In an obscure corner of Canada, British secret agents introduced American operatives to warfare’s dark arts.
On November 21, 1941, the SS Pasteur, a former French luxury liner now stripped of its finery and ferrying raw materials and men across the deadly North American shipping routes, weighed anchor off the Scottish port of Greenock and slipped quietly down the river Clyde to join a fast convoy bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Aboard was a group of experts from Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had been set up by Churchill in July 1940 to “set Europe ablaze” with the fires of insurrection and revolt. Hitler’s U-boats had made the Atlantic a graveyard for thousands of merchant seamen; lifeboat practice aboard ship made that grimly plain. “If you survive an attack,” those on board were told, “the U-boats will get you. And if they don’t, the water will.” Fortune smiled on them, however. Twelve days later, after a rough and stormy passage, they arrived safely in Canada, and two days after that they reported to the local military headquarters in the heart of downtown Toronto.
The most important member of the group was Maj. Bill Brooker, a former traveling salesman for the Nestlé company who had extensive firsthand knowledge of European life and languages, a rich imagination, and a robust and assertive attitude toward all authority. At the outbreak of war he had joined the Field Security Police, taken a course in intelligence, and then been recruited by the SOE as an instructor. By the fall of 1941, he was the chief instructor at Beaulieu, the crown jewel of Britain’s special operations training empire. There, at an estate set deep in the New Forest, near Southampton in southern England, would-be agents received final training in the finer points of their future clandestine lives. At Beaulieu, Brooker emerged as a brilliant and persuasive lecturer with an immense fund of stories about secret agents that kept his students on the edges of their chairs.
Brooker’s mission was to help establish the first-ever training school in secret warfare in North America. Its principal task would be to train Americans in the arts of secret war. To the SOE, it was Special Training School 103. To history, it has become the famed Camp X. This hastily improvised facility in rural Canada was the birthplace of America’s expertise and experience in special operations and secret warfare. There, the first Americans to be sent on covert missions received their basic training. And there they acquired the unique knowledge and outlook that would prove fundamental to the postwar creation of the CIA.
Camp X owed its birth largely to the urgent needs of the rapidly expanding American intelligence empire of the legendary William “Wild Bill” Donovan. In July 1941, President Roosevelt had appointed the World War I hero and successful Wall Street lawyer to head the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI). The new agency’s first two divisions were devoted to foreign propaganda and research and analysis. But the restless and inventive Donovan wanted more. He had discreetly toured SOE training camps during two wartime visits to Britain, and had already set up his own special operations branch. But how could Americans be trained in the arts of secret war when the still neutral United States had no experts on the subject? And where could such training take place in secrecy, without causing a political furor?
The answer was suggested by William Stephenson, the dynamic and wealthy Canadian businessman who headed the British Security Coordination, an umbrella organization for British intelligence operations that was based in New York at Rockefeller Center. Best known today by his code name, Intrepid, Stephenson had arrived in Manhattan in June 1940 as an operative of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Since then, he had added the SOE to his list of North American responsibilities.
In September 1941, Stephenson hosted a private dinner at the St. Regis Hotel for Tommy Davies, one of the SOE’s top executives, who had flown in from London especially for the meeting. A training school in North America was at the top of the agenda. Earlier that month, Col. Colin Gubbins, the fiery and dapper Scot who headed the SOE’s training and operations division—and who in 1940 created and commanded a guerrilla force called the Auxiliary Units to serve in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain—had summoned Brooker into his office in London. “We think the Americans are going to come into the war and they have to learn about all this stuff,” he told his chief instructor. “Your job is to help train them and tell them everything we know.”
Several possible sites for Camp X had already been floated, including Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. But at Stephenson’s St. Regis dinner it was decided to opt for a site on the north shore of Lake Ontario, not far from Toronto. To translate the idea into reality, Stephenson turned to a trusted associate, a wealthy businessman from Vancouver, who within days had purchased a site and handed the building contract to his brother, the owner of a Toronto construction company.
The location combined isolation and convenience. A deserted farmstead and orchard, it lay on the edge of the small town of Whitby, Ontario, and was a mile south of the old King’s Highway linking Toronto—just over an hour away—to Montreal. Access was gained via a small, barely noticeable dirt road that led to the lakefront. It was, growled the head of the Toronto detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when he first cast eyes on it, “a good place to make hooch.” More important, as Tommy Davies reported back to London, Toronto was within two hours of New York thanks to a three-times-daily air service, making communicating with Stephenson’s Manhattan headquarters and the Americans “extremely convenient.”
The site sprawled across some 260 acres of flat Ontario countryside broken by patches of woodland containing oak, chestnut, and pine. The farmhouse and its outbuildings were used as storehouses, while the main business of the camp took place in a dozen or so hastily erected wooden buildings. At one edge of the site was a swamp. Along with the lake, it proved ideal for many of the tougher physical exercises. The shoreline remained as it had always been: solitary and deserted, with nothing to attract the idle eye.
For Stephenson, Camp X was a feather in his cap, making him indispensable to Donovan. For America’s putative secret warriors, it opened doors they could never have imagined. “What kind of training was required to make an American unAmerican enough to stick the enemy in the back?” asked a postwar history of Donovan’s training schools. “No longer was there interest in the old tenet of standing up and fighting like a man. Now the accent must be laid on brutal, cruel, underhanded action, as definite as it must be deadly.” It was at Camp X that the Americans first learned these dark arts.
Yet a coincidence of timing made Camp X’s original purpose redundant in the long term. The attack on Pearl Harbor came within days of the camp opening its doors. With the American entry into the war, Donovan was now free to start openly training agents in the United States. In the short term, however, that timing actually enhanced the camp’s significance, as Donovan rushed to train his first cadre of experts. Behind him lay the full authority of Roosevelt, who—typically—left no written record, but was verbally informed of the arrangement. In Ottawa, the minister of national defense approved the plan and instructed the local Canadian military authorities to lend men and facilities for the camp’s operations. Security was tight, and all was kept hush-hush.
By March 1942 some 15 of Donovan’s recruits had been trained at Camp X. Dozens more followed over the summer, including John Bross, who would go on to have a distinguished postwar career in the CIA and end up as right-hand man to Richard Helms, its director in the 1960s and 1970s. By this time, Donovan’s COI had been transformed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and he was sending men to Canada less to train them as secret agents than to indoctrinate them in the philosophy of secret war.
Camp X “was of tremendous value to OSS,” Bross recalled, “because it gave you a picture of the problem and told people who would have decision-making authority of the potential for such work, what would and would not work.” Like almost every other American who was trained there, Bross was mesmerized by Brooker’s personality: “He held us spellbound and could tell us fantastic stories in French as well as English.” For the first time, Bross said, Camp X gave him a picture of what life as a secret agent might be like.
In August 1942 the camp’s first commandant returned to Britain, and Brooker, now a lieutenant colonel, took his place. His influence on the nascent American intelligence community was extraordinary. “Too much credit cannot be given to the aid received from the British SOE at this stage of the game,” records the official history of OSS training. “[The SOE] played a great part if not the greatest in the planning of the new [sabotage] schools [in the United States].”
Over the summer and fall of 1942, Brooker also made several visits to Washington to help set up the OSS training schools. Kenneth Baker, the first head of Donovan’s combined training directorate, was a Camp X graduate, and he constantly looked to Brooker for advice, frequently inviting him to lecture at “the Farm,” the select OSS school established in the Maryland countryside 20 miles outside Washington. For the first 18 months of its existence, the OSS depended heavily on British expertise for most aspects of its training.
Critical to all this was “the bible,” the syllabus used at Camp X. SOE training was like a set of sieves, each one with a closer mesh than the one before to catch the unsuitable. There were three main phases in an SOE agent’s training. The first, in what were known as the “A schools,” involved physical conditioning, elementary map reading, and basic weapons training. It also identified and eliminated those of unsuitable temperament. The second phase consisted of tough paramilitary training, which in Britain took place in the mountains of Scotland. Finally, would-be agents received training at “B schools,” such as Beaulieu, in the finer points of their clandestine lives, where methods of security, cover, and disguise were heavily emphasized. Here they also learned about Nazi interrogation techniques and how to resist them, as well as particular details of the country to which they were to be sent. They also learned about recruiting and running subagents, message writing, secret inks, and elementary codes and ciphers. Above all, they learned how to play a part and internalize a false identity so well as to be unnoticed by the enemy. The course concluded with a practical exercise in which the student was required to carry out a special mission without being detected by the local police force or military authority.
In Britain, agent training could take months, and at the end of it an agent was ready for his or her mission behind the lines. Camp X, however, was the rough equivalent of an A school, where unsuitable recruits would be quickly identified and the rest sent elsewhere for their final training. Courses lasted no more than three or four weeks, and also included elements of B school training. In short, the Camp X bible offered a highly compressed version of the whole SOE syllabus. It could be tailored to the needs of special groups, and Brooker was quick to introduce weekend classes for busy OSS executives needing a crash course in the basics of secret war.
One of the highlights was the appearance of the SOE’s silent killing expert, Capt. William Fairbairn. Known as “the Shanghai Buster” because of his years working with the police in Shanghai, Fairbairn helped develop the famous double-edged commando knife now universally used by special forces. Richard Helms, who later passed through Fairbairn’s hands in the OSS schools, recorded that Fairbairn’s training “put a man in the right frame of mind. It gave him a bearing of confidence, and let him know the nature of the business in which he was engaged which, office routine at one end, was treason, betrayal, and violence at the other.”
The OSS was not the only American agency to benefit from the training at Camp X. One of Roosevelt’s close wartime advisers was the playwright Robert Sherwood, an ardent Democrat, occasional presidential speechwriter, and, after the summer of 1942, head of the Office of War Information’s foreign propaganda service. After visiting Camp X in November 1942, Sherwood began sending some of his top men there to benefit from the distilled wisdom on the subject embodied in the Beaulieu training syllabus.
One of them was Robin Kinnaird, the chief editor of the OWI’s San Francisco office and a former Reuters correspondent who, a decade before, had covered the so-called Metro-Vickers trial of British technicians suspected of espionage in the Soviet Union. Kinnaird traveled first to New York, where he joined some of Sherwood’s men and was issued a portable Hermes typewriter—the propagandist’s chief weapon. After that he boarded a train that dropped him off within a mile of Camp X. As he recalled decades later, “Then began one of the more interesting periods of my life.”
One of the SOE instructors there was Paul Dehn, who later made his name as a screenwriter for such films as Goldfinger, from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, and The Deadly Affair and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, from John le Carré’s espionage bestsellers. “Dehn and other lecturers kept us glued to their words,” Kinnaird recalled. “How to shadow people (never look at their faces for one thing); what to do if you are to meet a contact and are being followed (make no sign); Playfair and other codes; practice in observation—we would go out of a room and when we came back in were asked to note any differences. One practice was to go to the Commandant’s desk, exchange a few words, then go back and write down all the things we saw on his desk. One was a telegram from Churchill to Roosevelt that one could read upside down because of it being in large print.”
Kinnaird took part in all the main practical exercises as well. “We all enjoyed the shooting practice with Colt 45s,” he recalled. “They taught us the Fairbairn stance, the crouch then bringing up the arm with a bend at the elbow and a crooked wrist. ‘Up and fire twice,’ the instructor would say. We were told that two shots were better to be more sure of hitting a target and also to let your pals know where you were. They told us how to shoot in a dark room—you tend to shoot low so get up on a chair to avoid the enemy’s shot. The method of using two hands to aim was also taught us, something we now see in TV cop shows where the pistol is gripped at arm’s length in two hands, ‘Freeze!’” He also had the thrill of firing a few bursts with a Thompson submachine gun and a German MP40.
And he learned the hard way that guns could kill. One day, the trainees gathered for an exercise in crawling across a field under live fire. It was June 23, 1943. When asked if they wanted steel helmets, they declined. In charge was a Canadian corporal. “He would tell us when to get up and run and when to flop down,” Kinnaird recalled. “At the other end were men with submachine guns and rifles, firing over our heads.”
One of the OWI group was named Fred Boissevin. “Freddy was to my left as we crossed the field,” Kinnaird went on. “About halfway across we were lying down in some tall grass, our faces next to the ground. I couldn’t see Freddy but called out ‘Freddy, are you there?’ He called back, ‘Yes, I’m here.’ When we got to the other end of the field everyone felt relief. We were laughing about our experiences when someone said ‘Where’s Freddy?’ We stopped laughing and some of the fellows started back across the field. I stayed behind and saw the fellows stop at the grassy patch and stand there looking down.” Boissevin had been killed instantly when a bullet entered the top of his skull.
“That evening after dinner we carried on as usual with some laughter and joking, probably feeling the relief that we hadn’t been hit. I was the last person to speak to poor old Fred,” remembered Kinnaird some 40 years later. “We all felt awful about it. I still do.”
Despite this, Kinnaird left Camp X feeling it had given him some truly unique and useful knowledge that, as an American, he was unlikely to have picked up elsewhere. “It was interesting to hear the basic truths arrived at by decades of British secret service, such as the reason for wanting to tell someone about confidential matters,” he said. “‘Vanity,’ said our instructors. One feels superior in knowing something another does not know. They pointed out that everyone has a best friend, or wife, and that if you tell a person something secret, he or she in turn tells a close confidant. Therefore the world is a circle of close friends, they pointed out.” This might all seem obvious now after many decades of deep American involvement in secret wars around the globe. But it wasn’t then, in a more innocent age.
One of Kinnaird’s fellow trainees was a journalist from Hartford, Connecticut. He was shocked by his Camp X experience. “We are being taught perfidy,” he complained. But that was the point.
As Donovan’s schools in America gained their footing, Camp X evolved to add new and different groups of students to its intake. Many came from South America, where personnel from mostly British-owned factories in such places as Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela received training in basic security techniques to protect their enterprises from feared Nazi-inspired sabotage. Others were French Canadian volunteers for missions in occupied France, who were subsequently sent to finishing schools in Britain before being parachuted behind the lines. The SOE also sent a recruiting officer to Canada to find suitable volunteers to fight with the Yugoslav partisans. Many were recruited with the help of the then-banned Canadian Communist Party and they, too, received preliminary training at the camp. Tim Buck, the party’s general secretary, even went to give them a pep talk. “I told them exactly what it was they must expect,” he claimed, and that there was still time for them to withdraw. None of them did. Hungarians, Italians, and members of other ethnic groups living in Canada also volunteered. Within its first 16 months, over 270 students had graduated from the Camp X courses.
But with the departure of the Americans, the camp eventually lost its raison d’être. As early as the summer of 1942 Gubbins was describing it as an expensive and unnecessary luxury, and the pressure to close it down grew once Canada itself had been thoroughly trawled for recruits and the sabotage threat to South America declared over. Stephenson resisted for as long as he could—Camp X was a showpiece for his New York–based intelligence operations that he was desperate to keep—but in the end, London won the battle. By this time Brooker had been replaced as commandant by Lt. Col. Cuthbert Skilbeck, who had followed him from the British schools as chief instructor, and eventually, shortly before the Normandy landings, Skilbeck and the rest of the SOE instructors returned to Britain.
The Whitby site still had other roles to fill. It continued to function for the rest of the war as the main communications center for Stephenson’s British Security Coordination. Since late 1942 it had housed a powerful radio transmitter, code-named Hydra, that carried top-grade British cryptographic material across the Atlantic, and the need for this continued until the very end. The camp also trained dozens of radio operators destined for postings to British embassies in South America and recruited mostly from enthusiastic Canadian radio hams. And in the fall of 1945, it enjoyed a secret blaze of glory as a temporary refuge for Igor Gouzenko, the first of the postwar defectors to blow the whistle on the Soviet penetration of Western governments. But the story of Camp X was over.
“The key to the whole success of Camp X,” said Bill Brooker some four decades later, “was to make a first-rate impression on the Americans.” This it did, brilliantly. By the time the Anglo-American alliance in secret warfare was finally forged, the OSS could stand as a fully equal partner to the SOE. For this, a great deal of the credit can go to the secret camp on the shores of Lake Ontario, and the SOE team that set sail for Canada the month before Pearl Harbor.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.