She was a Polish countess and Churchill’s favourite spy whose many dazzling accomplishments included smuggling microfilm across Europe which proved Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union.
But while she devotedly served the British government Christine Granville was also horribly let down by it, struggling to get full citizenship after the war and forced to work as a bathroom attendant on cruise ships.
On Wednesday Granville, born Krystyna Skarbek, will finally get recognition many people believe is long overdue when a blue plaque is unveiled on the Kensington hotel which, when it was run by the Polish Relief Society, provided her with a bed until her death in 1952.
“I am so thrilled,” said Granville’s biographer Clare Mulley of the unveiling. “I proposed the plaque with English Heritage about six years ago and there were all sorts of other issues and hurdles. So yes … it is absolutely wonderful that Christine finally has this honour.”
Granville was Britain’s first female special agent and the nation’s longest-serving wartime special agent, male or female, said Mulley. “She was also one of the most effective.”
She was so impressive that Ian Fleming almost certainly took inspiration from her for his character Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.
“I have to say Christine is much more than a Bond girl,” said Mulley. “She’s more Bond. And she’s more than that because she is real.
“All too often, women in the resistance tend to get remembered for their beauty or their courage or their final sacrifice … We are less good at celebrating the achievements of the women.”
Granville was recruited as an agent in 1939, her path smoothed by a friend, the well-connected Manchester Guardian journalist Freddy Voigt. She served with distinction in three theatres of war – the Middle East, eastern Europe and western Europe – taking on many different identities.
Among her early achievements was to ski into Poland in temperatures of -30C. Later she would smuggle the first film evidence of Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, across several borders – an achievement which led Churchill to call her his “favourite spy”.
Towards the end of the war she secured the defection of an entire Nazi garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps. “She had extraordinary powers of persuasion,” said Mulley. “She always said her best weapon was her knife but in fact it was her brain, she was incredibly smart.”
Another time, hearing that three men she worked with had been arrested by the Germans and were scheduled to be executed, she claimed to be Field Marshal Montgomery’s niece and managed to persuade the Nazis that the three should be released.
One of the men saved from the Gestapo firing squad was the British agent Francis Cammaerts, the uncle of writer Michael Morpurgo. Morpurgo welcomed the plaque. “Her extraordinary courage was forged by a love of freedom, a hatred of the invader and a love of her beloved Poland,” he said.
Her treatment after the war was shoddy, said Mulley. Granville described it as “the horrors of peace”.
Whereas the men she served alongside were redeployed, she initially struggled to get full British citizenship and worked as a waitress, a check girl at Harrods and a bathroom assistant on cruise ships to make ends meet.
It was in the cruise ship job that she had the misfortune to meet the man who would later become her obsessed stalker, murdering her in 1952.
Granville joins fellow second world war agents Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan in having a blue plaque unveiled.
She is part of English Heritage’s “plaques for women” campaign to correct the historical gender imbalance, with only 14% of London’s blue plaques dedicated to women.
Mulley said Granville’s ability to think on her feet was remarkable. Once, during a brutal interrogation in Hungary she bit her tongue so hard it bled.
“It looked as if she was coughing up blood which signifies tuberculosis. The Germans were terrified so let her go. After that the SOE [Special Operations Executive] put it in their handbook.
“She was an incredibly brave, quick-thinking woman who achieved so much.”