Words by Edward Biddulph
Ian Fleming described him as “one of the great secret agents of the last war”, and a man that “has a magnetic personality and the quality of making anyone ready to follow him to the ends of the earth.” No, not James Bond, but Sir William Stephenson, who in 1940 on Churchill’s orders set up and directed the British Security Co-ordination to garner support in the US for the British war effort, train US and Canadian agents, crack codes, and gather intelligence.
The description comes in Fleming’s foreword to Room 3603: The story of the British Intelligence Centre in New York during World War II (1963), by H Montgomery Hyde (published in the UK without the foreword as The Quiet Canadian). The foreword is devoted to the subject of heroes, and in particular Fleming’s heroes, among them Fleming’s brother Peter, Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Alas, Fleming does not consider his own creation to be one of them (“not in fact a hero, but an efficient and not very attractive blunt instrument”).
The foreword offers insight into Fleming’s world view, and is a fascinating essay on the nature of heroism. And if Fleming’s description of Stephenson seems somewhat fulsome, Montgomery Hyde’s story of Stephenson’s war suggests that Fleming’s words are more than justified.
Sir Williamson Stephenson was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1896. When war was declared in 1914, Stephenson left school and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Engineers. He later became a pilot – and a champion boxer known as ‘Captain Machine Gun’ – with the Royal Flying Corps. A flying ace, he enjoyed much success in the air, taking part in several exhilarating dog flights. He was eventually shot down by his own side in a case of friendly fire. Stephenson was captured by Germans, but managed to escape from his prison camp and reach the British lines a few weeks before the Armistice in 1918.
After the First World War, William Stephenson headed into the field of radio manufacture and research, and, arriving in London, became a pioneer in radio and wireless technology, helping to develop the nascent television broadcasting industry in Britain. By late 1930s, Stephenson’s trade missions and knowledge of the state of European industry brought him to the attention of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which sought to put him to work immediately after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Stephenson’s initial tasks were to direct efforts to sabotage and disrupt German shipping and industrial supplies, but Winston Churchill had other plans for him.
In 1940, Stephenson was sent by Churchill to the US, which was then neutral, to counter activities by German agents and encourage Anglo-American cooperation to aid Britain’s war effort. He got off to a good start almost immediately when he enlisted the support of FBI chief J Edgar Hoover and, more importantly, President Franklin D Roosevelt.
Stephenson was first appointed Passport Control Officer in the British consulate – a standard cover for an SIS agent – but by 1941 had succeeded in setting up the British Security Coodination (BSC), a body devoted to intelligence gathering, counter-espionage and special operations in the US. The organisation’s activities included anti-sabotage inspections of British shipping (ensuring that shipping carrying vital supplies reached Britain safely), countering propaganda from German agents and the isolationist organisation, America First (of which pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh was a supporter), intercepting German correspondence, and keeping a close eye on activities associated with the Vichy French embassy, a hotbed of Nazi agents.
Until 1941, there was no body to coordinate US intelligence. The FBI had a role, of course, but its focus was domestic, and the organisation was subject to public scrutiny. Stephenson was instrumental in persuading the President, through reports prepared by Colonel William Donovan, one of the President’s advisers, to set up the Coordination of Information (CO1). Donovan would become its head. For a while, CO1 depended largely on material gathered by BSC, but it developed its own capabilities, eventually being brought within aegis of the US military. Eventually, CO1 was divided into two organisations, the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Montgomery Hyde is silent on Ian Fleming’s role in the birth of the OSS (and ultimately, after the war, the CIA, which would be led by Allen Dulles, the head of the OSS office in Berne). Possibly at the time of writing the Official Secrets Act prevented the details of Fleming’s work from being revealed, but probably the importance of Fleming’s memoranda to William Donovan in 1941 outlining how the CO1 and US intelligence services should be organised has been overstated.
The story of William Stephenson and the BSC has echoes in the world of James Bond. On his arrival in New York, for example, Stephenson was helped in his mission by Ernest Cuneo, a lawyer and advisor to Roosevelt. Cuneo would later be immortalised as Ernie Cureo in Diamonds Are Forever (1956). In Casino Royale (1953), Fleming describes how Bond killed a Japanese cipher expert who was operating out of the RCA Building in the Rockefeller Centre in New York. It was in the Rockefeller Centre that the BSC had its headquarters.
Room 3603 is a worthy addition to any Bond aficionado’s book shelf. Ian Fleming’s foreword is an interesting, insightful piece, and the book is worth acquiring for that alone. But keep reading. Montgomery Hyde’s tale of intrigue, agents and sabotage in the Second World War is as exciting as any spy novel.