3 People that Saved the World and How No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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#1 Alan Turing

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist. His influence and theories on computer science alone would warrant him being among this list as it played a significant role in the creation of the modern computer.

But the main reason that he is on this list is his work during World War II at Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. The Germans at the time had a code machine called the Enigma that was considered unbreakable.

All major German communications were sent through this machine which encoded the information, and enjoyed absolute immunity from the Allies discovering the messages being transferred. Alan Turing was assigned the task of studying and possibly breaking this code.

Promoted to head of Hut 8, a section of Bletchley Park assigned responsibility for German naval cryptanalysis, he began with some preliminary work by Poland. Devising several techniques and mathematical theories, revolutionary at the time, it allowed the Enigma code to be broken and communications deciphered. He then developed mechanical devices, called Turing’s Bombes, that decoded German messages rapidly in the field.

More than two hundred bombes were in operation by the end of the war. The Germans never became aware that their most important secrets and communications were being decoded during the war. His work and success became part of something called Ultra, named because it was a higher secret than the highest top secret clearance.

Information from the decoded German messages were used for Allied victories of several large war campaigns including the U2 submarine warfare, Rommel’s desert campaigns, and V1 and V2 production locations.

The secret of  Ultra and the breaking of the Enigma machine was so secret that it was not finally revealed to the public until 1974. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was quoted as saying “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.”

After the war, Alan Turing’s personal life became a source of prosecution because of his sexual orientation. In January 1952, Turing met Arnold Murray outside a cinema in Manchester. After a lunch date, Turing invited Murray to spend the weekend with him at his house, an invitation which Murray accepted although he did not show up.

The pair met again in Manchester the following Monday, when Murray agreed to accompany Turing to the latter’s house. A few weeks later Murray visited Turing’s house again, and apparently spent the night there.

After Murray helped an accomplice to break into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation, Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time,and so both were charged with gross indecency under “Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885”, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years earlier.

Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo chemical castration designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration.

Turing’s conviction led to the removal of his security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for GCHQ. At the time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents because of the recent exposure of the first two members of the “Cambridge Five”.

Turing was never accused of espionage but, as with all who had worked at Bletchley Park, was prevented from discussing his war work.

On 8 June 1954, Turing’s cleaner found him dead; he had died the previous day. A Post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was one of his favorite movies and it was speculated that the apple was used with the cyanide similar to the scene where Snow White is poisoned. He was cremated at Woking crematorium on 12 June 1954.

On 10 September 2009,then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war.

#2 Oleg Penkovsky

Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky was born in Russia to a respected family with his father as an engineer. In 1939 he graduated from the Kiev Military School as a lieutenant. During the Second World War he joined the Communist Party and held both military and political posts.

By 1953 he was a senior intelligence officer with the Soviet Army. But he was becoming disillusioned with the communist system and abuses that were occurring within his country, so he decided to become a spy for the United States.

In 1960 he met the British businessman Greville Wynne. They became friends. In April 1961 he passed a resume of his career and valuable secret information to Wynne.

By this time, Soviet leadership had started “Operation Anadyr” which involved the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba in the belief that Washington,D.C. would not detect the Cuban missile sites until it was too late to do anything about them.

During his time as an American spy, he becoming the greatest asset that we ever had during the cold war. He revealed information about Soviet missile developments, nuclear plans, locations of military headquarters and the identities of KGB officers. He also supplied evidence that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been exaggerating the number of Russian nuclear missiles and their lack of warheads and guidance systems.

Over a period of 14 months, Penkovsky passed photographs of 5000 secret papers to the CIA and SIS. The importance of his disclosures can hardly be overstated. Penkovsky provided plans and descriptions of the nuclear rocket launch sites on Cuba. Only this information allowed the west to identify the missile sites from the low-resolution pictures provided by US Lockheed U-2 spy planes.

He told the United States of the limitations of Soviet power and was able to provide John F Kennedy with three days grace to decide what to do in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also provided the Americans with an operating manual for the missile system being installed in Cuba.

Although he was offered money for his spying, he never accepted any, doing it for strictly for ideological reasons alone.

His spying ended in August 1962 when two double agents in Washington had already alerted the KGB to the fact that he was spying for the West. On 20 October 1962 Russian intelligence officers raided Penkovsky’s apartment and discovered a Minnox camera that had been used to photograph secret documents. Two days later, he was arrested and soon afterwards gave the name of Greville Wynne as his British contact. Wynne was arrested a few days later in Budapest, Hungary.

In May 1963 the two stood trial for espionage. After conviction Wynne was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment and Penkovsky was sentenced to death.

Although it is generally listed that Oleg Penkovsky died by firing squad, discovered GRU documents and a black and white film from a Soviet defector shows that several high ranking officials in Soviet military were summoned and forced to watch him bound to a board with piano wire and cremated alive.

#3 Stanislav Petrov

Stanislav Petrov is the third person put on the list and it is not because of something he did but because of something that he didn’t do.

In a May 1981 closed-session meeting of senior KGB officers and Soviet leaders, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov bluntly announced that the United States was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR. To combat this threat the KGB and GRU would begin Operation RYAN.

RYAN (РЯН) was a Russian acronym for “Nuclear Missile Attack” (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение); Operation RYAN was the largest, most comprehensive peacetime intelligence-gathering operation in Soviet history.

Agents abroad were charged with monitoring the figures who would decide to launch a nuclear attack, the service and technical personnel who would implement the attack, and the facilities from which the attack would originate. In all probability, the goal of Operation RYAN was to discover the first intent of a nuclear attack and then prevent it.

The impetus for the implementation of Operation RYAN is still largely unknown. Oleg Gordievsky, the highest-ranking KGB official ever to defect, suspected that it was borne of the increased “Soviet Paranoia” coupled with Reagan rhetoric. Gordievsky conjectured that Brezhnev and Andropov, who “were very, very old-fashioned and easily influenced … by Communist dogmas”, truly believed that an antagonistic Ronald Reagan would push the nuclear button and relegate the Soviet Union to the literal “ash heap of history.

At the same time, the Reagan government oversaw the largest peacetime buildup of military in the history of the United States. On March 23, 1983, he announced one of the most ambitious and controversial components to this strategy, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

While Reagan viewed the initiative as a safety net against nuclear war, leaders in the Soviet Union viewed it as a definitive departure from the relative weapons parity of détente and an escalation of the arms race into space.

To make matters worse, the Soviets had learned of plans for a major military Nato command post exercise called “Able Archer” involving a huge amount of Nato military. The GRU became convinced that this was a ruse for the start of a nuclear attack. The KGB had listed several criteria in Operation Ryan that would indicate the start of an attack and this completed almost all of the list.

Started in the 1970’s and just completed in 1982, the Soviets had installed a new early warning radar system, call Oko (eye), that passed 4 separate satellites over the North American hemisphere every 12 hours. This used a system of satellites in low orbit and “viewed by radar” the horizon at a low angle. The benefit of this system is that it allowed them to know when missiles were launch very rapidly, within the first 20 to 30 seconds, so they could launch a counter strike.

In 1983, Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in charge of monitoring the Soviet Union’s satellites over the United States using this new Oko radar system just put into operation. Petrov was stuck working a double shift at a secret bunker, monitoring satellite activity, when “suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red,” Petrov told BBC News.

“An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave.”

According to the system, the United States had launched five missiles, which were rapidly heading into Soviet territory. The U.S.S.R. was under attack. Though the bunker atmosphere was chaotic, Petrov, who had trained as a scientist, took the time to analyze the data carefully before making his decision. He realized that, if the U.S. did attack, they would be unlikely to launch a mere five missiles at once. And when he studied the system’s ground-based radar, he could see no evidence of oncoming missiles.

He still couldn’t say for sure what was going on, but based on “gut feeling” he decided against notifying.

Later analysis of the event showed a previous unknown flaw of the new Oko radar system. It was possible for the satellites to line up perfectly with the horizon so that it would bounce the sun’s radiation against the atmosphere, giving the radar illusion of missile launches.

It also determined that due to the high state of fear and paranoia because of the other events listed above, if Petrov would have notified his superiors of the radar indications, it was almost certain that a counter strike would have been launched.

Unfortunately, Petrov didn’t exactly receive a heroic reward from the Soviet military.

Embarrassed by their own mistakes, and angry at Petrov for breaking military protocol, they forced him into early retirement with a pension of $200 a month. Petrov’s brave act was kept secret from the outside world until the 1998 publication of a book by one of Petrov’s fellow officers, who witnessed his courage on that terrifying night.

Still, the humble Russian scientist plays down his role in averting a nuclear crisis.

“I was simply the right person in the right time, that was all,” he said

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13 years ago

A great morning coffee read, a little edu and intrigue!

I collect antique cameras… I actually have a Minnox with a gray leather slip on cover and matching light meter held together with a chrome serpentine chain. Very cool. It belonged to my uncle, who worked for the govt. … Alex would have appreciated your fascination and this post.
He only just crossed over at 91.
The camera still works… and even though I am able to develop the film and all…. no film, no chems, no way to make photos.

Thank you for the education, Krell! I enjoyed the read. I’ve known the names, sorta cursory, but not what I know now. TY. Good post!

Reply to  Gwendolyn H. Barry
13 years ago

Wow! I wonder if those Minnox are collector’s items now? Really cool about your Uncle….it has got me curious as to what he did???

13 years ago

This was great stuff Krell, I am familiar with the Turing tale, they made a movie based on the story, called “Enigma” strangely enough, although I think it was more fiction than faction. It was produced by Mick Jagger, who apparently owned a Enigma machine. I never saw the movie, it was a flop and went, straight to the discounts bins in video stores. Still wouldn’t mind viewing it though.

Reply to  Holte Ender
13 years ago

Sounds like a interesting movie, a least subject wise. May try to find it this weekend. Love those type of movies.

I read somewhere that an Enigma machine was stolen from a museum at Bletchly Park and was being held for ransom of all things. Strange world.

Turing was a treasure for the world in that he gave so many advancements and knowledge, but I think my heart really goes out to Oleg Penkovsky. Here he was from a well off family, at least by the Soviet Standard, and decides to help us and the West. He did give a lot of information that was critical at a very hot time in world history.

He met such a terrible fate at the end after giving so much and except for a few cold war and spy history buffs or perhaps someone like a political diplomat, no one really knows his contributions.

Reply to  Holte Ender
13 years ago

This is what I am trying to acquire next. It is a BBC drama called “Spies, Lies, and the Superbomb”. Looks rather good and it’s British, so the acting will be superb.

What is it about those British actors? They’re all so bloody damn good.


Reply to  Krell
13 years ago

I think there were probably more good people within the Soviet Empire than we could possibly know about. They were not allowed to be humanist in outlook.

Reply to  Holte Ender
13 years ago

My original title was going to be “3 Foreign Heroes that should be in America History Books” but at the last minute, changed it to what it is because I noticed the pattern of not ending well. Thus the foreign slant.

I would like to do research to see if there is the equivalent of “domestic” heroes in these type of world changing situations,of which I am sure there is. Maybe do a future post on them. Any reader hints??

Reply to  Krell
13 years ago

I’m sure there are “unknown” American heroes out there, I would guess that they would mostly be African-American, Native Indian, Chinese and early Mexican and perhaps in the early scientific field. Most of the white history has been written, or rewritten, to make them look better than they were. That’s a thought, the truth about whiter than white American heroes. But why restrict yourself to this continent, there’s a whole world out there as you proved with this post.

Reply to  Holte Ender
13 years ago


Here are a couple versions of it on half com for you see if it is the one you are talking about.

13 years ago

Another bit of trivia about Petrov…

A company just finished a 1 hour documentary film about the event. It’s called “The Red Button and the Man who Saved the World”. I hope the guy makes a million bucks off it!


13 years ago

Petrov at least came away with his life. I remember you telling me his story- and how terrifying it was how close we came to annihilation.

Reply to  Mother Hen
13 years ago

Another bit of trivia on Petrov. When he was forcibly retired and was living on his 200 per month pension, he was awarded a “World Citizen Medal” and 1000 dollars. When asked what he was going to do with the money, he stated that all he ever wanted was a Vacuum Cleaner for his small apartment.

After some time had passed and he was interviewed again, he had mentioned that he bought the vacuum cleaner that he had dreamed of but that it had broke and was unusable after having it for 2 weeks.

13 years ago

Brilliant! F*cking brilliant……and marketed.

13 years ago

I knew about Turing but not the other two. This is what happens when you try and do good things though. Can’t win for losing.

13 years ago

Great article,like you wrote no good deed goes unpunished.
Wasn’t there a Soviet sub commander who disobeyed orders to launch if boarded, or something like that during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Reply to  osori
13 years ago

That would be Vasili Arkhipov but there has been some conflicting accounts of what exactly happened.

Supposedly, he was the only one of 3 that refused to use a nuclear torpedo during the Cuban Missile crisis. The other 2 commanders were giving the thumbs up.

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