Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Original Hackers

Last week I was delighted to meet Ruth Ive, ‘the woman who censored Churchill’, as she is styled in her memoirs.[i] As a war-time telephone censor, Ruth is probably the last person still with us who once listened in on conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt, but then we still don’t know for sure exactly who else was party to the great men’s conversations. For those who have been surprised by recent phone tapping and state surveillance revelations, it is sobering to remember that hacking has been a recognised policy since a least the Second World War.

Ruth Ive in the 1940s
when she worked in the Postal and Telegraph Censorship
In 1942, Ruth’s shorthand skills led to her being picked out of her job at the postal-censorship offices for a role monitoring the Transatlantic radio link between Britain and America. For three and a half years she worked long shifts, tucked into a small office in a partly destroyed building in St Martins Le Grand. Here Ruth listened in to conversations between the dispersed members of European royal families, a ‘rather bad-tempered’ Mme Chiang Kai-shek, and senior political and diplomatic staff including Churchill and Roosevelt, or Mr Smith and Mr White as they were known over the phone. Ruth’s job was two-fold; to note down everything that was said, and to pull the plug, literally, on any conversation that might in any way compromise the Allied war effort if overheard.

Churchill was ‘a natural telephoner’ Ruth told me over tea and sandwiches in her North London care home, ‘very effusive with Roosevelt and often unguarded in his comments’. Listening down the line, she felt that she never knew what he might say next, and she suspects that Roosevelt did not either. Their conversations might start with a description of Churchill’s dinner, or Roosevelt’s polite enquiry after his opposite number’s family, but would soon develop into often quite passionate discussions. Churchill ‘didn’t hide his emotions’, Ruth remembered. Although he was always confident about ultimate victory, ‘he did not have that clipped, buttoned-up quality’. On one occasion, when he was distraught at the devastation caused by a V2 that had landed near Holborn Circus, Ruth had to cut the line on Churchill twice in quick succession, for fear he would reveal the exact location and extent of the damage caused. And yet the PM only spoke to Ruth directly once, demanding ‘what did you do that for?’ when the line went dead unexpectedly. Ruth had to explain that this time it was her US counterpart who had cut the line on Roosevelt – something Ruth was never allowed to do herself. The only consistent thing in the calls was the way that Churchill always signed off saying, ‘Kaye Bee Oh’. Eventually, unsure how to transcribe this curious farewell, Ruth asked her boss who told her it was K.B.O. for ‘Keep Buggering On’.

The room where Churchill made his Transatlantic calls.
The outside door was disguised it as a toilet,
with a sign that could be moved from 'Vacant' to 'Engaged'
Ruth knew that all her shorthand notes on the Churchill/Roosevelt conversations were shredded once she had transcribed them and in any case, she told me, a few days later ‘no one could read them, not even me’. After the war, in October 1945, Churchill was asked to attend a US Congressional hearing with the longhand transcripts, and responded that they, too, had been ‘destroyed’. It seemed that that was end of that. Ruth married soon after the war and raised two sons and, having signed the official secrets act, she never spoke about her work listening in to the hottest British hotline of the war.

Ruth's July 1945 reference, noting that she was 'the best censor'
and 'highly recommended for work requiring tact and discretion'
Fifty years later Ruth was ‘horrified’ to learn about the existence of a German listening station at Valkenswaard, near Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where Philips electronics are based. Up till then she had imagined that her role had been little more than a necessary war-time precaution. ‘If I had had any proof [that the Germans were listening] at the time, I would have just laid down my pencil and made a run for it’ she told me laughing. Looking back, however, she has become fascinated by just who, besides herself and the American phone censor, was eavesdropping on ‘these two old men, talking to each other’.

In 2004 Ruth travelled to the Netherlands to search for the Valkenswaard listening station. Major Tony Bayley, of the British Battalion of the Irish Guards, had introduced her to members of the military team who, just after the war, had found the abandoned Dutch farmhouse that had once served as the German listening station hidden away in some woods. Sadly the building had already been stripped, and all the equipment either thrown into the nearby river or evacuated with the staff. Visiting nearly sixty years later, Ruth found the building was still standing and used as an Arts Centre, but she met ‘a blanket of silence’ when she began asking questions at the Valkenswaard Heritage Centre and other official archives. ‘You imagine that the Dutch are liberal’ she sighed, ‘it is shocking that this happened there’. However she did meet a man who remembered the high security around the building when he was a local teenager during the war.

Post-war Valkenswaard
The former German Intelligence Centre disguised as a Dutch farmhouse
The American historian, David Khan, has written about the German facilities at Valkenswaard, describing the underground bunker where the technology was kept, and the radio masts hidden among the trees.[ii] Here the thirty-five staff, all fluent English-speakers, lived in comparative luxury, with comfortable bedrooms, an on-site kitchen preparing fresh meals, and a lounge with an open fireplace. ‘Apparently, the quality of the reception was good too’, Ruth added ruefully as we spoke, thinking about her own cramped office, lack of lunches, and sometimes terribly static lines.

On her last day in Amsterdam, ‘this little man turned up on the doorstep’ Ruth told me. Hans Knap was a retired TV journalist who had written a history of official postal monitoring dating back to the end of the nineteenth century.[iii] While researching Valkenswaard he, too, had also drawn a blank with the Dutch authorities. Nonetheless Knap’s research led him to conclude that ‘after forty years of German-Dutch colonial co-operation, German engineers listened to the “hot-line” of Churchill and Roosevelt with the help of the facilities of the Dutch PTT and Philips Electronic Industries’. David Khan, who has looked at records in the USA and elsewhere, even asserts that translations of all the Churchill/Roosevelt talks landed on the Fuehrer’s desk within hours of the calls being made.

Now in her 90s, Ruth is still a woman with a mission. ‘I’ve had a lot of fun’, she told me, ‘and I’ve got very irritated and very angry…’ In a way though, she says, it did not matter that the Germans were successfully listening in. Given the coded nature of the conversations, and her own and her American counterpart’s quick action to prevent any sensitive information from being discussed, she feels sure that they ‘gained little original intelligence’ from the Transatlantic radio line. However, her memoirs tell just one side of a conversation, she explained, and she would still like to know just who these ‘original hackers’, as she calls them, were. ‘I am surprised at people now – that the authorities were so amazed by the recent hacking’, she told me as we said goodbye. ‘Why was it a scandal? We’ve all been doing it for years.’

Ruth Ive's book, The Woman Who Censored Churchill (The History Press, 2008)


[i] Ruth Ive, The woman who censored Churchill (The History Press, 2008).

[ii] David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (Scribner, 1996)

[iii] Hans Knap, Forschungsstelle Langeveld: Duits afluisterstation in bezet Nederland (De Bataafsche leeuw, 1998)

Joyeux Noel

Earlier this month I was invited to contribute to a three-hour festive marathon; Channel 5’s ‘Greatest Ever Christmas Movies’ special, which was shown on Christmas Eve. As I went in to the studios, Aled Jones came out. My specialist subject was war films. War may not typically be associated with the Christmas film feel-good factor, but it led to some merriment in our house as we tried to work out whether Christmas had featured in The Eagle Has Landed, Downfall or The Hurt Locker. In the end it turned out there was only one war film among Channel 5’s festive top 40 list: Christian Carion’s very beautiful French film Joyeux Noel from 2005, about the Christmas truces down the Western Front in 1914.

The Joyeux Noel poster (2005)
Joyeux Noel is a visually stunning film, with wonderful music – not least the singing of ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Ave Maria’ between the trenches. However it does rather romanticize this most powerful moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent episodes in modern history, the First World War. When it was released, the New York Times film critic, Stephen Holden, neatly declared that the film was ‘as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth’. But while it is tempting to write off Joyeux Noel as purely Christmas feel-good, with a narrow focus that does little to help widen our understanding of this remarkable moment in the war, the film does prick interest in the truly extraordinary story of the 1914 Christmas truces.

Joyeux Noel is pegged around a rather feeble love story. A handsome and feted German opera singer has been drafted to the front. His beautiful wife, who hails from the same trade, has negotiated his return from the trenches for the night of Christmas Eve so that they can duet at the officers’ party. Our hero then forgoes a night of peaceful romance to dutifully return to the front, prompting his wife to follow. As far as I am aware, there are no reports of female opera singers performing at the Christmas truces, but the premise certainly provides lots of powerful cinematic and surround-sound opportunities. However, despite this, and a few other historical inaccuracies, the fundamental premise of the film, the most apparently unbelievable thing of all, is entirely true – there were a series of unofficial ceasefires down the length of the Western Front, during which the men who had been killing each other one day put down their arms, climbed out of their opposing trenches, and met in no man’s land for a day of shared Christmas peace.

German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in no man’s land, Christmas 1914
At the start of the Great War, as it was then known, there were several localized cease-fires and some fairly accepted codes of conduct among soldiers of both sides. In late 1914, the first winter of the war, 101 British women wrote an ‘Open Christmas Letter’ to the women of Austria and Germany, hoping to promote peace. Pope Benedict XV followed their lead, calling for an official Christmas truce, sadly without success.

Nevertheless, on 24 and 25 December 1914, around 100,000 troops stopped fighting along the length of the Western Front. As in the film, along some stretches of the trenches, German soldiers set up small Christmas trees, lit with candles. Carols were sung collectively by the men of both armies, and some later met to exchange uniform buttons, photographs and gifts of wine and Christmas puddings. Over the following days the fallen were retrieved and buried in peace, religious services were held and, if not refereed football matches, there were at least informal kick-arounds.

The ceasefires were not official policy, and they were not ubiquitous. In some places the peace lasted just one night, in others several days. Some soldiers were shot under cover of the truce, and along much of the front there was no cessation of hostilities at all. Most commanders opposed the truces as did, famously, one young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler. But the truces did take place, as hundreds of letters from both sides of the front testify.

Letter from Major Hawksley, Warwick Regiment, 27 December 1914
‘The Germans were quite friendly with us’ Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s wrote home. ‘They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return.’ ‘Fancy shaking hands with the enemy!’ scribbled Private B Calder of the 6th Gordons, ‘I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth’. Despite attempts at censorship the British press were quick to cover the story, some more sentimentally than others, and many quoted the soldiers’ letters. The Times endorsed the men’s lack of malice, and The Mirror regretted that the ‘absurdity and tragedy would begin again’. 

The Daily Mirror: 'A Historic Group; British and German soldiers photographed together'
Like most of those articles, Joyeux Noel is a film with an intimate focus. It does not consider the political or military causes, or wider morality, of the First World War. At most, it hints at the later public swell of feeling to never let such an atrocity happen again, which led to the establishment of, among other organisations, the League of Nations, the Save the Children Fund, and the German Youth Hostel Association, the latter founded by a returning soldier who had taken part in the Christmas truces. There is also a poignant reference to the failure of this movement, when the Iron-Cross holding German commanding officer mentions that he is Jewish.

Essentially however, Joyeux Noel is a statement about the insanity of war, the shared horror of trench warfare and, above all, about the men who found humanity in this least human of situations. Its message, that war is dehumanising, and that even our soldiers must not be made to demonise their enemies, is sadly still relevant today. With its sentimental romance, it might not make a list of top war films, but it does Channel 5 credit to include it in their Christmas list. Films about snowmen can be beautiful and important, but war, and peace, should be remembered at Christmas too

Friday, 27 September 2013

Getting Into the Olympic Spirit

The twenty-second Winter Olympic Games, and the 2014 Winter Paralympics, will be held in Sochi, in southern Russia, next February. So far thirty-eight nations have qualified to send athletes, including Great Britain. After all the excitement of the Olympics here last year, I will certainly be tuning in, watching the spectacle as much as keeping tally of the medals. By focusing the world’s attention on the host country, the Olympics always seems to provide a fascinating insight into how that nation perceives itself, and how it would like to be perceived.

I recently inherited a box of beautiful old German books, among them the official commemorative album of the 1936 Winter Olympic Games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, high in the Bavarian Alps. The cover of this inky-blue cloth bound volume is embossed with a golden bell, inside of which the German eagle perches on the Olympic rings above the legend, ‘ich rufe die jugend der welt!’ – ‘I call upon the youth of the world!’ This was of course an exaggeration. Hitler was the Patron of the games and the Nazis had no wish to embrace young Jewish, Black African, Gypsy, Jehova Witness, gay, communist or disabled people. Nevertheless, just as for the infamous Berlin Olympics held later that year, the winter sports host town was cleared of anti-Semitic signs before the international community arrived, and teams from twenty-eight countries, then a record number, were made welcome.

Official commemorative album of the 1936 Winter Olympic Games 
The glossy photographs in the book, each individually stuck in place, provide a wonderful record of athletes launching into the air on their heavy wooden skis, crashing into ice-hockey goals, and bob-sleighing in matching woolly jumpers. The weather seems glorious and everyone is terribly well-dressed. Canada’s Alpine skier, Diana Gordon Lennox, enjoys a break leaning back on the slopes wearing mittens and a monocle, while the British figure skater Jack Edward Dunn sports a white trilby while competing on the ice.

Canadian Alpine skier Diana Gordon Lennox
British figure skater Jack Edward Dunn
But not everything is quite so jolly. The only picture printed directly into the book is the frontispiece, showing Hitler and Goebbels cheerfully signing cards for the winning athletes. Hitler had announced that he would be pleased to give his autograph to every medallist - sadly it is not recorded how many athletes took up his offer. 

Hitler and Goebbels cheerfully signing cards for the winning athletes
Of the hundreds of faces caught on camera here, only two are black, both in the American Olympic team shot, and there are many more stories hidden behind the pictures. Cecilia Colledge, a Brit who won silver in figure-skating, later drove ambulances during the Blitz, and Czechoslovakia’s beautiful Vera Hruba would escape to America with her mother just two years later when the Wehrmacht entered Prague.

Czechoslovakian figure skater Vera Hruba
Perhaps the most striking photograph in the book, however, shows the three ski-jumping champions on the podium. Norway’s remarkable Birgur Ruud is on the highest step, flanked by two fellow Scandinavians, all smartly dressed in lounge jackets and plus fours, and looking straight ahead as the Norwegian national anthem is played. Ruud had dominated ski-jumping in the 1930s, winning three world championships and the Olympic gold medal in 1932 as well as in 1936. To the three medallists’ left is the rather less-athletic-looking President of the International Olympic Committee, and beyond him the German President of the organizing committee, Karl Ritter von Halt, whose right arm is raised in the Nazi salute. ‘The German people honoured all the winners’, the accompanying text tells us, ‘with the raised arm as a symbol of peace’. Just four years later Germany invaded Norway and, having criticized the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Ruud was incarcerated in Grini concentration camp. In 1944, after his release, he joined the Norwegian resistance. Surprisingly perhaps, he survived the war, and won silver in ski-jumping at the 1948 Olympics in Switzerland.

Gold-medallist Norwegian ski-jumper Birgur Ruud, with fellow Scandinavian medalists and (far right) the German President of the organizing committee, Karl Ritter von Halt
Earlier this month 4,000 people demonstrated in Berlin to protest against Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law, and call on the German government and all Winter Olympic 2014 sponsors to demand an end to homophobic legislation in Russia. In Britain, Stephen Fry called for a boycott of the games on the same basis and, when this was rejected, he suggested that participants protest silently by crossing their arms over their chests to show solidarity with LGBT campaigners. Three times US national champion figure skater Johnny Weir is against a boycott. In a September interview, while wearing Russian military uniform, the gay American athlete said that he hoped his presence would help empower the Russian LGBT community. However more recently he decided not to register for the US national championships this year, the event at which the US 2014 team are to be chosen, so he will not be competing in Russia.

Stephen Fry, demonstrating his symbolic protest
US Figure skating champion Johnny Weir, in Russian military uniform
Perhaps, then, rather different arm symbols may be caught on camera during the forthcoming Olympic coverage, gestures of freedom and solidarity. And may be some of the medallists will be able to proudly talk about standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the podium and making their support for human rights clear without fear of reprisals. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Found in translation?

Last week my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent in the Second World War, was published in Poland. I think she would have been delighted that, in a way, she was finally coming home. There is no doubt that Poland was always home for her, albeit a home that had sometimes rejected her, and one to which she could not return after the war when the country was run by the Soviet-sponsored Communist regime. By the time of her death, in 1952, this courageous and deeply patriotic woman had adopted British nationality along with her British nom-de-guerre, Christine Granville, of which, she wrote, she was 'rather proud'. However she remained, above all, a patriotic Polish émigré, switching effortlessly between Polish, English and French depending on her audience. In addition to everything else, Krystyna/Christine is a fascinating study in identity.

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville

Krystyna's childhood home, Trzepnica, Poland
Of course, biographies are studies in identity too, but when my book was translated into Polish this took on deeper meaning. Would the Christine that I had researched, pictured and tried to present, be the same Krystyna that emerged on the pages of the Polish edition? Would the translation release her from the English idioms that she had never completely mastered, but which she enjoyed playing with for effect, and enable readers to hear her voice more clearly, more directly? Would the 'English sense of humour' she displayed in her letters to British friends, be lost, and, looking back, what nuances had I failed to catch when translating the woman to the page in the first place. Just how defined are we by our language, our nationality, and the nationality of those who aim to describe us?

Interestingly, my Polish publisher has changed the title of the book. Instead ofThe Spy Who Loved, which refers to Krystyna’s deep-seated desire for adrenalin, danger, men and, above all, freedom - for her country and for herself, the Polish edition is called, The Woman-Spy: A Pole on His Majesty’s Secret Service. Pleasingly there is still a hint of Bond here (Ian Fleming was inspired by Krystyna), but the central intrigue is now not that she was a passionate woman, but that she was a Polish woman working for the Brits.

The British cover

The Polish cover
Krystyna, and later her lover Andrzej Kowerski, were exceptional in being Polish nationals employed by the British special services during the war. Krystyna’s reasons, however, were entirely pragmatic. She was in southern Africa with her second husband, a diplomat, when Poland was invaded in September 1939. By the time she was back in Europe, Poland had fallen - but had not yet established its Government-in-Exile. Desperate to join the fight against the Nazis occupying her homeland, Krystyna stormed into the British Secret Services HQ and demanded to be taken on there and then. Her plan, soon put into action, was to ski over the perilous Carpathian mountains, sometimes in temperatures of -30 degrees, smuggling money and propaganda to the fledgling Polish resistance, and information, radio codes and microfilm back out. By the time she arrived in Budapest for her first mission, however, the Polish underground was getting organised and were determined to maintain their independence. As a result the main resistance group, the ZWZ, refused to work with Krystyna because officially she was already a British agent. This was a legitimate concern. The two countries might be allies but their interests would not always be aligned. ‘We are the Polish Underground,’ one officer put it colourfully, ‘and we do not wish the British to peek inside our underpants’.

Once in occupied Warsaw, however, Krystyna did join a fiercely independent Polish resistance group: the Musketeers. Unfortunately they would later be disbanded in disgrace; their leader assassinated for having entered into talks with the Nazis regarding the Russian threat. Krystyna would now never be accepted by Poland's exiled government. Putting her life on the line was not enough, being passionately patriotic but not especially political, she had failed to play the strategic game. In her haste to serve her country she had in some Polish eyes betrayed it.

Krystyna Skarbek, in British uniform
When the war in Europe ended, Krystyna was left stateless. She knew she could never return to Poland under the Communist regime. She may not have been aware that the British had at one point traded her name with the NKVD (precursor of the KGB), but being a pre-war Countess and war-time British special agent was enough to guarantee she would not be well-received. Yet the British, for whom she had put her life on the line for six years, the longest tour of duty of any female special agent, dismissed her with only £100. When someone in the British administration suggested she was not entitled to further deployment or citizenship because she had been fighting for Poland rather than Britain, she rightly remonstrated that this was rather 'hard', given that 'I have got into so much trouble with the Poles because I worked for the firm'. The last British memo relating to her stated, ‘she is no longer wanted’. It was not our finest moment.

Ultimately Krystyna did gain British citizenship, having at one point refused to accept honours from a country that would not give her residency. When she died, in 1952, she had been awarded the British George Medal and the OBE, along with the Croix de Guerre from France, and an array of ribbons that any General would have been proud of. Yet among her collection, now kept at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, is one unofficial badge of honour; a silver gorget (designed to be worn at the throat) in the shape of a shield embossed with the Polish white eagle. Because she was a British agent, Krystyna has never been honoured by the Poles, and this badge was perhaps her own private statement of her loyalty to, or token of appreciation from, the country that she served if not on paper, than certainly within her heart.

Krystyna's medals. The gorget is centre top
Publically recognised or not, Krystyna was never an exclusively British heroine. In fact despite being honoured officially here but not in Poland, she is probably better known in Poland today. Certainly the book launch at the Warsaw Uprising Museum next week is being organised by wonderfully generous and enthusiastic Poles, and attended by the Polish President, the Foreign Minister several other cabinet members, as well as the British Ambassador. Earlier, during my research, I had also found plenty in Polish archives, and through interviewing Poles both in Britain and Poland who, or whose relatives, had known Krystyna. On the other hand there was even more information in British archives. But how did she view herself, and in what language did she choose to communicate?

Krystyna was born and brought up in an area which is now Poland, but was then part of the Russian Empire. Belonging to a family of patriotic aristocrats, she spoke Polish at home, but French at her convent school. By the time she arrived in London in 1939, via Europe and southern Africa, she spoke some English too, although French remained her default foreign language. As a result, when the British sent her to Hungary it was under the guise of being a French journalist. It was here that Krystyna met her compatriot, soul-mate and partner-in-arms, Andrzej Kowerski, and their language of love was definitely Polish; she was his affectionate 'kotek' or kitten, and he her 'kot', her cat. In Egypt she took classes in English and Italian. She now spoke English charmingly, if not always very accurately, with a lilting accent and similarly seductive turn of phrase. She would often translate idioms literally if she felt it added impact, such as when telling admirers how she loved to 'lie on the sun'. But then even her French was idiosyncratic. She was 'fluent but rather breathy', one friend noted, and her natural manner was to speak in a 'halting... panting fashion'. Always conscious of the power of language, when she felt  her Polish charm could not get her what she wanted, Krystyna would simply petition friends to write on her behalf 'in your King's English'.

All of the letters I traced in Krystyna’s own hand were written in English – although still with the odd Polish endearment and literally translated turn of phrase thrown in. 'Perks kochany' - literally 'Darling Perks' - she boldly opened one 1945 letter to Harold Perkins, her formidable SOE boss. This letter, the rest written in English, is a wonderful testimony to her courage and determination. 'May be you find out I could be useful getting people out of camps and prisons in Germany - just before they get shot', she wrote, 'I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day'. So brave, yet she clearly also felt nervous that her English might be letting her down, adding 'Sorry for the spelling!' in a rather jarring ps.

Krystyna's letter to Harold Perkins, March 1945 (TNA, HS9/612)
It seems that Krystyna mostly thought in Polish; this was the language that shaped her and best expressed - possibly even helped to define - her feelings and ambitions. As she learnt more languages she enjoyed collecting other useful turns of phrase, 'quel potron' (what a coward) was a favourite that friends remembered, as was the pleasingly expressive: 'bloody fool'. As with her approach to friendships, it seems that Krystyna would pick and choose her language to suit her mood, intentions and audience.

Wherever I was researching, I tried to get to the truth of this extraordinary woman, but the fact is that there were many truths. Krystyna could be kind and generous, even with her life, but she could also be cruel and self-centred. She was tough and fiercely independent but also rather vulnerable. She lied, exploited and deceived, but she fought for justice, freedom and honour. Her mother was Jewish, her father was anti-Semitic; she was brought up a Catholic but converted to secure a divorce; she was a pre-war beauty queen and a highly-trained special agent fighting among men. She spoke several languages, was known under about twenty names, and she had two nationalities. It was the same Polish Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek that became the British Polish émigré Christine Granville.

The truth is that we can only understand Krystyna in the context of her country, although it often rejected her, and in the context of her times, although I would argue that in many ways she was ahead of them. In life Krystyna was informed by, and let down by, Poland and Britain, but both her birth-country and her adoptive-country seem ready to embrace and honour her now. And if the Polish translation of my biography helps to reframe and present another flavour of this complex woman to the world, then that is certainly appropriate and I am absolutely delighted.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Final Possession?

As a historical biographer, I aim to capture the spirit of people on paper. And yet my latest subject, Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, has taught me to respect her freedom too...

Slavers, dictators, murderers and biographers have all claimed ownership over the lives of others. It’s an unfortunate milieu, but not every biographer chooses to represent their books as the ‘definitive’ account of their subjects’ lives. Not only is it impossible to know that you have nailed down every fact, your selection of nails is equally subjective, as is the force and direction with which you choose hammer them home. Arguably the more ‘definitive’ a biography is hyped to be, the more ‘defined’ it probably is - by its author rather than its subject. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as it is understood. Biographies have long been considered as mirrors of their authors’ times and preoccupations as much as windows on to the lives of their subjects, and plenty of biographers since Lytton Strachey, with his Eminent Victorians, have made a virtue of their overt subjectivity. But then, perhaps this is as much an imposition as claiming to own the truth of another’s life. The real problem, perhaps, is how to balance the good biographer’s compulsive need to ‘possess’ their subject with the equally vital need to respect them.


I felt this dilemma particularly strongly when I started researching the life of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War. Christine was not a person to be owned, or even easily defined or contained. My biography is called The Spy Who Loved because she was a very passionate woman, loving life in its widest sense. She loved Adrenalin and adventure. She loved men; she had two husbands and numerous lovers. But most of all she loved freedom and independence: freedom for her country and freedom for herself. 

It is ironic then, that I soon discovered a wealth of people, mostly men, who had laid a claim to her both in life, and to her story after her death. Christine was not only the first woman to volunteer for Britain as a special agent, she was also the longest serving, taking on mission after mission in three different theatres of the war. That she died young is perhaps unsurprising, but Christine was not killed in action – she was murdered by an obsessed stalker in the lobby of a London hotel in 1952. Reportedly, as he was led from the docks, Christine’s killer, Dennis Muldowney, claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession’. But Muldowney was wrong. He had never possessed Christine in life, however intimate they might have once been, and he failed to stake his claim through her murder. 

Christine and Andrzej Kowerski-Kennedy
Devastated by his ultimate failure to protect her in person, Christine’s long-term lover, soul-mate and colleague-in-arms, Andrew Kowerski-Kennedy, dedicated much of the rest of his life to defending her reputation. In effect this meant representing or re-writing her life-story. During Muldowney’s public trial, Andrew arranged for a statement to be read out asserting that there was ‘not one particle of truth’ in Muldowney’s claims of intimacy with Christine. Thereafter he convened an all-male group of her former colleagues and closest friends as the ‘Panel to Protect the Memory of Christine Granville’, essentially by preventing any unapproved books or articles about her from being published. They proved effective. An anticipated screenplay by Christine’s old friend Bill Stanley Moss, best known as the author of Ill Met By Moonlight, was quashed, preventing a production that might have starred Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter, as Christine. Twenty years later a lyrical memoir by another former lover, Count Wladimir Ledochowski, also failed to win approval, and remained unpublished (although not lost). 

Much of the reason why Andrew was so protective was that Christine had led a very active life on all fronts. However much he adored her, Andrew seemed to feel that the polite world was not yet ready to embrace Christine in 1952. Another reason might have been that many of the members of his panel had not only been in love with Christine themselves, they were also married, meaning that in several cases there was more than one reputation at stake. Eventually, in 1975, Andrew agreed to support a biography of Christine by Madeleine Masson, essentially taking over the narrative drive himself through a series of personal interviews. Despite the pleading of some of the women who had known Christine, such as SOE’s Vera Atkins who told Masson not to ‘diminish her by white-washing her faults’, the book presented a thoroughly scrubbed and sanitised version of its subject. 



Having pieced this back-story together it was a great relief to me when I started my research, that Christine’s remaining friends and colleagues, and the descendants of many more, were so supportive of the project, pulling out letters and photographs, medals and jewellery, and sharing memories and anecdotes over sandwiches or over the internet. Even the nephew of her murderer kindly shared what he knew. Clearly people were keen that Christine should be remembered and celebrated in what is hopefully a less judgmental age. And yet, even then, I faced aggressive phone calls and on-line postings from three male writers who laid claim to Christine’s story. Christine was still mesmerising admirers, and it seemed they still did not understand that she never willingly entered into an exclusive relationship. 

I used a glorious number and variety of sources to inform my book, including interviews; official papers – some retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act; wonderfully personal letters to and from Christine – most previously unpublished; school reports; beauty queen photos; press articles and film clips; artefacts including her commando knife; published and unpublished memoirs; histories; and even novels written by some of the people she knew. When the hardback came out, I was thrilled that several more people who, or whose parents, had known Christine, now also got in touch. Some even told me new stories or details, the most pertinent of which are included in the paperback. 

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, 1905-1952
And yet I know that my biography of Christine can never be definitive. No one ever possessed Christine. Not her parents. Not her two husbands, nor any of her lovers, and certainly not her biographers. If she was possessed by anything it was her drive to free her country, and to live a life of freedom herself. Christine’s defining passion was for liberty: in love, in politics, and in life in its widest sense. No self-respecting biographer could claim to capture her entirely; her spirit defies it. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Page 99 Test: The Spy Who Loved

"Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." --Ford Madox Ford

The Spy Who Loved
Page 99 of The Spy Who Loved touches a wonderful moment in the book when special agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, and her one-legged lover and comrade-in-arms Andrzej Kowerski, are making a getaway from the Gestapo in Budapest, before they start to flee across Europe in the spring of 1941.
Andrzej’s pride and joy was his sandy-brown, two-door Opel Olympia, which he had kept topped up with petrol but hidden in a dirty greenhouse in the gated courtyard behind his and Christine’s flat. This was the same car that he had driven out of Poland the year before, and in which he had escaped the Hungarian internment camp. The SS had raced Opels in 1938, and the following year the convertible became a favourite of high-ranking SS officers. It is entirely possible that Andrzej’s beloved car had once belonged to a discerning Wehrmacht officer, as his sister later proudly referred to it as his ‘spoils of the war with Germany’…
Displaying what the British simply called ‘great presence of mind’, Christine had just orchestrated her and Andrzej’s release from a brutal interrogation by biting her tongue so hard it had bled profusely, enabling her to pretend to cough up blood – a symptom of tuberculosis. Rightly terrified of this highly contagious disease, the Germans had kicked them both out. But Christine still had to plead her and Andrzej’s case to the British Minister at the Embassy, where they first sought refuge, before being ‘folded up like a penknife’ and driven across the border to free Yugoslavia in the boot of the Embassy car, with Andrzej following behind in the trusty Opel.

The Opel would take them on through Europe in the spring of 1941, sometimes weeks and sometimes just days ahead of the Nazi advance. On occasion Christine would smuggle highly incriminating microfilm inside her gloves, and sometimes Andrzej employed a special panel in his wooden leg for the same purpose. Eventually the car delivered them to the safety of the British base in Cairo. Here Christine would undertake some espionage, her methods perhaps suggested by her code-name, ‘Willing’, and she was also trained to be dropped into occupied France in July 1944, ahead of the Allied liberation in the south, where her work would make her truly legendary.


There is something rather wonderful about having them captured on page 99, not by the Gestapo, the Wehrmacht, or the frustrating bureaucracy of the Allies, but in mid-flight, showing typical chutzpah as they head off to new countries and undercover missions, admittedly with ‘bruised and swollen faces’ but also with a stolen German car, a hip-flask of Hungarian brandy, and some nice new British passports.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Dreamcast "The Spy Who Loved"


The Spy Who Loved
The eponymous Spy Who Loved was Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of WWII. This Polish, part-Jewish, Countess and pre-war beauty queen would become one of the most successful and highly decorated agents of the war. The book title is not only an oblique reference to James Bond – Christine was an inspiration for Bond’s creator Ian Fleming – but also a reference to Christine’s huge appetite for life, which she loved in its widest sense. She loved danger, adventure and adrenalin. She loved men – she had two husbands and numerous lovers. But most of all she loved freedom; freedom for her country, Poland, and the Allies, and freedom for herself. Who on earth could play such a woman and bring to life not only her magnetism, but her great patriotism, courage, determination, occasional cruelty and deep generosity?

The tempting answer is Rachel Weisz, not just a dark-haired beauty and action actress, but in real life Mrs James Bond, in that she is married to Daniel Craig. Or what about the stunning Eva Green who played Vesper Lynd, the Bond beauty reputedly inspired by Christine, in the 2006 film of Casino Royale? I would have to resist both, great actresses though both may be. The link to Bond is just too close for comfort. Christine’s life and achievements, even her looks, may have inspired Fleming, but she herself was much more Bond that Bond-girl. She demands an actress who will keep her centre stage.

Whether there will be a film of Krystyna’s remarkable life is yet to be seen, but it seems that casting her is already a popular game. In the 1950s a screenplay was written by Bill Stanley Moss, author of Ill Met By Moonlight (about his and Paddy Leigh Fermor’s WWII work as special agents in Crete). Moss knew Krystyna well, and also wrote a series of articles about her forPicture Post, but the film project was finally shelved. Had it not have been, we might have enjoyed watching Sarah Churchill, the actress daughter of British war-time leader Sir Winston Churchill, in the role that she was apparently keen to play. More recently Agnieszka Holland was rumoured to be interested in a biopic of Krystyna, and leading ladies mooted included Kate Winslet and Tilda Swinton. And only this week Jezebel.com considered the same thing, with Franka Potente, Noomi Rapace, Anna Chancellor and Sharleen Spiteri all being flagged up.

Personally I would plump for the excellent Agnieszka Grochowska, a charismatic actress who could bring Polish insight as well as the acting skill and great beauty required to really give depth to this extraordinary and complex woman. But whether any actress could capture Krystyna completely I doubt, and perhaps that is how she would have preferred things; to be known, admired, emulated even, but ultimately - still free

Friday, 7 June 2013

You’ve written the book – what next?

The Spy Who Loved Manuscript
My first biography, The Woman Who Saved the Children, about Eglantyne Jebb, the controversial founder of Save the Children, was a labour of love, and ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ became the keys words when it came to finishing the book. I had started my research when I went on maternity leave from Save the Children, where I was working as a fundraiser, thinking I might be able to trot the book out before the baby arrived.

Six years, two jobs and two children later, I finally had most of a draft manuscript, an agent and a book deal. What I didn’t have was the last few chapters. By now heavily pregnant with what turned out to be daughter number three, my agent put a bet on which would be delivered first, the book or the baby. Baby won. The final chapter was written with her mainly on my lap (moving her even slightly seemed too risky), and typing away with one hand while she was latched on the other side. To say I was becoming slightly unbalanced was putting it mildly at this point, in more ways than one.

The irony is that Eglantyne, the wonderful founder of Save the Children, was not even fond of individual kids, ‘the little wretches’ as she once referred to them and never had children of her own. It seemed slightly wrong to be dedicating so much of my time to her story, just when I should be most absorbed in my own children. Although I had loved researching and writing Eglantyne’s story, and felt the full weight of responsibility for my precious book, it was with no slight relief that the manuscript finally went off and I believed I would be free.

The Woman Who Saved the Children
Oh no. For a book to flourish, it not only has to be well researched and well written, it needs to be well promoted.

Now began a series of book tours. Some were wonderful; I met some fabulous people actually interested in what I had written, and sat next to ‘other authors’ in the odd green room. Other events were less so, such as when I spoke to two people and a dog in a small London library – and they were only there to shelter from the rain. A highlight was being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. A low moment was when the email I had received from ‘Richard and Judy’ turned out to be from a local WI group, run by Judy and her husband Dick. Wish I’d realised that before I replied.

I wrote articles for everything from the Daily Mail to Save the Children’s newsletter and the British Thyroid Association magazine. I spent hours traipsing round bookshops offering, slightly embarrassed, to sign any copies they had, and I blogged. My first blogs went up on the Save the Children blog board, and the response was great. Later I was invited on blog tours. In a way I felt as though I had not deserted the book after all when it left home; the teenage book needed plenty of support too. But after a year or so it was definitely time for us both to let go.

The Spy Who Loved
Book number two, The Spy Who Loved, the secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of WWII, was written much faster, with no new-borns or other jobs to distract me. Writing the life of a secret agent contained new challenges however. Christine had been taught not to leave a paper trail, and proved good at covering up her tracks. Fortunately, though, she also liked to tell a good story, as did the many men she dazzled in her sights as she made love to the cream of the British and Polish secret service while fighting the Nazi advance across Europe.


In the end, as is traditional with a second child, the delivery was easier, and I was not so shocked to find the finished book staring up at me in all its helpless innocence. This time I have gone into the book promotion phase with my eyes open and I am enjoying (almost) every moment. I have poured my heart into this book, and I am proud of the result. I am not going to let Christine’s story go into the world without all the support I can give it. It is worth the work, both professionally and personally. I am speaking at several literary festivals, as well as at museums and societies ranging from the Imperial War Museum to the Special Forces Club. Women’s Hour has invited me back, and last week I was on Radio Four’s Today programme and ITV news. I have given interviews and slogged round bookshops and spoken to an awful lot of members of the WI and Rotary clubs around the country.

The author,  giving a presentation
Once I was given a loaf of home-made bread by one fan of the book, another time when I was showing some slides of Christine and her fellow agents in the field when a voice piped up from the back of the room saying, ‘blimey, that’s my dad’. I have even been introduced to the woman who censored the files I ordered at the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act, although she refused to tell me what was in the missing pages. It has been great fun, and I am just joining The History Girls to blog among friends about the things that we love: history, writing and people. But I know that ultimately I will have to let Christine go, just as I did Eglantyne, and watch to see if she survives in the crowded book-place on her own merits, or at least – since her own merits are not in doubt – if my books do these wonderful women justice.

What happens next? Well I have three children who I love very dearly – I think that is a full complement. But I have only written two books… I am now looking at other remarkable, unsung women, with whom I would like to share my life for the next few years.

Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of two biographies and a contributor to The Arvon Book of Life Writing. She is a seasoned public speaker and occasionally writes for publications including History Today, The Spectator, The Express and The Church Times, perfect titles for a historically minded, left-wing atheist.

Find out more on her website



The Spy Who Loved: the secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of World War II

‘Highly atmospheric… scholarly and tautly written’, The Economist

‘Compulsively readable… thrilling’, The Sunday Telegraph

‘Engrossing… as thrilling as any fiction’, The Mail on Sunday

‘A nerve-shredding read’, The Lady

‘Sterling biography… a fitting tribute’, Country Life

‘Scintillating and moving… one of the most exciting books… this year’, The Spectator

‘Riveting… Hollywood should sit up and take note!’, The Good Book Guide

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Spy Who Loved

First published in the "History on an Hour" blogsite,  2013

One can’t help but gasp with admiration at the life and exploits of Christine Granville, one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines. On reading Clare Mulley’s entertaining new biography, The Spy Who Loved, we are introduced to a woman who lived life on the edge and who found ordinary, routine existence a bore. Mulley writes with almost a venerable regard for her subject and rightly so, for one would expect the life of Christine Granville to exist only within the pages of fiction. Indeed, she may well have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, Vesper Lynd, from his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, 1908, to a rakish father, a count who taught her how to ride a horse like a man, and a wealthy, Jewish mother, Christine Granville, the name she later adopted, enjoyed an aristocratic, carefree childhood, whose tomboy antics earned the respect of her loving father. Granville disdained authority and convention from an early age, pushing boundaries wherever she went. As a convent schoolgirl, to cite one of several examples, she was expelled for setting fire to the priest’s cassock. (He was wearing it at the time).



Absolutely fearless

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Granville and her second husband travelled to London where she offered her services to British intelligence. She was sent to Hungary and from there, skied into German-occupied Poland. And it is from here that Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless … ready to risk her life at any moment for what she believed in’. What Granville believed in was to play an active role in undermining Nazi control of her beloved homeland.

Once, having been arrested by the Gestapo in Poland, she bit her tongue so hard as to make it bleed. The Germans, fearing she was suffering from the dreaded tuberculosis, released her. Mulley gives us plenty of examples like this, examples of what she calls Granville’s ‘sangfroid’.


Granville had ‘an almost pathological tendency to take risks’ and the British sought to find her work that was ‘sufficiently risky and bloodthirsty to appeal to her’. Her work gave her a purpose in life and, although hard to credit, its danger sometimes left her shaking with laughter, such was her addiction to adrenaline and risk.

Granville joined Britain’s SOE service, established in July 1940 on the orders of prime minister, Winston Churchill, and was to become the SOE’s longest-serving female agent.

Mulley takes us on an exhilarating journey as we follow Granville from Poland to Cairo and then, from July 1944, into Nazi-occupied France where she joined the resistance. It was here, in southeast France, that Granville embarked on perhaps her most daring undertaking. Three resistance colleagues had been arrested by the Germans and faced certain execution. Granville walked straight into the lion’s den of the Gestapo HQ and demanded to see the commander-in-charge. We read Mulley’s description of the episode with our hearts in our mouths; such is the extent of the risk and Granville’s bravado. It really is one of those occasions where, if you were reading this as a work of fiction, you would dismiss it as far-fetched.

The horrors of peace

Following the war, Granville, missing her adrenaline-fuelled life, found adjusting to ‘the horrors of peace’ difficult. Having been rendered stateless by Stalin’s post-war occupation of Poland, she had difficulty settling or finding employment. The British decorated her with enough medals and awards to make, as Mulley observes, a general envious, but they seemed particularly unable or unwilling to find her a job: ‘she is altogether not a very easy person to employ,’ wrote one dismissive report. That she had no office experience counted against her – as if a woman of Granville’s character could have been contained within the four walls of an office.


Christine Granville was murdered, aged 44, on 15 June 1952. This is not a spoiler, we know this from the off. But the way Mulley describes the impending tragedy is poignantly done. She describes Granville meeting Dennis Muldowney, a man with whom Granville experienced a brief if unfulfilling relationship, and we are filled with a sense of doom. Cast aside by Granville, Muldowney became obsessed by her. Without resorting to fiery prose, we, the reader, feel outraged as Mulley recounts the final days and hours of Granville’s life, leading to her violent and tragic end.

Granville loved men and men loved her. She was married twice, neither time particularly successful, and had numerous lovers. Men were hypnotized by her vibrancy and her love of life, but no man ever possessed her; no man would have been capable of it. As Clare Mulley states, writing for History In An Hour last year, ‘Nobody possessed Christine, not her father nor either of her husbands, not any of her lovers and certainly not her killer.’