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William Stephenson, 93; British Spymaster Dubbed 'Intrepid' Worked in U.S.

February 03, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

William Stephenson, the spymaster dubbed "Intrepid" by Winston Churchill when he dispatched him to oversee an embryonic British intelligence effort in the United States in the dark days that preceded World War II, is dead.

Reuters news agency reported Thursday that in keeping with the covert nature of the man and his career, Stephenson had asked to be buried secretly and his death not announced until after the service.

Stephenson was 93 and died on Tuesday in Hamilton, Bermuda, where he had lived in wealth and seclusion for many years. A local funeral director reported only that he had been "buried in secret" at St. John's Anglican Church.

Subject of the popular 1976 book, "A Man Called Intrepid," Stephenson has come to be viewed as the single most important link between future British Prime Minister Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the years before Pearl Harbor forced a still-vacillating America into war.

Exploits Kept Secret

Glimmers of those exploits did not emerge until years later when the British spy system known as MI5 began to fall apart because of defections and sex scandals.

But Stephenson's efforts were never tainted by scandal or performance even though latter-day historians have come to question whether he actually was the important Roosevelt-Churchill link he was purported to be by William Stevenson in the 1976 book.

Whatever his role, Stephenson the man lived a miniseries of lives, some almost beyond the scope of drama.

Born in Canada, the son of a Scottish lumber mill owner, Stephenson as a youth expressed an interest in radio that would lead to his inventing a wire-photo device for transmitting pictures by long distance lines.

That, however, came after he joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and bagged 26 German planes, and French and British medals for gallantry.

He was wounded and captured, and not only escaped but furnished a report on German prison camps that brought him to the attention of British intelligence forces.

He turned to sport after the war and was either the amateur light heavyweight champion of the world or the amateur lightweight champion of Europe. Both versions have been reported.

Thanks to his wire photograph device, he became a millionaire by the age of 30 and was acquainted with such future British leaders as Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook and such citizens of the world as the Kordas, Noel Coward and Greta Garbo.

Churchill, who in 1939 became First Sea Lord, was made aware of the professional intelligence job Stephenson had performed after escaping from the prison camp. He asked him in June, 1940, to set up shop in New York and head "British Security Coordination" from an office in New York's Rockefeller Center.

It seemed an innocuous location for an innocuous post but, in effect, Stephenson was to be Churchill's eyes in the days before America entered the war and Churchill became prime minister. Churchill told him that he needed to be bold and dauntless and thus chose to call him "intrepid."

Stephenson's role was to try to counter the type of isolationism America was undergoing in 1940, as represented at the Court of St. James by U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, the future President's father.

If that were not enough, he was to pass on British scientific secrets to Roosevelt, American secrets to Churchill, train agents to work in Europe, watch U.S. ports for possible military cargoes from anywhere in the world while also keeping an eye on Germany's strengths which by then included the study of a nuclear bomb.

Many times, according to the 1976 book, he had to avoid or deceive his own prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, to maintain fealty to Churchill.

Stephenson has been called Churchill's "Wild Bill" Donovan. Donovan was the general who started the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) and reported directly to Roosevelt.

Stephenson's mandate assumed that Britain might fall and that the fight against Hitler would have to be continued from U.S. bases tied to anti-Nazi guerrillas in Britain.

His office, he acknowledged 30 years later, was "the hub of all branches of British intelligence."

One of "Intrepid's" most vaunted exploits was credited with pushing Roosevelt and the American public closer to war.

It was a supposed June, 1941, letter from the Bolivian delegation in Berlin to the German minister. Supposedly picked up in Buenos Aires by an Allied agent, the letter revealed a plan for a German coup in Bolivia.

Roosevelt called it an "astonishing document." In fact, it was a forgery inspired by Stephenson at his Camp X, a spying operation north of Lake Ontario, Canada, where many Intrepid agents trained.

Bermuda, where he was to die, also had a part in the network. Stephenson set up a censorship, tapping and decoding center there that contributed the intelligence on Nazi SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, assassinated in a daring strike by Stephenson's "British Security Coordination."

Followed His Wishes

The Bermuda center operated out of the top floor of the Princess Hotel, which became Stephenson's temporary home when he retired to the island about 25 years ago.

It was Stephenson's own wish to die unnoticed by the world, Reuters reported.

Fewer than 20 people attended the simple church service. Local policemen served as pall bearers, funeral director Brian Graham said.

"It was expressly on the orders of Sir William that no one should know of his death until after he was buried. Otherwise it would have been such a huge media event. We did exactly the same when his wife, Lady Mary, died 10 years ago," Graham.

Stephenson was buried beside her.

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