent was some­how much less no­tice­able. It was this, along with her tenac­ity and courage, that helped make her a perfect SOE op­er­a­tive.

What was her finest hour?

For me, it was sav­ing my un­cle’s life. To­wards the end of the war, the Free French gov­ern­ment in Lon­don en­cour­aged Re­sis­tance forces in the Ver­cors mas­sif to rise up against the Nazis be­fore the D-Day land­ings. The Ger­mans re­sponded with fury, bru­tally mas­sacring civil­ians and Re­sis­tance fight­ers. Fran­cis was cap­tured and taken to a Gestapo prison at Digne, where he was to be shot. Krystyna brazenly walked in and de­manded to see the com­man­der. Claim­ing she was my un­cle’s wife, and the niece of Field Mar­shal Mont­gomery (all lies!), she told the Ger­mans to re­lease my un­cle – or there would be hell to pay when the Al­lies ar­rived. They de­manded 2m francs. Within 48 hours the money had been dropped and handed over, en­sur­ing my un­cle’s sur­vival.

Do you think she de­serves to be bet­ter re­mem­bered?

Yes, as should all the other SOE se­cret agents and op­er­a­tives. I’m hop­ing that my new book, In the Mouth of the Wolf will help high­light their ef­forts, and tell their story in a small way.

Is there any­thing you don’t par­tic­u­larly ad­mire about her?

No – I think she was a wholly ad­mirable per­son. It’s sad that she found it so hard to ad­just to civil­ian life af­ter the war ended, but the truth was that she’d been liv­ing on the edge for years. She prob­a­bly found the post­war world a rather drab and dull place, and was per­haps suf­fer­ing from some sort of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

If you could meet Krystyna, what would you ask her?

I’d ask how we as a na­tion could, af­ter the war, have pre­vented her from fall­ing into this world where she seemed hardly able to swim. More should have been done to help her, and oth­ers like her, read­just to ev­ery­day life. In a way she was used up and spat out. Sir Michael Mor­purgo was talk­ing to York Mem­bery

Krystyna Skar­bek, also called Christine Granville, pic­tured c1950. She was a coura­geous Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive agent dur­ing the Sec­ond World War

“She had a clear pas­sion for lib­erty that in­spired those around her. She was as strong as any man, and when she set her mind to a task she’d fol­low it to the end”

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