Although he was a soldier, airman, businessperson, inventor and spymaster, Winnipeg’s Sir William Stephenson is best known by his code name “Intrepid.”
World War I
Stephenson worked as a telegrapher before enlisting at age 19 in the 101st Overseas Battalion (Winnipeg Light Infantry), Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was quickly transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion and again to the Canadian Engineer Training Depot where he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
Less than a year after enlisting, he was given a commission in the RFC. Posted to 73 Squadron on February 9, 1918, Stephenson flew the British Sopwith Camel fighter biplane and scored 8 1/2 victories, before he was shot down (in error) and captured by the Germans. He was held as a POW and repatriated on December 30, 1918.
By the end of World War I, he had achieved the rank of Captain and earned the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He returned to Winnipeg and started a hardware business. When that business failed, he left Canada for England where he became a wealthy industrialist with business contacts in many countries. As early as April, 1936, Stephenson was voluntarily providing confidential information to the British about how Hitler’s Nazi government was building up its armed forces and hiding military expenditures.
World War II
When World War II began, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent Stephenson to the United States with an official title of “British Passport Control Officer”. His unofficial mission was to establish and run the British Security Coordination (BSC) in New York City.
Stephenson’s initial directives for BSC were:
- Investigate enemy activities
- Institute security measures against the threat of sabotage to British property
- Organize American public opinion in favour of aid to Britain
- Assure American participation in secret activities throughout the world in the closest possible collaboration with the British
Stephenson also became Churchill’s personal representative to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ultimately also became a very close advisor to FDR.
Once the U.S. had entered the war, BSC established a training school for clandestine wartime operations. Known as Camp X, and located in Oshawa Ontario, nearly 2,000 British, Canadian and American covert operators were trained from 1941 through 1945. Students came from the ISO; OSS; FBI; RCMP; United States Navy and U.S. Military Intelligence Services; and the U.S. Office of War Information. (Among them five future directors of what would eventually become the CIA.)
Graduates of Camp X operated in Europe in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Balkans, as well as in Africa, Australia, India and the Pacific.
BSC purchased a 10-kilowatt transmitter from a Philadelphia radio station and installed it at Camp X. By mid-1944, Hydra (the transmitter’s code name) was transmitting 30,000 and receiving 9,000 message groups daily, representing much of the secret Allied intelligence traffic across the Atlantic.
Recognition and Honours
Sir William Stephenson died in 1989 at the age of 92. While there has since been at times some dispute over the exact nature and extent of his wartime efforts, there is no doubt his contributions were many – and extraordinary.
- For his wartime work, Stephenson was knighted by the British in the 1945 New Year’s Honours List.
- In 1946, he received the Presidential Medal for Merit, the highest civilian award in the United States at the time. He was the first non-U.S. citizen to receive the medal.
- He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada on December 17, 1979 and invested in the Order on February 5, 1980.