Dan Fox 🦊 Profile picture
16 Sep, 24 tweets, 5 min read
In 1971, the Sherborne Hotel in Kensington was taken over by a group of Poles, from the community that had established itself in that part of the world during World War II. For decades it had been a rather shabby and uncomfortable place - not much more than a hostel really for
the waifs and strays of west London. They set about a programme of refurbishment and renovation and in a forgotten store room they found an abandoned trunk. It contained women’s clothing, papers relating to service with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the 1940s, and a
slim dagger designed to be concealed in and lethally deployed from the side of a boot.

The SOE had officially come into being on 22 July 1940 with orders from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill to “now go and set Europe ablaze”. It was tasked with clandestine and
resistance-supporting activities in Nazi-occupied territory, such as sabotage, assassination, propaganda, espionage, civil unrest and anything that, in Churchill’s more private words would “rot the buggers from within!” It was nicknamed his Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare.
Even if you’ve not heard of the SOE you are probably familiar with some of its exploits. For example, Anthropoid, the assassination in Prague of Reinhard Heydrich; and Gunnerside to destroy Nazi nuclear research facilities in Telemark, Norway, were SOE operations.
It is estimated that during its existence, the SOE employed 13000 staff, 9000 of whom were agents deployed to the field. But out of all those people, there was only one whose exploits particularly captured the attention of Churchill himself, and who his family later described as
his “favourite” spy.

Krystyna Skarbek was a former Polish beauty queen, with an aristocratic father and a mother from a Jewish banking family. When war broke out, Krystyna was on holiday in North Africa. She journeyed immediately to Britain to offer her services in espionage.
She was arguably an SOE agent before there was even an SOE. She was the first female agent of the British to serve in the field and the longest-serving of all Britain's wartime women agents. Her resourcefulness and success have been credited with influencing the organisation's
decision to recruit more women as agents. Where to even begin with her service? Here is just a taste. In December 1939 she went to Budapest to spy on Hungary’s preparations to enter the war on the Axis side. At one point she skied across the Tatra Mountains into Poland to reach
her mother, Stefania, and persuade her to leave. Stefania refused, insisting on staying to continue her job as a teacher, and was later arrested and killed in prison. In Hungary, Skarbek met Andzrej Kowerski, a Polish army officer she had known in her youth. They formed a
professional and romantic partnership, carrying out surveillance and organising intelligence couriers in Poland, Hungary and Romania. In January 1941, they were arrested by the Hungarian police, and imprisoned and questioned by the Gestapo. Skarbek feigned symptoms of pulmonary
tuberculosis by biting her tongue until it bled. The Germans released them and the British ambassador helped them flee to Cairo via Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Some of the information they gained had correctly predicted Hitler’s invasion of Russia but on
arrival they were dismissed on suspicion of being too close to Polish intelligence! While the Polish Government-in-Exile resented them for being too close to the British! They eventually worked their way back into the SOE - Skarbek after missions in Cairo and Syria, before
returning to Britain to train formally. She infiltrated into southern France via Algiers to work as a courier for a network organising and supplying resistance fighters. After a failed rebellion against local Nazi troops she fled to the alps to support resistance on both sides of
the Franco-Italian border. Using her skill and charm she persuaded 63 Polish soldiers in the German army, defending a fortress, to swap sides, leaving their former comrades and all their munitions to be surrendered. When her commanders were arrested by the Vichy regime two months
after D-Day, she went to the local Gestapo liaison officer and the Gestapo officer in charge, claiming to be General Montgomery’s niece and threatening grave retribution if any harm came to the prisoners. She had two million francs air dropped to her for a bribe. The men were
released and the Gestapo officer and his liaison deserted. As the south of France was liberated, Skarbek persuaded hundreds of more Poles serving with the Germans to surrender. When the Red Army advanced across Poland, the British government and Polish government-in-exile worked
together to leave a network in place that would report on events in the country. Kowerski and Skarbek were preparing to be dropped into Poland in early 1945 but the mission was cancelled as the Soviets stared arresting agents. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, the SOE was
wound down and its operations were absorbed into MI6. Krystyna continued to seek a role with them but, incredibly, after all they had achieved in the previous years, the chain of command now regarded women like her as an annoyance, an encumbrance. She was offered administrative
and secretarial roles, which apart from anything else she had no experience or skills for. Eventually they paid her off with a month’s salary of £100 and returned her to civvy street. She bounced from menial job to menial job, ending up stewarding on cruises. On one, she
attracted the romantic attention of a merchant seaman called Dennis Muldowney. When the relationship ended, he did not take it well. On 15 June 1952, Muldowney tracked Krystyna down to the hotel she was living in between jobs.
He confronted her in the lobby and stabbed her to death. She was due the next day to travel to Belgium for a reunion with Kowerski. Who knows what might have been? That hotel was of course the Shelborne, where our story began – and that long-abandoned trunk was hers, complete
with the SOE-issued dagger. The campaign to place a blue plaque on the site was blocked by the current owners for years, objecting that it might put off guests. In March, thanks to efforts by Skarbek’s biographer, other historians, and the Polish ambassador to the UK,
agreement for the memorial was finally reached. Today,

Krystyna got her plaque: amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep…

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