How Camp X Worked

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.