Here I am in the lobby of The Lexham Hotel in Earls Court in Kensington, London. I’d walked about thirty minutes from Mayfair down to see where one of the most courageous female agents was stabbed to death. Christine was a Polish undercover spy in World War Two and after a life of parachute drops behind enemy lines, cyanide pills hidden in socks, fleeting lovers, microfilm hidden in bars of soap and frightening missions she was killed here by a bar steward who was obsessed with her. I’m surprised she isn’t more famous. There’s a bronze bust of her, four biographies, an OBE, a George Medal and Cross of War (France’s military decoration.) I know her but I’m a geek.
She was born in Warsaw into an upper-class life (her folks were a Count and Countess.) Her mum came from a wealthy Jewish family and her dad was a banker who led a lavish lifestyle. There was money and a country estate. She inherited her dad’s trait for adrenaline, riding horses and skiing in the mountains in southern Poland. The money ran out when Christine was in her teens and when her dad died the 22-year-old she got a job at a car dealership. She married a wealthy soft furnishing businessman but they were incompatible and it ended quickly. Life changed one day on a ski slope. Christine was zooming too fast and a big man blocked her path and stopped her descent. Aged 30 she ended up marrying him (but it didn’t work out.)
How did she become a spy? When World War II broke out the coupled sailed to London and Christine offered to help the British authorities. No luck but she found a journalist who introduced her to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). She told them she’d ski into Nazi-occupied Poland across the Tatra mountain range and take information, propaganda leaflets and money to the Polish resistance. She did this in the winter when temperatures were as low as -20C. In Warsaw she pleaded with her mum to leave the country (who was later seized by Swastika-bearing police and died in prison.) In a café she was recognised by an acquaintance but was now working under a new guise and denied she was Christine (she soon left the café.)
This was the beginning of a six-year career working as an agent of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. I won’t go into it all here (please buy one of the biographies.) After being trained in Cairo in Morse Code, coding, explosives and guns she helped organise a system of Polish couriers who brought intelligence reports from Warsaw. One feat alone deserved a medal: she helped co-agent Andrzej Kowerski (who would become her soul-mate) on an escape route for people in internment camps just outside Budapest, allowing several thousand to escape.
She also worked for MI6, providing surveillance of all rail, road and river traffic on the borders with Romania and Germany. There were parachute drop missions carried out behind enemy lines in France and Poland, many sexual conquests and daring escapes from the clutches of Germans who would have shot her without hesitation had they learnt of her status. She was intelligent, attractive, courageous, fluent in languages and resourceful (in Hungary she was once arrested by the Gestapo but feigned pulmonary tuberculosis by biting her tongue until it bled and then escaped.) Somehow she survived.
After the war she was left with little money (five months wages) and no Poland to return to. After such a thrilling few years she struggled to adapt to civilian life. She worked as hotel housekeeper, switchboard operator, and on a counter a Harrods. In the war she’d married again briefly. Her main love was Andrzej, though. She was emotionally faithful to him (but not physically) and did much rutting. She was run over by a car and suffered from injuries and depression.
Aged 43 she got a job working as a stewardess on an ocean liner but this would lead to her murder. The ship's captain asked the crew to wear their wartime decorations on their uniforms. Christine’s splendid George Cross medal was a rarity but when some crew-mates took umbrage a bathroom attendant called George Muldowney took her side. He mistook her gratefulness as a sign of romantic interest and became obsessed with her. Back in London he stalked Christine’s daily movements and took a job at the Reform Club in Pall Mall just to be near her. Whenever Christine returned from another trip on a liner he was waiting for her. A friend warned her that George was not only “Madly in love with you” but mad, too.
Death came in June 1952. Christine was staying at The Shelbourne Hotel. Another work trip on a liner was due soon but in the meantime she was going to fly to Belgium to meet her lover Andrzej. On the morning of Sunday 15th June she heard the flight has been cancelled due to engine trouble. She spent the day with friends and returned to the hotel at 10:15pm. Obsessed George was waiting and watching (he was staying at the hotel under a false name.) Christine had borrowed a pen and ink from reception and returned them. She was going upstairs when George stormed into the foyer and shouted that he wanted all his letters back from her. She descended to the lobby and said she’d burnt the letters and would soon go away for two years. Too much for his obsession George pushed Christine against the wall. The porter heard her shout, “Get him off me!” but she’d been stabbed once and hard through her scarf, jumper and heart. She died from shock and haemorrhage within seconds (George would later hang in Pentonville Prison saying killing her was the final possession.)
Here I am at the hotel where life ended. I walked up the steps and looked at the foyer where this courageous woman died a cruel death aged 44. I took some photos, alerting the receptionist’s notice. I tried to explain a remarkable agent was murdered there but I doubt it registered and she probably thought I was from the council. I looked at the stairs directly ahead knowing Christine died feet away. With the knife still in her she’d fallen to the right bashing her face against the Victorian tiles. A porter dragged George off her and a second porter arrived. They thought Christine had fainted and propped her up against the wall. They tried to give her water but it dribbled out of her mouth with blood and she flopped onto the floor.
I looked around the foyer but there was no plaque even though this hotel was purchased in 1971 by a Polish group (though it isn't now.) In a storeroom they found Christine’s trunk containing her clothes, papers, and SOE issue dagger; some of these are now held in the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum at 20 Prince's Gate, Kensington.) It seemed ironic that she died after such daring exploits in Nazi-occupied Europe - not shot by a firing squad in Berlin or strangled in an alleyway in Paris by the Gestapo – but by a jealous man in peacetime. Had the flight not been cancelled Christine would probably have left the hotel that morning and lived on.
Her lover Andrzej lived on for another 36 years, never marrying and his ashes were buried at the foot of Christine’s grave which not far from this hotel (it’s on my list.) I came back out on the road in front of the hotel, did a hearty salute to a life a coward like me could never live and left.
PS : I can recommend Clare Mulley's terrific book The Spy Who Loved
The hotel entrance is on the right…
Christine outside the hotel…