Sir William Stephenson

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William Stephenson may not be well-known today among Canadians, but he is someone who lived a fascinating life. It was a life most of us would envy from the number of experiences he crammed into it. Did I mention that he may have been the inspiration for James Bond? Well, we will get to that.

William Stephenson was born on Jan. 11, 1897, in Winnipeg to an Icelandic mother and a Scottish father, both of whom had immigrated to Canada. His birth name was William Samuel Stanger, but his parents were unable to take care of him. He would be adopted by an Icelandic family, and he took his foster family’s last name of Stephenson.

As a young man, he would leave school to work as a telegrapher.

In January 1916, he would enlist with the Winnipeg Light Infantry of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On June 29, 1916, he left for England on the RMS Olympic. Transferring to the 17th Reserve Battalion, and then the Canadian Engineer Training Depot, he would be promoted to sergeant in May 1917. During his time in the trenches, he would be gassed.

On Aug. 15, 1917, Stephenson transferred to the Royal Air Force and was posted with the 73rd Squadron on Feb. 9, 1918, after his flight training.

On June 21, 1918, he attacked a German staff car and caused a stampede of German transport horses on the road. He would also destroy a German scout plane and another two-seater plane. For his actions, he was awarded the Military Medal.

While in the air force, he would also become the lightweight boxing champion. As for his regimental number, that was 700758, a number that included the iconic 007 of James Bond. There is no evidence that Fleming used this as inspiration for James Bond, but it is an interesting link.

On July 28, 1918, he was shot down behind enemy lines either by a German pilot or friendly fire. Captured by the Germans, he would remain a prisoner of war until he escaped in October of 1918.

As a prisoner of war, he would begin to steal from his guards and bother the Germans. At one point, he took a can-opener and saw that it was patented in Germany, Austria and Turkey in 1915. He decided that once he was free, he would patent it in the rest of the world. The patent he would file would begin the fortune he would amass over the next few years.

He would say of leaving the POW camp, quote:

“As a final gesture of contempt, I stole the picture of the POW camp commanding officer, from the office of the commanding office.”

He would keep the picture for the rest of his life.

As a pilot, he would shoot down 12 German aircraft, including the younger brother of the Red Baron, earning not only the previously mentioned Military Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. By the end of the war, he had reached the rank of captain.

Returning home to Manitoba after the war, Stephenson started a hardware business with his friend Wilf Russell. The business was unfortunately unsuccessful.

Stephenson would attend the University of Manitoba and develop a process for sending photos over wireless.

In 1924, he would marry Mary French Simmons, the heiress to a tobacco fortune. That same year, he partnered with George Walton to patent the system of transmitting photographs over wireless. This patent, over the course of 18 years, would generate $12 million a year in royalties, making Stephenson a very rich man.

Stephenson would take the money and begin to invest in several industries including aeronautics, steel and radio. Through his work with the wireless photo system and his other investments, he developed a large group of contacts in Canada, Europe and America. He would also start Shepperton Studios, which became the largest film studio in the world outside of Hollywood.

In April 1936, he would provide confidential information to Winston Churchill, then a British Member of Parliament, about how the Nazi government and building up its military, while hiding how much it was spending on its military expenditures. As this was a violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Churchill took the information to Parliament to warn against the appeasement policy of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He would also help develop the iconic Spitfire and was one of the first directors of public relations for the BBC.

At the start of the Second World War, Stephenson was put in charge of the British Security Co-ordination in the Western Hemisphere and sent to the United States. He would arrive on June 21, 1940, to covertly run the organization. Headquartered in New York on the 35th and 36th floors of Rockefeller Centre, Stephenson had the codename of Intrepid. As for how that name came about, according to legend, when Churchill appointed him as the head of intelligence operations, he told him quote:

“You must be intrepid.”

From that, Stephenson would adopt it as his code name.

His official title was British Passport Control Officer. His office censored transatlantic mail, broke letter codes that would expose at least one German spy and forge diplomatic documents. His office would also protect American factories from sabotage as they supplied munitions for Britain. He would also work to turn American public opinion to support Britain during the war.

One way he did this was to falsify a document about how Hitler was going to divide the Americas. He then passed that on to the president. According to legend, he then threw the typewriter he used into Lake Ontario so no one could ever trace it.

Stephenson would say quote:

“I started from scratch. I had no experience. I was a business man and in the early days of the job I got plenty of bangs on the head.”

He would say later that 80 per cent of his job was paperwork.

Those who worked with Stephenson would usually not call him Intrepid, but instead referred to his as God, Angel Gabriel or Saint Peter.

Stephenson would become a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt. In their first meeting, which was happening as the British were trying to get their troops off Dunkirk, the president believed that Britain would fall to the Germans.

Stephenson would say quote:

“The arsenals of Britain are empty, but she will win out. The British do not kneel easily.”

He would also suggest Roosevelt that William Donovan be put in charge of US Intelligence services. Donovan would go on to found the Office of Strategic Services in 1947, which would become the CIA.

Years later, Stephenson would describe himself as a midwife to the US Office of Strategic Services.

William Donovan would say quote:

“Bill Stephenson taught us all we know of foreign intelligence.”

Stephenson would say of his role with Roosevelt quote:

“It was my task first to inform him of Britain’s foremost requirements so that he could make them known in the appropriate quarters, and second, to furnish him with the concrete evidence in support of his contention that US assistance would not be improvident charity but a sound investment.”

He would also work closely with J. Edgar Hoover to ensure the quiet and unofficial support of the FBI for the activities of his organization in New York.

Stephenson was one of the few individuals in the Western Hemisphere authorized to view German Enigma ciphers that had been decrypted by Britain. He was also allowed to read raw Ultra transcripts and Churchill gave him the choice of whether or not to pass the information along to branches in the Canadian and American governments.

Stephenson would say that his office was the hub of all branches of British intelligence.

He was also instrumental in providing intelligence for the 1943 sabotage of the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Nazi-occupied Norway, which was known as Operation Gunnerside. This mission would prevent Nazi scientists from getting heavy water to produce an atomic bomb.

He would also prevent the Nazi-occupied government of France from setting up a wireless station on a French-owned island off the coast of Newfoundland.

All of this work was done without Stephenson accepting a salary. He would also hire hundreds of individuals, mostly Canadian women, to work as staff in his organization and he paid their salaries out of his own pocket.

Stephenson would also establish Camp X near Oshawa, Ontario, which trained allied agents for espionage activities in Nazi-occupied Europe. This was the first school of its type in North America, and it would train between 500 and 2,000 British, Canadian and American covert operators between 1941 and 1945. The graduates of this training school would go on to become secret agents, security personnel, intelligence officers and psychological warfare experts. Sadly, many would also be captured, tortured and executed with no individual recognition for their efforts.

One person who allegedly trained at Camp X was a man named Ian Fleming. Some people claim that the plot of Goldfinger, which involved robbing Fort Knox, was based on a plan by Stephenson to steal $2.8 billion in Occupied France gold reserves. Fleming would also say of Stephenson, quote:

“He used to make the most powerful martinis in America and serve them in quart glasses.”

I’ll go into more detail about Camp X in my episode about it, coming in April.

Stephenson also set up Station M, which was a laboratory in Canada that was aided by the RCMP under cover of the CBC. The entire purpose of this laboratory was to forge letters and documents which would defy the most intense examination and chemical tests.

Stephenson would state quote:

“The operations with which I was concerned under a genius known as Little Bill were many and curious. In them, I was associated with an industrial chemist and two ruffians who could reproduce faultlessly the imprint of any typewriter on earth.”

This lab created documents that would get rid of a Czech man who collaborated with the Germans. Letters were signed Anna and mailed to the man, mentioning facts of his private life that he could not deny, while mentioning his former wife who was half Jewish. It also contained the statement “Father caught 75 fish on Wednesday the 17th. Brother was not well but caught 82”

The German censors saw this and believed the statement was an attempt to communicate with the man, who they now believed to be an Allied agent. The man would end up tortured and executed. The Germans then lost a valuable collaborator, which aided the Allies.

Stephenson and Station M would also work a mission that would stop an Italian airline from making flights between Italy and Brazil carrying couriers, agents, diamonds, platinum, chemicals and other strategic materials. Brazil did not want to restrict this service, so Station M and Stephenson created a compromising letter, written by someone in authority in the airline in Italy, to an Italian authority in the Brazil office. Part of the letter would state quote:

“There can be no doubt that the fat little man is falling into the pocket of the Americans and only violent action on the part of our green friends can save the country.”

The fat little man referred to the president of Brazil, and the green friends were a political party that opposed him. When the letter was orchestrated into the hands of the president, who then broke off all relations with the Axis powers.

During D-Day, Stephenson was apparently in a plane over the invasion, watching the culmination of four years of counterintelligence.

After the war, Winston Churchill asked Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to allow Stephenson to be knighted, something not done for Canadians at the time. Churchill would state that this was a matter close to his heart.

The request was approved, and Stephenson would be knighted, becoming Sir William Stephenson. He was also presented with the Medal of Merit from President Harry S. Truman, which was the highest civilian award in the United States at the time. He was the first non-American to be honoured.

His citation would read quote:

“Sir William S. Stephenson for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United Nations…In a duty of great responsibility he worked tirelessly and effectively to advance the efficiency and competence of American organizations which provided for the American and its armed forces.”

In 1952, Stephenson would tell a reporter that despite all of his honours, the one that pleased him the most was a brief reference to himself in Robert E. Sherwood’s book Roosevelt and Hopkins. The book dealt with British-American wartime security. In the book, Stephenson was labelled as the Quiet Canadian.

In 1945, the Igor Gouzenko case erupted in Canada. Gouzenko was a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy who defected in September of 1945 with documents that showed the Soviets were spying on Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom during the war. According to the book, Inteprid’s Last Case, Stephenson would enter into the case when the Canadian authorities were worried about offending Joseph Stalin and were looking at returning Gouzenko back to the Soviets. Instead, Stephenson took over the issue and ensured Gouzenko and his family were taken to a safe place. They would then develop a friendship with the defector.

I should point out that there are some concerns over errors in this book, and some facts may be embellished. I felt it was important to include it here though. 

In the end, the western governments did not act upon the evidence that Gouzenko brought to them, and Stephenson would state this prevented them from finding many spies in North America and countering KGB disinformation operations.  

By the 1950s, he would often warn against what he saw as the dangers of Communism. At one point, he wrote articles for Canadian newspapers, and he would state quote:

“At the end of the Second Great War, Josef Stalin stated to his inner council, the Soviet Union can only live in peace when communist government has been established in London and Washington. Let us not delude ourselves about any domestic preoccupation of the Kremlin mind.”

In 1954, Stephenson would be appointed as the chief government advisor for Manitoba’s industrial development program.

The immense impact of Stephenson on the world stage is mostly unknown to Canadians. One reason for that was that he rarely talked about what he did. It was not until 1962 that the book The Quiet Canadian, came out, that detailed some of his legendary exploits. The Victoria Times Colonist would report quote:

“After 17 tight-lipped years, a curtain was finally lifted today on the sensational cloak-and-dagger activities of Sir William Stephenson, perhaps Canada’s top-secret agent.”

For years before that book was published, publishers had tried to get the chance to publish Stephenson’s story, but he would always refuse, stating the last war may not be the final one.

Stephenson later moved to the West Indies to become the chairman of the Caribbean Development Corporation.

He would eventually retire to Bermuda.

In 1979, he was awarded the Order of Canada.

In 1982, he was appointed to the honorary rank of Colonel Commandant of the intelligence branch of the Canadian Armed Forces, a term that would last until 1985.

Stephenson passed away on Jan. 31, 1989.

For his work during the Second World War, Stephenson is honoured throughout Canada. A public library is named for him in Winnipeg, and a statue of him in his military aviator uniform stands at the Manitoba Legislature. An identical statue is also found at Langley, the headquarters of the CIA. William Stephenson Way in Winnipeg is named for him as well.

Whitby, Ontario also has a street named for it, and it intersects with Intrepid Street and Overlord Street. There is also a school named for him in the community.

In Oshawa, Ontario, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 637 was named for him. Intrepid Park in Oshawa is also named for him. In 2022, a lake, located between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, was named for Stephenson.

I’ll end this episode with something Ian Fleming said of Stephenson, quote:

“James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is William Stephenson.”

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Inteprid’s Last Case, Wikipedia, CTV News, CBC, BBC, Global News, National Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Winnipeg Tribune, Calgary Herald, Victoria Times Colonist, Sun Times, Library and Archives Canada

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