CHRISTINE GRANVILLE OBE GM CROIX-DE-GUERRE
Many will be aware of the Colditz escapers and the Great Escape from Stalag Luft 111, but few know of the ‘ordinary’ people of Poland, without whom, escapers would not have made it home.
On the 16th June 1952, a small article appeared in the English national newspapers stating that a stewardess, working on a Union Castle Line mail ship, The Windsor Castle, had been murdered in a London hotel during the previous day. Her murderer was a kitchen porter called Dennis George Muldowny, who worked at the Reform Club. By the 17th June, the small article of the 16th had exploded onto the front pages of every newspaper in England.
That stewardess, Christine Granville [born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek], was far from an ‘ordinary’ lady. Polish by birth, very patriotic, she had run an escape line from both Poland and Hungary. She had worked as a secret agent in Poland, Hungary, and France; was a heroine of the Polish and French Resistance; had rescued SOE agents from Gestapo jails, and had fought with the Resistance in the bloody battles and massacres on the Vercors.
As a girl Christine was adventurous, a keen mountain walker and skier, and known to take risks. She spent much of her spare time in the High Tetras, and other mountain areas – all valuable knowledge and experience for her future life on the escape networks. Even at an early age she ‘played games’ with frontier guards and customs officials; she smuggled tobacco and cigarettes in and out of Poland; found ways through the border areas, and was at one with the mountain people who trusted her, as she trusted them. They provided accommodation in the villages and became valuable contacts for moving fugitives across borders.
On the 30 August 1939, a disbelieving Polish nation listened intently to their radios as Hitler broadcast his ultimatum to them. At 1130, a flash German announcement stated that Poland had violated the German frontier post and the radio transmitter at Gleiwitz, killing the German operators. The border had in fact been attacked by concentration camp inmates dressed in Polish uniforms. All were shot dead. At 1730, the German army invaded Poland. Clare Hollingsworth, the Daily Telegraph reporter, watched the events unfold from the border, and reported back to England. A few hours later, the British government declared war on Germany. The Polish Army was on the defensive.
At that time Christine was now married and living in Africa. On hearing the news of the German invasion of Poland she and her husband left for London and the Polish government in exile. She was advised to visit the Foreign Office. Christine’s knowledge of eastern European languages, the mountains and border areas, and the people of the mountain villages made an impression. A cover story was arranged – she assumed the identity of a British journalist and was sent to Budapest via Hungary, where she made contact with the Polish Home Army. After being initially involved with courier work, distribution of anti-German propaganda to the Polish people, and the movement of arms and ammunition, Christine began to make plans to organise a regular escape route to England or Egypt for British POWs from Polish prison camps. The Foreign Office supported her plans with significant funding.
Routes over the Tatra and Carpathian Mountains were reconnoitred. On a number of occasions Christine and her companions were chased for long distances. Initially she collected information on German troop movements and relayed it to the British authorities. By October 1940, POWs were starting to escape and needed help. Sixteen British soldiers were found hiding in an asylum in Warsaw, and had to be moved quickly as the Germans had set about killing all mentally ill people. Later, many pilots were collected in and taken over the mountains, eventually arriving back in England.
Christine subsequently worked for British Intelligence throughout the Middle East, and eventually became an SOE agent. She spoke excellent French, was a trained radio operator, and could easily pass for a Frenchwomen. Initially she was commissioned into the WRAF and later the FANY. She was given the code name of ‘Pauline Armand’ which is still remembered in her operational area in France.
Christine was parachuted into France on the night of 07 July 1944, to work for the ‘Jockey’ Circuit of F Section SOE. The drop was particularly difficult; the men who dropped with her were injured on landing; Christine was blown away from the DZ, injured her back, and became separated in the darkness.
The Maquis had set up camp in the Vercours, a massive plateau of rock reaching to 3000ft, with sheer sides of over 1000ft. and tiny mountain paths with vertical drops to one side – a fortress for a well-organised base camp where a military routine was established. To Christine this brought back memories of her youth. She was again amongst mountain people. The story of the Vercors, the massacres, and the battle, are however another story.
On the 21 June 1952, about 200 mourners gathered at St Mary’s Church, Kensal Green, London, to say farewell to Christine Granville, with a Guard of Honour provided by members of the FANY. The grave is marked by a simple headstone bearing her name and a list of her decorations, together with a shield with a Polish Eagle and a replica of The Black Virgin of Czestochowa. A local lady who joined the mourners remarked, ‘I have no courage, but I have come to pay my respects to a woman who had it in the extreme’ – an understated tribute.
Christine’s life has been recounted in many books, including the following:
Christine – Madeleine Masson – Pub. Hamish Hamilton
The Spy Who Loved – Clare Mulley – Pub. Macmillan