M R-D-Foot

A woman in a million

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Christine: SOE Agent and Churchill’s Favourite Spy

Madeleine Masson

Virago, pp. 320, £

Of all the extraordinary secret careers that have gone public since the end of the world war against Hitler, one of the most dashing and farthest out of the ordinary was that of the woman the SOE called Christine Granville. Her father, the Polish Count Jerzy Skarbek, died when she was a child; her mother was the daughter of a Jewish banker. Krystyna grew up an unmanageable tomboy. She had been born in 1915, and spent her babyhood under German occupation; that did not make her pro-German. She adored skiing and knew well most of the skiing instructors on the mountainous Hungarian border, with whose help she organised several astounding escapes from newly occupied Poland in the winter of 1939-40. She could not persuade her mother to come too; a countess’s rank was no help, her mother was murdered later in a concentration camp.

The Poles in exile, ever suspicious, could not believe she had managed these escapes without enemy help, and passed word round the secret world that she was unreliable. A friend in Cairo, where she turned up, reckoned he knew better, and provided her with a pittance out of SOE’s funds. She had spoken perfect French from childhood, learned to parachute, and was dropped into occupied France — indeed, into the Vercors — in the summer of 1944 to work with Francis Cammaerts, organising resistance east of the Rhone. Cammaerts was caught. She went and called on the prison that held him, explained — in no ladylike terms — what the allies did to captured Gestapo men, and bought him out with three million francs dropped in to her for the purpose.

At the end of the war the British gave her a George Medal, an OBE, £100 and a handshake. Safe men evidently felt she could not be regarded, brilliant as she was, as a safe pair of hands. Always on her beam ends, she got a job as a stewardess on a Union Castle liner, where she waited on (among hundreds of others) Madeleine Masson, who sensed her astonishing strength of character, and wrote this sound and sensitive life of her 30 years ago. Virago now reprints it — Christine is a natural heroine for the feminist movement — with a new afterword, from which we learn of Christine’s carefully concealed affair with Ian Fleming, who used her as the model for Vesper Lynd, the enigmatic brunette in Casino Royale.

She was clearly a woman in a million, who deserved a luckier fate than to be stabbed to death in her thirties by an unsuccessful suitor in the hall of a small hotel in South Kensington. Her murderer was hanged a few weeks later, and is almost forgotten; she is still vividly remembered by everyone who knew her and is still alive, and provides a splendid model for today’s young to imitate — if they can. As Madeleine Masson puts it, ‘She had so strong, so magnetic a personality that it has transcended time and obscurity.’ She deserves a place in anybody’s hall of fame.