Later this summer, General Nick Carter, Head of the British Army, is expected to announce the results of his investigation into whether women should be allowed to serve in front line infantry units. The General will I know carefully consider not just their physical but also mental aptitude for the role.
This is naturally a controversial issue, but for those of us who are familiar with the incredible stories of the women agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in World War Two, there is little doubt about what the evidence should reveal. These women undertook missions behind German lines fearlessly and with extraordinary utility to the Allies, aware that one mistake could result in both torture and execution. Their creativity determined the course of the war of a number of occasions, and their courage saved thousands of individual lives.
Krystyna Skarbek, nom de guerre Christine Granville, was perhaps the most accomplished of these women. The longest serving female member of the SOE, born 108 years ago today, was also Sir Winston Churchill's favourite. Described by her MI6 Handlers as ''a flaming Polish patriot...expert skier and great adventuress'', she was considered to be a law unto herself, a force of nature.
Krystyna was in Africa when war broke out but could not wait to get into the fight. In those days there was no place for women in the Army, but when she made her way to London she soon came to the attention of the Secret Intelligence Service, which recognised the value in recruiting Polish agents. Fluent in several languages, she was exceptionally good at reading personalities and was blessed with nerves of steel, a quality that would rescue very many lives, including her own.
In one of her first deployments, Krystyna established an escape line across the Tatra mountains through which she facilitated the escape of Allied prisoners and several hundred Polish pilots, who would later go on to play a decisive role in the Battle of Britain. She made six winter crossings as part of that operation, simultaneously exploiting her abilities as a skier and exceptional physical condition.
Later in the war she was sent to occupied France ahead of the D-Day invasion. When two male SOE colleagues were arrested and detained by the Gestapo, London resigned itself to their imminent execution. Krystyna, meanwhile, identified a rescue strategy that would involve gambling her life on her bluffing facilities. Assessing the brutal local head of the Gestapo to be a coward, she confessed to him that she was connected to the resistance and threatened a full Allied retaliation in the event the pair were harmed. Both were released.
In early August 1944, she made contact with Polish conscripts in the German garrison at Col de Larche, a high-altitude pass. After a two-day hike through the mountains she persuaded the Polish men to desert and then managed to convince the resident German troops to surrender.
Krystyna loved life and the freedom to enjoy it to the full. When it was threatened by invasion, occupation and terror she fought back with determination and courage matched only by the very best of the SOE's special agents in the Second World War.
We can't tell how many more Krystyna Skarbeks there are among our young women today, although I have worked with a few. What we do know is that there are plenty who share her fierce patriotism and aspire to serve their country from the front lines. Those who prove themselves fit for purpose deserve to be given the chance.Suggest a correction