Winnipeg-born spymaster, Sir William Stephenson, is the latest inductee into the Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame, which acknowledges outstanding Winnipeggers, past and present, who have made a significant contribution to the city’s quality of life.
Stephenson was inducted into the hall of fame posthumously during a special ceremony in the Officers’ Mess at 17 Wing Winnipeg, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), on September 14. He is 39th inductee into the hall of fame, which was established in 1986 by WinnipegREALTORS®.
“William Samuel Stephenson was a flying ace, spymaster, inventor and businessman, but is probably best known as ‘Intrepid,’ the man appointed by (British Prime Minister) Winston Churchill to co-ordinate counter-espionage in the Western Hemisphere at the start of the Second World War,” said Murray Burt, a member of the Intrepid Society in Winnipeg, which is dedicated to the memory of the famous Canadian spy.
Burt nominated Stephenson for inclusion in the hall of fame.
Col. (retired) Gary Solar, president of the Intrepid Society, accepted the bronze medallion award, emblematic of induction into the hall of fame, on behalf of Stephenson’s daughter, Elizabeth Stephenson.
Elizabeth, who lives in Bermuda and was unable to attend the ceremony, wrote to Solar expressing her pride in her father’s induction.
“With this year’s choice,” said Rick Preston, a former president of WinnipegREALTORS® and the chair of the hall of fame selection committee, “the 17 Wing is significant in that it has a special display showcasing Sir William Stephenson’s medals and achievements on base ... our special medallion award for Sir William Stephenson will join the other display materials at 17 Wing.”
The next day, the bronze sculpture of Stephenson by local artist Erin Brown was installed at the Citizens Hall of Fame site in Assiniboine Park (photo above, by Shaila Wise), joining the likenesses of the other 38 inductees, which includes former mayor Bill Norrie.
Preston acknowledged the recent passing of Norrie, who was instrumental in assisting former WinnipegREALTORS® president Harry DeLeeuw in setting up the hall of fame program in 1986.
“Whether it be local, national or international,” said WinnipegREALTORS® president Shirley Pryzbyl, “the citizens (inducted into the hall of fame) go well beyond addressing their immediate needs to serve the community.
“A community can be global in reach,” she added, “and when someone leaves a legacy in farflung places, as did Sir William Stephenson, it gives us a boost in local pride.”
The city in 2009 also acknowledged Stephenson’s achievements by renaming Water Street as William Stephenson Way. A Winnipeg library is also named for the spymaster.
In 1999, a life-size statue of Stephenson by Leo Mol, another inductee into the hall of fame, was unveiled near the Manitoba Legislature on York Street.
In 1914, William Stephenson enlisted as a private in the 101st Regiment, Royal Canadian Engineers. He was sent to France and earned a commission in the field at the age of 19.
Later, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. Stephenson was posted back to France, achieving an outstanding record as an ace with many victories over enemy pilots.
After being shot down accidentally by a French plane, he was taken prisoner, only to escape and return to his squadron in October 1918. His exploits earned him the Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre with Palms.
After the war, Stephenson went back to Britain to pursue his objective of a career in communications. He invented a process which enabled photographs to be transmitted electronically, and in 1922, the Daily Mail published the world’s first wire photo.
Stephenson then purchased the General Radio Company and proceeded to manufacture popular low-cost radios. Patents and commercial success made him a millionaire before he was 30.
As Stephenson's wealth grew, he diversified into film, television and the aircraft industry. Later in the 1930s, he was trading on a global basis in a range of industrial activities including coal mining, oil refining, steel fabrication and other important primary industries.
When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, one of his first moves was to appoint Stephenson as director of British Security Co-ordination (BSC) in New York, liaising directly with President Franklin Roosevelt.
It was during this period that Stephenson, who preferred anonimity, received the code name “Intrepid.” In other accounts of his wartime exploits, Stephenson is also referred to as the “Quiet Canadian.”
Stephenson was instrumental in promoting and helping to establish a new American intelligence service (OSS) under General Bill Donovan. The OSS later developed into the CIA.
“If it hadn't been for his activities prior to and including the Second World War, there might not be a CIA,” said CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher.
Once in full operation, the staff complement of BSC was over 5,000 with a number of officers and virtually all the secretarial staff recruited from Canada.
When Churchill recommended Stephenson for knighthood to George VI in 1945, he wrote, “This one is dear to my heart.”
Stephenson played an important role in counter-espionage, especially in the training of Allied agents, in breaking codes, in monitoring messages and in initiating subterfuge against Axis countries.
“James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy,” Ian Fleming, the author of the famous novels about the fictional spy designated 007, told the Times on October 21, 1962. “The real thing is ... William Stephenson.”
Canada honoured Stephenson with the Companion of the Order of Canada (our country’s highest civilian award), and in 1985 he received the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt, Chief Hunter (Manitoba’s highest award at that time). For his services to the British Empire, he was knighted into the order of the Knights Bachelor. U.S. President Harry Truman awarded him the Presidential Medal for Merit, and thus became the first non-American to receive the award.
Numerous other awards and honours are in his resumé, including honorary degrees from the University of Winnipeg (1979) and the University of Manitoba (1980).
In 1946, Stephenson moved to Jamaica and semi-retirement. He co-founded the British-American-Canadian Corporation, a trading company heavily involved in rehabilitation and redevelopment in countries which had suffered during the war. He continued his successful international business career and later, after a long and extraordinarily full life as a war hero, businessman, entrepreneur and intelligence co-ordinator, Sir William retired to Bermuda where he died in 1989 at age 93.