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The History Makers: Krystyna Skarbek

Pat Kinsella uncovers the story of a Polish aristocrat-turned-MI6 agent, and how she evaded the Gestapo in one of World War II’s most dangerous theatres of war
ALAMY X1, GETTY X1

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

As a Special Operations Executive agent in German -occupied Europe, Skarbek’s cunning saved herself and her colleagues from execution

On a moonlit July night in 1944, special agent ‘Pauline’ was jettisoned from the belly of an RAF plane over the Vercors plateau into the midst of Nazioccupied France. Despite the clear skies, she was seized by violent winds and blown four miles off course, landing in a field with such force that the impact left her with a crushed revolver, bruised coccyx and damaged ankle.

Swiftly burying her chute and now -useless shooter, the woman immediately assumed the character of ‘Jacqueline Armand’, to match her forged papers, and ignoring the pain in her ankle and lower spine, walked back towards the intended dropzone.

Although her gun was gone, beneath farm-girl attire she carried a commando knife (strapped to her thigh), a silk map of the area and a cyanide pill encased in rubber – the last-resort escape route for a captured spy facing torture and execution. At dawn she was met by her French Resistance reception committee, and dropping her guard momentarily, let out a string of expletives that shocked even these battle-hardened fighters.

Beyond her gender, nothing about this remarkable woman was as it seemed. Her French was fluent and flawless – even when swearing – but she was Polish. She wore farming clothes, but was born into an aristocratic family, and the birth date in her fake passport placed her seven years south of her real age, 36.

Pauline’s real name was Krystyna Skarbek, and she was about to start work as a courier for Francis Cammaerts, an English agent organising pockets of French Resistance in sabotage missions against the occupying Germans.

Allied agents working behind enemy lines in 1944 had a life expectancy shorter than some butterflies. Cammaerts’ original courier, Cecily Lefort, had been active for three months before being captured, interrogated and sent to Ravensbrück, Himmler’s all-female concentration camp known as ‘L’Enfer des Femmes’ (‘Women’s Hell’), where she was gassed in 1945.

Skarbek knew the risks – she’d been engaged in espionage since 1939. Outwardly fearless and utterly unflappable, she thrived on the adrenaline surges that accompanied ultra-dangerous undercover operations, and had become adept at using her considerable charms to evade arrest and pass through checkpoints by arousing everything except suspicion.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

This is the December 2017 issue of History Revealed.