Camp X 75th Anniversary: A Brief History

Posted on Dec 6, 2016

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Camp X’s opening, and in honour of the occasion, we’re taking a look at the camp’s history, from its inception to its closing, and some of the major points in between.

December 6th, 1941: STS 103

With WWII well underway, the need for skilled intelligence operatives soars. STS 103, ‘Special Training School #103’ or Camp X as it would come to be known, was opened by Mac MacDonald, the very first guard stationed at the camp to keep strangers out before the arrival of the C.O. and his adjutants.

Shot in 1943, an aerial view of Camp X in Whitby, Ontario.

The camp is jointly run by the Canadian military, with help from Foreign Affairs, the RCMP and the British Security Coordination (BSC). The BSC appoints William Stephenson as the camp’s head, and its first commanding officer is Lt. Col. Arthur Terence Roper-Caldbeck, and its primary purposes are to act as a communications link for Britain and the U.S., and to train agents who could be deployed behind enemy lines.


December 7th, 1941: Pearl Harbor

Only a day after Camp X’s doors open, Japan launches a devastating raid on Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the war. Soon after, the U.S.’ intelligence agency, the OSS, (Office of Strategic Services) begins sending agents to train at Camp X — some of whom would later become the first directors of the C.I.A.

Before long, the camp begins receiving requests from both London and New York not only for agents, but agent instructors as well. Camp X, in a sense, becomes a secret agent pipeline for the Allied war effort, and within a few months the first trainees begin deploying in France.


April 5th, 1942: The Silent Killer’s Brush With Death

Considered one of the world’s most dangerous ‘silent killers’, William Fairbairn arrives at Camp X to teach hand-to-hand combat. A veteran police officer in Shanghai, Fairbairn was a martial arts expert who’d recently trained the team that would successfully assassinate Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, The Butcher of Prague, considered one of the primary architects of the Holocaust.

William Fairbairn demonstrates how to disarm and counterattack an enemy.

Fairbairn’s first night at Camp X was nearly doomed however, when a fire broke out in the mess hall. Made almost entirely of wood, the fire spread quickly to the sleeping quarters. As word of the fire got out, guard Mac MacDonald found Fairbairn in his room trying to gather his valuables. Fairbairn ignored his pleas to vacate and continued trying to collect his things. MacDonald was forced to call in combat instructor (and Olympic medal-winning wrestler) George de Relwyskow, who came crashing through the window and helped MacDonald pull Fairbairn out to safety, minus any of his personal effects.

The fire’s only casualty? Lt. Col. Roper-Caldbeck’s dog, Bessie.


Summer of 1942: Hydra

Parts for Camp X’s state-of-the-art telecommunications system, eventually codenamed Hydra by the men who would operate it, begins arriving in boxes in April. Bill Hardcastle and Pat Bayly are given the task of putting it together, and by summer, Hydra fully operational and has direct lines to Ottawa, New York and Washington, D.C.

Hydra arrives at Camp X in boxes, awaiting assembly.

The topography around Lake Ontario makes it an ideal spot for picking up radio signals, and Hydra is put to work coding and decoding hundreds of thousands of messages. It’s believed Hydra was sending and receiving upwards of 12,000 messages to England’s Bletchley Park daily.


August 19th, 1942: Tragedy at Dieppe

6,000 Allied soldiers, mostly Canadian, storm the beaches at Dieppe with the intention of seizing the port and gathering intelligence. By the time the raid is over, Allied forces have suffered approximately 60% casualties. The failure reinforces the need for covert agents operating behind enemy lines in support of support amphibious assaults.

Meanwhile at Camp X, Lt. Col. Bill Brooker, arguably the school’s most popular commanding officer, succeeds Roper-Caldbeck as the camp’s commandant.


November 18th, 1942: Gustave Biéler

The SOE deploys Gustave Biéler, a former Montrealer, into France. Despite injuring himself during his parachute landing, he goes on to organize countless missions to sabotage German supplies and logistics and is considered one of the SOE’s best agents. Biéler wreaks so much havoc that the Gestapo is forced to create a special team to track him down and capture him.

Eventually, Biéler will be charged with the monumental task of helping to pave the way for the D-Day Invasion.

March 1943: Brooker Out, Skilbeck In

The OSS puts pressure on the BSC for the ever popular Bill Brooker’s services, and he vacates his position as the camp’s commanding officer. Lt. Col. Cuthbert Skilbeck, becomes the obvious choice to replace him, and he becomes Camp X’s third and final chief.

January 13th, 1944: Agents Apprehended

The Gestapo closes in on Gustave Biéler, arresting him and fellow agent Yolande Beekman at a café in Saint-Quentin, France. The two are transferred to Gestapo headquarters, separated, and tortured. Neither breaks.

Eventually Biéler is sent to Flossenbürg concentration camp, and is executed with an honour guard on September 5th, 1944. Beekman is killed along with three other agents, including Noor Inayat Khan, at Dachau on September 13th, 1944.

Killed in 1944, Gustave Biéler was considered one of the SOE's best agents.

Biéler’s teams, a mix of SOE agents and French Resistance are scattered throughout parts of Northern France and will still play a pivotal role in the D-Day invasion, destroying railways, bridges, troop transports and gasoline stores and hampering enemy movement and supplies.

June 12th, 1944: Taschereau Behind Enemy Lines

Only six days after the invasion, Canadian Leonard Jacques Taschereau is dropped into France, where, like Bieler, he excels at disrupting the German war machine. He takes charge of a team of resistance fighters and begins leading attacks against German forces.

He is credited with having planted bombs on 22 locomotives in a single night.

October 1944: Andy Durovecz in Captured in Hungary

SOE operations in Europe continue, and Camp X recruit Andy Durovecz is dispatched to Hungary. He is separated from his team upon landing but makes his way to a designated safehouse, befriending the woman who lives there before attempting to continue his mission.

Some time later, while en route to Budapest, Durovecz is caught and beaten by the Gestapo, who believe him to be either a Russian or British agent. He’s moved to Zugliget prison near Budapest, but succeeds in a daring escape and is back in Canada by June of 1945.

Not long after, another Camp X agent, Joe Gelleny, would also escape Zugliget prison and live to tell the tale.

Late 1944: Camp X Closes Doors

As European countries are liberated from German hands, the SOE’s need for agents begins to ebb and Camp X is closed in the latter half of 1944.

Some of the camp’s instructors move out to Commando Bay in British Columbia, where they’re put to use training Asian-Canadian agents for the war in the Pacific.


May 8th, 1945: Victory in Europe

Europe celebrates as Germany offers its unconditional surrender to the Allies, and VE Day is declared. In a historic transmission, Bletchley Park sends a morse code message to Camp X, announcing to North America for the first time that the war is over.

Camp X's Bill Hardcastle on VE Day, he took this photo of himself using a delayed shutter flash.

After hearing the good news, Bill Hardcastle, who had sent the first ever message from Hydra to England, captures the joy of the moment by taking a photo himself at Camp X.


September 5th, 1945: Gouzenko and The Cold War

As WWII ends, Russian cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, stationed in Ottawa, defects from the Soviet Union. He hands over a wealth of information about Stalin’s plans to steal nuclear secrets and exposes Canadians who were spying for the Soviet Union. His defection is considered by many as the catalyst for the Cold War and the birth of McCarthyism.

To protect his anonymity, Gouzenko wore a trademark white hood whenever he appeared in public.

Fearing Soviet reprisal, the RCMP takes Gouzenko to Camp X for his protection. The documents provided by Gouzenko lead to the arrest of 39 suspects, 18 of whom are convicted. He eventually changes his name to George Brown and lives out the rest of his life in Toronto, Ontario.

1964: Whitby Fire Department

The Whitby Fire Department uses the Sinclair farmhouse for training, burning the building down in the process. The Sinclair farmhouse had acted as Camp X’s commandant’s HQ during the war and was also used as a training facility for all agents after the C.O.s residence was ready for occupancy. As a result, a lot of damage was done to the house.

1947-1969: Oshawa Wireless Station

The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals repurposes the camp and its name becomes the Oshawa Wireless Station.  Essentially it turns into spy listening post and is used to spy on the Soviets. Operations in this capacity ceased in 1969, at which point all that was left of the camp was bulldozed into Lake Ontario. Records pertaining to Camp X are either destroyed after the war or locked away under the Official Secrets Act.

The Camp Today

Today, the Camp X site is called Intrepid Park, after William Stephenson’s nom-de-guerre, Intrepid. Aside from crater holes left behind by explosives exercises and the odd rusty mortar shell, not much evidence remains of what was once North America’s first ever spy school.

Based on research provided by Camp X historian Lynn Philip Hodgson.

Canadian Media Fund