Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Sir William Stephenson, a fourth-generation Manitoban who played a major role in intelligence in World War II, was born in Winnipeg on January 11, 1896, the son of a pioneer family. As a teenager, he was fascinated with radio and enjoyed making and using radio transmitters and receivers. In 1914 Stephenson volunteered for the Royal Canadian Engineers. He was sent to France as a private and earned a commission in the field at the age of nineteen. He was gassed and returned to England as an invalid "disabled for life." He recovered but was still considered unfit to return to the trenches. He turned down an administrative desk job, joined the Royal Flying Corps, and returned to France. He shot down twenty-six planes, for which he was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Military Cross, and from the French, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre with Palms.

In London following World War I, Stephenson started his radio empire with the purchase of a controlling interest in the General Radio Company. He patented a process that enabled photographs to be transmitted electronically, now known as a facsimile, or "fax." He was involved in the aircraft industry, and a plane developed and built in one of Stephenson's factories won the King's Cup air race and ultimately evolved into the Spitfire.

In 1940 Churchill appointed Stephenson to the position of director of British Security Coordination in the Western Hemisphere. In all his wartime work he sought anonymity, operating under the code name of "Intrepid." In this capacity, directing espionage and counterintelligence, he was pivotal to the Allied campaign.

In 1945, at the conclusion of hostilities, Stephenson was knighted by King George VI, and President Harry Truman awarded him the Presidential Medal of Merit, the highest honor available to a civilian. In Manitoba he was appointed chairman of the Manitoba Economic Advisory Board, awarded a doctor of laws degree from the University of Winnipeg, and presented with the province's top honor, the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, Chief Hunter. Sir William Stephenson died January 31, 1989.

Terry Smythe Winnipeg, Manitoba

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