On Jan. 25, two middle-aged men, apparently strangers, were seated next to one another at a reception given by local authorities of this small town on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. One of them, a glint of recognition in his eye, asked of his neighbor: "Do you remember the night of April 13, 1944?"
"Yes," came the reply. "The moon was beautiful over the Danube."
The questioner was a former pilot who on that night flew a light aircraft over central Europe to drop an Allied agent behind German lines. The respondent was that agent. The two men, who still prefer to remain anonymous, had not met since that moonlit night.
In World War II, Whitby was the site of a British-run, super-secret spy school known simply as Camp X, where hundreds of agents were trained prior to lonely and often fatal missions in enemy territory. The camp was the stuff that spy thrillers are made of -- indeed one of its better known "students" was author Ian Fleming, who doubtless drew upon his experience in the camp's formidable training course in his James Bond novels.
Conceived, built and operated in obsessive secrecy, it was described by one of its founding fathers, allied spymaster Sir William Stephenson (code-name "Intrepid") as "the clenched fist preparing for the knockout." Its unofficial slogan was "know yourself, know your weapons, know your enemy."* The cloak and the dagger might as well have served as its symbols.
Agents who went there for courses of up to eight weeks were swathed in anonymity. They wore no identification tags or rank insignia and most of their instructors did not know their real names.
There is nothing to see of Camp X now. The sprawling barracks-like structures it occupied on the lakeshore were demolished when the school closed after the war. But an energetic group of local officials, their eye on tourist dollars, is planning to build a replica of at least part of the camp close to the original site.
A leading spirit in the project is Alderman Alan Dewar, a teacher-turned-politician and now an unashamed Camp X buff. His imagination was fired by a partial history of the camp which appeared in a book called "A Man Called Intrepid" about spymaster Stephenson.
Alderman Dewar discovered many gaps in the story of Camp X. To find out more, he has been interviewing surviving members of the 200-odd Canadian personnel recruited for the camp to look after its hush-hush clientele. "It seems that when the British moved out, they didn't bother to tidy up," Dewar said.
As a result many documents and other relics were left behind, and some were kept by camp staff as souvenirs when they moved on to more mundane occupations. At present most of the relics are stored in plastic carrier bags in Dewar's bedroom, but it is hoped they will go on public display if the planned reconstruction of the camp comes off.