Iceland’s Greatest Spy: The Real James Bond - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland’s Greatest Spy: The Real James Bond

Iceland’s Greatest Spy: The Real James Bond

Published November 20, 2009

You’ve seen him in the movies. Most famously, he has been played by Sean Connery, Roger Moore and lately Daniel Craig. There he appears as Bond, James Bond. He appears under his own name in A Man Called Intrepid, played by David Niven. He also appears in the Ian Fleming biopic Goldeneye (not to be confused with the Bond film of the same title). There, William Stephenson is portrayed as the real M to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. There is much to suggest, however, that Stephenson is not only the model for M, but also for Bond himself.
Fleming’s own career as a WW2 spy is somewhat less than glorious. The inspiration for the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, came from when Fleming was stationed in Spain in World War II. He decided to trick Nazi spies into losing a large amount of money in a poker game. Fleming, however, lost the game, and had to live with the German agents being to a large extent bankrolled by His Majesty’s government through him. In the book, of course, Bond later wins the game.
Fighter planes and can openers
Stephenson’s war record is more impressive. He first entered service in World War I as an infantryman in the Canadian Army. His service number was 007. He later moved on to the Royal Air Force, shooting down 12 enemy fighters (18 by his own account). A statue of him as an Ace stands outside City Hall in Winnipeg. However, his impact in World War II was to be far greater.
William Stephenson was born in 1897 (1896, by his own account) in Winnipeg to Sara Guðfinna Johnston, an Iceland-born Canadian, and William Hunter Stanger, who hails from the Orkney Islands. His father died when William was four years old (as a soldier in the Boer War, by his account), and the child was adopted by West Icelanders Vigfús and Kristín.
During the final months of World War I, Stephenson was shot down and captured by the Germans. He escaped from captivity with a can opener stolen from his captors. After the war, the good man patented the can opener. The business he sets up around the patent at the end of the war proved to be a failure, so Stephenson left to Canada in the twenties and next appeared in London. There, he patented a technique to transmit photographs through the wireless. He became filthy rich, setting up companies such as General Radio, General Aircraft, Sound City Film (which make more than half of all British movies in the period), Shepperton studios, Earls court cinemas, and Prest Steel, which manufactured cars such as Jaguar.
Fooling Roosevelt
Through the course of his activities he befriended Winston Churchill, then a Member of Parliament, who was almost a lone voice in warning against the German arms build-up. On his frequent travels to Germany as a steel manufacturer, he witnessed the build-up first hand and became alarmed. After the outbreak of war Stephenson moved to New York, where he became head of the British Security Coordination in the Western Hemisphere. His main task was to mobilise the US government and population for intervention. One of his major coups is to present Roosevelt with a document showing German plans to take over South America. This convinced Roosevelt, on Stephenson’s recommendation, to move US troops to Iceland. The document was later proven to be a forgery. As Stephenson would later say: “Nothing deceives like a document.”
Stephenson played a part in securing the lend-lease aid for the British, and along with the Americans set up the training facilities Camp X in Southern Ontario. It was here that saboteurs were trained to destroy German attempts to make a nuclear bomb in Norway, and to assassinate Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust, in Prague. He is even credited with having a hand in breaking the German enigma code.
Hans Kristján Árnason, who is currently making a documentary on Stephenson, calls Camp X “the world’s first terrorist training camp.” One story has it that Ian Fleming trained at the camp. In any case, Fleming worked with Stephenson in World War II, as did writer Roald Dahl and one of the fathers of modern advertising, David Ogilvie (with all the people killed in World War II, you’d think they could have spared a bullet for the father of advertising). Dahl later wrote a history of the British Security Coordination, which was first published only ten years ago.
Founding the CIA
At the outbreak of war, the US Army and Navy had their own intelligence services, and the FBI specialised in internal intelligence. However, the US was lacking a unified organisation to spy abroad. Stephenson helped set up the Organisation of Secret Services, OSS, which later became the CIA. “Wild” Bill Donovan, the founder of the CIA, later said that he learned all there was to know from Stephenson. Bill Donovan (renamed Bill Sullivan) is played by Robert De Niro in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd.
After the war, Stephenson retired to Jamaica. His neighbour there was none other than Ian Fleming, who bought a house he called “Goldeneye” for the purpose of writing spy novels in. Stephenson and Fleming undoubtedly shared many a drink, Stephenson’s favourite being a dry martini, shaken, not stirred. Fleming later remarked: “James Bond is a romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is Bill Stephenson.”
There are many stories about William Stephenson. These often contradict one another and Stephenson, the master of disinformation, is not the most reliable source. One aspect he repeatedly downplayed was his Icelandic origin, probably because this did not go too well with his new status as a member of the British upper classes. Many books have been written about him, both before and after his death in 1989 (a date not contradicted by himself, for once), including The Quiet Canadian from 1963, Wild Bill and Intrepid from 1996 and The True Intrepid from 1998. One version of his story, the documentary The True Intrepid, will be released on DVD in early November in Iceland. The package will also include the radio broadcast “The West-Icelander William Stephenson: Hero or Villain?” from 2001, by historian Vigfús Geirdal. 

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