How Camp X Worked

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.