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William Stephenson was a Canadian who was the chief of British Security Coordination – a world-wide intelligence operation set up by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War. With its headquarters in New York City, its aim was to challenge the spread of Nazism throughout the free world by engaging in underground warfare.
Stephenson, whose code name was "Intrepid", acted as an intermediary between Churchill and United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the crucial final years of the war. After a long period of continued secrecy, historians have now acknowledged that this operation provided an essential back-up to military and political measures in the fighting of the Second World War.
While the undertakings of the British intelligence agencies were traditionally cloaked in secrecy, the exploits of secret agents have long been familiar to the world through the James Bond series of spy novels, parts of which were based on activities of the intelligence operation headed by Stephenson. Their author, Ian Fleming, was an aide to the chief of British Naval Intelligence and actually worked with and received some training from William Stephenson during the Second World War.
William Stephenson (photo from Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library)
Stephenson was knighted after the war for his role in the intelligence operation. His fascinating story is counted in the book A Man Called Intrepid, published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich in 1976 and written by another William Stevenson who worked with Sir William but is no relation to him.
William Stephenson, "The Quiet Canadian," became the model for "M" in Ian Fleming's James Bond series of espionage books and Hollywood movies. He was a World War I pilot decorated for shooting down 20 enemy aircraft, inventor of the wirephoto transmitter - forerunner of the fax machines - coordinator of British and American spy intelligence during World War II.
Flying ace and inventor, businessman and master spy, William Samuel Stephenson had one of Canada’s most remarkable careers in the first half of the twentieth century — remarkable enough even in its open aspects, but it had secret aspects, too, whose dimensions have yet to be made fully clear. Here, indeed, was a military hero of World War I who earned a fortune in the interwar years after inventing a radio facsimile method for transmitting photographs, who in World War II from headquarters in New York, directed vital British espionage and counter espionage operations under his code-name “Intrepid,” and, in recognition of his high services received a British knighthood and the top American Medal of Merit when that war was over. If Canadians are supposed to be a dull people, no one told a “Man called Intrepid.”
Born at Point Douglas, near Winnipeg, in 1896 and educated in that city, he became a commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Engineers during the War of 1914-18, was gassed in the trench warfare of France, and earned the Military Cross for bravery. That might have been war career enough, but young Stephenson went on into the Royal Flying Corps. As a fighter pilot, he shot down 20 German planes, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for his exploits. Forced to bale out over enemy lines, he was taken and held prisoner till war’s end. Once more, no dull life. It was at least quieter back in Canada afterward at the University of Manitoba, yet there he invented the wire photo and then his radio method of transmitting pictures without telephone or telegraph wires which he took to England in 1921 to develop and sell for newspaper use. Success came in 1924 when the first radio-transmitted photograph appeared in the London Daily Mail, thanks to equipment invented by Stephenson.
Now well established in business in Britain, he acquired links with firms such as Aero Engines Ltd., General Aircraft, and Pressed Steels Co., while keeping up his interests in radio and film. In brief, he grew wealthy and influential, and gained ready access to inner political circles in London. And while travelling across Europe for his business purposes, he keenly observed German preparations for war during the 1930s and reported his findings to the British government. Because he was a notable businessman with a strong military background and evident gifts for communications and intelligence work, his reports were taken seriously by that government as the war of 1939-45 approached. It was not surprising, therefore, that in 1940 Britain’s new prime minister, Winston Churchill, chose Stephenson to direct British Security Co-ordination in the Western Hemisphere, Britain’s overseas counterspy organization, headquartered in New York.
As a Canadian, he was well suited to take charge of this key post in North America; moreover, Stephenson’s wife, Mary, was an American from Tennessee. He got on well with his American counterparts in dealing with joint security matters, especially after the United States declared war on Germany and Japan late in 1941. In his charge, the B.S.C. office monitored transatlantic mails and broke enemy letter codes (passing on to the Americans relevant information that resulted in the exposure of enemy spy activities in the United States), helped protect against dangers of sabotage American factories producing munitions for the war, and, as well, set up “Camp X” near Oshawa, Ontario, to train Allied agents for re-entry into German-held Europe. All these endeavours, and more, were widely effective, with much of the credit owed to Stephenson. In fact, such popular books in postwar years as The Quiet Canadian or The Man Called Intrepid perhaps gave him even more credit than professional historians or intelligence experts might allow, but there is no doubt that his own role in Allied espionage success was crucial and that he earned the honours he received when the war was over.
Still, Sir William Stephenson gladly slipped away to the West Indies after the war. There he would chair the Caribbean Development Corporation and eventually retire to Bermuda, where he died early in 1989. In effect, he remained the “quiet Canadian” — yet always anything but dull.
Source: J.M.S. Careless
Books About William Stephenson
- "A Man Called Intrepid" In 1976 British-born Canadian author William Stevenson (note the spelling is NOT Stephenson) published a biography of William Stephenson, A Man Called Intrepid. Some of the book's statements have been called into question, notably in Nigel West's Counterfeit Spies (1998). "Intrepid" was probably not Stephenson's codename, but BSC's telegraphic address in New York.(Wikipedia) Author of A Man Called Intrepid] dies at 89. See stories at CBC.ca and Toronto Star Newspaper.
- "The Quiet Canadian" Many consider to be a more reliable account H. Montgomery Hyde's The Quiet Canadian (1962, before Stevenson's book). But generally acknowledged as the most accurate account of Stephenson's life is Bill Macdonald's The True Intrepid (1998), with foreword by a CIA staff historian. (Wikipedia)
- "The Quiet Canadian" Many consider to be a more reliable account H. Montgomery Hyde's "The Quiet Canadian" (1962, before Stevenson's book). But generally acknowledged as the most accurate account of Stephenson's life is Bill Macdonald's The True Intrepid (1998), with foreword by a CIA staff historian. The book clears up the spymaster's fictitious background and contains oral histories from his ex-agents. (Wikipedia)
Films About William Stephenson
- "A Man Called Intrepid" In 1979 Stephenson was portrayed by British actor David Niven in the miniseries "A Man Called Intrepid", based on William Stevenson's bestseller, A Man Called Intrepid.
- "Witness to Yesterday" In 1998, John Neville (actor) portrayed Stephenson in a revival of the Canadian TV series "Witness to Yesterday" aired on History Television.
Death of William Stephenson
- British Security Coordination http://www.mygen.com/users/ufo/British_Security_Coordination.html