Intrepid Book Brings Spy's Life From Shadows

VANCOUVER (CP) - A new book about Canadian-born spymaster Sir William Stephenson appears set to spark a new round of debate over the man Sir Winston Churchill dubbed Intrepid. The True Intrepid: Sir William Stephenson and the Unknown Agents takes on historians who think Stephenson helped create his own overblown legend.

Author Bill Macdonald of Winnipeg, Stephenson's hometown, argues that if anything, the role of Intrepid and his unsung Canadian staff has been lamentably unexplored. Two previous biographies, both filled with errors, were written by British authors.

"No Canadians have ever researched it, when it's a Canadian story," says Macdonald, a freelance journalist.

His book exposes the fictitious early life of Stephenson, which historians had accepted as gospel.

Macdonald also interviewed several Canadian women who worked for Intrepid, most of whom had kept silent since the end of the Second World War. Their stories, he says, reveal that Canada's contribution to the spy war against the Axis was far greater than existing histories suggest.

"They were sworn to secrecy and they've never really said anything."

Stephenson, who died in Bermuda in 1989, was appointed by Churchill in 1940 to set up and run British Security Co-ordination, a sprawling New York-based intelligence operation.

A successful industrialist in Britain, Stephenson used his cover as a passport control officer to oversee British espionage in the Western Hemisphere. His agents tracked Axis spies in the United States, intercepted enemy communications, censored mail and made life difficult for Nazi sympathizers and isolationists in U.S.politics.

BSC also became a bridge between British and U.S. intelligence services before the U.S. entry into the Second World War.

Stephenson's most ardent supporters credit him with a hand in almost every major intelligence coup of the war, and with helping the Americans set up the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But Intrepid's detractors, while acknowledging his role in forging early Anglo-American intelligence links, argue that in later life he inflated his importance.

Stephenson's contribution to the war effort was unquestionable, says Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto historian who specializes in the history of intelligence. But he was part of a global intelligence machine.

"To elevate him to the role of some kind of glorious spymaster I think does disservice to the machine," says Wark.

Macdonald rejects the debunkers. He says many are British historians tainted by post-war efforts to shield Nazi sympathizers within the British establishment -people the outsider Stephenson was appointed to bypass.

He cites as an example, Spy Wars, co-written by British academic David Stafford and Canadian historian Jack Granatstein, now curator of the Canadian War Museum.

"They act as if Stephenson was barely a clerk," says Macdonald.

Part of the problem, says Wark, is that the lives of intelligence operatives are rarely an open book.

"These people are not meant to tell their stories," he says. "There are very few memoirs or biographies of secret intelligence service folk. It' s a world of secrecy and security."

Stephenson was unusual, trying to part that veil of secrecy with two books in which he co-operated: The Quiet Canadian by former BSC staffer Montgomery Hyde, published in 1962; and the 1976 best-seller A Man Called Intrepid, by British journalist and author William Stevenson.

But both books were filled with misinformation, perhaps even disinformation -spyspeak for carefully planted lies.

Macdonald's quest started as a journalistic assignment to track down Stephenson's childhood home in Winnipeg after he died in 1989.

He discovered Intrepid's entire family history was bogus.

Supposedly the son of a Scottish-born lumber baron, Stephenson was actually the child of Icelandic immigrants.

His widowed, impoverished mother, whose last name was Stanger, gave him to a friend's family to raise, then disappeared with her remaining two kids. Infant Bill Stanger was given his adoptive family's last name - Stephenson.

Though a grade-school dropout, Stephenson became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. He returned to Winnipeg after the war and started a business, but it went bankrupt within a year. Stephenson went to England, leaving a trail of bad debts.

"He was a bit of crook when he left here, to be honest," says Macdonald. "He left here one step ahead of the bailiffs."

Once in Britain, Stephenson's fortunes turned around and he began moving in high circles.

He may have obscured his roots out of shame, Macdonald speculates. But he kept in touch with his Winnipeg relatives until the mid- 1930s, about the time he began using his European business ties to collect information about the Nazis for Britain' s anti-appeasement faction.

By 1940, Churchill was looking outside the circle of appeasers and defeatists for ways to counter the victorious Germans.

"Here was this pugnacious, ambitious, energetic Canadian businessman with lots of ideas of how to fight the Nazis," says Wark "This was exactly the kind of guy that Churchill was looking for."

The history of BSC, compiled after the war at Stephenson's behest but classified ever since, has only recently been published.

It may shed more light on Stephenson's role but even Macdonald accepts the Canadian spy may never come completely out of the shadows.

"It's really about looking for the truth about Intrepid," he says of his book, "not finding it."

© The Canadian Press

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