Camp X

This re­mote fa­cil­ity on the shores of Lake On­tario was home to Canada’s top-se­cret spy school

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Lynn Philip Hodg­son, Port Perry, Ont.

Did you know Canada ran a se­cret train­ing school for spies on the shores of Lake On­tario dur­ing WWII? It’s true.

his top-se­cret Sec­ond World War spy train­ing school was un­of­fi­cially known as Camp X. It was es­tab­lished De­cem­ber 6, 1941, in Whitby, Ont., through a co­op­er­a­tive ef­fort be­tween the Bri­tish Se­cu­rity Co­or­di­na­tion (BSC) and the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment. The BSC’S chief, Sir Wil­liam Stephen­son, was a Cana­dian from Win­nipeg and a close con­fi­dant of the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter, Sir Win­ston Churchill, who had in­structed him to cre­ate “the clenched fist that would pro­vide the knock­out blow” to the Axis pow­ers. One of Stephen­son’s suc­cesses was Camp X.

The camp was de­signed for the sole pur­pose of link­ing Bri­tain and the United States. Un­til the di­rect at­tack on Pearl Har­bor on De­cem­ber 7, 1941, the United States was for­bid­den by Congress to get in­volved with the war. How timely that Camp X should open the day be­fore that at­tack by the Ja­panese.

Even the camp’s lo­ca­tion was cho­sen with a great deal of thought: a re­mote site on the shores of Lake On­tario, yet only 30 miles straight across the lake from the United States. It was ideal for bounc­ing ra­dio sig­nals from Europe, South Amer­ica, and, of course, be­tween Lon­don and the BSC head­quar­ters in New York.

The choice of site also placed the camp only five miles from Defence In­dus­tries Ltd. ( DIL), cur­rently the town of Ajax. At that time, DIL was the largest ar­ma­ments man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity in the Com­mon­wealth.

Other points of strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance in the camp’s lo­cale in­clude the sit­u­a­tion of the Ger­man Pris­oner of War Camp in Bow­manville, and the po­si­tion of the main­line Cana­dian Na­tional Rail­way, which went through the top part of Camp X.


The com­mand­ing of­fi­cers of the camp soon re­al­ized the im­pact and im­por­tance of Camp X. Re­quests for more agents and dif­fer­ent train­ing pro­grams were com­ing in daily from Lon­don and New York. Not only were they faced with train­ing agents who were go­ing to go be­hind en­emy lines on spe­cial­ized mis­sions, but now they had been re­quested to train agents’ in­struc­tors as well. These would be re­cruited pri­mar­ily from the United States for the Of­fice of Strate­gic Ser­vices (OSS) and for the FBI. Soon there were train­ers train­ing train­ers for new camps that would be set up in the U.S.

To ease the de­mand for ex­pe­ri­enced train­ers, a very suc­cess­ful pro­gram of week­end cour­ses for OSS ex­ec­u­tives was es­tab­lished.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pect of the train­ing was most crit­i­cal. Equally as cru­cial as the agent’s train­ing in silent killing and un­armed com­bat was the de­vel­op­ment of his abil­ity to quickly and ac­cu­rately as­sess the suit­abil­ity of a po­ten­tial “par­ti­san.” He had to be able to rec­og­nize a wouldbe re­cruit by be­ing alert at all times and in any sit­u­a­tion. He was trained to lis­ten for a com­ment about the gov­ern­ment, the Nazis or how the war was pro­gress­ing, and to sub­se­quently en­gage the in­di­vid­ual in con­ver­sa­tion, per­haps of­fer him a drink or buy him a meal. In this man-

ner, he could fur­ther iden­tify the in­di­vid­ual’s phi­los­o­phy and thoughts about the war.

Para­mount among the ob­jec­tives set for the op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing the train­ing of Al­lied agents for the en­tire cat­a­logue of es­pi­onage ac­tiv­i­ties ( sab­o­tage, sub­ver­sion, de­cep­tion, in­tel­li­gence and other spe­cial means) was the ne­ces­sity to es­tab­lish a ma­jor com­mu­ni­ca­tions link be­tween North and South Amer­ica and Euro­pean op­er­a­tions of SOE. Code-named Hy­dra, the re­sult­ing short- wave ra­dio and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­tre was the most pow­er­ful of its type. Largely cre­ated by a few gifted Cana­dian ra­dio am­a­teurs, Hy­dra played a mag­nif­i­cent role in the tac­ti­cal and strate­gic Al­lied ra­dio net­works.

When you step back and look at the 1940 big pic­ture, you can see ex­actly why Canada was so im­por­tant to the SOE as a base for their agents. If the agents were to be re­cruited in Canada, why not train them there? Soon the BSC had large pop­u­la­tions of French Cana­di­ans, Yu­goslavs, Ital­ians, Hun­gar­i­ans, Ro­ma­ni­ans, Chi­nese and Ja­panese at their dis­posal and in a con­cen­trated ge­o­graph­i­cal area. It was eas­ier to send a few in­struc­tors over to Canada then it was to send 500 or 600 po­ten­tial agents to Bri­tain only to find that they were not se­cret agent ma­te­rial.

The agents who trained at Camp X would have no idea as to their fu­ture mis­sion be­hind en­emy lines, nor, for that mat­ter, would the in­struc­tors or the camp com­man­dant. Camp X’s sole pur­pose was to de­velop and train agents in ev­ery as­pect of silent killing, sab­o­tage, par­ti­san work, re­cruit­ment meth­ods for the re­sis­tance move­ment, de­mo­li­tion, map read­ing, weaponry and Morse code.

It was not un­til the agent com­pleted the ten-week course that the in­struc­tors and com­mand­ing of­fi­cers would as­sess each in­di­vid­ual for his par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise and sub­se­quently ad­vise the SOE in Lon­don of their rec­om­men­da­tions. For ex­am­ple, one agent might ex­cel in the de­mo­li­tion field, while an­other might be bet­ter at wire­less tele­graph work.

Upon their ar­rival in Bri­tain, the agents would be re­assessed and would be as­signed to a fin­ish­ing school where their ex­per­tise would be fur­ther re­fined. Once this task was com­pleted, an­other branch of the SOE would take over and de­velop a mis­sion best suited for each in­di­vid­ual agent.


There were many in­ex­pli­ca­ble events that oc­curred at Camp X, in­clud­ing some strange and dis­turb­ing deaths.

One in­volved 29-year-old po­lit­i­cal war­fare in­struc­tor, Ken­neth Wil­son, who was sent to Toronto and told to reg­is­ter at The Royal York Ho­tel, where on the morn­ing of June 18, 1942, a staff car from Camp X would drive him to a se­cret lo­ca­tion. This same staff car would re­turn him to the ho­tel at the end of the day. He spent long hours at the camp, train­ing agents, and

that evening, he re­turned to the ho­tel. After din­ner, he re­tired to his room and, ex­hausted, was soon asleep.

Early the next morn­ing he tele­phoned the as­sis­tant man­ager and asked if there was a doc­tor in the ho­tel. He was told that there was no doc­tor present, but one could be sent very quickly. He then said not to bother be­cause he thought he was feel­ing a lit­tle bet­ter.

At about 9:30 a.m., he again tele­phoned and asked for a doc­tor who was im­me­di­ately sent for. The doc­tor stayed with him for about an hour. By this time he ap­peared to have re­cov­ered com­pletely, so the doc­tor left. Mean­while, an as­sis­tant had gone down to the ho­tel to stay with Wil­son, and at about 11:15 a.m. he sud­denly be­came much worse. Two nurses were called im­me­di­ately, but be­fore the doc­tors who were called had ar­rived, Wil­son died. At age 29, the bril­liant BSC ex­ec­u­tive had died from sud­den heart fail­ure, leav- ing be­hind a wife and an 18-month old daugh­ter. Was he poi­soned? Was he mur­dered by Ger­man Ab­wehr agents op­er­at­ing in Toronto?


An­other in­ci­dent in­volved one of the most tal­ented silent killers in the world, the great Wil­liam Fair­bairn. Fair­bairn was 59 when he was sent to Camp X to train men 30 years his ju­nior.

One night, after he re­tired early, a fire broke out in the mess, just down the hall from Fair­bairn’s room. Guards were quickly at his win­dow where flames were now climb­ing the wall out­side his room. Two of the guards man­aged to pull Fair­bairn through the win­dow. Within five min­utes the en­tire build­ing was razed to the ground. Could this pos­si­bly have been a co­in­ci­dence, the fire hap­pen­ing on the same night that the build­ing was oc­cu­pied? Or was there a more cyn­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion?

The strange oc­cur­rences con­tin­ued. An­other in­volved 25-year-old Howard Ben­jamin Burgess, who was ex­cited about his new po­si­tion as chief in­struc- tor in Canada when he ar­rived in late May 1942. On June 3, the young, healthy Burgess sud­denly dropped to the ground, un­con­scious, while on camp prop­erty. Ev­ery­one was in shock. The camp doc­tor was im­me­di­ately sum­moned. Dr. Mill­man quickly placed the now bleed­ing Burgess into the back of his car and raced him to hospi­tal. A guard was posted out­side of Burgess’s room and told that no one was to en­ter the room other than Dr. Mill­man and the head nurse who had now been sworn to se­crecy un­der the Of­fi­cial Se­crets Act.

Three days later, Burgess suc­cumbed to his in­juries. The of­fi­cial cause of death was a cere­bral hem­or­rhage.

Years later, while writ­ing my book Inside Camp X, I de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate this strange death of some­one who ap­peared to be in ex­cel­lent health. Ex­haus­tive re­search found some very dis­turb­ing facts. The of­fi­cial records on file at Camp X did not agree with the of­fi­cial cause of death. The death cer­tifi­cate and burial per­mit showed the cause of death as acute glo­mu­lar nephri­tis—a se­vere kid­ney dis­ease. I took a copy of the death cer­tifi­cate to a doc­tor who ad­vised that a per­son suc­cumb­ing to such a dis­ease would have been very sick, weak and ema­ci­ated, hardly the strong, healthy man that was Howard Burgess. I was also able to track down the then-re­tired head nurse who con­fided that the in­jury was caused by a gun­shot wound to the right tem­ple.

There were other mys­te­ri­ous deaths at Camp X as well— prov­ing that fact re­ally can be stranger than fic­tion. ■

Above: Agents in train­ing at Camp X. Right: a sign posted out­side the camp.

Howard Ben­jamin Burgess’s burial per­mit shows a dif­fer­ent cause of death than on the of­fi­cial record.

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