The Intrepid Life of Sir William Stephenson
Pilot, prisoner, inventor, spy – Sir William Stephenson lived a courageous life full of adventure and derring-do. (Many people consider him one of the real-life inspirations for James Bond.)
In honor of his 118th birthday last month, here are a few tales of one of WWII’s most infamous intelligence officers, the man code-named “Intrepid.”
Stephenson, born in Winnipeg, Canada on January 23, 1897, distinguished himself at a young age.
In WWI he was a fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, bringing down 12 German aircraft. Shot down and captured on a mission, Stephenson managed to escape in October 1918.
After the war ended, Stephenson became an entrepreneur and inventor, but he grew concerned about the growing power of Nazi Germany.
He was a friend of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sent Stephenson to New York City in 1940 to run the British Security Coordination Office, the operational and liaison arm of UK Intelligence in the US.
The job made Stephenson Britain’s top intelligence officer in the United States.
He used his contacts in American industry and government to improve US-British relations and to push the US towards war with the Axis powers.
According to documents in the UK National Archives, British authorities tasked him to launch covert operations against the American isolationist movement (his effort was no doubt aided by his many contacts in the entertainment industry.)
He also urged the Roosevelt Administration to establish a “coordinator” to oversee US intelligence collection and analysis efforts.
In the summer of 1941, President Roosevelt did just that by establishing the Coordinator of Information office (COI). was picked to run the organization, much to Stephenson’s delight. Donovan had already visited London to study British Intelligence and bonded with Churchill during a meeting organized by Stephenson.
Stephenson alerted Donovan that Germany would declare war on the US before Roosevelt could declare war on Germany. With the US and Britain officially allied after the Pearl Harbor attack, Stephenson became the central liaison officer between the intelligence services of both countries.
In spite of his covert activities in the US prior to Pearl Harbor, he was well-regarded by his American counterparts. He was a strong supporter of the COI and its successor organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).His friendship with Donovan helped create a lasting partnership between US and British intelligence.
In a 1946 ceremony, he became the first foreigner to receive the highest US civilian honor: the Medal of Merit.
In 1999 the Intrepid Society, dedicated to honoring the memory of Stephenson (who died at the age of 92 on January 31, 1989), presented the city of Winnipeg with a statue of Stephenson.
Sculpted by artist Leo Mol, the statue featured him dressed in his pilot’s suit. Mol and the Society presented a 22-inch tall replica to CIA the following year.
Though not the father of CIA or OSS, Stephenson played a key role in the vision that established both and helped revolutionize America’s intelligence capabilities.
- William J. Donovan and the COI: COI Came First
- CIA’s Intelligence Art Collection: Capturing Events in Intelligence History
*Photos were provided courtesy of The Intrepid Society.