Oshawa, Whitby still battling over Camp X secret agent history

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Published February 6, 2023 at 8:55 am

Photo Mary Cook

It was a love of cats that kept the last remnant of a secret spy camp from the Second World War from the wrecking ball in 1972 and it appears that the lack of a $35,000 commitment may soon doom the last remaining building from the now legendary Camp X to the dustbin of history.

But maybe not, as it also appears there’s still more stories to be told about Camp X and the only structure not destroyed from the training camp for spies established on the shores of Lake Ontario (on the Whitby-Oshawa border) by the Man Called Intrepid himself, Sir William Stephenson.

Camp X was built in 1941 and was a training camp for spies who were fighting the Nazis until the program was shut down in 1946. During that period 500 to 2,000 British, Canadian and American covert operators cut their spy teeth there, including James Bond creator Ian Fleming (though there is some debate), who very likely modeled Bond on the Camp X founder, made famous by the 1979 TV mini-series ‘The Man Called Intrepid,’ starring David Niven.

Cypher cerks and other staff at work at Camp X during the Second World War

One of Stephenson’s key employees was Benjamin Pat Bayly, a secretive communications genius who would develop the Rockex, a communications system that was transmitting or receiving nearly 40,000 radio and telegraph messages a day during the latter stages of the war – much of the secret Allied intelligence traffic across the Atlantic, in fact. Hydra, as the system would be known, was valuable for both coding and decoding information in relative safety from Nazi detection.

Bayly would go on to become the first Mayor of the newly created Town of Ajax in 1946.

Camp X was used as a secure location to de-brief Soviet embassy clerk Igor Gouzenko, who famously defected in 1945, bringing information of the Soviet espionage network with him, and later became the Oshawa Wireless Station as a secret listening site for the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals before the buildings were torn down in 1969.

Any records not previously destroyed were stored under the Official Secrets Act though artifacts are still discovered on occasion, most recently in 2016 when a hobbyist with a metal detector uncovered a rusty mortar bomb, which prompted a visit from the bomb disposal team from CFB Trenton.

Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko being interviewed by a reporter at Camp X

But one damaged building from the site was saved. Muriel Sissons, a cat lover and the Dean of Ontario Ladies College (now Trafalgar Castle School) in 1972, bought it for $1 because she wanted the Whitby Animal Shelter to use the building (a portion of one of the two ‘H’ shaped dormitories that once housed the agents) as a temporary home for cats.

The Camp X building was moved up the road to what is now known as the Ontario Humane Society at Thickson Road and Wentworth Street, though it never housed any cats or any other animal for that matter. It was used as cold storage and for holding dog food and equipment until it was eventually boarded up.

Fast forward to more recent history and 2016 – around the time the mortar round was found at the original site (now the passive ‘Intrepid Park’ with just a commemorative sign to mark its spy camp history) – and Whitby officials and their Oshawa counterparts were in deep discussions on what to do with the building.

The last remaining building from the spy training ground called Camp X

The Ontario Regiment Museum (AKA the ‘Tank Museum’) had made it known they wanted the building relocated to the south field of the Oshawa Executive Airport as part of museum’s ambitious expansion plans and Whitby was on board, at least in principle. As long as the transport of the structure came at no cost to the museum, staff there would take on the job of restoring it.

Students in the heritage program at Durham College then entered the picture, under the tutelage of Ali Taileb, who teaches a course on the restoration and renovation of historical buildings; and Lynn Phillip Hodgson, one of Canada’s leading military historians and the foremost historian on all things Camp X. The idea was that the team would put a plan together to get the last remaining piece of spy camp history up to Oshawa.

Seven years later, the building still sits in south Whitby with only the sounds of cats and dogs waiting for their forever homes to keep it company.

The Rockex, an IBM machine future Ajax Mayor Pat Bayly converted into the ‘Hydra’ system for coding and decoding messages for the Allieds

Since then Whitby and Oshawa staff, representatives from the Camp X Society and Museum Executive Director Jeremy Blowers have met in 2017 and 2019 to discuss the future of the Camp X building.

On February 18, 2020, a letter was sent to Whitby’s Planning and Development Commissioner asking for confirmation of their financial support for the transport of the building to the Oshawa Airport. Following subsequent conversations with Whitby staff and an e-mail sent on January 18 of this year, Whitby has made it clear they are not yet prepared to make any financial decision on the move.

Oshawa reached out to local building relocation company McCulloch Movers, who gave a preliminary estimate of $30,000 to $35,000 to move the building to Oshawa. City staff believe there would another $100,000 needed for work on the Oshawa side, such as building a new foundation, tree removal and surveying.

Despite having engaged both parties “multiple times” since 2016, “neither the Town of Whitby nor the museum have indicated a willingness to cover any percentage of the cost associated with the potential relocation of the Camp X Building at this time,” Oshawa Economic and Development Services Commissioner Warren Munro, said in his report to council last month.

But it should be noted that even though Whitby has been agreeable to moving the building to Oshawa in the past, the final destination for the Camp X building is not yet written in stone.

After all, Whitby has devoted considerable time and expense to preserving Camp X and Stephenson’s legacy within the town’s borders already.

The Camp X Collection, now at Lynde House Museum in Whitby

A life-sized bronze statue of Stephenson, created by celebrated sculptor Ruth Abernathy (funded mostly through private funds for some $200,000) has been installed at Celebration Square downtown, with smaller busts of the man at Intrepid Park and Sir William Stephenson Public School.

As well, a collection of Hodgson’s own artifacts that was once housed at Regional Headquarters in Whitby is now at the Lynde House Museum.

“Preserving our past is important to us,” said Erin Mikaluk, the Town’s Manager, Communications and Creative Services, citing the installation of the statue as an example. “Related to the Camp X building, we’ve recently been investigating options for its relocation, including associated costs. Many factors are still being considered and Whitby has made no decisions on where or how to fund the relocation of the building at this time.”

Moving the building to the regimental museum in Oshawa is still in the picture, she added.

“One such location that we have been looking at is Oshawa’s tank museum and we would certainly be willing to continue the conversation on this opportunity in the future. This building matters to us and to date we’ve been investing in its maintenance to ensure that it is preserved – this will continue as we explore alternative options for the building’s permanent home.”

The issue is back in limbo as far as Oshawa is concerned after Council voted to accept staff’s recommendation at the January 30 meeting to not proceed with relocation of the Camp X Building without financial contributions from Whitby or the museum.

The vote passed 9-1 (only Councillor Rick Kerr was in dissent) without debate.

There’s still hope, though the tank museum’s offer to restore the building appears to be the only one on the table right now. The museum houses plenty of tanks and other military vehicles from old wars, and its Oshawa Executive Airport location was also at one time the central core of the former No. 20 Elementary Flying Training School and where the last remaining buildings dating back to the Second World War are found. The site still contains the No. 10 Building, the former Canteen and the Stores Building and it also includes what is now Airmen’s Park, the site of the training school’s water tanks, pump house, sump and sewage pumps, and guard house/post office.

As to Camp X, the inspiration for both Bond himself (“he is William Stephenson,” Fleming once wrote) and even to the plot to Goldfinger (based on an aborted mission by Stephenson to steal $2.88 million in Vichy French gold reserves from the French Caribbean colony of Martinique), there’s little of the history left right now.

In 2010 a private collection containing spy gadgets such as dagger lipstick, a poison gas fountain pen and revolver in a hollowed-out book (part of the Robert Stuart Aeronautical and Camp X Collection that was being stored in one of the buildings on the airport grounds) was auctioned off and the same year more than a dozen items, including commando coveralls, a British suitcase radio and a piece of railway track used for demolition training, were acquired by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Blowers said in 2017 it was Oshawa and Whitby’s “last chance to get it right” but here’s hoping the two sides have at least one more secret ‘007’-style trick up their collective sleeves.

The Camp X monument at Intrepid Park

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