Over 140 agents from the highly secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) died in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. The SOE was formed in July 1940 on the direct orders of the prime minister, Winston Churchill, who wanted a clandestine army ‘… to set Europe ablaze’. If captured, these agents faced severe interrogation, and possible torture and execution. Over 60 women served in the SOE.
In Kensal Green Cemetery in west London is the grave of one of the women who survived the war, Christine Granville (born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland), who became celebrated for her daring exploits in intelligence and irregular-warfare missions in Nazi-occupied Poland and France. She became a British agent months before the SOE was founded, and began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville in 1941, a name she legally adopted on naturalisation as a British citizen in December 1946. Skarbek was one of the longest-serving of all Britain’s wartime women agents, and she was awarded the George Cross in 1944, and the Croix de Guerre in recognition of her contribution to the liberation of France.
Although Skarbek escaped from the Gestapo and the likelihood of execution on several occasions during the war, she was stabbed to death in the Shelbourne Hotel, Earls Court in London in June 1952 by a club porter and former merchant marine steward Dennis Muldowney, whose advances she had previously rejected. Skarbek had become a legend in her lifetime, and after her death, she entered the realm of popular culture.
Illustrated articles were published about her life in Picture Post in 1952, and it is said that Ian Fleming, in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), modelled the character Vesper Lynd on her. Three biographies have been published, the most recent by Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved: the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, Britain’s First Special Agent of World War II.
Three other women agents were awarded the George Cross; Noor Inayat-Khan, Violette Szabo, and Odette Sansom, the first two posthumously. Of the 39 women agents who were sent to occupied France to work with the Resistance, at least 15 were executed, two were liberated from camps, one escaped and two died of natural causes. The rest made it back to Britain.