The spy who saved the world07/01/2021
The spy who saved the world: For 12 perilous days in 1962, the world stood on the precipice of WWIII. Now a major new movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch tells the utterly unlikely and thrilling tale of the eccentric Briton who averted disaster
Cold War Budapest in 1962 was not the most welcoming place for a British businessman, but Greville Wynne was feeling rather pleased with himself.
He had just finished a successful day pouring booze down the throats of Hungarian trade fair delegates as he showed off the best of UK engineering in his job as a foreign trade negotiator.
What the Hungarians didn’t know as he showed them around his mobile exhibit, a pair of caravans, was that one concealed a tiny space just big enough for a man to lie down in it. That space was reserved for Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence colonel and British double agent whose information is credited with ending the Cuban missile crisis and even altering the entire course of the Cold War.
The Courier is a new feature film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, pictured, as Wynne
Wynne’s interpreter was making a quick exit when the Englishman called to him for help
Soviet Colonel Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky (1919 – 1963) hears the verdict during his Moscow trial on charges of treason and espionage, May 1963. He was found guilty and executed
Those old enough can never forget a nerve-racking period of more than a week when nuclear Armageddon seemed possible every single day.
Wynne was due to take the caravan on to Moscow with his travelling trade show where he would meet Penkovsky, who was to be ‘exfiltrated’ to the West secreted inside.
However, as the last sozzled Hungarian official stumbled home, Wynne realised that the game was up and he wouldn’t be going to Moscow — at least, that is, not for a rendezvous with Penkovsky.
‘Four men had appeared as if by magic,’ Wynne recalled of the moment it dawned on him that his spy work had been rumbled. ‘They were all short and thickset and wore their trilby hats at the same angle. One of them said quietly, “Mr Veen?”, and I said, “Yes, that is my name.”’
Wynne’s interpreter was making a quick exit when the Englishman called to him for help. ‘It’s all right, they speak good English,’ he replied weakly as he continued to walk away.
The four goons seized Wynne and hurled him into a car, kicking him viciously in the kidneys and bludgeoning him on the head with ‘something metal’. He awoke to find himself in the footwell of a moving car, arms handcuffed behind him, face covered in blood.
Driven to a prison, Wynne’s jacket lapels were ripped off as they were a favourite place for agents to hide poison. After he feigned bemusement when asked, ‘Why do you spy on us?’, he was stripped naked and subjected to a full body examination.
The next morning, he was flown in a Soviet military plane to Moscow and a far worse jail — the infamous Lubyanka Prison. Here he would remain for 18 nightmarish months, after being tried and convicted along with Penkovsky who had been arrested before Wynne and had their relationship beaten out of him.
Wynne was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, five in a labour camp, while Penkovsky was executed by a firing squad (although a Moscow rumour said he’d been cremated alive).
Wynne’s ordeal ended only when he was swapped at a tense Berlin border checkpoint exchange for a Russian agent, Gordon Lonsdale. Quizzed by reporters back in the UK, Wynne could still manage a joke about his shaven head being the Lubyanka’s ‘interpretation of a haircut’.
However, he was a broken man who would become estranged from his family and descend into alcoholism. He died aged 71 of throat cancer in 1990. ‘How many secrets has this man taken to his grave?’ said a Labour Party spokesman.
Having twice been the focus of BBC drama series — 1985’s Wynne And Penkovsky, and Nuclear Secrets in 2007 which explored how Wynne and Penkovsky supplied the West with information on Russia’s nuclear build-up in Cuba that helped prevent a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban Missile Crisis — this remarkable episode in British espionage is to finally get the Hollywood treatment.
The Courier is a new feature film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne.
‘He literally goes from being a rather charming businessman heading towards retirement, with a good sense of humour and a jolly manner, to being someone who is basically secreting Minox film cartridges about his case as he tos and fros to Moscow under the guise of being part of a British trade delegation,’ Cumberbatch has explained.
Referring to the atomic disaster that Wynne and Penkovsky contributed to averting, the actor added: ‘I think we forget how close we came to not existing any more.’
However, how any film tackles Wynne’s astonishing account of his life and spying must be fascinating — given that a string of historians have in recent years dismissed some of it as sheer invention.
What can be in no doubt is that Wynne, an engineer and wealthy businessman, worked for British intelligence, although when he started and how much he did for them is still hotly debated.
According to Wynne, he was first recruited — by MI5 — in 1938 when he discovered a German spy was using an illegal wireless transmitter at a Nottingham factory where they both worked. Wynne, then an engineering apprentice, recalled hearing ‘a series of staccato-like phrases in German’ coming from a cellar one night.
Sceptics, however, dismissed his Nazi agent story as most unlikely — not only because the Germans were supposedly not using secret agents at the time for fear of provoking Britain, but also because broadcasting from a cellar would have been nigh impossible. He claimed to have then become an undercover agent for MI5.
After the war, Wynne worked in the electrical goods trade, in 1950 setting up his own business as an exporter of industrial engineering products. He became a foreign negotiator for UK trade. The work involved considerable foreign travel, including — crucially — to the Soviet bloc. It was ideal cover for spying … or approaching a recruit for MI6.
In 1955, he said he was approached by his ‘former friends in intelligence’ who encouraged him to develop his business in Eastern Europe. The same year, he said, they spotted the potential of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, the assistant Soviet military attache in Ankara, Turkey. His real job was as a senior officer in the GRU, Soviet military intelligence.
According to Wynne, British intelligence noticed Penkovsky’s odd (for a Soviet official) behaviour — frequently slipping away alone for long strolls round the city or drinking wine at a pavement cafe where he would have a ‘faraway expression’. They concluded he was ripe for recruitment even after he was transferred back to Moscow.
The KGB devoted huge resources to counter-espionage and a British agent would have been spotted approaching Penkovsky in the Russian capital but Wynne — a civilian with officially sanctioned business in the city — would arouse less suspicion.
His MI6 handler directed him to make contact with an organisation dedicated to advancing Soviet scientific research. One of its members was Penkovsky, in his new cover job arranging exchange visits with the West on scientific matters.
In fact, Penkovsky, who despised the repressive Soviet leadership and feared it would take the world to nuclear oblivion, had already approached the Americans and the Canadians about helping them.
He even approached them surreptitiously in the street, a desperate tactic that encouraged them to think he was an agent provocateur and reject his advances.
The British decided to take a chance on him and were richly rewarded. Wynne arranged for Penkovsky, a smooth, sharply dressed bon viveur and ladies’ man, to come to London in 1961 with a scientific delegation.
During the day, he would perform his official duties with the delegates. At night, Penkovsky would sneak out of his hotel to an MI6 officer’s home or Wynne’s five-bedroom mansion in Upper Cheyne Row, Chelsea — where he lived with wife Sheila and son Andrew — to be debriefed by British and U.S. intelligence.
Sometimes described as the most valuable Soviet double agent the West ever had, Penkovsky would provide the names and photographs of about 300 Soviet bloc agents and details of missile sites. He really came into his own during the Cuban missile crisis, passing on knowledge of Soviet nuclear capabilities on the island.
This allowed the West to identify the missile sites from low-resolution pictures provided by U.S. U-2 spy planes. They showed that the Soviet Union was not ready for war in the region, making it clear to the West that President Khrushchev was bluffing and trying to provoke America into a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
A disastrous response from U.S. President Kennedy was averted and the two sides pulled back from the brink.
Penkovsky and Wynne had some fun while their collaboration lasted. Penkovsky made a return visit to London, toured the rest of the UK and met Wynne in Paris. Both men were heavy drinkers who liked a party and even persuaded their respective paymasters to stump up £500 each for the construction of a bar at Wynne’s home.
In Moscow, Wynne introduced Penkovsky to another intermediary — Janet Chisholm, pictured, wife of MI6’s local head of station
Pictured, a scene from The Courier about Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis
They justified it to their superiors on the grounds that the other man liked a drink and could betray sensitive information while in his cups.
Wynne also took his Soviet friend to the best nightclubs in London and Paris — just to show him the advantages of the West, of course — where the Russian reportedly picked up a habit of ‘drinking wine from the shoes of his mistresses’.
In Moscow, Wynne introduced Penkovsky to another intermediary — Janet Chisholm, wife of MI6’s local head of station. Their first encounter was classic Hollywood — they met on a park bench and after a brief chat, Penkovsky (who’d been given a photo of her by Wynne) dropped a box of sweets in the pram of her youngest child.
It contained seven rolls of microfilm revealing secret information about the Soviet nuclear arsenal. At other meetings, he would hand over film inside cigarette packets, signalling that he had something to report by phoning the British embassy’s naval attache but hanging up after a few rings.
However, the Soviets already knew about the Chisholms from their own turncoat — MI6 traitor George Blake — and the KGB eventually obtained a photo of Penkovsky with Mrs Chisholm and arrested him, followed by Wynne.
In the Lubyanka, Wynne said he was subjected to severe beatings and relentless psychological pressure during endless interrogations. He kept his sanity by drawing up designs for modifications to his Chelsea home on scraps of newspaper he stole from the lavatory.
Thankfully for him, it was only to last 18 months as, in early 1964, the Soviet Union agreed to swap him for their spy Konon Molody, who as Canadian businessman Gordon Lonsdale had been the architect of the Portland Spy Ring that had gathered British naval secrets until his arrest in 1961.
Britain had never done such a transaction and prime minister Alec Douglas-Home feared the Soviets might give Wynne a slow-acting poison that would kill him as soon as they had Molody back. The swap took place at a checkpoint in Berlin, where a short white line was painted on the road to mark the border between east and west.
Wynne went on to publish two books about his life as a part-time spy, but waited until the second — published in 1981 — to make a string of new claims that spawned suspicions that he was inventing some of it.
Now Wynne claimed that Penkovsky hadn’t been his first encounter with a Soviet defector. In 1959, MI6 had sent him to Odessa on the Black Sea to help shepherd out a Soviet intelligence service major named Sergei Kuznov.
Wynne outlined a bizarre story in which Kuznov revealed, among other things, that the first Wellington boots made in Russia had all gone to the KGB (prompting British spies to snap pictures of everyone wearing them in Moscow).
Also according to Wynne, Kuznov hatched a convoluted plan in which he would flee Odessa while Wynne was acting as a decoy, drawing the attention of port guards by falling off the liner he was travelling on before it embarked.
Espionage historians are now fairly certain Kuznov never existed, just as they are convinced that Wynne never exposed a German spy in 1938 nor that — as Wynne also claimed — he and Penkovsky flew to Washington DC to be personally thanked by President John F. Kennedy. But why would he decide to embellish a story that was dramatic enough anyway?
Making money is one possible motive. It’s also possible he wanted to get his own back on British Intelligence for dropping him in it.
Wynne was never the same again after his stint in the Lubyanka. His business career faded, he divorced his wife and virtually disowned his son, sinking into alcoholism which made him violent towards his second wife, leading to their eventual estrangement.
According to spy writer Nigel West (alias ex-Tory MP Rupert Allason) Wynne suffered from ‘post-usefulness syndrome’, a condition that particularly afflicts spooks ‘who have been unable to replace the excitement and adrenalin of their operational experience’.
Perhaps Wynne was simply trying to do what spies are surely supposed to do, dissembling and dec-eiving until the last. British officials have never commented on what he did nor what he claimed he did, so the truth may never emerge.
The Courier will be in cinemas from August 13.
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