WHEN IAN FLEMING WAS JUST ANOTHER SPY IN ONTARIO
The release of another James Bond thriller and the sad rites of Remembrance Day feed memories of the Second World War when the Bond fiction was born near Toronto and all those SCUBA movie scenes of barely clad girls in warm seas began as dives in chilly Lake Ontario.
The fictional Bond began for real just east of Toronto near the forgettable city of Oshawa in the now forgotten spy centre called Camp X on the shore of Lake Ontario.
This is where Ian Fleming, Bond's creator, honed his spy craft that blossomed into the Bond books and the later movies. And Fleming was hardly the most famous Camp X resident because by the time the training there finished of soldiers, sailors, tinkers, spies, magicians, assassins, pickpockets, safecrackers, all-purpose crooks and espionage experts, such notables as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA godfather Wild Bill Donovan and Prime Minister Lester Pearson were involved in the secret camp set up by Sir William Stephenson on land he bought an acre or a bit at a time.
Of course Stephenson, one of the most famous espionage geniuses in world history, was A Man Called Intrepid, the title of the noted book on him by Toronto author William Stevenson, once my valued colleague on the Sun and a journalist and fighter pilot.
When Fleming was interviewed about the history behind Bond, he said: "James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is William Stephenson."
If you won't take the word of writers like Fleming and his biographer about how Intrepid was a key to the Allied victory, there is always Ronald Reagan. Before he became president, he was an expert in the illusions of Hollywood movies which mimic the shadow games played at Camp X to prepare its graduates for the deadly reality behind enemy lines,
Reagan said: "As long as Americans value courage and freedom there will be a special place in our hearts, our minds and our history books for the 'man called Intrepid.'"
Intrepid had roamed the world for years in the fight against facism, using his resources and ingenuity as a self-made Canadian millionaire. He was a confidant of Sir Winston Churchill and vital to the secret help that President Franklin Roosevelt gave the PM and Great Britain as they stood against Hitler's evil.
This is laid out for us in stunning detail by Bill Stevenson. I reread his Intrepid saga after my son Mark and I were arguing with someone about Stephenson's role in breaking crucial German code during the war. American writers and supposed historians have often downplayed or ignored Canada's huge contribution to the victory, and Intrepid is forgotten or scorned as someone who exaggerated his role.
I thought I knew about Camp X. As the Suburban Editor of the lamented Toronto Telegram, I would come to work at least once a year to find a feature on the camp volunteered by a freelancer or my Oshawa reporter. It was tantalizing stuff, but there wasn't much there. It would melt like candy floss when you mouthed it looking for substance inside the romantic lore. The pictures didn't show much. It didn't even resemble an abandoned base, and later there was just a park and picnic bench and sign.
Often there were mentions in the media but once again, there was nothing much beyond a few paragraphs about spies training there during World War II. All that changed for me, but many Torontonians didn't seem to notice, when Bill Stevenson's book on Intrepid came out in 1976 and fleshed out the skeleton that had been X. Later it was turned into a movie, like several of his books.
He worked as a columnist when I was Sun Editor and told me about visiting Fleming in retirement on the north shore of Jamaica. They went diving together since they both loved SCUBA. Any fan of Bond can see Jamaca's influence in his writing. And, of course, Bermuda. Its spy centre was linked to X. After the war, when much of what they had done was still classified, the island was their escape. Bill Stevenson and Fleming visited often and Intrepid (his code name) retired there and lived honourably to nearly 100. He got his Order of Canada belatedy there after he couldn't travel to Canada.
In his book, Bill Stevenson wrote about the dominance of the British counter-espionage centre Bletchley. Then came Bermuda. Camp X was a "dramatic contrast" to Bermuda and its warm waters filled with war action, because X, where the Allies would build towards "aggressive intelligence operations," had a huge cold lake to the south, a strip of bush to the north, and was guarded by fierce scrutiny on the sides.
It was easy to protect and its location, close to highways to Toronto and Montreal and the border, was ideal. Quick trips from Manhattan and Washington were possible. FBI agents, American spies and pardoned crooks often crossed clandestinely at Roosevelt Beach just east of Niagara Falls while guarded by commandos. The location allowed Americans to help without breaking laws or alarming Congress before it entered the war.
At Camp X, guerilla devices were tested along with training in how to kill with everything from a hatpin to thin copper wire. Stage-set buildings were constructed that imitated important Nazi hideouts that were going to be taken by parachutists trained to kill important generals. A famous magician built a mirrored device that made it appear there were several warships out on the lake, a deception that astounded Hoover.
Intrepid said Fleming "was exceptionally good at underwater demolition. The water there is ice cold even in summer. Ian had a flair for the work. He had to deal with his own vivid imagination though."
He said that Fleming failed at an exercise known as "disposal of the tail," where an enemy agent is trailing an Allied spy and is killed. Fleming was told the supposed agent had returned to the mockup of a hotel near Toronto and he was supposed to kick open the door to the room and shoot the enemy with a Smith and Wesson 45 which Intrepid handed him outside in the corridor assuring him he had "tested it on the range just yesterday." Fleming just couldn't do it, saying he couldn't shoot a man in cold blood even if he knew it was just a training exercise
Intrepid described to his biographer all the "factories" at Camp X that produced everything from forged documents to clothes that would be acceptable in occupied territory because they were copied from clothes spotted on immigrant travellers in and around Toronto. Their luggage would be stolen and they would be quickly granted generous compensation to end their questions.
Toronto played a major role as a large city and travel centre that was just 40 miles away. But the camp dominated every spy activity in Canada. Sir William's general description for Camp X came in boxing terms because he had been a noted boxer. He said that if "Bermuda was the outthrust defensive arm, Camp X was the clenched fist preparing for the knockout."
Naval pilots were trained at a nearby landing field, so any heavily guarded hangars in the area would not tip off any German spies to the camp. One-man subs and demolition devices were tested in the lake. Aspidistra, the largest radio-communications unit in the world was built to go with an underground transmitter nicknamed Hydra which could link with any British spy in the world. The CBC provided a cover for all this, explaining to Oshawa residents that it was just putting up new radio aerials.
I urge you to read this book. Anyone with the slightest interest in the war and British/American politics in the 1930s and 1940s will find Bill Stevenson's details fascinating. You will find intriguing names popping up like Mike Pearson, the future PM, whom Sir William asked to be a "King's messenger" carrying secret documents. Why we even learn that King George V was not just the name on the latest battleship but inspirational royalty playing an important role in the early secret war.
On Oct. 20, the Toronto Star, which once had Bill Stevenson, roaming the world as its foreign correspondent, did a major feature on his latest book Past to Present: A Reporter's Story of War, Spies, People and Politics.
Liona Boyd, the guitarist who was dating PM Pete Trudeau, sat beside me and explained that she had asked Mick Jagger to come from his afternoon concert at the Ex but he didn't come in when he found Nureyev was there. Their egos collided like a bomb.
Bill Stevenson's books and conversation bring to life a world when actors and journalists like Noel Coward, Leslie Howard, Somerset Maugham, Roald Dahl - and Bill himself - were famous performers and writers but were also spies. This world of moles, snoops, spooks (before it became a bad word) and fifth columnists may live in the fiction of John LeCarre (who was a spy before he was an author) Len Deighton and others, but I find what really happened to be more stirring than any thriller.
Bill Stevenson phoned me once to chide me for not coming to a small backyard barbecue at his nice Rosdale home with the book-lined study where he could hold you entranced for hours. Why hadn't I shown up because billionaire Ross Perot had flown in on his private jet to tell him about the latest Oval Office briefing he had given President Reagan on all the American POWs in Vietnam.
Bill and his wife Monika Jensen, an Emmy-winning producer while at 60 Minutes, wrote a book about that, called Kiss The Boys Goodby. They confided that there had been a lot of Establishment pressure against them as they researched but in the book credited me and others for standing up for them.
I don't know about that. All I know is that Bill Stevenson is a great story teller, and he has great stories to tell, like giving military advice to the king of Thailand and bumping into, and cursing, Mao, during a TV shoot.
I can't think of anything better some evening than for you to pick your favourite chair, sip a martini which is shaken, not stirred, and descend into a world where the spies are real and the sea is warm and the good guys triumph after a few of the enemies are garroted in the basement.