James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is… William Stephenson. – Ian Flemming
The Times of London October 21, 1962
It is accepted that Canadians are quiet people, we are not full of random boast or ecstatic praise without good meaning. This post is an example of a quiet man who made it to the very top of the silent services before there was a silent service to speak of.
Nothing deceives Like a document. – William Stephenson
William Stephenson was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba to immigrant Icelandic parents just before the turn of the 20th century. Orphaned by his father at around the age of three, his widowed mother had little choice but to surrender one of her children to an extended family of other Icelandic immigrants. Historians on the subject often over look this fact and in many sources have quoted an incorrect birthday and indeed an incorrect surname. Sources have him attending a high school that never existed. It seems that either the researchers did not attend to proper diligence or the trail has been intentionally made confusing.
Born with an incredible memory, William and his adoptive siblings would play memory games. Someone in the group would move or remove an item from a room. Without fail young William would spot the offending piece.
The turn of the century was a boom time for early Winnipeg, a teenage William had a part in apprehending a killer that was on the loose. While working for the Great North West Telegraph Company as a delivery boy he spotted wanted killer Jack (Bloody Jack) Krafchenko. Remembering his face from a wanted poster he contacted police and Krafchenko was subsequently arrested.
However bloodthirsty Kraftchenko was he, none the less, had quite the following as a heroic Robin Hood type character in the community. Thus young William learned well the value of secrecy as police covered up the fact that a young boy had fingered a murderer all the while Kraftchenko’s friends and a number in the community looked for “The Rat” who had outed him.
With the outbreak of World War One William enlisted into the service of the British Empire on January 12th 1916 using the false birthday January 11, 1896. He was placed with the 101st Winnipeg Light Infantry and saw action in France almost immediately suffering in a German gas attack in July of 1916.
William spent the next year convalescing in Britain where he used his brain to the fullest. Studying the newly found discipline of powered flight, he also studied navigation and engine mechanics. When released he applied to the air corps and was accepted as a pilot in the 73rd squadron February 1918 . This transfer would prove to be very fortuitous as he would meet Tommy Drew-Brook the man who would become his right hand in fighting the Nazi’s in World War 2.
Flying a Sopwith Camel in March of 1918 Stephenson was attacked by two German fighters and his plane was severely damaged. He landed the out of control airplane and was nearly killed in the process. He emerged from the wreck and immediately “Mad as Hops” jumped into another camel and shot down two enemy flyers almost immediately. From that day onward he was a force to be reckoned with in the air.
Although there is some controversy on how many enemy fliers that Stephenson shot down it is believed that he took anywhere from 12 to 26 victories. Including shooting down Lothar von Richthofen the brother of Manfred von Richthofen also known as The Red Baron.
For his efforts against the German forces in World War 1 Stephenson was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross in Summer of 1918. He was known as a friend to the soldiers in the trenches using his twin machine guns to harass the Germans on the ground often waggling his wings as he flew low over the trenches.
” You always know when Steve is over. He comes right down to say hello and never forgets the boys on the ground when things are hot.” Remarked a fellow Canadian ground soldier who was no stranger to the horrors of the trenches.
However his aggressive flying style was also what eventually landed him in a German P.O.W. Camp. Downed by friendly fire, catching a French reconnaissance plane by surprise the gunner fired instinctively.
Tommy Drew-Brook writes in a letter to Montgomery Hyde the details of the incident. “The unfortunate French observer saw this machine out of the corner of his eye, spun his gun and fired a burst into Bill which killed his engine and put one bullet through his leg. He landed just in front of the German front line, crawled out of his machine, and headed for our lines, but unfortunately a German gunner hit him again in the same leg and that stopped him and resulted in him being captured. Bill did not bail out over German territory. We didn’t have parachutes.” The True Intrepid – Page 41.
For his heroism William was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by the President of the French Republic, noting “It is sincerely hoped that this gallant Canadian is unhurt and, at worst a prisoner.”
While interned at Holzminden , Stephenson apparently took great pleasure in sneaking about the camp. Some tales have him pilfering items from the camp commandant’s office including a picture of his wife and a can opener that would propel William into business following the war.
Stephenson escaped the camp in September of 1918 and eventually made his way back to his home town of Winnipeg where we will pick up the story next time.
Authors Note: Although I have referenced many sources in this posting my main source for research has been the book The True Intrepid. William Stephenson and the Unknown Agents by Bill Macdonald. Without this book my sharing of this story with all of you would not have been possible.