Colin J. Briggs, Ph.D.
5 June 1995
I would like to thank Mr. Davy and his Committee for inviting me to give a presentation at this, the inaugural meeting of the Intrepid Society. Everyone here is familiar with the goals of this organization, which has been established to increase awareness and establish a memorial museum or commemorative display and archives to honour a Manitoban who attained prominence through his inventiveness and business achievements, but whose greatest contributions to the world of the mid-20th Century were completely anonymous. I refer of course, to Sir William Stephenson, who played a major role in Intelligence in the Second World War. Sir Winston Churchill appointed him as Director of British Security Coordination in the Western Hemisphere and personal representative to President Roosevelt. In this dual capacity he strove for anonymity, operating under the code name of "Intrepid". It is appropriate that we should be honouring this man this year, 50 years after the end of the 2nd World War. He made major behind-the-scenes contributions to the success of the Allied Forces in that conflict.
By any standards, William S. Stephenson was a remarkable individual. His biography records that he was born in the Point Douglas district of Winnipeg on January 11, 1896, the son of a pioneer family. His great- grandfather, Donald, had come from Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1780. William was a fourth generation Manitoban, and his family operated a lumber mill. His father, also William, was killed while serving as a volunteer with the Manitoba Transvaal Contingent in South Africa. William was only five at that time, but many consider that the loss of his father at this early age contributed to his growing up assertive and self-reliant.
At the turn of the century, Winnipeg was growing rapidly. It was a progressive city and had an important position in trade and commerce. It had some excellent schools, one of which was Argyle High School, which William Stephenson, Jr., attended. He was an avid reader and a good student. He excelled in mathematics and in projects requiring manual dexterity. His teachers recognized that he had a great ability to apply himself to whatever project was his priority at the time. His primary sports activity was boxing and it was at Argyle School that he obtained the grounding which later resulted in his winning the Interservice Lightweight World Boxing Championship.
As a teenager, William had little time for hobbies. However, he was fascinated with radio and he enjoyed making and using radio transmitters and receivers. He was competent with the Morse telegraph and used it to communicate with operators in other parts of Canada. He was particularly enthusiastic about his ability to exchange information with radio-officers on ships in the Great Lakes. These were mobile locations and were more interesting to a young amateur radio operator that fixed land-based transmitters.
In 1914, William Stephenson volunteered for the Royal Canadian Engineers. He was sent to France as a Private and earned a Commission in the field at the age of 19. Gas attacks were common in the First World War, and William Staphenson was a victim. He was returned to England as an invalid "Disabled for Life". He recovered, but was still unfit to return to the trenches.
He turned down an administrative desk job and decided to join the Royal Flying Corps. It is not clear how he convinced the medical examiners that he was fit to fly, but he was successful, and following five hours of training as a pilot, ha returned to France. Stephenson had an outstanding record as an analytical combatant. He shot down twenty-six planes, and was known for his ability to recognize the tactics and aerial skills of his opponents. He was decorated several times for his military achievements, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Military Cross, and from the French, the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre with Palms.
William Stephenson's active flying combat career came to an abrupt end when ha was shot down by what is known today as "friendly fire" (i.e. his own side!). He was wounded and taken prisoner in July 1918. He was taken to Holzminden Camp from which he escaped in October 1918. He returned to his squadron in France and finished the war as a senior test pilot.
After the war, William studied at Oxford and the Aeronautical College, subsequently returning to Winnipeg where he taught Mathematics and Science at the University of Manitoba. In 1921 Stephenson returned to London for a brief visit, which, in fact, extended for about 19 years. While in Winnipeg, he had maintained his interest in radio, and was convinced of the potential of commercial wireless. He believed that he could use his inventive capacity to develop a niche in this expanding and potentially financially rewarding industry.
He was involved in the Government operated radio station in Manitoba which pre-dated the British Broadcasting Corporation by a couple of years, but was a similar concept. With Lord Beaverbrook, Stephenson was to be one of the individuals involved in establishing the BBC as a national, license-funded radio system, partly based on the provincial model.
In London, Stephenson re-established contact with William Gladstone Murray, a Canadian former fighter pilot who became Director of the Public Relations for the BBC. To make radio more popular, accessible and successful, they agreed that there was a need for reliable, reasonably priced receivers suitable for home use by people with little or no interest in the technology of radio reception. Staphenson decided to satisfy this requirement and started his radio empire with the purchase of controlling interest in the General Radio Company. This company manufactured radios, and under his direction, the low cost, popular sets were sold to thousands of consumers. He developed a process which enabled photographs to be transmitted electronically, and in December 1922 the Daily Mail published his first picture in which this process was used commercially. Stephenson patented this, and several other unique processes in a relatively short time.
Stephenson's innovative skills and business acumen made him a millionaire by the time he was thirty years of age. His patents on radio inventions were extremely lucrative, and he invested his funds well, particularly in the areas of communication, including the early days of TV and the British film industry. He was involved in the aircraft industry and a plane developed and built in one of Stephenson's factories won the King's cup air race, the premier flying event of the mid 1930s. He was also associated with the development of the Spitfire, the fighter plane which was to achieve such success in the defense of Britain in the early part of the war.
Stephenson diversified into coal mining, oil refining, steel fabrication and other industries, trading on a world wide basis. He had many dealings with Germany and as early as 1933 he was expressing concerns about Hitler and the developments in Nazi Germany. Stephenson provided Winston Churchill with much of the data acquired on Germany's developing advanced communication systems and on the millions of pounds being spent on armaments. This information was presented to Neville Chamberlain by Churchill, in the form of questions in the House. lt had bean acquired in the course of normal business research by Stephenson's companies, but it was William Stephenson who had recognized the significance.
Stephenson had become friends with H. G. Walls who predicted the future wars would be like the science fiction of the 1930s, and the primary defense would be information obtained and distributed rapidly. We saw this situation in Desert Storm, but sixty years ago it was conjecture. Stephenson agreed with Wells' concept and was concerned when he saw or heard about secret communication developments in Germany. ENIGMA, the German coding machine for messages was in use in 1934. It was several years before the coding system was solved. Stephenson had commercial connections with ITT which manufactured communications systems for the Nazis. It was this contact which made him aware of Enigma soon after its introduction.
Stephenson's school principal had noted that this student "had a strong sense of duty, and high powers of concentration". His analytical mind, technical expertise and international network of contacts combined to make him a natural in intelligence. He became increasingly involved with these activities during the late 1930s, and in 1940, at the age of 44, Churchill appointed him to the position of Director of British Security Coordination in the Western Hemisphere. He was nominally attached to the Passport Office in New York, with an office in the Rockefeller Centre. In all his future war-time work he sought anonymity, operating under the code name of "Intrepid". In this capacity he played a role which was pivotal to the Allied campaign. Many details were published later, in 1976, by his official biographer, William Stevenson, (no relative and with his name spelt with a V rather than a ph).
The scope of Stephenson's wartime activities will be the subject of future meetings of the Intrepid Society and I will not dwell on them. Suffice it to say that he was involved in directing and/or participating in special operations, espionage, political manoeuvre and intrigue, politics, counter-intelligenca and the efforts to encourage the USA to enter the war. All of these activities were motivated by a patriotic loyalty to the Allied cause. This was a the outward manifestation of his support and belief in the British Commonwealth, positive attitude and respect for the United States and commitment to freedom and service to all the peoples of the world.
At the conclusion of hostilities, Stephenson received further recognition for the work which he had done during the war. There were many arrangements to be made for prominent individuals and issues to be investigated. Consequently the New York Office did not close until 9 months after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. However, prior to that, Stephenson had been presented with a knighthood by King George VI, announced in the King's New Year's Honour List in January 1945.
After closing the New York office, Stephenson was still recognised in the US as a major contributor to the Allied success in 1945. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit the highest honour available to a civilian. This was signed by President Truman, and was in recognition of the assistance given by the British intelligence and special operations unit in developing the American agency.
What does a person of this stature do when his objectives have been achieved and his role in international affairs finishes when he is about 50? He was a wealthy man, but his direct involvement with industry had been greatly reduced during his time as "Intrepid". Stephenson moved to Jamaica and semi-retirement. However he was still in contact with many prominent political and financial leaders and in the late 1940s and early 1950s he was involved with an international trading group, the British-American-Canadian Corporation, later known as the World Commerce Corporation, a group heavily involved in rehabilitation and development of national economies which had suffered, or been deprived of markets during the war. It particularly promoted barter trade.
Stephenson developed a successful cement manufacturing operation in Jamaica reducing the need for imports from Britain. He was also an unpaid Chairman of the Newfoundland and Labrador Development Corporation, whose object was to develop mining and other industry in that province.
In 1959 he was appointed Chairman of the Manitoba Economic Advisory Board and he maintained his connections with his home province for many years after that. He endowed a major Scholarship at the University of Winnipeg, the University from which he received the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa on May 27, 1979. Bill Norrie is one of the trustees of this scholarship fund.
There is no doubt that an individual of the stature of William Stephenson deserves recognition in his own province and city. He was awarded the top Manitoba honour, the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, Chief Hunter, but as you have heard this evening, that award had its controversial aspects. The purpose of the Intrepid Society is to give him the memorial which he deserves. It is six years since William Stephenson passed away. Unfortunately, there is no permanent recognition in the form of a museum or collection of memorabilia and artefacts which record his contributions to the Province, Country and international community. I hope that our organisation will be able to achieve its goals and remedy this situation.
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