X Company: the secret agents

If you appreciate wartime dramas like The Imitation Game, you may enjoy a new CBC TV series which premieres Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. X Company tells the daring stories of five Allied covert intelligence officers during the Second World War. While these characters are fictional, their dangerous missions are inspired by the real-life spy training school known as Camp X on the shores of Lake Ontario east of Toronto.

Camp X played a vital role in the war effort, training more than 500 Allied agents who learned the deadly arts of espionage at the facility near Whitby which opened on Dec. 6, 1941, just one day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war.

Evelyne Brochu stars in X Company, a new CBC series.
Evelyne Brochu stars in X Company, a new CBC series.

In the darkest hours of the war Britain was in a desperate fight to survive. Winston Churchill tasked British intelligence services with breaking the German code machine Enigma and setting up a network of spies to operate behind enemy lines in occupied Europe. Canadian spymaster Sir William Stephenson (A Man Called Intrepid) established the first secret agent training camp in North America.

The creator of 007, Ian Fleming (1908-1964), was likely influenced by the men and women he met during a visit to Camp X as well as by the training he witnessed. (Check out the spy camp in Dr. No (1963) – Fleming once wrote, “James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy, the real thing is William Stephenson.”)

Fleming was a Commander in British Naval Intelligence. The story goes that he was asked to shoot an agent at the camp, but he couldn’t go through with it. Maybe Fleming didn’t have a “license to kill.” Bond was the man of action Fleming longed to be.

Major Paul Dehn (1912-1976) was a lead instructor at the camp and author of the spy training manual. Agents were to be inconspicuous, average in looks and dress and avoid drink and women – sorry, undercover 007. Dehn and Fleming met at Camp X and would work together on the screenplay for Goldfinger (1964), the best of the Bond movies. Dehn won an Oscar for writing Seven Days to Noon (1950) and also penned the screenplays for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Another bright mind who spent time at Camp X was Roald Dahl (1916-1990), ace fighter pilot, intelligence officer, and beloved children’s author (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Dahl adapted the screenplay for You Only Live Twice (1967) from Fleming’s Bond novel.

Most of the agents who volunteered to risk their lives were ordinary citizens, our neighbours who went back to their families and jobs after the war. Major Arthur J. Bushell was at Camp X from the very first day making sure things ran smoothly. He was a soldier in the First World War and chose to serve his country again which is quite a sacrifice.

Generations of Bushell family members lived in the heart of the Beach on Woodbine, Lee, and Leuty Avenues. Arthur owned a custom tailoring business on Bay Street. Married and in his late forties, he could have sat out the war. Author Lynn-Phillip Hodgson writes in his book Inside Camp X that Bushell “had to leave his wife without telling her where he would be stationed for the next few years.”

Check out Hodgson’s excellent web site camp-x.com. During Doors Open Whitby he gives walking tours of the area where Camp X once stood, now Intrepid Park.

I once had a summer job working for a stern man who had been a commando and agent behind enemy lines in Italy. Veterans do not brag about their wartime experiences. Killing is a terrible thing. One day Mr. Ballard opened up to tell a story of helping partisans smuggle a jet engine and a mini-sub in hay wagons. He once came close to assassinating the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

Agents faced life and death situations. The History Channel documentary Camp X: Secret Agent School tells of operatives aiding the French Resistance in sabotage and rescuing downed Allied flyers, anything to create chaos behind enemy lines. Toronto’s Norm Delahunty was sent to South America for counter espionage against German agents.

Camp X changed the world of espionage forever and shaped pop culture’s image of secret agents. Those courageous men and women were a part of our history we should never forget. I hope X Company is a fitting tribute to their memory.

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