Home U.K. The mystery of our salesman spy traded by the Russians

The mystery of our salesman spy traded by the Russians

Greville Wynne arrives at Northolt airport April 1964, left, and hidden cameras (Image: Photonews)

Hair shaved, pale and exhausted following his 17-month ordeal in the Soviet Union prison system, British businessman and spy Greville Wynne could finally see the West and believe for the first time that he was coming home. Under dark foreboding skies and persistent drizzle preparations were being completed at the Iron Curtain for a spy exchange to take place. Wynne would be traded for Soviet master spy Gordon Lonsdale, who was being freed from a 25-year sentence in the UK.

For a second the two men looked each other in the eye before the formalities could be completed and they were able to walk to their prospective sides.

“Good morning, it’s nice to see you,” Wynne said, before the relief of his release took over and he flung his arms round one agent whom he recognised.

It had been quite a journey for the electrical engineer who had been recruited by MI6 fewer than five years previously. Wynne’s work as an exporter of industrial engineering products and frequent sales trips to Eastern Europe provided ideal cover for spying.

His role was to become an intermediary and courier for high-ranking Russian officer Oleg Penkovsky who had offered to pass secrets to Britain and America.

For 18 months Penkovsky – codenamed Ironbark – supplied high level intelligence including the names and photos of 300 East bloc intelligence agents, details of Soviet missile sites, and an analysis of Soviet military manpower and weapon production.

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Wynne said the double agent also told him Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev had allowed important guidance equipment to be sent with Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. The affair developed into the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The debonaire Greville Wynne (Image: Photonews)

Now Wynne’s astonishing story has been turned into a film, Ironbark, starring Ben-edict Cumberbatch, which is premiered at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival on Friday.

Speaking about his role as Wynne, Cumberbatch has said: “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 delegation of trade.

“It’s a window into a world that’s not that far from our own, sadly, now, again, as far as how things heat up so quickly in politics and on the global stage.

“I think we forget how close we came to not existing anymore.”

Yet there remains a debate in Russia – as in Britain – about whether Penkovsky was a real MI6 source or a hoax agent placed by the Russians, a theory espoused by MI5’s controversial whistleblower Peter Wright.

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Moscow continues to revel in confusing Britain and it is known that bundles of files relating to this case remain highly classified in Moscow. And senior intelligence chiefs in the former Soviet Union remain perplexed as to why such a valuable intelligence officer was handled by a salesman.

Soviet citizen Oleg Penkovsky learns of his death sentence (Image: Photonews)

But there is no doubt that Wynne and Penkovsky became very good friends and enjoyed the high life together in London and Paris and this helped facilitate the
flow of secrets.

One account reveals how the Russian said: “My poor people, my poor people!” when he was shown the consumer goods in Western shops.

He “spent his life in restaurants where he drank wine from the shoes of his mistresses”, a stunt he picked up from London and Paris nightclubs where Wynne took him to get him acquainted with Western culture.

Wynne and Penkovsky even convinced MI6 to splash out up to £1,000 on a new bar for the businessman’s five-bedroom Chelsea home. However the true cost was £100 and they drank the rest.

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Former FSB operative Andrey Lugovoy – believed by Britain to have used polonium to poison Vladimir Putin’s enemy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 – revealed in a TV documentary how Penkovsky “threw money given to him by Wynne, leaving huge tips to cabbies”.

Lugovoy said: “Before he left London he asked Wynne to take him on a tour around fashionable nightclubs. In one he met a prostitute and spent the night in her flat.”

The pair were finally rumbled after traitor George Blake told his KGB controllers that a British embassy wife had been drafted in as a second go-between with Penkovsky.

This information enabled the KGB to catch Penkovsky red handed which directly led to the arrest of Wynne in Budapest in 1962. From there he was spirited to Moscow for interrogation and ultimately a show trial.

Before their trial, Wynne and Penkovsky spent six months in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow where KGB jailers taunted and “played with” the pair. Then KGB chief Vladimir Semichastny later recalled: “They led Wynne along the corridor as Penkovsky was approaching in the opposite direction so that both could see that the other had been arrested.

“Of course, they had no idea how much the other would reveal. This kind of psychological game made them easier to handle during interrogations.”

In court in Moscow in 1963 there were cheers and applause as the death penalty was demanded for Penkovsky as punishment for “treason”.

“There is no place on Earth for a traitor and spy who has sold his motherland,” barked the Soviet prosecutor.

Wynne did no more than blink his eyes as his embassy interpreter told him he was to be jailed for eight years. The first three in prison followed by the rest in a “harsh-regime correctional labour colony”.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Cold War spy Greville Wynnein in Ironbark (Image: Sundance Film Festival)

He had several periods of solitary confinement and inedible food.

After his release he told reporters: “They treated me as they thought I should be treated”.

In his autobiography, The Man From Moscow, published in 1967, Wynne wrote “More than my training, more than love of my country, even more than thoughts of my home, it was this fury of contempt which in the end saved me.

“Day and night for the next 18 months I was to generate such loathing for these caricatures of humanity, such unbelief that they could impose their will on the people of Russia, still less on the world, and least of all on myself, that at last, though I was still their prisoner, their power over me was totally destroyed.”

After his release from prison, Wynne prospered as a property developer. He was married twice. His first wife, Sheila, was present throughout his Moscow trial but divorced him after his release. They had one son.

Cameras and film hidden in cigarette packets (Image: Photonews)

His second wife, whom he married in 1970, was Herma van Buren, his constant companion, secretary and interpreter who spoke eight languages. They separated several years before his death in 1990.

Last week espionage historian and author Gennady Sokolov said: “Wynne has never been a man regarded with interest in the USSR or Russia by the expert community.

“He was a businessman used by MI6, caught by the KGB and exchanged – no great story.

“The focal point was Wynne’s contact – Penkovsky – the Russian superspy that MI6 failed to control long enough.”

This, says Sokolov, was simply “because his final controller was a non-professional, a rookie – Greville Wynne”.

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