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This Canadian soldier, airman, inventor, industrialist, and spymaster is none other than Sir William Samuel Stephenson, C.C., M.C., D.F.C. (23 January 1897 – 31 January 1989). Born in Winnipeg as William Samuel Clouston Stanger, his mother was from Iceland and his father was from the Orkney Islands. He was adopted by the Stephenson family when he was four years old after his parents could no longer care for him. He left school at a young age and worked as a telegrapher for a railway company. On 12 January 1916, he volunteered for military service and joined on enlistment the 101st Overseas Battalion (Winnipeg Light Infantry), Canadian Expeditionary Force. Shortly after arriving in England in July 1916, his battalion was broken up and he was initially transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion and shortly after to the Canadian Engineer Training Depot, attached to the Sub Staff, Canadian Training Depot Headquarters in Shorncliffe. Stephenson progressed rapidly through the ranks: in March 2016 he was appointed acting corporal, in September of the same year he was appointed acting sergeant with pay of clerk and his rank of sergeant became substantive in May 1917. As of 6 June 1917 he was "on command" to the Cadet Wing of the Royal Flying Corps at Denham Barracks, Buckinghamshire and remained with them until 15 August 1917 when he was discharged in London, England, from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. As published in the London Gazette of 11 September 1917, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps effective 16 September 1917. He was posted to 73 Squadron in February 1918 where he flew the Sopwith Camel – a British single-seat biplanefighter – and was credited with downing more than a dozen enemy aircraft, earning him the coveted title of 'Ace'. He was shot down in France on 28 July 1918, captured by the Germans and was held as a prisoner of war until he escaped in October of that year. By the end of the Great War, Stephenson had achieved the rank of captain and earned Britain's Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the French Croix de Guerre for his conspicuous gallantry.
During the 1920s, he patented a number of inventions including a wireless system for transmitting photographic images that earned him significant royalties and amassed a fortune. Stephenson diversified as a leading industrialist and by the mid-1930s, he was operating on five continents. His contacts in high places and his skilled ability to gather information enabled him the opportunity to develop a close rapport with Winston Churchill and provided him with confidential information about the emerging Nazi threat. When Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he hand-picked Stephenson to covertly establish and run the office of British Security Coordination in the Western Hemisphere, with headquarters in New York City – where the telegraphic address was 'INTREPID' and hence, became the intelligence codename for Stephenson. He was also a major influence in re-establishing a working relationship between the British Secret Intelligence Service and the American Federal Bureau of Investigation. He lived a life of seclusion and continued to be involved in numerous covert and espionage events post Second World War. He died in 1989 and is buried in Bermuda along with his wife Mary.
William Stephenson received numerous honours and recognition after the Second World War, including a Knight Bachelor from the United Kingdom, the U.S. Presidential Medal for Merit, Officier de la Légion d’honneur from France and was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada. There are also scholarships established in his name. One was created to facilitate entry at the Bermuda College as he was committed to investing in the development of Bermudians to ensure a qualified workforce for the future. The other is an undergraduate scholarship at the University of Winnipeg for students who demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities and the potential to make a valuable contribution to Canada. There is also a street named after Winnipeg's eminent native son, whereby on 15 November 2009, a ceremony was held to officially rename 'Water Avenue' to 'William Stephenson Way'. As shown in the photograph, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Sir William, in the image of him in his aviator's military clothes, was unveiled on 24 July 1999 by The Princess Royal, H.R.H. Princess Anne, in the presence of the artist, world renowned sculptor Leo Mol (15 January 1915 – 4 July 2009) and members of the Intrepid Society. The statue is located in Memorial Park overlooking Manitoba's Legislative Building.
On this day, 23 January 2022, we commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sir William Stephenson – the man called 'INTREPID' – and recognize his lifetime of distinguished service.
André M. Levesque