How Camp X Worked

By: Ed Grabianowski

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
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.