How Camp X Worked

Former Whitby, Ontario, Mayor Bob Attersley kneels next to a Camp X plaque. It was top secret in its heyday, but Camp X is now recognized as a notable historical site. Paul Irish/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It's World War II. Across Europe, North Africa and China, resistance groups and partisan revolutionaries are battling fascists who have occupied their countries. In Greece, a man sends a report of Nazi troop movements to the Allies. In Tunisia, Nazi supply lines are disrupted and communications links are damaged. In China, the advance of Japanese troops is delayed by the destruction of a munitions depot. In France, a railyard is destroyed, slowing the movement of Nazi troops in response to the Allied invasion of Normandy.

The globe-spanning secret agents and deadly commandos who committed these acts share a secret link — they were all trained at a sprawling facility for spies and saboteurs on the shore of Lake Ontario in Ontario, Canada. The school, which the British created to train Americans and Canadians in the art of special operations behind enemy lines, was such a secret that even Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King didn't know about it when it was created. It was known as Camp X.


The story of Camp X was hidden for decades. What went on there, and what the camp's trainees would go on to do, rivaled the most daring exploits of fictional secret agents. How the camp was created and its role in the creation of U.S. intelligence organizations is a fascinating and overlooked tale of World War II.


The British Connection

Bill Donovan, wartime chief of the Office of Strategic Services, pins a medal on William Stephenson, director of British Security Coordination. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1941, the U.S. was officially neutral regarding World War II. Although President Roosevelt wanted to assist Britain in the battle against Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers, isolationist pressure prevented an official declaration of war. At the same time, Roosevelt realized that the U.S. needed some form of intelligence agency to gather information on the nation's enemies and combat enemy agents who might be working within the U.S. But building an intelligence organization from scratch was a nearly impossible task. The British had vastly more experience training intelligence operatives, which could give American intelligence and espionage a massive jump-start. But neutrality meant that kind of cooperation couldn't occur in any official capacity.

Thus, an organization called British Security Coordination (BSC) set up shop in Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1940, in an office labeled innocuously as "British Passport Control." However, it functioned as a liaison between the Special Operations Executive (SOE) — a major British intelligence and espionage organization — and the U.S. officials leading the creation of American intelligence organizations. William Stephenson, a Canadian who had served Britain as a fighter pilot in World War I, headed BSC.


Canada was part of the Commonwealth (and still is), and there was some tension between the genuine Canadian desire to support British war efforts and an equally genuine Canadian desire to go to war as an independent nation. So, Canada was an ideal place for British SOE operatives to train American intelligence agents, although word of that plan didn't reach Prime Minister Mackenzie King until the camp was well-established, for fears that he might forbid the whole project [source: Stafford].

Under Stephenson's direction, a Vancouver businessman named A.J. Taylor purchased 260 acres (105 hectares) of land near Oshawa, Ontario, for $12,000 under the inconspicuous name "Rural Realty Company, Ltd." The property had varied terrain, including open fields, dense woodland, a swamp and a rocky length of Lake Ontario shoreline. It was home to a farmhouse and some storage buildings, to which were added barracks, classrooms and a building to house radio equipment [source: Bicknell]. The fields and orchards led the camp's students and staff to refer to the facility simply as "The Farm," although it was officially designated a Special Training School, STS 103. It opened for operations on Dec. 6, 1941. The next day, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. fully entered the war.

Meanwhile, American intelligence activities were being consolidated under the Office of the Coordinator of Information — an intelligence agency formed by President Franklin Roosevelt — which became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. The OSS was the precursor to today's CIA. But intelligence organizations were pointless unless they could employ trained secret agents. That's where Camp X came in.


Training at Camp X

Lynn Philip Hodgson, author of the book "Inside – Camp X," holds an old sign from Camp X on the grounds of the former spy training school. Paul Irish/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The British gained experience in guerilla warfare and commando operations in their dealings with the sprawling British empire, in far-flung locales such as Turkey and closer to home, battling nationalists in Ireland. Their well-established system of training operatives was condensed into a training regimen lasting three to four weeks at Camp X [source: Stafford]. There was no single curriculum for training at the camp — instructors adapted the program for each group of trainees, based on where they were headed and what they'd be doing there. Operatives destroying bridges with the French Resistance would face far different conditions than agents gathering information on troop movements in North Africa.

Some types of training were integral to the Camp X experience no matter the mission. Everyone learned to read and make maps, move silently, hide well and look inconspicuous. Recruits learned to fire guns, but instead of the careful marksmanship of most military training, they were taught "instinctive gunfighting," the ability to aim and fire at a moment's notice without using a practiced stance or even looking down the sights. They all learned close combat so they could defeat guards and other enemies if using a gun wasn't possible or would make too much noise.


Demolitions training was another Camp X training cornerstone. In fact, the frequent detonations acted as a cover — the camp looked like a facility for training and experimenting with explosives to nearby residents (of which there were not very many) [source: Stafford]. Trainees could also receive instruction in forging documents, creating and spreading propaganda and harnessing the unrest of local militia groups to fight the Nazis.

Lt. Col. Bill Brooker was not the first commandant of Camp X (Arthur Terence Roper-Caldbeck was), but he was the most influential. He enforced a strict military code of discipline and brought with him a wealth of experience in training agents at SOE schools in the U.K. Brooker knew his agents had to be ready for anything, so he engaged in unorthodox training methods, like interrupting students' classroom sessions with mock gun battles then making them recall facts about the incident, such as the number of shots fired or what the assailants were wearing. Students undertook mock missions, infiltrating a guarded house or sneaking through the damp Ontario night.

Former Shanghai policeman Maj. Dan Fairbairn was only briefly in charge of close combat training at Camp X, but his methods took hold and he went on to train Americans in the U.S., where his influence was cemented. Fairbairn's idea of close combat was simple: No method was out of bounds, and your sole goal was to kill your opponent as quickly as possible. The silent kill was Fairbairn's specialty — he even developed a commando knife that military forces still use today — but he also promoted the use of eastern martial arts methods or a swift kick to an enemy's testicles to win a fight.

Much of the Camp X doctrine was distilled into a training manual, which included details on how to hide in trees, how to spy on someone using binoculars and how to kill a man by chopping the back of his neck with the side of your hand [source: Rigden]. The men who were trained at Camp X went on to achieve spectacular exploits and reach influential positions. We'll meet some of them next.


Notable Alumni of Camp X

"Father of the CIA" Bill Donovan (pictured here) played a major role in the development of Camp X. Underwood & Underwood/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

We've already mentioned the influence Bill Brooker and Dan Fairbairn had on Camp X and secret agent training methods. But several other notable men were involved with Camp X. (No women were ever trained there, although women did play an important role at the camp and in the war effort, which we'll discuss shortly). The most famous was Bill Donovan, who was deeply involved in the efforts to create a U.S. espionage organization and establish Camp X. Donovan was the coordinator of information and the first head of the Office of Strategic Services. He lobbied strongly for the establishment of the CIA after the war, although he never worked directly for the agency.

John Bross, a Camp X graduate, influenced American intelligence for decades. He went through the Camp X training course in 1942 and later oversaw teams parachuting behind Nazi lines to support the D-Day invasion, when the Allies invaded Normandy, France in June 1944. He worked in the CIA for 20 years, rising to become deputy to the director of central intelligence for programs evaluation. Some Camp X trainees went on to work for the CIA, while others used their training to, in turn, train other Americans at newly established American secret agent schools [source: Chambers].


Gustave Biéler is one of the more well-known Camp X graduates. He was a French-Canadian (literally — he was born in France and emigrated to Canada), considered an exemplary student of sabotage and resistance coordination. While Biéler was exceptional in his abilities, many Camp X trainees took incredible risks to complete their missions. Here are some of the ways Biéler put his Camp X training to use [source: Clibbon]:

  • Paradrop training allowed Biéler to parachute into France behind German lines, although he landed on rocks and injured his spine.
  • Leadership training helped him organize the French Resistance in the Saint-Quentin region, directing their missions and teaching them some of his espionage skills.
  • Propaganda training enabled Biéler to recruit locals to his cause. Local workmen often assisted in his sabotage efforts. For instance, he gave railroad workers abrasive grease to make train wheels fail.
  • The stealth skills taught at Camp X allowed Biéler and his teams to sneak into railyards, industrial facilities and warehouses without being spotted.
  • The silent kill techniques Dan Fairbairn taught were crucial when Biéler encountered Nazi guards while on a sabotage mission.

Ultimately, the Nazis captured Biéler after a long and extensive search and several near-misses. He was sent to a concentration camp and executed, which wasn't unusual for Camp X trainees in the war. Often more than half of a training unit would die during a mission [source: Bicknell].

But secret agent training wasn't the only thing that happened at Camp X. Hydra radio was a key link in the Allied communications network during World War II.

There is a confirmed Bond connection, though. Paul Dehn was a member of the Camp X staff and may have had a hand in writing the infamous camp manual [source: Bicknell]. Dehn later wrote several well-known screenplays, including that of the James Bond film "Goldfinger."


Hydra Radio

An exhibition of Camp X memorabilia features pictures of the radio communications building and manuals for Hydra. © 2012 Robert Bell/CC BY 2.0

No, Hydra radio was not a nonstop broadcast aimed at the bad guys in Marvel movies. It was a powerful radio station housed at Camp X that sent and received key intelligence information the Allies used during World War II. Radio equipment was scarce during the war, so British and Canadian agents procured what they needed from private companies and citizens. The main transmitter came from a Philadelphia radio station, while additional equipment was requisitioned from amateur radio operators, some of whom worked at the camp to operate the equipment. The radio station got the name Hydra from the multiple transmitting antennae protruding from the bank of sophisticated (for its time) radio gear.

There were some Canadian women who operated Hydra. The barracks at Camp X were never intended to house both men and women, so the Hydra operators stayed with nearby families, getting picked up and dropped off by a staff car, according to one female operator's account. They had limited interaction with the rest of the camp [source: Stafford].


That doesn't mean their work wasn't valuable, however. Hydra played a vital role in maintaining the flow of information from Allied outposts in Europe with command centers in the U.K. and America. The radio station was equipped with a Rockex machine, an ingenious device developed by engineer Pat Bayly that automated the encryption and decryption of messages. These were Allied messages encoded to avoid enemy interception — Hydra was never used to decode intercepted German or Japanese transmissions. However, because of the way radio waves move through the atmosphere in different weather conditions, Hydra was sometimes used to intercept signals from the Axis powers that couldn't be picked up by receivers in the U.K. These transmissions were then sent to places like Bletchley Park, a site for British codebreakers, for decoding.

The Hydra Station remained open after World War II, but Camp X closed before the war was over. Despite being the first special agent training school in North America, the site was not preserved. What the Canadian government did with Camp X after the war is pretty surprising.


Camp X After World War II

A reporter interviews former Russian cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, who defected to Canada a few days after the end of World War II with info on Soviet spies. Gouzenko was interrogated at Camp X. Bettmann/Getty Images

Camp X closed in April 1944. It had served its purpose, and the personnel were needed elsewhere. The instructors returned to Britain or the U.S., and the Canadian staff moved on to other jobs in Canada. It's impossible to know how many men were trained there — records were kept secret, destroyed or scattered across three different nations' bureaucracies — but estimates range from a few hundred to 2,000 or 3,000 [source: Montgomery]. The camp's training regimen became so infamous and prestigious that far more men claimed to have trained there than actually did.

However, the buildings still existed after the camp closed, and they found some use during the Cold War. Immediately after the end of the World War II, a cipher clerk named Igor Gouzenko defected from the Soviet Union to Canada, bringing with him information on Soviet secret agents. British and American intelligence officials interviewed him at Camp X, where he was safe from potential interference from Soviet agents.


Control of the Hydra station was transferred to the Canadian military. Hydra functioned as a signal intercepting station as the final months of World War II played out against Japan, and it was used to intercept Soviet radio transmissions during the early years of the Cold War. By 1969, the station's equipment was no longer sophisticated, and the site was officially decommissioned and sold to local municipal governments.

Amid concerns that the camp might contain unexploded ordnance (weapons that did not explode but still pose a risk of doing so) from all the explosive training, the Canadian army bulldozed almost all the buildings directly into Lake Ontario in the late 1970s. Only one building survived: part of one of the barracks, which was moved and used as a storage building by an animal shelter before a nearby college began restoring it [source: Calzavara].

Today, Intrepid Park (named after William Stephenson's wartime moniker) marks the location of Camp X. The park is only a sliver of the original 260-acre (105-hectare) site, which is covered by warehouses. A plaque commemorates the men who trained there and what they accomplished in the war, and every November a Canadian veterans' group holds a memorial on the site.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Camp X Worked

This was a fascinating slice of World War II history I'd never heard of, despite the site of Camp X being within a few hours' drive of my house. The details of the ruthless methods taught at the school are awesome in the context of World War II, since they were being used to battle the Allies truly despicable fascist enemies. It's a bit less exciting when you consider how those methods were exported and transferred to support the imperialist agendas of Britain and the U.S. in the subsequent decades. History never happens in a vacuum.

Related Links

More Great Links

  • Bicknell, Robin (producer) & Alex McIntosh (director). "World War II Secret Spy School." yap films. 2014.
  • Calzavara, Rebecca. "Remaining Camp X building in Whitby, Ont." The Chronicle. Oct. 28, 2016. (May 22, 2017)
  • (May 15, 2017)
  • CBC. "Igor Gouzenko obituary." June 29, 1982. (May 20, 2017)
  • Chambers, Joh Whiteclay II. "OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II." U.S. National Park Service. 1998. (May 16, 2017)
  • CIA. "What was OSS?" (May 17, 2017)
  • Clibbon, Jennifer. "A fallen hero, a daughter left behind." CBC News. May 4, 2010. (May 24, 2017)
  • Montgomery, Marc. "History: December 6, 1941 – War, spies, even James Bond." Radio Canada International. Dec. 6, 2016. (May 15, 2017)
  • Parks Canada. "Secret Intelligence Activities at Camp X." (May 17, 2017)
  • Rigden, Denis. "How to be a Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual." Dundurn. 2004.
  • Secret Intelligence Service. "SIS: Our History." (May 16, 2017)
  • Stafford, David. "Camp X." Dodd, Mead & Company. 1987.
  • The Washington Post. "John Bross Dies at 79." Oct. 17, 1990. (May 15, 2017)