The Courier reveals how quiet salesman saved us all from World War III

LIKE the British security guard who The Sun revealed yesterday is suspected of passing secrets to the Russians, Greville Wynne did not seem a typical character in the world of espionage.

Described as “a middle-aged businessman who drinks too much and isn’t exactly in top shape”, the sales consultant lacked the suave sophistication of spies seen in movies.



Yet his amazing story, which involved funnelling intelligence that diffused the threat of nuclear war, has been turned into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne.

Benedict says: “This guy goes on an extraordinary journey from being an ordinary businessman, one who is quite severely dyslexic, almost to the point of illiteracy, to being a conduit for the West to get the most important bit of secret information during the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis.”

Released in the same week as The Sun’s revelations about an alleged spy known as David Smith who worked in Britain’s embassy in Berlin, The Courier tells how the married 41-year-old sales consultant was persuaded by MI6 to deliver secrets from Russian spy Oleg Penkovsky.

But Wynne paid a heavy price for his heroism.

When his cover was blown he found himself cornered by four burly Communist heavies who hurled him into the back of their car and hit him over the head with an iron bar.

‘Kicked in the kidneys’

Wynne was flown from Hungary to Moscow, where he was brutally tortured before being sentenced to eight years in a Soviet labour camp.

A broken man, he turned to alcohol on his release and told increasingly wild tales.

Wynne died from throat cancer in 1990 at the age of 70 bedevilled by questions around the authenticity of his accounts.

It was a cruel end for a man who had done so much not just for his country, but for humanity.

Welsh-born Wynne was plucked from obscurity by Britain’s secret services because they needed someone with a plausible cover — and Eastern Bloc countries were desperate for the type of state-of-the-art engineering and technical equipment that he sold.

His task was to make contact with Penkovsky, who worked for The Red Army’s spy unit the GRU and was — MI6 believed — ready to cut a deal.

In 1960 Wynne, on a visit to Moscow, finally came across Penkovsky, whose cover was working with an elite scientific committee. 

A year of cat and mouse would ensue before the British salesman won over the Russian.

Wynne collected rolls of films with the names and activities of hundreds of Soviet agents.

What Wynne and Penkovsky also shared, besides espionage, was a love of the ladies and the high life. 

Penkovsky, in particular, fancied himself as a communist Casanova. 

Wynne recalls Penkovsky saying: “I need girls, I really do. Not to give my heart to — that would be too dangerous — but just to have a good time with.”

In his memoir The Man From Moscow, Wynne recalls finding a Soviet siren in his hotel room, clearly intended as a honey trap, forcing him to complain to reception that there had been a “mistake”.

To prevent Penkovsky falling for a similar trick, MI6 lined up a harem of English girls for him.

They were on hand for a “party” when Penkovsky visited Paris in September 1961 using a Soviet trade fair as a cover. 

But by July 1962, the walls were starting to close in on the pair. Wynne visited Moscow and Penkovsky aborted a meeting, telling the Brit to follow him before they found themselves in an alleyway.

The Russian turned to him and said: “You must get out, quickly! You are being followed. 

“Be at the airport tomorrow by six o’clock. I’ll be there.” 

Wynne wrote: “As I came out of the alley I saw two men. They did not stop me.”

Back at the hotel, the Brit discovered that his carefully folded clothes had been tampered with.

He headed for the airport where he met Penkovsky.

The Russian told him: “Tell my friends that I must come out, soon, very soon. I will try to carry on, but it’s very dangerous.” In October 1962, under the cover of a Budapest trade fair, Wynne travelled to Hungary with mobile exhibition trailers containing a secret compartment to spirit Penkovsky to freedom.

After hosting a party for trade delegates, Wynne found himself alone and confronted by four short, thickset men wearing trilby hats, standing in front of two Russian saloon cars.

Wynne recalled: “If I had run they would have shot me.

“I was tripped and my arms were seized. The back door of the front car was opened and I was hurled inside. 

“As I fell headfirst I grabbed the far handle and yelled to my driver. I had been trained that, if and when this thing happened, I must at any cost let someone know.

“Then I was kicked in the kidneys by heavy feet and something metal hit my temple.” Wynne was stripped naked and subjected to a metal probe before being put on a plane to Moscow with an armed guard, and taken to the KGB’s notorious Lubyanka prison.

Condemned to a freezing cold cell, with paper-thin clothes, Wynne was interrogated for months.

‘Loyalty to his country’

He wrote: “It is Penkovsky all right. No, not Penkovsky, the wreck of Penkovsky. He is a terrible sight.”

Cumberbatch says: “They tried everything, from the worst kind of deprivation to beatings, to psychological torture, to turning on the warm showers, turning them off again.

“That immediate breaking of a man was awful. What he endured is all the more incredible considering he wasn’t a trained spook and he had no background or inclination to do the work he was asked to do. 

“He did it out of loyalty to his country.”

In 1963 Wynne and Penkovsky were given a show trial, with the Russian officer sentenced to death and the businessman jailed.

Penkovsky is believed to have been executed later that year.

What only emerged long after his death was his connection to the Cuban missile crisis.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to compensate for the growing missile gap between the US and the USSR by placing medium range nuclear missiles in America’s “backyard”.

For a month, President John F Kennedy and Khrushchev engaged in a high-stakes battle — but Penkovsky’s information indicated that the Soviets were bluffing. The irony was that the Cuban missile crisis began in late October, just days before Penkovsky would be secretly arrested, and weeks before Wynne would be seized. 

In April 1964, the British were concerned that Wynne’s health was deteriorating rapidly so they arranged a prisoner swap for the Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale at a Berlin checkpoint. 

The release was bittersweet for Wynne, who was largely left to fend for himself. 

His first wife Sheila, played in the film by Jessie Buckley, had divorced him after he got out, and he virtually disowned his son.

Wynne ended up living in Marbella, cultivating roses and looking for a big break with a series of business ventures. He never escaped the legacy of the mission, his capture, and the fall out. 

If he thought publishing his second memoir, 1981’s The Man From Odessa, would secure his legacy, Wynne was sadly mistaken — as it only served to further muddy the already murky waters surrounding Penkovsky.

The most controversial claim in the book was that he and Penkovsky were smuggled into the White House and lauded by President Kennedy.

This was seized upon by critics, including then Tory MP and espionage expert Rupert Allason, who rubbished much of Wynne’s record.

But in September 1989, Wynne was present in the High Court when he won substantial libel damages from Allason’s publisher Weidenfeld.

Five months later, Wynne would be dead — and his extraordinary story of how he was a major player in one of the most productive covert operations ever conducted by MI6 and the CIA against the USSR would be buried with him. 

Until now, that is.


13 DAYS FROM BRINK

THE world held its breath for 13 days in October 1962 when it was on the brink of nuclear war.

The Cuban missile crisis began after the crew of an American U-2 spy plane photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on Cuba.

The Caribbean island was Communist-run – and just 90 miles from the coast of Florida.

US President John F Kennedy decided to place a ring of ships around Cuba to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies.

He demanded the removal of the missiles already there and the destruction of the sites.

 On October 22, Kennedy spoke about the crisis in a televised address to the US.

 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev eventually recognised the total devastation of a nuclear war and publicly agreed to a deal.

His nation would dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba.

A separate deal was struck – which remained secret for more than 25 years – that the US agreed to remove its nuclear weapons from Turkey. During the crisis, the US could have launched missiles from Turkey and destroyed the USSR before it had the chance to react.

 There were signs in 1963 of a lessening of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. 

In a TV address, Kennedy called for a strategy of peace that would make the world safe and urged Americans to re-examine Cold War myths.

A hotline was put in place between the Kremlin and the White House, and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed on July 25, 1963.

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