Durham Region was once home to spies

A full view of the monument at Intrepid Park. Photo credit: Jasper Myers

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Growing up, Nancy Davidson, 61, never knew much about her father’s involvement in World War Two (WWII).

Much like the history of Camp X, the spy training camp once located on the shores of Whitby and Oshawa, Davidson’s father Harvey Chambers kept the stories of what he truly did during WWII a secret.

“My dad never talked about the war,” Davidson says. “It was not a conversation that we ever had … we always watched Remembrance Day but there was not a lot of talk about it.”

Chambers is one of over 500 agents who trained at the camp. Camp X was created by the Government of Canada and the British Security Co-Ordination (BSC) on Dec. 6, 1941, one day before the attack on Pearl Harbour.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill instructed BSC chief Sir William Stephenson, who was from Winnipeg, to create “ ‘the clenched fist that would provide the knockout blow’ to the Axis powers,” according to Lynn Phillip Hodgson, historian and author of Inside Camp X, as well as the website, camp-x.com.

Hodgson has done an extensive amount of research on Camp X, but Oshawa Museum archivist, Jennifer Weymark, says not everyone believes Hodgson’s research is accurate.

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An aerial view of Camp X in 1943. Photo credit: Courtesy of Lynn Philip Hodgson

Camp X was known officially by many names: S25-1-1 by the RCMP, Project-J by the Canadian military, and STS-103 (Special Training School 103) by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a branch of the British secret intelligence service.

Hodgson, who has been studying Camp X for more than four decades, says the camp was important to the war.

“All of what is now Durham Region played a very important role in the second world war, extremely important,” says Hodgson. “So much so that, if it [Camp X] didn’t exist, it could’ve made a difference in the war, in the outcome of the war.”

The camp trained secret agents, like Chambers, to cross enemy lines in WWII on specialized missions. Agents were trained in silent killing and unarmed combat. Spies were also psychologically trained to always be aware of, and respond to, their surroundings.

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The view of the road from Intrepid Park. Photo credit: Jasper Myers

One notable agent who trained at the camp was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

While some people dispute this claim, Hodgson and a current member of the international special operations community who has worked with Hodgson, say they have proof Fleming was there.

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One of the Camp X buildings. Photo credit: Courtesy of Lynn Philip Hodgson

One notable agent who trained at the camp was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

While some people dispute this claim, Hodgson and a current member of the international special operations community who has worked with Hodgson, say they have proof Fleming was there.

“[I] sent them the documents that proves that Ian Fleming was at Camp X in 1943, in the summer of 1943,” says Hodgson. He adds although Fleming made up the Bond stories, the things he did in the books were based on what was actually done at the camp.

“We have in multiple cases, interviews with Ian Fleming himself,” says the special operations agent, whose name is being withheld for security reasons. “So, we have literally BBC and even CBC interviews, that go back, they’re open source.”

In a phone call interview, the special operations agent says the interviews with Fleming talking about his time in Canada go back to the ’70s.

The agent, who works as an instructor in the special operations community, also says Camp X and its training has had a great influence on the Canadian military today.

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The inside of one of the common rooms at Camp X. Photo credit: Courtesy of Lynn Philip Hodgson

“It was the founding birthplace of many of our unconventional warfare types of capabilities,” he says. “Camp X essentially was the most highly classified training facility for spies, secret agents, saboteurs, in some cases assassins, basically in the world in the early 1940s.”

Davidson, whose father died 16 years ago, believes the people who trained at Camp X were a special group of people, and is impressed her dad was part of it.

“It was such a specialized skill set to have and that my dad was part of that specialized skillset, that was sort of a cool thing,” she says.

Some of the specialized skills agents were taught at Camp X include a form of martial arts called Defendu.

Davidson’s father, Harvey Chambers, taught this skill to her husband, who has studied marital arts.

“My dad said to him … do you know … how to walk if somebody has a gun in your back so you know where the rifle is?” explains Davidson. “And my husband would look at him and say, why would you want to know that, and my dad said, well it’s a useful skill.”

It wasn’t until Chambers passed that Davidson and her husband learned it had been taught at Camp X.

Agents training at Camp X also learned how to use traditional weapons like guns. Davidson remembers her dad using a gun as a kid, and how skilled he was.

“It was pretty spectacular as a kid growing up to see my dad use a gun, because you’ve never seen anybody use a gun like my dad,” says Davidson, adding she wouldn’t even play video games with him.

“My husband just said yeah you should try playing Duck Hunt with him [Chambers] on Nintendo,” she laughs. “I was like, forget it. You know, he would just look at you like ‘why are you even trying?’”

The international special operations agent says he uses the skills taught at Camp X in his own instruction.

“I resurrected a lot of the original training and trade craft that was taught at Camp X by individuals like Bill Underwood, William Fairburn and different folks like that,” says the operations agent who had just returned from an overseas trip. “I modified many of these, these skillsets considerably for a modern application.”

One of the camp’s notable features was Hydra, a telecommunications tool built by Pat Bayley and used at Camp X. Hydra was the most powerful communications tool of its type at the time.

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Hydra, the telecommunications tool, special to Camp X. Photo credit: Courtesy of Lynn Philip Hodgson

“It was the communication, soul communications base between North America and Great Britain during the war,” says Hodgson. Hydra was created to link the North and South America SOE and the European operations of SOE.

The communications aspect was one reason Camp X was built where it was on the shores of Lake Ontario. The spot was ideal for bouncing radio signals.

The lakeshore site was also chosen for its proximity to Defense Industries Ltd. (now Ajax), Camp 30 in Bowmanville, the Oshawa Airport, and General Motors (GM). At that time, the Oshawa Airport was a Royal Canadian Airforce and Royal Airforce Air Training School and GM was producing tanks, machine guns and military equipment.

Most of these places still exist, unlike Camp X.

The monument stands as a reminder of what once was. Hodgson gives tours of the land, now Intrepid Park, for Doors Open Oshawa every year.

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The sign at Intrepid Park marks that it was once home to Camp X. Photo credit: Jasper Myers

Davidson visited Intrepid Park after her father died.

“It’s sort of hard to believe that it was so close,” she says. “That it was just so close, and yet so far away. Nobody knew about it. It was just sort of a neat feeling, that he was part of there, that he was there.”

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The Camp X monument at Intrepid Park in Whitby. Photo credit: Jasper Myers

After WWII, the camp operated until 1969. But it went by a different name.

Camp X was called the Oshawa wireless station. “And what they did was, because the radio technology was so state of the art, they continued to operate from Camp X, in the Cold War, with the Russians,” says Hodgson, who has travelled to Britain to do research for Camp X and WWII.

“Camp X was absolutely active in some very, very Cold War spyesque, you know, types of activities during the Cold War,” says the special operations agent, who has known Hodgson for 20 years, adding a lot of the information pertaining to the Cold War is still classified.

In 1969, the Camp X buildings were bulldozed into Lake Ontario, but one building was restored for the Ontario Regiment Museum by Durham College’s heritage program a few years ago.

As for Davidson, her father never told her about training at Camp X. He did tell her husband indirectly, but since his death Davidson has spent time restoring the parts of her father’s story she could through her own research. Parts of the research were filled in by a neighbour Chambers also told.

This year for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Davidson is going to Juno Beach.

“I’m conducting a choir, we’re representing Canada on Juno Beach this year,” says Davidson, whose father landed on Juno Beach on D-Day during the war.

She says Chambers never returned to Juno Beach for any of the anniversary celebrations, but he did pay for two students from Port Perry High School to go because he felt it was important for them to learn that history.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” she says, choking up. “It’s pretty amazing that they did that. I’m very proud of him.”

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