Sophie Moss (Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska, 16 March 1917 - 22 November 2009), founded the Cairo Branch of the Polish Red Cross at the request of General Władysław Eugeniusz Sikorski.
She was born, in the throes of the First World War, in Rudnik nad Sanem, a forested estate near Tarnobrzeg, a town in south-eastern Poland founded by her Tarnowski family in 1593. She was the granddaughter of Count Stanislaw Tarnowski (1837–1917), Professor and Rector at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow (his home, the Szlak, in the past having been the resting place of deceased Polish kings on the night before burial at Wawel), and direct descendant of Catherine the Great of Russia. Her family had held some of the highest offices in Poland.
She spent her childhood roaming the freedom of the wide open spaces, the farms and the forests of the estate.
In 1937, she married Andrew Tarnowski, a member of the senior branch of the family. Her first son was under two when he died (on the day she gave birth to her second) in July 1939.
World War II
At the outbreak of war, relentless bombing forced Tarnowska and her husband to leave their home. As a gesture of commitment never to leave Polish soil, she burnt her passport. Sadly, events forced a different outcome. Tarnowska and her companions, including her brother, determined to join the front-line troops' bid to expel the German army from Polish soil; for a fortnight they criss-crossed Poland by car, in this vain attempt, finally forced to cross the border into Romania, reaching Bucharest. As sympathy for the Nazi cause grew in Bucharest, they decided to leave and head for Belgrade. The Serbs made them welcome. They travelled through the Balkans, where her baby died. They travelled on, ending up in Palestine, where her marriage broke down.
Separated from her husband, she left Palestine and travelled to Cairo where she and her sister-in-law were looked after by Prince Youssef Kamal ed-Dine (a visitor to Poland before the War) and made welcome by all. She began working for the International Red Cross, tracing missing Allied soldiers. General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister-in-Exile and Commander-in-Chief visited Cairo in November 1941. At his request, she set up the Cairo branch of the Polish Red Cross with the help of Lady Lampson, wife of Sir Miles Lampson, the British Ambassador and Sir Duncan Mackenzie of the British Red Cross. She became friends with King Farouk and Queen Farida.
As Rommel advanced into Egypt in June 1942 after the fall to Tobruk, to within 100 km of Alexandria, Cairo was evacuated. She was living at the National Hotel. Many of her contemporaries left for Palestine but she refused to leave and carried on working for the Polish Red Cross until everyone else had left and there was nothing more that she could do. She was ordered to leave for Palestine by the Polish Legation. She refused and instead set off defiantly for the front, to Alexandria, to be near the troops within earshot of First Battle of El Alamein. There she stayed in an hotel, as the only guest, all others having fled. As Rommel’s advance was halted, she returned to Cairo in July 1942 to welcome the returning evacuees.
In 1943, Capt Bill Stanley Moss had found, by sheer chance, a spacious villa in Gezira Island, boasting a great ballroom with parquet floors which four or five people might share rather than live in the SOE hostel, “Hangover Hall”. He moved in alone at first, then bought his Alsatian puppy, Pixie (whose mother had been a POW), then Xan Fielding, who had worked in Crete, joined him. Next was Tarnowska, followed by Arnold Breene of SOE HQ. Finally Patrick Leigh Fermor, an SOE officer who had spent the previous nine months in Crete, joined the household.
Tarnowska and two other women had been asked to share the house with the SOE agents but the other two dropped out. The men pleaded with her not to let them down. So she moved in with her few possessions (a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses), her reputation in the all-male household protected by an entirely fictitious chaperone, Madame Khayatt, who suffered from “distressingly poor health" and was always indisposed when visitors called.
They were later joined SOE agents Billy McLean, David Smiley returning from Albania, (“David deciding that it would be cheaper to live in Tara than to come in every day and be tapped by the cook or Abdul for money to pay for meals") and Rowland Winn (later Lord St. Oswald) also active in Albania.
Tara became the most exciting place in the city, the centre of high-spirited entertaining of diplomats, officers, writers, lecturers, war correspondents and Coptic and Levantine party-goers, under the guiding hand of Princess Dneiper-Petrovsk (Countess Sophie Tarnowska) and the young buccaneers - Sir Eustace Rapier (Lt-Col. Neil (Billy) McLean), the Marquis of Whipstock (Col David Smiley LVO OBE MC), the Hon, Rupert Sabretache (Rowland Winn MC), Lord Hughe Devildrive (Major Xan Fielding DSO), Lord Pintpot (Arnold Breene), Lord Rakehell (Lt-Col Patrick Leigh-Fermor DSO) and Mr Jack Jargon (Capt W. Stanley Moss MC).
|“||There followed lots of parties – the night we had the bullfight, the night we let some other people throw a party in Tara and we locked ourselves up in Kitten’s (Tarnowska’s) bedroom – the night we broke 19 windows and Andrew Tarnowski picked up the biggest bowl of flowers and threw it through the biggest window – Peter Wilkinson moving in, Paddy’s return from Haifa, Billy arriving to take the spare room - house full of Abyssinian and Albanian and every other kind of loot - continuous round of gaiety - this was Tara at its happiest and most popular – everyone seemed to love us and not one, but all of us, were asked everywhere and did everything. Paddy setting things on fire with incredible regularity - and never let me forget Arnold, on the night of the windows, sitting on the roof hurling things at the neighbour – or Kitten breaking her finger doing a tummy-dance!||”|
Tarnowska drew on memories of liqueur-making on her father’s estates to produce the party drinks, adding plums, apricots and peaches to raw alcohol (as a substitute for vodka) purchased from the local garage, in the bath. The results were disappointing as, rather than being left to mature for three weeks, the mixture was drunk after three days.
At the end of their first ball, Leigh Fermor fell asleep on a sofa which ignited, before it was thrown burning into the garden below. Over the course of the winter of 1943, a piano was borrowed from the Egyptian Officers' Club, lightbulbs were shot out, On one occasion, King Farouk arrived at the villa with a crate of champagne.
By the winter of 1944, the Tara household had to leave their rather battered villa and move into a flat. Their landlord finally secured their eviction on the grounds that the villa had not been let to Princess Dneiper-Petrovsk et al., as stated on the villa's name plate.
In 1945, she married Moss. He had fought with the 8th Army in the North African Campaign before joining the Special Operations Executive based in Cairo. He is best remembered for the capture and Abduction to Egypt, in April and May 1944, of General Heinrich Kreipe. He became a best-selling author in the 1950s.
They had three children, Christine Isabelle Mercedes,named after their mutual friend and former SOE agent Krystyna Skarbek (Christine Granville), Sebastian (who died in infancy) and Gabriella Zofia. Initially living in London, they moved to Riverstown House, County Cork in Ireland. They later returned to London, Putney, but separated in 1957. Bill Stanley Moss died in 1965 in Kingston, Jamaica.
Return to Poland
When Tarnowska left her father's home at Rudnik at the outbreak of war in 1939, he gave her for safe-keeping the personal standard, the “proporzec”, of the seventeenth-century King Karl Gustav of Sweden, who with his army was famously defeated on the Tarnowski estate. In 1957 she and her brother (also living in London) decided to give this standard to the Wawel museum in Krakow (where it remains); the Communist government was keen to make as much as possible of this event, and granted them visas, but she refused all offers of expenses-paid travel and hospitality. They both travelled to Poland and were allowed to revisit Rudnik, where they were given an emotional welcome.
After the fall of communism, her nephew was eventually able to buy back Rudnik - sadly dilapidated, now gradually being restored - and she and her brother presided over several family gatherings there.
For much of the latter part of her life, she divided her time between London and spending her summer months returning to Ireland.
- Edmund Ordon (1958). 10 Contemporary Polish Stories. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. OCLC 297276. My father joins the fire brigade Bruno Schulz, transl. by W. Stanley Moss and Zofia Tarnowska Moss
- "Sophie Moss, Obituaries, Daily Telegraph 3 December 2009". The Daily Telegraph. London. 3 December 2009.
- "Lives Remembered: Sophie Moss, Obituaries, The Independent 22 February 2010". London. 22 February 2010.
- "Davis, Wes. The Ariadne Objective, 2013, Crown".
- Moss, W. Stanley, Diary, 1944
- Moss, W. Stanley. Ill Met by Moonlight, George G Harrap and Co, 1950. The Folio Society, 2001 pp 19, 43, 57, 186
- Cooper, Artemis, Cairo in the War 1939-1945, Hamish Hamilton 1989
- "Heinrich Kreipe: Abduction By Greek And British Agents". Serving History. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
- Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved, 2012, p. 307.
- Hickey, William, Daily Express, 20 April 1957