Winston Churchill takes aim with a Sten gun during a visit to the Royal Artillery experimental station at Shoeburyness in Essex, 13 June 1941. Churchill established the BSC in May 1940 with the aim of influencing American public opinion and policy in favor of Britain. Photo: War Office Second World War Official Collection. Imperial War Museum.
This is the wonderful thing about espionage, nothing exists any more.” — William Stephenson.
British Security Co-ordination (BSC) was a secret organization that operated in the Western Hemisphere during World War II with the aim of influencing American public opinion and policy in favor of Britain. It was established in May 1940 by Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, who authorized the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) to set up a covert operation in New York City.
The head of the organization was William Stephenson, a Canadian businessman and former fighter pilot who had been providing Churchill with confidential information on German rearmament since the 1930s. Stephenson was given the cover of a Passport Control Officer and worked from the 35th and 36th floors of the International Building at Rockefeller Center.
Born in Winnipeg in 1897, Stephenson was adopted by an Icelandic family and left school early to work as a telegrapher. He joined the Canadian army in 1916 and later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he became a flying ace and earned the Military Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions.
After the World War I, he moved to Britain and made a fortune from his inventions, such as the wirephoto, which enabled the transmission of photographs over wireless or phone lines. He also became involved in politics and was appointed to a royal commission on India’s development.
During World War II, Stephenson was chosen by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to head the BSC. Stewart Menzies, head of SIS was instructed to appoint Stephenson to head the BSC. Stephenson was a close friend of Churchill, who gave him the codename Intrepid and entrusted him with the mission of mobilizing pro-British opinion in the Americas and conducting covert operations against the Axis powers.
BSC had offices in New York, Toronto and other cities, and employed hundreds of agents who infiltrated newspapers, radio stations, polling firms and other influential institutions. BSC also engaged in various forms of propaganda, such as creating fake news stories, spreading rumors about Nazi atrocities and sympathizers, and forging documents to discredit isolationist groups such as America First.
BSC’s activities were covert and often illegal, but they had the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who modeled his organization on British activities. BSC’s main goal was to persuade Americans to join the war against Germany and its allies, which it achieved after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. BSC’s propaganda campaign was sophisticated and effective. It used a press agency called the Overseas News Agency (ONA), which it paid a monthly subscription to, to send its stories from neutral countries such as Switzerland to Newspaper editors in America, thereby disguising their origin.
The ONA was a subsidiary of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that operated during World War II. It was founded in 1940 as a regular news outlet, but soon became involved in a secret propaganda campaign orchestrated by the British SIS to undermine Hitler and the Nazis and to persuade the United States to join the war effort. ONA produced fabricated stories that were designed to manipulate American public opinion and were published by mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. ONA also provided press credentials to British spies and may have collaborated with the Soviet intelligence agency (NKVD). ONA’s propaganda work was part of a larger misinformation campaign launched by SIS that also involved other media outlets, celebrities, and politicians. ONA ceased its operations in 1945 after the end of the war.
BSC also used radio station WNYW (Radio New York Worldwide) which broadcast its stories as facts. WNYW (Radio New York Worldwide), which was as a shortwave radio station that broadcast from Scituate, Massachusetts. During World War II, the station became important for the British and the Norwegian information services. The station was originally licensed as W1XAL in 1927 and began transmitting educational and cultural programs. In 1939, it was assigned the call letters WRUL (for “World Radio University Listeners”) and started broadcasting in eight languages. The station was secretly influenced by the British SIS, which provided funding, translators, and propaganda material. After the United States entered the war, the station was leased by the US government for further wartime propaganda broadcasts. The station resumed independent programming in 1954 and was sold to Metromedia in 1960. In 1962, it was bought by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and renamed WNYW. In 1973, it was acquired by Family Stations, Inc., which changed the call letters to WYFR and moved the transmitters to Florida. The original transmitter site in Scituate was shut down in 1979.
BSC also influenced news coverage in major American media outlets such as the Herald Tribune, the New York Post and The Baltimore Sun. BSC’s stories were then picked up by other radio stations and newspapers and relayed to the American public. Through this, BSC planted anti-German stories in major American media outlets to help turn public opinion.
BSC also had a forgery factory in Toronto called Station M, which was headed by Eric Maschwitz, a member of the Intelligence Corps. Station M created fake documents designed to incriminate Nazi Germany and its supporters. For example, Station M forged a letter from Heinrich Himmler to a German American leader expressing gratitude for his support and promising rewards after Germany’s victory. This letter was leaked to the press and caused a scandal that damaged the reputation of pro-Nazi groups in America.
BSC was one of the largest covert operations in British spying history and played a significant role in shaping American attitudes towards the war. It was disbanded in 1945 after the end of the war. BSC’s impact can be seen in several ways. First, it helped change American public opinion from an isolationist stance to a supportive tendency regarding America’s entry into World War II. According to some historians, BSC’s propaganda may have been decisive in swaying public opinion polls from 1940 to 1941. Second, it helped expose and undermine pro-Nazi or fascist movements in America that could have posed a threat to Britain’s interests. BSC’s agents infiltrated these groups and exposed their links to Nazi Germany or Italy, as well as their plans for sabotage or subversion. Third, it contributed to the intelligence cooperation between Britain and America that would continue after the war. BSC’s agents shared information with US intelligence agencies on various topics such as German espionage networks, Axis war plans, atomic research and V-weapons development. BSC also helped establish contacts between British and American officials that would facilitate future collaboration.
For his service during World War II, Stephenson received several honors from both Britain and the United States, including Knight Bachelor from King George VI in 1945; Companion of the Order of Canada in 1979; Medal of Merit from President Harry S. Truman in 1946, becoming the first foreigner to receive this award; as well as honorary degrees from several universities, including Columbia, McGill and Dalhousie. He retired to Bermuda in 1968 and died in 1989.
In an article in The Sunday Times 21 October 1962, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond and a former British Naval Intelligence officer during World War II, wrote that his fictional spy was: “a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing, the man who became one of the great agents of the [Second World War] is William Stephenson.”
General Donovan said of him: “Bill Stephenson taught us all we ever knew about foreign intelligence.”
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