Sign up for our free Churchill newsletter:
Great Contemporaries: Sir William Stephenson, "Intrepid"

Print

This One is Dear to My Heart
By Ron Cynewulf Robbins
FH 67, Second Quarter 1990


WILLIAM SAMUEL STEPHENSON, one of Canada's most courageous sons, was a bold friend of freedom. Churchill, recommending him for a knighthood in 1945, wrote: "This one is dear to my heart."

Sir William died in Bermuda in January 1989. He was 93. At once, prominent detractors denounced him vociferously for laying claim to accomplishments they thought belonged to others. Not all were hurrying to heap opprobrium on his coffin and reputation. A few undoubtedly believed they were being friendly in saying senility had betrayed him and lured him into hyperbole. But the headlines that raced around the globe did not exculpate him.

If "Old Men Forget," it seems that - like young men - they may also lie. Sir William had the misfortune to nod or acquiesce too readily in the presence of over- zealous or opportunistic journalists. But the paramount point is that his memory lapses were preceded by a stroke, and only his immense stamina enabled him to survive for so many years. It takes no great leap of the imagination to postulate that Churchill, ever loyal to his friends, would not have condoned the unseemly, even shameful, attacks made on Stephen- son after ill-health had rendered his recollection faulty. The damage to Sir William's reputation in the world at large is deplorable, but the diminishing of his esteem in the eyes of Canadians robs him of true national honour and homage.

Embedded in the Canadian psyche is a distaste for showiness. There are only about 26 million Cana- dians. If one of them wins a place in the international arena, the last instrument he is expected to play is his own trumpet. It was Robert Sherwood, the American playwright and biographer, who bestowed on Stephenson the title of ". . . a quiet Canadian." The people of Canada found this much to their liking. But the longer Stephenson lived, the louder became the controversy surrounding him.

He lacks a worthy monument in his native land. A statue of Churchill stands in Toronto civic square, yet no one is suggesting that nearby is ample room for a statue of the man who was close to Churchill's lion heart. Time and historians will view Stephenson more dispassionately and less enviously than some of his contemporaries in wartime espionage have done. Meanwhile no harm, and perhaps a little justice, may result from reviewing those of his achievements which are beyond dispute. His birthplace was Point Douglas, near Winnipeg, Manitoba. He attended high school in Winnipeg, left at the outbreak of the First World War, and was almost 19 when he served in the trenches. After he was gassed by the Germans, he displayed the utmost courage in learning to fly during the period when he was recuperating. Then he transferred from the army to the Royal Flying Corps. His exploits earned him the Military Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and other decorations which I saw arrayed on his study wall in the manner favoured by many veterans.

Equally enterprising in peace, he used the decade following the First World War to become a wealthy industrialist whose business acumen was matched by his inventiveness. He married an American, Mary French Simmons, of Springfield, Tennessee. Her grace and beauty are captivatingly evident in photographs. It was a picture of her that he chose to send first over the device he produced for transmitting photographs via radio.

In 1987, 1 was invited to preside at a ceremony in Victoria, British Columbia, to introduce Canada's first home visual telephone. I was seized with the idea of sending a photograph of Sir William over the phone, which is also equipped to transmit and receive photographs. In granting permission for me to do this, Stephenson telexed: "Nostalgia inspired me to review again photographs of 1924 captioned, 'Canadian Scientist Marries Tennessee Girt in London.' The photos are of my wife which were the first to be transmitted by radio across the Atlantic and appeared in various U.S. newspapers, including The Boston Advertiser, September 21, 1924, and The New York Times, Sunday, August 31, 1924."

Such was the mettle and audacity of Stephenson that not long before the Second World War (when he had become linked with Churchill) he volunteered to shoot Hitter. Colonel F.N. Mason-Macfarlane, British military attach6 in Berlin, also volunteered for the mission which was turned down by Lord Halifax, then British Foreign Secretary.

Small wonder that Churchill launched Stephenson on his spymaster career by appointing him to head the British Security Co-ordination Service in New York before the United States had entered the Second World War.

Stephenson embarked with enthusiasm and daring (and also without remuneration) on the gigantic task of running a centre for counter-intelligence in the Western Hemisphere. He played a major role until the Allies triumphed. From Britain came his knighthood, from America the Medal for Merit. Up to that time he was the only non-American to gain the award.

It cannot be overlooked that there was mutual antipathy between Sir Stewart Menzies, head of British intelligence, and Stephenson. Churchill gave Stephen- son the New York appointment over the objections of Menzies. But Churchill had a knack of putting the right men in posts where they would be of crucial value in encompassing the destruction of the enemy. Stephenson (code name: Intrepid) was preeminently the right man for the job he was given. His business travels had allowed him to organize private intelligence contacts who served Churchill admirably in pre- war days when, out of government office, he needed backstage help to gather convincing information of Hitter's perfidy.

Genuine concern must arise about the motives of those who attempt to diminish Stephenson's reputation by claiming he did not meet Churchill. Their claim in no logical way lessens Stephenson's proven accomplishments. However, it is judicious to recall that it had been said a trout in the milk is convincing circumstantial evidence! Is it feasible that Churchill would have described Stephenson as "dear to my heart" if he had not met him? It is relevant to take into account what has been written by H. Montgomery Hyde and Anthony Cave Brown. Montgomery Hyde has described how, in April 1936, Stephenson gave Churchill conclusive information that Germany was cloaking military expenditures totalling eight hundred million pounds sterling. Churchill seized on the information to frame a devastating question in Parliament to the discomfiture of Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. This cannot be dismissed with a shrug unless carpers wish to face a charge of bias.

Cave Brown has written that Churchill and Stephenson were "close friends." He plainly states that Stephenson was in Churchill's "political circle" in the 1930s. He is just as clear about Stephenson demonstrating "his value" to Churchill in the United States late in the Spring of 1940. He also mentions that before the summer was over, Roosevelt entertained Stephenson at his Hyde Park estate. The topic: the dangerous dubiety of Joseph Kennedy, United States Ambassador in London, regarding Britain's determination to stand up to the Germans. Significantly, Kennedy resigned in November 1940. It distorts reason to try to persuade us that Stephenson could meet with Roosevelt, but not with Churchill. Neither is it likely that Churchill's legendary skills would desert him to the extent that he would send Stephenson to so vital a post in New York without ever having seen him.

How many trout do the doubters want in the milk?

M.D.R. Foot, an author who combines probity with ability, has outlined the warm relationship between Stephenson and the formidable "Wild Bill" Donovan, appointed by Roosevelt in July 1941, to head overseas intelligence. Foot credits the Donovan-Stephenson friendship with inducing Roosevelt, in the autumn of 1940, to bring about the famous deal which resulted in the United States handing over to Britain destroyers in exchange for bases. It has been explained by Foot that Donovan and Stephenson had no difficulty in getting along "excellently at their exalted level: not so their underlings." Not so indeed, if a few underlings re- main embittered enough to hack at a Canadian hero decorated in two world wars. (The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.)

Americans, never afflicted with meanness of spirit, have not 'applauded assassins of Stephenson's character. When Stephenson was nearing 90, about 800 people gathered in New York to honour him; he was presented with the William Donovan Award to acknowledge unique contributions to freedom.

Stephenson's New York appointment irritated the hierarchy of the British secret service. I believe it continues to upset some of those who attacked him. Although fully aware that a stroke had marred his old age, they stamped on his grave.

Perceptive historians have a sure indication of their insensitivity. They have defeated not Stephenson, but themselves. Posterity is the crucible from which gold emerges. "Intrepid's" friends can count on that. So can his foes. Churchill's high assessment of his comrade-in-arms will be confirmed. And it will prevail.



Ron Cynewulf Robbins of Victoria, B.C., is a former director-of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's National Television News, a member of ICS and the Churchill Society of B.C. His first contribution to Finest Hour, on Brendan Bracken, appeared in issue #63.

Sources:
The Quiet Canadian - The Secret Service Story of Sir William Stephenson by H. Montgomery Hyde. Published in London, 1962. The author had access to Sir William's private papers and his book rings with authenticity.
"C" The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill by Anthony Cave Brown. Published in New York, 1987. This book lights up many previously dark corners.
The Royal Gazette, Bermuda, 27 February 1989.
The Regina Leader-Post, Saskatchewan, 3 March 1989.
Maclean's, Canada's Weekly Magazine, 3 July 1989.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1950 edition.
Conversations with Dr. L.I. Barber, the Canadian academic. His personal contact with Sir William prompted him to speak out publicly against the critics.
Conversations, and an exchange of messages, which the writer had with Sir William.
M.D.R. Foot, an author whose qualifications are as impeccable as his prose and research, refers to Stephenson in his book, Resistance: European Resistance to Nazism 1940-1945. (London, 1976)