By Chris Murray
South of Highway 401 on the edge of a busy industrial park, along the north shores of Lake Ontario east of Toronto, lies a little notch of land with a monument called Intrepid Park. What once stood there is a little-known part of Canada’s Second World War history; an incredibly important top-secret hub for the Allied clandestine war effort.
Known officially by the British as ‘Special Training School 103’ (or STS 103), to the Canadians it was known by a number of names — ‘Project J’ or ‘J Force’ and sometimes ‘Special School J’ or even ‘Installation J.’ To the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ at the Special Operations Executive (SOE) however, it was simply known as Camp X. The buildings are gone but during the Second World War Camp X, nestled outside of (then sleepy little) Whitby, Ontario was arguably the most important ‘black site’ in North America, engaged in training hundreds of spies and would-be saboteurs.
During the early ‘Phony War’ days of the Second World War, the scale, direction, and shape of the coming conflict was still largely uncertain for both the Allies and Axis powers. Britain, along with France in particular, was busy trying to determine possible courses of action, shore up peripheral regional concerns, expand alliances, and prepare for various eventualities.
When the Phony War was shattered by the German blitzkrieg, the reality that the continent might be lost and His Majesty’s British Government (HMG) might be forced to fight the war on her own began to set in. HMG was not blind to this reality and had begun planning early on for this ‘Certain Eventuality.’ In a report by the Chiefs of Staff Committee entitled “British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality” dated May 25, 1940, HMG outlined a plan to sow “the seeds of revolt within the conquered territories.” Out of this report emerged a plan for fomenting revolt and creating “a special organisation … to put these operations into effect” with “all the necessary preparations and training [proceeding] as a matter of urgency.”
Soon after, HMG’s aim of igniting and fanning the flames of resistance behind Germany’s lines of occupation led to the formation of the SOE. Officially formed by the Ministry of Economic Warfare on July 22, 1940, SOE brought together the Secret Intelligence Service’s (SIS, also known as MI6), Section D (‘D’ for destruction), MI(R) — the War Office’s research department focused on guerrilla warfare — and the Foreign Office’s Electra House (EH, ministry of black propaganda). SOE was then tasked with espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis, and most notably tasked with aiding burgeoning resistance movements.
Shortly after coming to office, in May of 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill had authorized SIS to establish a covert intelligence mission in North America, known as British Security Coordination (BSC). BSC was to become a joint operation that would eventually bring together MI5 (Home Security), SIS, SOE and the Political Warfare Executive.
With the British declaration of war against Germany, the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s forced the UK and U.S. to ‘officially’ break off their intelligence cooperation. With more than a year before the U.S. would enter the war, BSC was, with considerable help from the Canadians, filling the void. The RCMP, for its part, played an active role by vetting all Canadians (of which there were many) assigned to BSC. As the war progressed, the RCMP’s role would, like the BSC itself, expand considerably.
Headed by the now-famous “quiet Canadian,” Sir William “The Man Called Intrepid” Stephenson, BSC was set up with an unofficial nod from elements of U.S. government to serve as the administrative centre for British intelligence operations in the Americas and a back channel for communication and liaison with U.S. military intelligence. Officed in Rockefeller Center, New York, it was disguised as the British Passport Control Office. Its early goal was to monitor enemy activity in the Americas, protect British interests, and through the use of propaganda, mobilize pro-British support. BSC’s role, however, would grow rapidly and by the end of the war, it was handling a huge portfolio across North and South Americas with programs that would influence the course of the Allied war effort globally.
The establishment of BSC, combined with SOE’s mandate “to set Europe ablaze” (as Churchill once famously describe it) led BSC to take a more ‘military’ hand in the war effort with the creation of Camp X. ‘Officially’ established December 6, 1941, planning for the camp had begun in July of 1941 when the Ministry of Defence had ordered the establishment of a secret camp inside Canada for training subversives. Initially used to train Allied personnel, Camp X quickly took on a decidedly darker and more aggressive air.
SOE quickly began pushing towards the recruitment of recent immigrants to Canada that could be trained and sent back to their homelands to raise all sorts of hell. Camp X was to become one of some 60-plus SOE camps scattered across the globe as part of HMG ‘ungentlemanly war.’ However, as a key training centre of would-be subversives, Camp X would come to have particularly special importance.
While Ottawa kept it quiet by ‘officially’ turning a blind eye to Camp X, the British led a major cooperative effort with Canadian (and later U.S.) military and intelligence agencies to turn this quiet chunk of land on Lake Ontario’s north shore into the epicentre of the Allied ‘ungentlemanly war’ effort.
Camp X became the destination of recruits from countries like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia who were to be trained and parachuted back into their ancestral homeland to wage a guerrilla war against the Axis occupation forces. These individuals were trained in a wide variety of special techniques and general chaos-making. Skills including map reading, survival skills, sabotage, partisan support, intelligence gathering, Morse code, assassination and silent killing along with advanced combat and weapons training, resistance recruitment, and demolition were all core curriculum at Camp X. The moniker “the school of mayhem and murder” was well earned.
Camp X would eventually train hundreds of agents for clandestine operations which held considerable military as well as political impacts for the course of the war and would go on to have tremendous post-war implications. Indeed, one could argue that what occurred at Camp X would have a profound effect on the landscape of the post-war world.
SOE had quickly expanded Camp X beyond simply training Allied officers for clandestine missions. Through the BSC’s Canadian contacts in External Affairs, National Defence and with the help of the RCMP, SOE began recruiting recent immigrants to Canada (many of them with dubious credentials) to drop back into their occupied homelands. With the help of the RCMP, BSC was supplied with lists of known subversives suitable for the task at hand. This had logically and inevitably led BSC to known communists.
Who else would be on the RCMP’s watch list of potential subversives than members of the Canadian Communist Party (CPC)? And who else would be of a suitable disposition than Communists? Indeed, they had actively been sought out by SOE because of this very fact. This suited the RCMP just fine who were happy to see their problem solved for them. For this reason, the RCMP would come to play a central role in recruiting agents for the SOE from among various dissident political groups inside of Canada.
Canada was particularly fertile ground for recruiting such individuals. In the 1920s, waves of immigrants had arrived in Canada driven by hardships and hunger, rather than any concrete desire to permanently abandon their ancestral homes. Many were still citizens of their homelands and had strong links to both their ethnic community in Canada as well as that of their birthplaces. Many were quite active in left-wing, labour, and Communist movements. These tight-knit communities were concentrated in small pockets scattered across the country and the RCMP carefully maintained extensive files on these potential “subversives” and “agitators.”
Communists were uniquely well prepared to confront the challenges of the clandestine war. With the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941) the Comintern had placed Communist parties in occupied countries on a war footing. With underground networks and connections to immigrant communities in Allied countries already in place, these groups were able to quickly adapt to their new reality. These cadres were well versed and experienced in the art of subterfuge, subversion, and clandestine activity. When the invasion was announced, most Communist networks had managed to remain intact by having made quick their escape into the mountains and forests to wait until the opportunity to wage their preferred war of the subversive presented itself. In other words, the life of the Communist left them well prepared to confront occupation.
It is herein that the problem lies with regards to the profound post-war implications Camp X would come to play a role in. BSC was never duped by these Communist agents and at all times knew what they were dealing with. They had been sought out for this purpose. From SOE to Winston Churchill himself, all were aware of the undesirability of these individuals from a political standpoint, but they were none-the-less pragmatists. In the immediate, these forces were needed, however undesirable, or because of this undesirability, they could provide the chaos required behind Axis lines. The problem came when these individuals were unleashed and handed back to their Communist underground networks and supplied with arms and support.
Although these individuals had a shared enemy in the present, their post-war vision of what would come with victory was quite different. Often enough these irregular forces were not simply fighting Axis occupation, but simultaneously engaged in civil war and revolution. At war’s end, the Allies found themselves at odds with these agents whom they had skilfully trained. They were, by now, built up with combat experience and had captured equipment from retreating Axis forces and had become the de facto rulers in the wake of Axis retreat. In countries such as Yugoslavia, the Communist takeover was something of a fait accompli, or in the case of Greece, led to intensive post-war divisions, civil war, and chaos.
The Camp X training program was undeniably a resounding success. The small cadre of individuals who graduated from this ‘university of ungentlemanly warfare’ went on to hold a profound and disproportionately large role in steering the events of the war on the ground in occupied countries. This military success is however chained to post-war political implications that leave Camp X rarely, or selectively, spoken of. Regardless, the remarkable role Canada’s clandestine ‘college of subversion’ had as profound an impact on winning the war like other little discussed secret programs we are only now beginning to appreciate such as the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park that cracked Enigma.
After the war, Camp X would be used by the RCMP in the early years of the Cold War as a secure site for such activity as interviewing the Soviet embassy cypher-clerk Igor Gouzenko, who defected to Canada. His revelations concerning the extent of Soviet espionage operations in Canada would be hugely significant. Camp X would later become a wireless intercept and listening station run by the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals before being demolished in 1969.
Camp X’s most enduring legacy will, however, always be its wartime program of “mayhem and murder” that involved such individuals as William ‘The Man Called Intrepid’ Stephenson, William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan of the OSS, and possibly even Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) who was inspired by these real life James Bonds. It was here where Canada’s long tradition of military planning, improvisation, and resiliency, which had made it so indispensable during the First World War, was ushered into the era of modern warfare and gave birth to the long-standing tradition and dedication to unconventional war fighting that remains close to the heart of the Canadian Armed Forces ethos.