Oleg Penkovsky was a Soviet military intelligence colonel during the late Fifties and early Sixties responsible for informing the UK about the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba, to help build precise intelligence that led to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was the highest-ranking Soviet official to provide intelligence to the UK up until that time and is credited for being “the spy who saved the world” from all-out nuclear conflict, earning him the codename HERO for his efforts. However, what few know is that Penkovsky also almost started World War 3, too.
In October 1962, MI6 were in the midst of running their most successful espionage operation to date, as Penkovsky was photographing thousands of top-secret documents with a miniature camera and leaving them in packs of cigarettes and boxes of sweets to be picked up by Janet Chisholm, the wife of the head of MI6 in Moscow – Ruari Chisholm – in a secret location known as a ‘dead drop’.
Penkovsky usually communicated with his handlers through these notes passed to Mrs Chisholm, but they needed another method in case he failed to meet her.
He was given the direct number for MI6 and the CIA and told only to call and blow three times down the phone if the Soviet Union was about to launch an imminent nuclear attack on the West.
On November 2, 1962, less than a week after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, two such calls were made.
He did nothing – which was exactly the right thing to do
One was received by the CIA’s deputy chief in Moscow, Hugh Montgomery, and the other by MI6’s head of the station, Gervase Cowell, who had recently replaced Ruari Chisholm.
Thankfully, both men were sceptical of the signal.
Although the crisis finally appeared to be over, Soviet missiles were still in Cuba and US forces remained at DEFCON-3, while British V-bombers were at Alert Condition 3.
Cowell felt certain the call was a false alarm and, deciding it was not worth jangling highly jittery nerves, did not send it up the line as the procedure dictated, but simply sat on the information.
Sir Gerry Warner, former deputy chief of MI6, recalled the incident in a 2012 interview with the BBC: “He did nothing – which was exactly the right thing to do.
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“He didn’t tell his ambassador, he didn’t tell London, he didn’t tell anybody, because he was morally certain that Penkovsky was captured so this was meaningless.
“But had he told anybody else, he might have started the most enormous panic.”
The CIA, however, did send the signal up the line.
Mr Montgomery drove to the US embassy and sent a flash message saying that the early warning signal for war had been received.
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There was no imminent nuclear strike – it had simply been a trap.
Alexander Zagvozdin, Chief KGB interrogator for the investigation, later stated that Penkovsky had been “questioned perhaps a hundred times” and that he had been shot and cremated as a result of his actions.
The Cuban Missile Crisis would highlight the necessity of a quick, clear, and direct communication line between Washington and Moscow.
As a result, the Moscow-Washington hotline was established. A series of agreements later reduced US-Soviet tensions for several years until both parties began to build their nuclear arsenal even further.
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