The Spy Who F***ed

Here’s my latest book review in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a great book about Christine Granville, one of the greatest counter-espionage agents in World War II. I’d never heard anything about her before picking up this book, which is a great read. We hear so much about the French Resistance, that we forget that agents risked their lives all over the world. The title is a bit of a euphemism. She used her good looks and guile to seduce men, both good and bad, to get what she wanted out of them. But the ends somewhat justified the means and it’s a great read about a mostly heretofore unknown part of the war.

The Divine Amateur
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 6, 2013

Nearly seven decades after the Allies invaded Normandy, there are many vivid images of World War II in the collective American psyche: of paratroopers landing behind enemy lines, of ferocious battles on land Spyand sea. But the war was fought in other ways as well, not least in a shadowy world of duplicity and covert stratagems. The shadow war was often fought by brave individuals whose names may be lost to history.

At least one such name will be better known now. In “The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville,” Clare Mulley describes one of the Allies’ most effective counterespionage agents. One lesson of this well-written and thoroughly researched book is that government officials ensconced in ministerial offices can be a hindrance to chameleon-like secret agents out in the field.

“Christine Granville” was actually a name given to her—along with phony papers—when she was being secreted out of Eastern Europe in the trunk of a British legation car ahead of the advancing Nazis. She was born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, the daughter of a Polish count and a Jewish mother. She was a fixture at debutante balls and bohemian salons in 1930s Warsaw and spent winters skiing in Zakopane, Poland, the Carpathian equivalent of Gstaad.

When Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in September 1939, she was in Africa with her husband, a Polish diplomat. They soon took a ship to Britain. He chose to continue his diplomatic work in London; she used her upper-crust connections to volunteer her services to the anti-Nazi cause, tapping into the old-boy network that was forming the backbone of what would become Britain’s clandestine force, the Special Operations Executive. According to British records, a “flaming Polish patriot . . . expert skier and great adventuress” proposed a bold plan in late 1939 to ski over the Carpathians into Poland and set up an intelligence network.

This is where she ran into her first cock-up (as the British would say) with Allied bureaucracies. She was delayed for months because the Polish government-in-exile in London worried that she was “an amateur, and ‘in the pay of the English.’ ” As Ms. Mulley reminds us, British and Polish officials, eager to control policy and assets, treated each other with a sense of rivalry. Once cleared, Granville proved to be anything but a liability.

Working with Granville was Andrzej Kowerski, another well-to-do Pole who risked life and limb for the Allied cause and who was, according to the author, the only man who ever really knew Granville. In the course of her espionage work, she was more than willing to use her guile and aristocratic good looks to seduce men as circumstances required. Indeed, the title of “The Spy Who Loved” can feel, at times, euphemistic.

Christine and Andrzej, as lovers and fellow freedom fighters, set up a vast network over the Carpathians that took weapons and portable radios past roving border patrols and into Nazi-occupied Poland. Their couriers, on returns trips, brought out intelligence on German troop movements that helped the Allies to anticipate Hitler’s move against Stalin and to recover Allied pilots shot down on raids over Poland. It proved to be one of the Allies’ most important underground networks and yielded reams of intelligence. Christine’s own movements on behalf of the network put her into contact—intimate contact—with a Polish count. (“At night they slept together, . . . satisfying the desire that had grown with the fear of the last few weeks.”)

Much of the popular history of World War II espionage has centered on the French Resistance. In addition to telling us Granville’s story, Ms. Mulley reminds us of the intelligence work that took place in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, where the population “lived in constant fear of arrest, torture, transportation and extermination.”

Despite her success, Granville was again stymied by her handlers. When it became impossible for her to continue working in Eastern Europe (she had become too widely known), she spent time in Egypt as London decided what to do with her. Both the British and Polish investigated her loyalties, even wondering if she might be a double agent. The problem had more to do with infighting between administrative factions, Ms. Mulley explains, than with any real doubt about which side Granville was on.

Once freed to resume her work, Granville distinguished herself in France and Italy ahead of the Allied invasion of Europe. Now she was “Jacqueline Armand,” a valuable courier (and the lover) of Francis Cammaerts, a Belgian-born operative in the employ of the British. He was head of operations in Vercors, the stronghold of one of France’s most successful Resistance groups. When their network was penetrated and Cammaerts captured, Granville executed what a British handler called “one of the most remarkable personal exploits of the war.”

“Christine was aware there was a price on her head, and yet she strode straight into the Gestapo offices,” Ms. Mulley writes. “It was the sort of encounter that would turn most mouths dry. But it was exactly the kind of situation in which Christine naturally flourished.” She negotiated a ransom for Cammaerts’s release, promising the officials who facilitated his escape that they would be given favorable treatment when the Allies liberated France, a promise the British reneged on.

Granville floundered after the war. With no more networks to run, her mission turned to obtaining British citizenship, something she was denied several times but very much needed since she couldn’t return to Soviet-controlled Poland. She died an ignominious death in a London boardinghouse, having seduced one too many men. One British functionary described her dispatches from the field as “good reading.” The same can be said of Ms. Mulley’s biography of this extraordinary woman.

—Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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