How Genuine was William Stephenson (Cable Address Intrepid)?

How Genuine was William Stephenson (Cable Address Intrepid)?

Q: A man called Intrepid?

I just read William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intre­pid. One of the cen­ter­pieces recounts the “secret war,” includ­ing espi­onage and covert action, was Ultra/Enigma and Bletch­ley Park’s activities.

Above all, the book states, Churchill meant to keep the Ultra secret. It claims Churchill knew the Nazis’ plan to car­pet-bomb Coven­try in Novem­ber 1940—and did noth­ing. He says Churchill feared giv­ing away the fact the the British were read­ing Ger­man codes.  Have you read this account?  I think you found that claim to be false. Was Stephen­son the British super-spy his biog­ra­ph­er insists he was? —J.M. , New Hampshire

A:  Fantasy built around a hero

A his­to­ri­an friend says “deal­ing with the Stephen­son myths is like Tony­pandy and the Ben­gal Famine. What­ev­er the schol­ars prove, the myth bounces back.”

That book has been dis­missed by many his­to­ri­ans. The author took advan­tage of the declin­ing Stephenson’s fail­ing health and mem­o­ry to invent or cre­ate numer­ous red her­rings. For exam­ple, “Intre­pid” was the cable address of Stephenson’s New York office. (Admit­ted­ly, it was not much of a stretch for the igno­rant to assume it was his code-name.)

Two crit­i­cal errors in the book were the bomb­ing of Coven­try and the cap­tion on a famous pho­to. First­ly, the book says Stephen­son told Churchill to let Coven­try be bombed lest the Ger­mans real­ize their codes were com­pro­mised. Actu­al­ly, Churchill was told the raid would be on Lon­don. Con­se­quent­ly, he wait­ed in vain for it there. Sec­ond­ly, a pho­to of Churchill in the bombed House of Com­mons in May 1941 iden­ti­fies the fig­ure with him as Stephen­son. In fact it was Bren­dan Brack­en.

Stephenson deserves better

This is not to sug­gest that Stephen­son was not a hero deserv­ing respect. This is from my obit­u­ary in 1989:
STEPHENSON DEAD AT 93: Hamil­ton, Bermu­da, Feb­ru­ary 3rd— Sir William Stephen­son died on Jan­u­ary 31st. His intel­li­gence web snared Ger­man spies in the Unit­ed States dur­ing World War II. Stephen­son was born in Win­nipeg, in 1896 and became an engi­neer. A pilot in the Roy­al Fly­ing Corps, in the First World War, he shot down 26 Ger­man planes.
Stephen­son, who invent­ed the wire-ser­vice pho­to, was a mil­lion­aire by the age of 30. In New York City in 1940, he cre­at­ed Britain’s Amer­i­can intel­li­gence net. Stephenson’s biog­ra­phers, how­ev­er, claimed much about him that was incor­rect. This was a dis­ser­vice to a great Canadian.

Coming up: Robbins on Stephenson

Ron Cynewulf Rob­bins of Vic­to­ria, B.C., was direc­tor of Regi­na Uni­ver­si­ty School of Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Pre­vi­ous­ly, he direct­ed CBC’s Nation­al Tele­vi­sion News. Ron wrote elo­quent­ly of the war and its heroes. We will reprise his account of Sir William Stephen­son in the Hills­dale Churchill Project’s “Great Con­tem­po­raries” series. His piece on Bren­dan Brack­en can be read there.

 

Intrepid
(Art­work by Char­lotte Thibault)

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