Dr Julia Griffin in Conversation with Clare Mulley

Tuesday 11 October 2022
Clare Mulley with a copy of her biography of Skarbek The Spy who Loved (2013, Pan Macmillan).

JG: How did you get interested in Polish culture and in Krystyna Skarbek specifically?

CM: I took a course on ‘Poland during the Second World War’ as part of my first degree in 1989 – in part because this was such a historic moment in Polish history. After graduation, I chose to teach English in Poland with UNESCO for a summer. The school was in Bydgoszcz, and I spent my spare time in the local history museum. Later I worked for the charity Save the Children, and my first book is a biography of their remarkable founder, Eglantyne Jebb. When I won the Daily Mail Biographer’s Club Prize with that, I thought I had better write another book! I was talking with my agent about the rich seam of untold women’s stories, and mentioned my interest in Polish history. He suggested Krystyna Skarbek/ Christine Granville. At first I rejected the idea – I wanted to research and discover my own next book subject – this felt a bit like a blind date! But a bit of research showed how remarkable Krystyna was, a Polish-born Countess with Jewish heritage who became the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the Second World War, and who achieved so much for the Allied war effort. I was shocked at how little known she was and became determined to change that.

JG: Could you tell us more about the research process?

CM: Because Krystyna worked directly for Britain, she has a ‘personal file’ in the National Archives at Kew, and I applied under the Freedom of Information Act to secure the release of a few more files that were still classified. This was fascinating, but I knew I also needed to look at Polish archives. The Polish Underground Movement Studies Trust, and the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum both yielded more, and the latter also contains a few of her personal effects, including a diary, the Aniela Pawlikowska oil portrait, her medals, wireless set, and commando knife – most of which are currently on display. I also followed in Krystyna’s footsteps, visiting her childhood home, the Parish archive with her baptism certificate, and the archives in Warsaw. Among the things we found were her school reports (unruly), first wedding certificate (soft-furnishings magnate) and 1930 Miss Poland photographs (runner up)! Most wonderful of all, I met the niece of her soul mate and comrade-in-arms, Andrzej Kowerski aka Andrew Kennedy, who showed me some fascinating papers and invited me to try on the jewellery of Krystyna’s that she had inherited! I was also lucky enough to interview several people who knew Krystyna, including her cousins, some of her post-war friends in London, and even, on a journey to France, two French veterans who remembered her from the summer of 1944! There is so much more, but it is all in the book!

JG: For those who have not yet heard about Skarbek, how would you summarise her cultural significance for Britain, and her key achievements?

CM: Krystyna served in three different theatres of the war. Initially she brought out intelligence from occupied Poland, sometimes by skiing over the high Tatra mountains. One microfilm she helped courier out was of such importance that Winston Churchill later told his daughter that she was his favourite spy. When her cover was broken, she escaped from arrest and travelled through Europe to serve in Egypt and the Middle East. But it was her work in occupied France in the summer of 1944 that makes her legendary. She made the first contact between the French Resistance and Italian partisans across the Alps; she secured the defection of an entire Nazi German garrison on a strategic pass in the mountains, and she saved the lives of three fellow officers just hours before they were due to be shot. Her impressive work was recognised with the OBE, the George Medal and the French Croix de Guerre. She has never received Polish honours because officially she was serving the British government, but she kept a Polish gorget with her medals – in her heart she was always also fighting for Poland and the cause of freedom.

JG: In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, there is a classic sketch ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’. Apart from your admirable advocacy of Skarbek and Anglo-Polish heritage, the subject is rarely covered in British media. How would you summarise Poles’ contributions to British culture and society and Anglo-Polish cultural exchange over the past century? Are there any particular Anglo-Polish figures who stand out?

CM: Most of my research has been into the Second World War, where the Polish contribution was enormous. Polish mathematicians led by Marian Rejewski first broke the German Enigma code, giving the mathematicians in France and Britain the work that enabled the achievements at Bletchley Park. Polish Squadron 303 was the most effective squadron in the Battle of Britain, and Polish airmen also served in Bomber squadrons. The Polish armed forces served decisively in many battles, such as at Tobruk and Monte Cassino, and the Polish Home Army was arguably the most effective resistance force in occupied Europe, bringing out considerable intelligence including information on the V1 doodlebug and V2 rocket, as well as early testimony about the Holocaust.

Recently British historians have been paying more attention to such history. Among others, Jack Fairweather has written an award-winning biography of Witold Pilecki, the man who ‘volunteered’ for Auschwitz. Roger Moorhouse has written brilliantly about the September 1939 campaign; and Dermot Turing has shone an important light on the history of the Polish Enigma mathematicians upon whose work his uncle, Alan Turing, built. Before that we have had the wonderful work of Norman Davies among others.

I am delighted to have contributed to this history through my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, The Spy Who Loved. After a six-year campaign, two years ago I was honoured to unveil an English Heritage Blue Plaque to Krystyna at her last London address. I also supported the commissioning of the bronze bust of Krystyna that can now be seen in Ognisko Polskie (Polish Hearth), the Polish Club in London; and the donation of an original plate-glass photograph of her from the collection of her friend and fellow SOE-agent, Bill Stanley Moss, to the National Portrait Gallery in London. Interest is definitely growing!

JG: You mentioned that as a child you particularly enjoyed the Anglo-Polish illustrator and children’s book author Jan Pieńkowski. Could you say more about his work?

CM: Simply that as a child, and still today, I loved the evocative beauty of his silhouettes and the cultural resonance of the stories he illustrated. It was only ten years ago that I realised he was Polish. Some Poles of course have world renown, such as Chopin and Copernicus. However, I think that many of the Poles whose work is well known in Britain, don’t always have their nationality recognised. Perhaps Joseph Conrad and Marie Curie are among these, certainly artist Tamara de Lempicka, Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki, journalist Ryszard Kapuściński and actresses Pola Negri and Rula Lenska for example.

JG: Could you tell us more about the subject of your forthcoming book about the inspirational general Professor Elżbieta Zawacka? Is there a publication date?

CM: I am thrilled to be writing the first English-language biography of Elżbieta Zawacka, the only woman among the Polish special forces paramilitary, the Cichociemni or Silent Unseen, who trained in Britain before being parachuted back behind enemy lines. It is a remarkable, inspirational story, yet she is virtually unknown in Britain. It should be published in 2024, with English and Polish language versions. If anyone has a connection to the story, please do get in touch!

Clare Mulley is an award-winning author and broadcaster, primarily focused on female experience during the Second World War. Ever since publishing her award-winning biography of Krystyna Skarbek – The Spy Who Loved (2013, Pan Macmillan), Clare has been keeping her memory alive. Skarbek aka Christine Granville was Britain’s first female SOE [Special Operations Executive] agent, the single longest-serving operative of World War Two, and Churchill’s favourite spy. Clare’s other books include The Woman Who Saved the Children about Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children; and The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the story of Nazi Germany’s only two female test pilots, one of whom tried to save Hitler’s life, while the other tried to kill him. Her forthcoming book, Agent Zo: Woman on a Mission, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2024.

Dr Julia Griffin (née Dudkiewicz) is a Courtauld-trained art historian and curator with a specialism in 19th and 20th-century British and Polish art, design and cultural history. As Young Poland Project Curator at the William Morris Gallery, she co-edited Young Poland. The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 (Lund Humphries, 2020; shortlisted for the 2022 Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award, CAA), and co-curated the world’s first exhibition on the subject; Julia is the joint winner of the Association for Art History’s 2022 Curatorial Award for the best UK exhibition. Julia’s PhD explored Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Kelmscott Manor (University of the Arts London). As Principal Curator of the Guildhall Art Gallery (City of London’s corporate art collection), Julia designed the 15th Anniversary Rehang, launched in 2015, for which she was awarded Freedom of the City of London. She is a contributor to numerous publications on British and Polish art, including the Routledge Research Companion to William Morris (2020, ed. Florence Boos) and William Morris (2021, ed. Anna Mason, Thames & Hudson). She co-authored Tower Bridge. A Celebration of 120 Years (City of London, 2015).