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Camp X – Canada’s secret spy school

Published in the Essa Times
April 2007
Published in The Maple Leaf
June 2007

Despite the current mission in Afghanistan, many Canadian still think of Canada as a “peacekeeper nation”.  Our military personnel have served, or are currently serving on numerous missions worldwide as members of United Nations and NATO peacekeeping forces.

However, during the Second World War, Canada played a significant role in many aspects of the war effort and distinguished itself in numerous battles and campaigns during the war.  Not well publicized though, was Canada’s contribution to the “Secret War”:  Camp X.

In 1940, Great Britain and the Commonwealth were on the brink of defeat. The United States had not yet entered war and it was looking very grim for the Allied Forces. The Royal Air Force had fought a brave battle, The Battle of Britain, and held off a German invasion of the British Isles, but defeat at the hands of the Nazi war machine was a very real possibility. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill saw what was happening and decided something had to be done. He instructed his friend, the head of the British Security Co-ordination (BSC), Canadian born World War I hero Sir William Stephenson, otherwise known as ‘The Man Called Intrepid”, to establish a training camp in Canada for the purpose of training secret operatives in the art of espionage.

The camp, officially known as Special Training School #103 but commonly referred to as “Camp X”, was established on 280 acres of land east of Toronto, on the shore of Lake Ontario near the border between the Towns of Oshawa and Whitby. This location was chosen as it provided the seclusion needed for the camp’s clandestine operations, it was only 30 miles straight across the lake to the United States and the lake itself provided a suitable training area for marine assault training.

However, very few people knew the true purpose of Camp X. The Minister of National Defence Colonel James Ralston and RCMP Commissioner Stuart Taylor Wood were let in on the secret, as was the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, since the public were told that the radio antennas dotting the property were CBC broadcast antennas. However, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie-King was left out of the loop since BSC feared he would shut down the camp as a violation of Canada’s sovereignty by Great Britain. Not even the Prime Minister of Canada knew about Camp X!

Another purpose for establishing the camp was to unite Great Britain and the United States. At the time Camp X was being constructed in the summer of 1941, the U.S. was still refusing to join the war effort, a war that some Americans saw as a European problem. However, others saw this as a mistaken position as evidenced by the over 30,000 Americans who crossed the border to join British and Canadian armed forces. Even before the United States entered the war on December 7, 1941, agents from America’s intelligence services expressed an interest in sending personnel for training at the soon to be opened Camp X. Agents from the FBI and the Office of Strategic Services (fore-runner of the CIA) secretly attended Camp X. Most notable was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, war-time head of the OSS, who credited Sir William Stephenson with teaching Americans about foreign intelligence gathering.

Camp X officially opened for training on December 6, 1941, the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Trainees at the camp learned sabotage techniques, subversion, intelligence gathering, lock picking, explosives training, radio communications, encode/decode, recruiting techniques for partisans, the art of silent killing and unarmed combat. Camp X offered no parades for its graduates and none were ever publicly recognized for their accomplishments. There was only torture or execution as spies if they were captured in the course of their duties.

Due to the extreme secrecy of Camp X, there was no call-out for volunteers to join “the secret war;” candidates were selected for training due to their proficiency in certain skill-sets.  Recent immigrants from designated countries were actively recruited for guerrilla war operations in their homelands.

By the time Special Training School #103 terminated training operations in 1944, up to 2000 students had graduated from the camp.

The camp also served as a link in the HYDRA network, a radio communications relay system that linked Washington, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, New York and Great Britain. When STS #103 closed, the camp continued operating as a HYDRA radio station.

In 1945, Igor Gouzenko the Soviet Embassy cypher clerk whose defection exposed the Soviet spy threat in North America, was hidden at Camp X along with his family for two years.

Post-war, the camp was re-named the Oshawa Wireless Station and turned over to the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals as a wireless intercept station, military talk for a spy listening station.

The Oshawa Wireless Station continued operations until 1969 when it too closed. All remaining buildings were demolished or relocated elsewhere and the property abandoned. Records pertaining to Camp X were either locked away under the Official Secrets Act or destroyed after World War II.

Today, the former site of Camp X is a passive park, appropriately named “Intrepid Park”. A monument was erected in 1984 to honour the men and women of Camp X, a camp that many in the intelligence world consider to be the finest espionage training camp of the Second World War. This monument and an information display erected by the Camp X Historical Society are the only evidence of the property’s clandestine past.

The Camp X Historical Society recently located an original Camp X building on a property in Whitby, Ontario. Future plans call for the building to be moved back to Intrepid Park as part of a proposed museum and interpretative centre complex that will finally pay an overdue tribute to Camp X veterans. At the end of the war, there were no parades or official recognition. The Camp X veterans simply went home and did as they were required to do during the war; they kept their mouths shut. It’s only been in recent years that many Camp X veterans have felt comfortable talking about their experiences.

For more on Camp X, visit the Camp X Historical Society at www.camp-x.com , the Camp X Museum at http://webhome.idirect.com/~lhodgson/canadaspymuseum.html , or read “Abandoned Military Installations of Canada Volume I: Ontario” by Paul Ozorak and “Inside Camp X” by Lynn Philip Hodgson.

Other famous Camp X alumnus:

James Bond author Ian Fleming, who reportedly based the character of “M” on Sir William Stephenson. Fleming, a Royal Navy Intelligence Officer, initially didn’t seem to have the cold-blooded ability to be a covert agent. While at Camp X, Fleming reportedly was set up to shoot a “captured enemy spy”. Not knowing that the “spy” was actually an instructor and the pistol contained blanks, Fleming refused to shoot an unarmed and disadvantaged opponent. One could say that sadly, he later learned to do just that. Such was just one of the harsh realities of war and perhaps one reason why some veterans are reluctant to talk about their experiences.

Paul Dehn, who later became a noted Hollywood screenwriter of films such as Murder on the Orient Express, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and the James Bond film Goldfinger.

Author Roald Dahl, writer of such children’s books as James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Captain William Fairburn, a former Shanghais Policeman, who was brought aboard as a self-defence instructor. Fairburn was the creator of the “Fairburn Style”, a hand-to-hand fighting style that he developed while working the mean streets of Shanghais. The “Fairburn Style” was essentially a “win at all cost” style, as Fairburn had a “dislike of anything that smacked of decency in fighting.” (Quote taken from the book “The True Intrepid” by Bill MacDonald). Fairburn was also the co-creator of the double-edged commando knife.

To see the full Maple Leaf article, go to http://www.forces.gc.ca/site/community/MapleLeaf/index_e.asp?issID=86

Additional sources:  “The Clandestine War,” Chris Murray, Esprit de Corps, September 2017


About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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