The Real Camp X: 10 Facts About Canada’s Elite Spy School

Camp X was a highly secretive and elite international spy school during World War II. It was the first spy training facility in North America, and it was located in the last place you’d expect: on a farm near Whitby, Ont. Few knew about it then and not many know about it now. But today, it’s the real-life inspiration for the CBC’s new spy drama. The thrilling and dangerous plot lines of X Company maybe be fiction, but here are 10 incredible facts about the Canadian spy school that inspired those stories:

  1. Camp X was formed right in the nick of time

    Camp X opened on December 6, 1941, a day before the U.S. was forced into the war by the Pearl Harbour bombings. This established Camp X as not just an espionage boot camp for Britain, the United States, and Canada, but also as an international intelligence hub vital to winning the war.

  2. Camp X’s location was key

    An aerial shot of Camp X in 1943.

    Camp X’s location was an isolated site on the Whitby-Oshawa border, which was specifically chosen for numerous reasons and with a great deal of thought:
    It was relatively remote on the shores of Lake Ontario, yet it was only 30 miles straight across the lake from the United States.

    Lake Ontario and the topography of its surrounding land made Camp X a perfect location for the safe transfer of code and picking up radio signals from the United Kingdom.

    The camp was also five miles from Defence Industries Ltd — which is now the town of Ajax — the largest arms manufacturing facility in North America at that time.

  3. The camp hosted a top-secret radio station that operated under a cover provided by the CBC

    A shot of the secret communications centre Hydra, housed at Camp X.

    The CBC was a cover-up for a secret allied radio network. It ran under the codename Hydra, a large and highly sophisticated telecommunications centre that linked allied agents around the world. The work at Hydra was so sensitive that any outsiders who ventured near it were to be shot on sight.

  4. Camp X's official code name was

    From the CBC Archives.

    The camp was officially known as Special Training School 103 (STS-103) by the Special Operations Executive (a branch of the British MI-6), 25-1-1 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Project-J by the Canadian military.

  5. Camp X is now considered the foundation of modern North American spy training

    Camp X leader Sir William Stephenson was the inspiration for the character of James Bond.

    Camp X is now considered the foundation of modern North American spy training, especially because the camp’s leader, Sir William Stephenson, was credited with teaching Americans about foreign intelligence gathering. Agents from the FBI and the Office of Strategic Services (a predecessor of the CIA) secretly attended Camp X. The CIA even named their recruit training facility "The Farm” – a nod to the original farm that existed at the Camp X site.

  6. Camp X Inspired 007

    From the CBC Archives.

    Camp X has a fascinating 007 connection. Stephenson was a wealthy Canadian industrialist whose story as an important informant during WWII was told in the 1979 miniseries titled A Man Called Intrepid. Stephenson was the real-life inspiration for the character of James Bond, as admitted by British naval intelligence officer and renowned 007 author Ian Fleming (who was rumoured to be a trainee at Camp X):

    “James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is … William Stephenson.”

    Similarly, Paul Dehn, who was one of the lead instructors at Camp X, went on after the war to collaborate with Fleming. Dehn wrote the screenplay for the James Bond film Goldfinger, based on the actual training he devised for the spy students at Camp X.

  7. From Camp X to advertising mogul

    David Ogilvy was a British intelligence agent at Camp X before entering the advertising world.

    Advertising mogul David Ogilvy was another notable alumnus of Camp X. It was there he mastered the power of propaganda before becoming king of Madison Avenue. Although Ogilvy was trained in sabotage and close combat, he was ultimately tasked with projects that included successfully ruining the reputation of businessmen who were supplying the Nazis with industrial materials.

  8. More than 500 allied agents trained at Camp X

    Allied agents picked up all their necessary spy training at Camp X, from sabotage techniques to weapons training.

    More than 500 allied agents, both men and women, trained at Camp X. Their training involved disguise, surveillance, burglary, interrogation, close combat, and assassination. They were also taught special techniques including silent killing, sabotage, recruitment methods for resistance movements, demolition, use of various weapons, and Morse Code. The first five directors of the CIA also trained there.

  9. The school of "mayhem and murder"

    Camp X also operated a program that was coined “the school of mayhem and murder” by George Hunter White, a former trainee at the facility. It’s said that by the time they left, every one of its students could kill a man with their bare hands in 15 seconds.

  10. Camp X was declassified in 1995

    The monument at the site of Camp X. Image from Ontario War Memorials blogpost

    The secrets of Camp X were only declassified in 1995 – 50 years after the war ended. The camp was then decommissioned in 1969, when all the remaining buildings were bulldozed into Lake Ontario. Nothing significant remains of Camp X today, but the site is now a massive park named “Intrepid Park” after Stephenson’s code name. A monument was erected there in 1984 to honour the men and women of Camp X.

    Camp X turned notable figures and ordinary people into highly trained allied agents. X Company highlights these stories of espionage and courage during World War II. Catch the premiere of X Company on Wednesday, Feb. 18th at 9 p.m. on CBC.