National Treasure #144: William Stephenson

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

“Inventor, businessman, master spy.”
– The Canadian Encyclopedia

Born in Winnipeg in 1897, Stephenson served as a pilot in WWI and earned medals for bravery. He invented the wirephoto and made his fortune in London in the 1920s, developing the market with newspapers. He “served on a royal commission in the 1930s to plan the development of India’s natural resources.”

Huh? India’s natural resources? Hang tough, it gets even stranger.

“At the beginning of WWII, Stephenson was placed in charge of British Security Co-ordination (counterespionage) in the Western Hemisphere, with headquarters in New York C (where the telegraphic address was INTREPID – later popularized as Stephenson’s code name). His organization’s activities ranged from censoring transatlantic mail, breaking letter codes (which exposed at least one German spy in the US) and forging diplomatic documents, to obtaining Vichy French and Italian military codes, protecting against sabotage of American factories producing munitions for Britain, and training (at CAMP X, near Oshawa, Ont) allied agents for surreptitious entry into Nazi-occupied Europe.” – The Canadian Encyclopedia

Although the Encyclopedia entry goes on to say that professional historians have treated reports of his wartime activities “with reserve,” he was knighted by King George VI and awarded the US Medal for Merit:

For his extraordinary service to the war effort, he was made a knight bachelor by King George VI in the 1945 New Year Honours. In recommending Stephenson for the knighthood, Winston Churchill wrote: “This one is dear to my heart.”

In November 1946 Stephenson received the Medal for Merit from President Harry S. Truman, at that time the highest U.S. civilian award. He was the first non-American to be so honoured. General “Wild Bill” Donovan presented the medal. The citation paid tribute to Stephenson’s “valuable assistance to America in the fields of intelligence and special operations.” – Wikipedia

Or you could check out what the CIA site has to say. Just don’t tell them I sent you.


Thanks to Marilyn Smith for suggesting William Stephenson for this list.

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6 Responses to National Treasure #144: William Stephenson

  1. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – In the 1960’s Camp X was bulldozed flat. Now it is just an open grass field footing onto Lake Ontario with a large plaque by the road explaining what was there and why it was important.
    FYI, when Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk, defected in the late 1940’s he and his family were spirited out of Ottawa and taken to Camp X for de-briefing. His revelations about Soviet espionage activities in Canada and the U.S. is considered by some as being the starting point of the Cold War.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Interesting. Gouzenko lived in a walk-up a few blocks from our house when we lived in downtown Ottawa. A private citizen campaign for years to get a plaque put up to mark/recognize the site.

      • John Whitman says:

        When I walk by 511 Somerset St. W. I am often reminded of that. Gouzenko apparently watched through the peephole in his neighbour’s door as the KGB pounded on the door to his apartment across the hall.
        The private citizen plaque idea has never gotten much traction, perhaps because there are many Canadians that have never wanted to admit that agents from a “worker’s paradise” would spy on their former allies. Those same Canadians probably miss the irony when they form up in MacArthur Park across from 511 Somerset St. W. for the start of their May Day march downtown.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          John – I don’t want to believe that anyone can behave as people do in totalitarian states, regardless of the nominal underlying belief system (religious, fascist, communist), but that’s just silly. They can and they do.

  2. Wade says:

    Isabel, one of Intrepids most important functions in New York during the early days of WW II was countering the near vitriolic attempts by US Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy to keep the USA out of the war and deny assistance to the Allied war effort.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Wade – I didn’t know that. Thanks for adding! At this distance in time, it’s hard to understand how anyone could not have seen it was an “all hands on deck” moment. Maybe we miss those ourselves.

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