Camp X has rich history as Canadian spy school
Actors portray Soviet defectors Igor and Svetlana Gouzenko arriving at wartime Camp Picton airbaseused as late 1940s Camp X stand-in. (Photo courtesy Yap Camp X Productions Ltd.)
A German soldier dies silently as a World War II spy trained near Oshawa quickly and efficiently slits his throat.
A trainee is killed while crawling under barbed wire during a live ammunition exercise.
Recreated by a Canadian cast, such scenes — which viewers can see July 14 at 9 p.m. EST, July 15 at 3 p.m. or July 19 at 7 p.m. EST EST when History channel airs Camp X: Secret Agent School — echo the grim realities of agents who risked their lives while preparing to destroy enemy power plants and bridges.
“We’re always looking for stories that are fresh and dramatic,” said script co-author Elliott Halpern, owner-producer of Toronto’s Yap films.
If Camp X had been in the U.S., it “wouldn’t have been bulldozed,” he said.
Despite being the foundation of modern North American spy training, surviving structures were razed in 1969.
In what Halpern described as “a selection of short stories,” the Camp X feature is excellently presented through narration, training, clandestine sabotage operations and assassination re-enactments, veterans’ interviews, plus 1940s foreign location footage.
The two-hour film also shows historian David O’Keefe and archaeologist Ron Williamson examining first-time excavated foundations.
Yap documentaries include “quite a bit of archaeology” to help viewers relate to history, Halpern said.
Opened Dec. 6, 1941, Camp X’s wartime role “was absolutely phenomenal ... particularly when it came to bringing the British, the Americans and the Canadians together,” O’Keefe said.
A farm between Whitby and Oshawa was selected, becoming what ex-staffer Winnifred Gardner called “the first place the Americans, Canadians and the English all worked together.”
British Intelligence and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Central Intelligence Agency’s precursor, wanted a secure facility far from war-torn Great Britain, but until Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on Dec. 7 and the U.S. entered the war, Americans were not involved — officially.
By then, Canada had more than 100 British Commonwealth Air Training Plan stations, including No. 31 Bombing & Gunnery School, RAF Picton. Located south of Belleville, the cast and crew used its grounds and largely-intact wooden buildings last fall.
Spies were vital, since Great Britain couldn’t stop Nazi advances and resistance fighters were “ruthlessly hunted down,” narrator Michael Allcock said, describing Camp X as “a deadly school for dirty warfare, that changed the world of espionage.”
Winnipeg-born Sir William Stephenson, who as head of the British Security Co-ordination used the code name “Intrepid,” was assigned to create the secret base.
Actor Graham Gauthier portrays Major William Fairbairn, the hard-eyed chief instructor whose hand-to-hand close-quarter combat methods are still taught.
The agents “were not ordinary soldiers,” Halpern said.
In addition to British instructors, Major Paul Dehn, a pre-war film critic and Camp X political warfare instructor, wrote most of its training manual, which the OSS adopted for seven spy schools.
“This is the first time I’ve actually seen the primary source,” said O’Keefe, who examined the previously secret document in England.
“Searching a prisoner if you are armed, kill him first,” Dehn wrote, adding in chillingly wry tones: “If that is inconvenient ... knock him out ... then search him. Attack your opponent’s weakest points. He will attack yours if he gets the chance.”
As former agent Richard Holmes recalled softly, “Four of my friends paid with their lives.”
Dehn stressed the need for being “inconspicuous,” exchanging properly-coded messages and destroying enemy sites.
Ironically, his British co-author was eventually unmasked as a Russian spy.
Canadian Dave Lapsley portrays skilled Toronto telegrapher Norm Delahunty, whose signals successfully misled German operatives in South America, resulting in fewer submarine attacks on convoys carrying supplies and troops to Great Britain.
Viewers are also told of a Camp X decoding invention still used decades later.
To increase the chances of agents avoiding capture, immigrants with knowledge of European languages, cultures and customs were recruited.
Estimates of Canadian and American trainee ranks vary, but exact numbers and many names are unknown.
Camp X was, after all, a spy school.
One of those often cited was Royal Navy intelligence officer Ian Fleming — author of the James Bond novels.
Some say Fleming failed a staged assassination assignment and lived briefly across from St. James Bond United Church on Avenue Rd. in Toronto, but Halpern said researchers “weren’t able to find any hard evidence of him being there.”
Dehn, however, co-wrote the script for the 1964 movie Goldfinger, the first Bond film.
One famous visitor billeted at what became a Royal Canadian Corps of Signals spy listening station was cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, who told RCMP, British and FBI officials of global Soviet spying, using proof he had smuggled from the USSR’s Ottawa embassy in 1945.
For the documentary, his daughter Evelyn Wilson revisits the Durham site, where she was born, before the renamed Gouzenko family resettled in Mississauga.
Open to visitors as Intrepid Park, Camp X was officially recognized this May by Parks Canada.