In the burning desert sun, Capt Hissam stands exhausted and powerless. “Butta giù le tue pistole. [Throw down your guns],” shouts an Italian NCO and threateningly waves his Beretta MAB 38 machine-gun. “Mani in alto! Subito! [Hands up! At once].” Italian soldiers are everywhere mopping up the remains of 11 Cavalry as the Ariete Armored Division overruns the unfortunate Indian Motor Brigade. The brigade had been thrown into the eye of the storm only a day before Rommel unleashed his armour against the Ghazala Line and had little chance.
“Do as they say, lads”, calls the commanding officer. His voice is barely audible over the crack and bang of guns and the grinding of tanks. Sardar Hissam el Effendi, who has inherited the fiery temper of his grandfather Sardar Ayub of Maiwand fame, disgustedly throws his revolver into the sand and clasps his hands behind his neck. Already sunburnt, his face turns beetroot red with indignation, as a rough search by an Italian reveals a gold pocket watch presented on his 21st birthday. The Italian, luckily, misses a signet ring.
A week later, having traveled many miles of dust and sand to Benghazi, Hissam and hundreds of other inmates are herded onto an Italian cargo ship bound for Naples. They remain on deck through the day so that Allied aircrafts can recognize a ship carrying PoWs. One of the crew strikes up J’attendrai [“I will wait” by Tino Rossi] on his accordion and some of the PoWs singalong. From his breast pocket, Hissam pulls out a very soiled note from Christine on the back of which she had scribbled the last stanza of the same song.
“Time passes and flies by Beating sadly In my heavy heart.
Even so, I will await Your return.”
He remembers with a smile this glamorous and fearless woman working for a secret British agency and reaches for his scarf to reassure himself that the precious ring in its folds is still tightly knotted.
Christine and Hissam became friends in Aleppo the previous September when his brigade moved north from Egypt to guard against the German Army penetrating through the Caucasus. He had been through a rough few months after the Afrika Korps landed in the Cyrenaica and his brigade was nearly overrun at Mekilli. Hissam was now looking forward to enjoying the relative peace of Raqqa a Syrian border town 200 km east of Aleppo where he would be based with the regiment headquarters.
At the first opportunity he took a few days leave and caught a lift to Aleppo. It was his second evening at the bar of the well-frequented and famous Baron Hotel. It was here that Agatha Christie had written the opening chapter of Murder on the Orient Express. And T. E. Lawrence had stayed here.
As Christine walked in, heads turned and conversation dropped. She was with a man who Hissam later came to know was her lover and a fellow agent. They stood and looked for an empty table and the ever-bold Hissam lost no time in offering them a seat. It drew a wink and a smile from the two officers accompanying him.
While they settled down, Hissam looked at Christine curiously because of her heavy accent. “You’re not English?” It was a declaration rather than a challenge.
“Of course not!” she replied. “I am Polish, like Andrew here,” she said grasping his hand in more than a friendly way.
“But Christine Granville sounds so British,” he insisted.
“It’s my adopted name,” she confessed. “Ever since I embraced England as my country.”
Hissam beckoned to a waiter. “Vodka?” he asked her. All Poles drank vodka and she nodded. “Neat and chilled but without ice for the lady and the gent,” he ordered, “and bring me another Scotch.” Hissam was not a hard drinker and two well-watered down Whiskies in an evening were his limit.
Sahabzada Yaqub, who was serving in 18th Cavalry and could not resist a pretty face, stopped by the table for an introduction. The drinks had arrived by the time he left and she held up her glass and toasted “Na zdrowie. [To health].”
“Do dna [To the bottom],” replied Hissam.
“You know Polish?” she observed with a laugh.
Hissam chuckled, “No I don’t, but I know my drinks,” he said in his Oxford accent.
It was her turn to look curiously at Hissam. “And you look and sound so British but why is it that you are different from others?” she asked, pointing at the officers crowding the bar.
“Because I come from a royal family of Afghanistan,” Hissam responded with a touch of pride.
“You are a prince! Yeah!” she exclaimed with a chuckle and a hug which cemented their friendship. From then onwards she called him ‘My Prince’.
She was also born into an aristocratic family, as it turned out. Her father was a count, and she grew up a tomboy excelling in riding and skiing. However, when he died, they fell on bad times and she had to fend for herself. She didn’t say what she was doing in Syria and Hissam didn’t ask but he gathered that she had spent time in Cairo working for the Secret House (This was the public called the office of the British intelligence setup in Cairo), and earlier had worked for the Allied cause in occupied Europe.
It was his second evening at the bar of the well-frequented and famous Baron Hotel. It was here that Agatha Christie had written the opening chapter of Murder on the Orient Express. And T. E. Lawrence had stayed here
Even though America had not yet entered the War, its music was streaming across the Atlantic, and a French band struck up Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade. Hissam asked Christine to dance and by the third song, he was holding her close. When the band played the well-known song from The Wizard of Oz, she crooned it’s lyrics in his ear:
“Somewhere over the rainbow
And the dream that you dare to
Oh why, oh why can’t I?”
Her voice was not anywhere close to Judy Garland but it didn’t matter.
Christine, Hissam and Andrew spent a happy evening together trying to avoid talking of the War. Instead Hissam entertained them with amusing anecdotes of the time when his ancestors were at daggers drawn with the British. After dinner they walked up a couple of streets to look at the Aleppo Citadel bathed in moonlight while they drank Arabian coffee. They parted good friends with a promise to meet again soon.
Hissam was back in Aleppo a couple of times more before Christmas and Christine and Andrew grew fond of him. He was witty and amusing and under that fierce look, he had a heart of gold. He and Christine also shared a passion for horses and she took him to the estate of a Syrian Sheikh on his second visit, where they rode through olive plantations.
To celebrate Christmas, Christine and Andrew invited Hissam to accompany them to Latakia on the coast. They traveled in Andrew’s Opel that the couple had driven all the way from Hungry down to Cairo and back to Syria. It was too cold to swim in the Mediterranean but the sun was strong enough for them to lie on the pebble beach and soak in its warmth. He was lying on his back with his eyes closed when he felt her touch his fingers.
“I am curious about your ring, my prince” she said. “Is it very old?”
Hissam slipped it off and gave it to her to look at. “It’s gold and was presented to my grandfather by Queen Victoria.” It portrayed a tiger’s head roaring above crossed curved swords, under which “Enemy of Enemy, Friend of Friend” was etched on a ribbon. That evening they played a joke on Hissam. Christine placed her signet ring with rgw Habdank family crest on the table and picked it up with a magnet. Hissam then tried the same on his own and when it did not budge, Christine said that it proved that it was not gold. Hissam was a straightforward man who thought in straight lines and was absolutely black or white with no shades of gray. He did not suspect that he was being taken for a ride and was furious that his grandfather had been cheated by the British monarch.
It was shortly after their return from Latakia that a letter marked ‘Secret’ arrived in the regiment. The officers were warned about meeting the Polish couple as they were under suspicion. The CO knew that Hissam had been with them over Christmas and when he met Hissam in the Mess for lunch he asked him, “Have you seen the Secret letter?”
Hissam knew exactly why the CO was asking him and replied with a heavy heart, “Yes sir. I will not be seeing them again.”
“Good lad,” remarked the CO and the matter was closed.
As it was, within a few weeks the brigade moved back to Cairo and Hissam left without visiting Aleppo. By early February 1942, he was based at Khataba Camp outside Cairo where the brigade was being reequipped and retrained for desert operations.
While visiting Cairo, Hissam frequented the Indian Soldiers Club near Midan Tewfik. It brought a touch of home with an Indian staff and good Indian cuisine, not the apology for curry served in the mess. There were also fairly recent editions of newspapers from India but parts were heavily censored which was annoying. It was on his last visit to the club when the receptionist handed him an envelope. To his surprise it contained a brief note from Christine and after reading it he stared at it with mixed emotions. He looked down at the ring on his finger and then laughed and headed to the bar to have a vodka in memory of his friend.
Hissam is brought back to the present by the PoWs clapping to the rhythm of a racy Italian tune on the accordion. He is still holding Christine’s note and reads it for the fiftieth time.
“My Prince. I know why you didn’t say goodbye and want to tell you that Andrew and I are now white again and working with the Secret House. I want to confess that we played a joke about your ring. It is of pure gold. Mine has a silver of steel which stuck to the magnet. I wanted you to keep mine as a memento but I never meant to keep yours. You know where to reach me to get it back. Please don’t be angry.
With fondest. Christine.”
Since his brigade was going back into combat, Hissam decided that the ring would probably be safer with Christine and he would retrieve it when he returned to Cairo.
He escaped from a PoW camp during the Allied invasion of Italy and was repatriated back to India. When his boat docked in Alexandria, he motored down to Cairo with the intention of meeting Christine and re-boarding at Port Suez. However, over a year and half had passed since they met and he was informed at the Secret House that she had left for the UK. Christine made a name for herself as a secret agent when she was parachuted into France before the D-Day landings. It is remarkable that she survived because the life expectancy of a secret agent was not more than a few months. Abandoned by the British Secret Service after the war, she had a difficult time etching out a living and died tragically in 1952. She was stabbed by a jilted lover in London.
In September 2020, English Heritage unveiled a prestigious blue plaque at the Lexham Gardens Hotel (then the Shelbourne Hotel) in Kensington, in memory of Christine Granville – Winston Churchill’s “favourite spy”. The plaque marks the hotel where she lived after the war, within the city’s post-war Polish community.
Author’s Note: This story is largely based on fact. The friendship of Hissam and Christine and the joke about the ring is mentioned in her biography Christine – A search for Christine Granville by Madeline Masson. However, both Hissam’s watch and the ring was taken from him when he was captured. The dialogues, of course, are fiction. I am grateful to Podger, the son of Hissam el Effendi for providing me information on his father as well as the unique picture of Christine, Andrew and Hissam that appeared in a programme about the spy.