Celebrating a wartime spy chief
Author Ian Fleming once said his fictional secret agent James Bond was “a highly romanticised version of the true spy. The real thing … is Sir William Stephenson,” the Canadian-born espionage chieftain who ran a major Second World War intelligence operation out of Bermuda and later retired to the island.
On Friday, Canada’s Intrepid Society, formed to honour the memory of a man whose cloak-and-dagger exploits included helping to organise the United States’ wartime secret service, the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, celebrated Sir William’s ties to the island at a Bermuda National Museum ceremony.
The event culminated in the unveiling of a bronze bust of Sir William, whose wartime adventures were recounted in the bestselling biographies The Quiet Canadian and A Man Called Intrepid.
“This gift is to honour the people of Bermuda and others here who worked with Sir William during the Second World War in the Imperial Censorship programme run out of the Princess Hotel in Hamilton that played an important role in the gathering of intelligence from the information flowing from the Americas to Europe via the postal service,” said Colonel Gary Solar, Intrepid Society president, at Friday’s unveiling.
The bronze, created by Canadian artist Erin Senko, will be put on permanent display in a National Museum exhibit commemorating the 1940-45 local censorship operation, which is planned for the Dockyard facility’s pending Casemates Barracks extension.
Colonel Solar was accompanied to Bermuda by a large group of Canadian and American members and supporters of the Intrepid Society.
National Museum chairman James Hallett also paid tribute to the millionaire industrialist-turned-spymaster’s exploits and his long association with Bermuda, which began during the Second World War and was rekindled when he retired here in the 1960s with his Tennessee-born wife, Lady Mary Stephenson.
When they first moved to Bermuda, the couple lived in an apartment at the Princess Hotel, site of Sir William’s wartime censorship operation, before later buying a home in Camden North, Devonshire.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Sir William died in Bermuda in 1989 at the age of 92 and is buried at St John’s Church, Pembroke. He was survived by his adopted Bermudian daughter, Elizabeth.
“Sir William Stephenson was a remarkable man: born in Manitoba, he was an inventor, ace pilot in the First World War, prisoner of war and a hugely successful businessman in the interwar period who foresaw the growing threat of Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” Mr Hallett said. “To help fight that threat, he embarked on a second career as an intelligence operative, first in an unofficial capacity by providing confidential information acquired from his European industrial contacts to Winston Churchill about how Adolf Hitler’s regime was covertly building up Germany’s armed forces, and later as a high-ranking figure in Britain’s security apparatus.
“He went on to become the senior representative of British intelligence for the entire Western Hemisphere during the Second World War.”
In May 1940, newly installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill personally dispatched Sir William, by then a close confidante and one of his most reliable private sources of information on secret German rearmament programmes, to New York with the cover title of British passports control officer.
Working out of offices in Rockefeller Centre, the original mandate of Sir William’s covert British Security Coordination organisation was to facilitate co-operation and the exchange of information between the various British intelligence agencies operating in the Western Hemisphere and authorities in the still-neutral United States.
The role quickly expanded under the pressure of wartime conditions, with Sir William soon overseeing British efforts to blunt Nazi espionage, sabotage and propaganda activities in the United States during the early years of the conflict.
One of his key weapons in this regard was the work of the Bermuda censorship station.
During the Second World War (1939-45), Bermuda was a staging point for regular US-European flying boat services operated by Pan American World Airways and Britain’s Imperial Airways, with the bulk of transatlantic air mail passing through the island.
“Bermuda proved a geographically convenient location for the scrutiny of mail exchanged between North America and Europe,” said former Bermuda resident Rupert Allason, a British espionage historian and one-time parliamentarian who writes under the pen name Nigel West.
“All correspondence sent to or from Europe was examined by Imperial Censorship staff based at the Hamilton Princess Hotel, and suspect items were intercepted and photographed.
“This led to the identification of several important German spies and spy rings operating in North America.”
Ultimately, some 1,500 British intelligence officers and codebreakers descended on Bermuda to staff the Imperial Censorship station, many of them women — and jokingly dubbed “Censorettes” after the high-kicking Radio City Music Hall precision dancers, the Rockettes.
Reminiscing about his wartime service, Sir William said that in addition to investigating enemy activities and mobilising pro-British opinion in the US, he served as an unofficial liaison between Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt, supervised training of Americans for intelligence work, operated spy networks which uncovered Axis activities in South America and provided valuable information to Washington and London on the movements of pro-Nazi Vichy French operatives.
While he liked to downplay his role as “80 per cent paperwork’’, he was knighted by the British in 1946.
That same year, the US presented Sir William with the Medal for Merit, then America’s highest civilian decoration.
The medal’s citation, signed by President Harry S. Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt in 1945, said Sir William “gave timely and invaluable aid to the American war effort’’.
Former United Bermuda Party parliamentarian Tony Correia and retired chartered accountant Dick Butterfield, longtime Bermudian friends of Sir William, spoke fondly about his time in on the island at Friday’s event. Other intimates of the former spymaster in attendance included Canadian-born former Bermuda Attorney-General Saul Froomkin.
Ian Fleming, wartime aide to Britain’s head of naval intelligence, Admiral John Henry Godfrey, was a sometime agent for Sir William, first meeting him in Washington DC in 1941 after flying through Bermuda to inspect the censorship operation.
“High up on my list of heroes is one of the great secret agents of the last war,” Fleming said of the man who was to become a mentor and father figure to him.
Describing the Canadian as “a man of super-qualities … and, by any standards, a hero,” Fleming went to say: “Sir William Stephenson — decorated with the Military Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits as an aviator in World War One — became one of the great secret agents of the last war, and it would be a foolish person who would argue his credentials.”
The James Bond author said that, unlike his fictional creation, “an efficient and not very attractive blunt instrument in the hands of government”, real intelligence operatives such as Sir William were men of flesh and blood who, despite seemingly endless reserves of patience and ingenuity, were pushed almost to the limits of human endurance by the demands of their wartime work.
“Bill Stephenson worked himself almost to death during the war, carrying out undercover operations and often dangerous assignments,” Fleming said. “He was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit, and he is the first non-American ever to receive this highest honour for a civilian.
“But it was surely [his] supreme reward that when Sir Winston Churchill recommended Bill Stephenson for a knighthood he should have minuted to King George VI, ‘This one is dear to my heart.’ It seems that other and far greater men than I also have their heroes.”