Sophie Moss was wilful, lively and bloody-minded, with an almost total recall of a past in pre-Second World War Poland that was privileged yet full of turmoil. Later, in wartime Cairo, she lived with members of Britain’s Special Operations Executive in a house where wild parties were the norm.
Sophie Moss was born Countess Zofia Roza Jadwiga Elzbieta Tarnowska on 16 March 1917 on the estate of her father, Count Hieronim Tarnowski, at Rudnik in Galicia, south-eastern Poland. She spent her childhood roaming free, taming foxes, birds and deer. When she was 13 her parents separated, and she went with her mother, née Countess Wanda Zamoyska.
She married Andrew Tarnowski, a close cousin she had fallen in love with at 17 on a wolf hunt, and by 1939 she had had two sons; the elder died the day his brother was born. Sophie never forgot her return to her marital home with her second baby, (who would also soon die). She stood on Krakow Station: “I saw my train arriving with blood streaming down its side. Young military conscripts had travelled on the roof and, as it passed under a low bridge, had lost their lives. The sight of that train pouring blood was an omen of what, within days, was to be the fate of Poland.”
Within hours of the German invasion, refugees from western Poland started arriving. Sophie put them in bedrooms, then on mattresses, and in the stables, then had sheep and cows from the estate killed to feed them. She said that it was then that she grew up. She was persuaded by her husband and brother to flee with them. The men wanted to enlist abroad to fight for their country and, after an arduous and long journey they ended up in Palestine, and eventually Cairo, where she started the Polish branch of the Cairo Red Cross.
In autumn 1943, estranged from Tarnowski, she was invited to live in a villa with seven young British officers working for the Special Operations Executive. She moved in with a bathing suit, an evening gown and two mongooses she had rescued for 10 shillings.
She called this time her “university”, her teachers being the daredevil officers. Tara residents included Arnold Breene, Billy Maclean, David Smiley, Rowland Winn (later Lord St Oswald) and Xan Fielding. Another was William Stanley Moss (Billy), whom Moss went on to marry, in 1945.
In 1944 Moss and Patrick Leigh-Fermor kidnapped General Major Karl Kriepe, commander of the German forces occupying Crete; Billy’s account of the incident, Ill Met by Moonlight (1952), was made into a 1957 film.
Wild parties were thrown at the house, for diplomats, officers, war correspondents, princes, the British Ambassador and King Farouk. Moss tried to replicate the liqueurs from her father’s estate, using plums added to vodka. However, the concoction was always drunk before it had had a chance to ferment. At one party, Poles shot out all the light bulbs.
Another resident was a beer-drinking, house-trained bear, acquired in Russia by Poles who had been let out of Stalin’s gulags to form the Second Polish Army. Worried that the British authorities would not allow the bear to continue fighting with them into Europe, they asked Moss to take him while they retrained. She appealed to King Farouk, who declared: “You are my guest, and so is the bear!” and delegated Egyptian policemen to take it for walks. The bear went on to experience many battles, including Monte Cassino, and died in Scotland of old age. He now resides, stuffed, in London’s Sikorski Museum.
Last year Sophie’s poems, written mostly in Cairo during the war in Polish, were found. Sophie’s relation, the actress Rula Lenska, helped translate them at a launch held at the Sikorski Museum, the stuffed bear nearby In one poem she wrote: “If I fear death / it is of dying of boredom.”