MI6 took a liking to the engineer-turned-businessman Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) due to the fact that he often traveled to Eastern Europe on business trips. They recruited him in November 1960. Under the guise of a sales trip, he made his first contact with high-ranking Soviet intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky in Moscow.
The Courier true story reveals that Wynne met Penkovsky eight months after the Soviet double agent had first tried to get in touch with the CIA by handing a bulky envelope of documents to two wary American students in Moscow. Officials in London had also been aware of Penkovsky since he had approached two British businessmen and gave them his business card in hopes it would reach MI6. British spy Greville Wynne became one of Penkovsky's couriers, delivering information back to MI6 and the CIA.
In 1961 and 1962, at the height of the Cold War, disgruntled colonel Oleg Penkovsky (portrayed by Merab Ninidze) became the highest-ranking Soviet military official to spy for the United Kingdom up until that time. Penkovsky's career in the Soviet military had been hindered by the fact that his father had died fighting as an officer for the White Army against the Bolsheviks (Red Army) during the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1923) and Penkovsky didn't denounce this legacy. The loosely allied forces that made up the White Army favored capitalism and social democracy, which stood in contrast to the communist ideologies of the Red Army. The Courier fact-check reveals that, like his father, Penkovsky had become disillusioned with the Soviet system.
While Angus Wright's character, MI6 agent Dickie Franks, was indeed a real person who worked for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, according to his 2008 obituary in The Independent, he had nothing to do with the recruitment of civilian Greville Wynne and the claim that he did is based on incorrect reports in the press. For example, his obituaries in The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times all claim that he did recruit the businessman Greville Wynne, which according to The Independent is false.
As for Rachel Brosnahan's character, CIA operative Emily Donovan, she is not based on a real person. During an interview at Sundance, Brosnahan told The Davis Clipper's Tom Haraldsen, "Emily is a combination of several true-life figures who worked with Benedict's character (Greville Wynne) to help the CIA penetrate the Soviet nuclear program."
In The Courier movie, Wynne's wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) becomes suspicious of his trips to the Soviet Union, suspecting that he is having an affair. The film mentions a previous affair, which is part of the reason Sheila is suspicious this time. It seems likely that Wynne did have an affair in the years prior to becoming a spy for MI6, though we found little evidence to verify this. In real life, Wynne's wife Sheila divorced him after he was released from the Moscow prison and returned to Britain. Like in the movie, they had one son together, Andrew. Wynne married his second wife, Herma van Buren, in 1970. She had worked as his secretary and interpreter, speaking eight languages. They separated several years prior to Wynne's death in 1990.
The Courier premiered at Sundance in January 2020 under its original title, Ironbark. In the movie, the title refers to Oleg Penkovsky's codename. However, in real life, IRONBARK was the codename for the documents that Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky had been passing to the CIA. Penkovsky's real-life codename was HERO.
Yes. The true story behind The Courier confirms that some of the intelligence Wynne received from his Russian contact, Soviet military intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky, informed the United Kingdom about the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba. This intelligence gave both the United Kingdom and the United States the knowledge necessary to manage the quickly evolving military friction with the Soviet Union. The U.S. was then able to use U-2 spy planes to take photographs and identify the missile sites (see image below). Oleg Penkovsky also provided documents that revealed that the Soviet Union was ill-equipped to fight a war in the area.
In addition, Colonel Penkovsky provided Wynne with the names and photographs of roughly 300 East bloc intelligence agents, as well as information about Soviet weapons production and military manpower. -The New York Times
The Courier true story reveals that top KGB officials knew that Penkovsky was a double agent for more than a year, but they wanted to protect their source, a valuable mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The KGB waited to arrest Penkovsky so that they could build up a case against him that didn't expose their moles who had provided information about him. In the movie, they arrest Penkovsky shortly after discovering he was a double agent.
The almost universally accepted version of events is that Oleg Penkovsky was executed in 1963 for providing top-secret information to the United Kingdom. This version is supported by Alexander Zagvozdin, who was the KGB's chief interrogator during the investigation. He claims that Penkovsky had been questioned probably 100 times before being shot and cremated. In Greville Wynne's 1981 book The Man from Odessa, Wynne claims that Penkovsky committed suicide in a Soviet labor camp. However, that claim seems unlikely to be true. Wynne himself had earlier stated that Penkovsky had been shot, including during his appearance on the game show To Tell the Truth.
After being arrested by the KGB in 1962 and convicted of spying on May 11, 1963, Wynne was sentenced to eight years in Moscow's Lubyanka prison, where he was held in brutal conditions and subjected to severe beatings and psychological pressure. In declining health, he was released roughly two years later on April 22, 1964 in exchange for Soviet spy Konon Molody, who had called himself Gordon Lonsdale while operating in Britain. -The New York Times
Yes. David Calder played Wynne in the 1985 BBC serial Wynne and Penkovsky. In 2007, Peter Lindford portrayed Wynne in episode one of the BBC docudrama Nuclear Secrets, titled "The Spy from Moscow."
Watch an interview with British spy Greville Wynne upon his release from the Soviet prison. Also, see Wynne in his appearance on the American game show To Tell the Truth.