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Eddie Chapman (1914-1997) aka Agent ZigZag – double agent.

Agent Zigzag

Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced. Inside the traitor was a man of loyalty; inside the villain was a hero. The problem for Chapman, his spymasters, and his lovers was to know where one persona ended and the other began.

Chapman was also an army deserter, career criminal, safecracker, con artist, thief, triple agent and, in all fairness, one of Britain’s most unlikely heroes. He was a Northern lad with a champagne appetite and beer budget. Sure, Eddie loved fast cars, faster women, and fast living. What he didn’t have was cash to satisfy those tastes.

However, Chapman did know where to get it in amounts large enough to keep him in Bentleys, champagne, expensive tobacco and tailor-made suits. The answer, for a spirited young man with a taste for adventure and distaste for anything remotely resembling convention, was simple. He joined the British Army, deserted and headed for the bright lights and dark deeds of Soho, epicentre of London’s  underworld, made a few contacts, stole anything worth stealing and began a grand scheme to get as much cash as possible without the tiresome necessity of honest work. Why stand in line on payday when he could blow the safe instead?

Chapman volunteered for a suicide mission to blow up Hitler, according to a report and was a British professional criminal who was recruited as a spy by the Nazis but who later became a double agent. During the Second World War he offered his services to Nazi Germany as a spy and subsequently became a British double agent. His British Secret Service handlers’ codenamed him Zigzag in acknowledgement of his rather erratic personal history. He had a number of criminal aliases known by the British police, amongst them Edward Edwards, Arnold Thompson, and Edward Simpson. His German codename was Fritz or, later, after endearing himself to his German contacts, its diminutive form of Fritzchen.

“Really, do I look like a criminal to you..?” Ask yourself what do you think. Dashing? Handsome? A gentleman? Wealthy and successful? Eddie Chapman was all these things.

Chapman died in 1997, but four years earlier he was interviewed by the BBC for a programme entitled The Underworld: Thieves. Deep in the archives of the BBC they found a box containing more than five hours of videotapes from that interview, in which Chapman discussed not only his criminal past, but every aspect of his wartime career, his womanising, his sabotage, and his life after the war. The most extraordinary discovery was just how gleefully unrepentant Chapman was about what he happily referred to as his “villainy”.

The unused footage even included a masterclass on how crack a safe. With remarkable foresight, the makers of the earlier documentary had decided to keep the camera rolling, despite knowing that by discussing his wartime intelligence work, Chapman was violating the Official Secrets Act.

They anticipated, rightly, that the laws might one day be relaxed, allowing the footage to be used. Chapman had been gagged during his lifetime – when he tried to serialise an account of his spying in a newspaper, a judge ordered the entire print run pulped – and probably assumed that the interview would never be shown. MI5 started releasing the Zigzag files in 2002, which means that Chapman can tell his story at last, from beyond the grave. Perhaps the most moving part of Chapman’s testimony comes when he describes his love affair with Dagmar Lahlum, a young Norwegian woman he met in occupied Norway – where the Germans sent him on a nine-month holiday as a reward for his successful mission to Britain.

Chapman describes how he encountered Dagmar one evening at the Ritz in Oslo, and how they fell in love.

“We had a great love match and I had the intention of going back and marrying her,” Chapman says in recovered BBC footage. “I’d love to go and see her again.”

Chapman was parachuted back into Britain, for a second time, in 1944, with a mission to report back on where Hitler’s V1 rockets were landing.

He promised to come back after the war and marry Dagmar. With his MI5 handlers, Chapman sent misleading reports that caused the Germans to shorten their range, ensuring that many of the rockets landed harmlessly in the fields of Kent. His mission, as far as the Germans were concerned, was a complete success. The British believed he had helped to save thousands of lives. But he never went back for Dagmar, who was tried as a Nazi collaborator and sentenced to six months in prison. In a way, the story of Dagmar perfectly reflects the contradictory character of Britain’s most extraordinary double agent: fickle, seductive and staggeringly brave.

Eddie Chapman was a crook, a womaniser, an opportunist and a manipulator. But he was also an unlikely sort of World War II hero. He was motivated by a strange combination of self-interest, hunger for adventure, greed, bravery and patriotism.

He was born on 16 November 1914 in Burnopfield, County Durham, England. His father was a former marine engineer who ended up as a publican in Roker. The family (Chapman was the eldest of three children) had a reputation for disobedience, and Chapman received little in the way of parental guidance. Despite being bright, he regularly played truant from school to go to the cinema and hang around the beach.

Aged 17, Chapman joined the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, where his duties included guarding the Tower of London. Chapman enjoyed the perks of the uniform, but soon became bored with his duties. After nine months in the army, having been granted six days of leave, he absconded with a girl whom he met in Soho. After two months the army caught up with him, and he was arrested and sentenced to 84 days in a military prison (glasshouse) at Aldershot. On release, Chapman received a dishonourable discharge from the army.

Chapman returned to Soho and spent some time working casual jobs, from barman to film extra, but his lifestyle outstripped his earnings – gambling debts and a taste for fine alcohol soon left him broke. He slipped into petty crime, fraud and petty theft and, after several run-ins with the law, finally received his first civilian prison sentence, two months in Wormwood Scrubs for forging a cheque. He became a safecracker with London West End gangs, spending several stretches in jail for these crimes. The gangs utilised gelignite to gain entry to safes, leading Chapman and his associates to be known as the “Jelly Gang”. One of Chapman’s “Jelly Gang” crimes was carried out with the help of James Wells Hunt, whom Chapman met during a stint in prison. The execution of the crime involved Chapman disguising himself as a member of the Metropolitan Water Board in order to gain access to a house in Edgware Road, from which he made his way into the shop next door by smashing through the wall. He then extracted the safe, which was transported to Hunt’s Garage at 39 St Luke’s Mews, where it had its door removed using gelignite.

The tools of Agent Zigzag’s new trade.

His skill as a thief made him a good deal of money and allowed him to live the life of a wealthy playboy in Soho, mixing with the likes of Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and Marlene Dietrich.

By the start of 1939, however, he was being hunted by the police and fled to Jersey. He was caught by the Jersey police in February 1939 after burgling a nightclub and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, with an extra year being added on after an attempted escape in September 1939. He remained in prison even after the Germans invaded and occupied the Channel Islands in July 1940, and was finally released in October 1941.

Eddie’s chief problem was that, like most career villains, he could steal huge amounts of money without actually saving any. Cars, women, champagne, expensive cigarettes and heavy gambling eat into one’s disposable income and Eddie always loved the high life. He’d soon find himself betting more than just money. He’d gamble his life too.

By 1939 Eddie was one of Britain’s most wanted crooks. He’d blown safes all over the country and had over 40 counts of burglary against him. If caught, he’d be off to Dartmoor Prison and spend the next 20 years breaking rocks instead of safes. Eddie wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with enthusiasm and, having somehow made bail from a robbery in Scotland, promptly jumped it and, taking only some clothes, some gelignite and his latest girlfriend, ran to the island of Jersey where he hoped he’d be safe.

It turned out that Eddie had a definition of the word ‘safe’ that you’re unlikely to find in any dictionary, in any language, anywhere on Planet Earth.

Eddie was with his girlfriend, enjoying a nice evening meal as you do, when he noticed the two detectives stomping towards him. Being the dashing type, our brave blaster promptly kissed her goodbye and leapt through the dining room window without actually opening it first. He fled, with his unwelcome visitors in hot pursuit, was caught and sent to Jersey’s prison for 2 years, with another 20 waiting for him back home. Eddie languished, contemplating his future and realising that it didn’t look terribly promising when WWII provided an exciting new career opportunity. The Germans invaded Jersey in 1940 and Eddie chose a novel means of early parole. Spying for the Germans.

Life on the occupied Channel Islands was harsh, and Chapman sought a way to return to Britain. He volunteered his services to the Germans as a spy and was eventually accepted by the German secret service, the Abwehr. The Abwehr was in a desperate position; it was getting only very low-quality intelligence out of Britain from its network of spies there. (In fact, though the Abwehr was unaware of this, MI5 had already caught almost all of the German spies in the UK and recruited several of them as double agents.)

B MK II receiver and transmitter (also known as the B2 radio set).

German Intelligence were doing badly, they couldn’t have been doing worse if they’d tried. They’d sent twenty agents into Britain and they’d all been caught (apart from one who’d shot himself). They needed a spy who could actually do some proper spying. Eddie’s offer was more than welcome. An inconspicuous native (unlike most of his predecessors) with a working knowledge of explosives, a perfect saboteur. The Germans gave him all the training a professional traitor needs if they’re to have any chance of survival. Eddie learnt fast and well and dropped into Britain to destroy a factory building Mosquito bombers. Everything in the Nazi garden was rosy, the factory was doomed and German Intelligence couldn’t be happier.

Wrong.

The Abwehr saw Chapman as an ideal candidate for a spy. He claimed to be hostile to the British state, not least because he was still wanted by the police for his crimes on the UK mainland. His connections with the criminal underworld offered the possibility that he could recruit additional agents for the Germans, and his expertise with explosives would enable him to carry out acts of sabotage. In particular, the Germans wanted him to attack the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hertfordshire, which made the much-feared Mosquito bomber.

After a year’s training in German-occupied France, Chapman was dropped by parachute into a field in Cambridgeshire on 16 December 1942. Instead of disappearing into the criminal underworld, as his German handlers intended, he promptly turned himself in to the police and MI5. His arrival was expected; unknown to him or the Germans, the British had cracked the Germans’ secret codes and knew in advance when agent “Fritzchen” (“little Fritz”), the Germans’ codename for Chapman, would be dropped into the UK.

Chapman was taken to a secret MI5 detention centre in west London known as Camp 020. He was interrogated by the formidable Lt Col Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, who owed his nickname to the steel-rimmed monocle which he wore at all times (even, it was said, in bed). Chapman was fully willing to cooperate: he told his interrogators everything about his time in occupied France and the mission that the Germans had given him. He even volunteered to work for the British against the Germans. Although Chapman’s criminal past was a cause for concern, Stephens concluded:

“In our opinion, Chapman should be used to the fullest extent… he genuinely means to work for the British against the Germans. By his courage and resourcefulness he is ideally fitted to be an agent.”

Eddie Chapman thus became Agent ZIGZAG, one of the most important British double agents of the Second World War. MI5 decided to re-infiltrate Chapman into Germany and obtain more information about the Abwehr. Under the supervision of an MI5 officer, Chapman made radio contact with the Germans and informed them that he was preparing to carry out his sabotage mission at the De Havilland factory. He was sent to the factory at Hatfield, along with an MI5 minder, to work out a plan of attack so that he could tell his German controllers later what he had done.

Aerial view of fake sabotage at the De Havilland factory.

Fake sabotage at the De Havilland factory.

Fake sabotage at the De Havilland factory.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British World War II organisation. Following Cabinet approval, it was officially formed by Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, also in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.

One of the organisations from which SOE was created was also involved in the formation of the Auxiliary Units, a top secret “stay-behind” resistance organisation which would have been activated in the event of a German invasion of Britain.

Few people were aware of SOE’s existence. To those who were part of it or liaised with it, it was sometimes referred to as “the Baker Street Irregulars”, after the location of its London headquarters. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. Its various branches, and sometimes the organisation as a whole, were concealed for security purposes behind names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office.

SOE operated in all countries or former countries occupied by or attacked by the Axis forces, except where demarcation lines were agreed with Britain’s principal Allies (the Soviet Union and the United States). It also made use of neutral territory on occasion, or made plans and preparations in case neutral countries were attacked by the Axis. The organisation directly employed or controlled just over 13,000 people, about 3,200 of whom were women.

After the war, the organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. A memorial to SOE’s agents was unveiled on the Albert Embankment by Lambeth Palace in London in October 2009.

Report on fake sabotage at the De Havilland factory, 31 January 1943.

Report on fake sabotage at the De Havilland factory, 31 January 1943.

Eddie Chapman was now a Brit working for the Germans, while offering to pretend to work for the Germans while really working for the British. The British, perhaps as confused as anybody, grilled him until they felt he could be trusted (as far as someone like Eddie can be, anyway) and then made a little joke. Every spy has a codename, Eddie needed one too. Eddie’s was ‘Zigzag’ because by now nobody involved (possibly including Eddie) ever quite knew which way he was going at any given time.

British Intelligence based him near London and obligingly faked a blown-up factory for German consumption, something that would look right on aerial recon photos.

The “attack” itself was one of the most remarkable deception operations of the Second World War. During the night of 29/30 January 1943, an elaborate system of camouflage was installed at the De Havilland factory to make it appear to German reconnaissance aircraft that a very large bomb had exploded inside the factory’s power plant. Bomb-damaged transformers were created out of wood and papier-mache, and buildings were disguised with tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets painted to appear from the air as if they were the half-demolished remains of walls and roofs. Rubble and debris was spread around the power plant, to make it appear as if it had been thrown there by an explosion. Separately, MI5 arranged for a fake story to be planted in the Daily Express reporting “an explosion at a factory on the outskirts of London.”

The ruse was a complete success, even deceiving the factory’s own staff. Chapman radioed the Germans to inform them of the successful “demolition” of the factory’s power plant. The Abwehr was delighted with Chapman’s work. In March 1943 he returned via neutral Portugal to Germany and travelled on to an Abwehr safe house in German-occupied Norway.

Then Eddie pushed his luck even further with yet another remarkable offer. He offered to return to Occupied Europe via neutral Portugal while, on the way, fake the sinking of a British troopship that German Intelligence wanted sunk. Again, the British played along, Eddie returned to his Nazi masters and newspapers reported the ship lost at sea to bolster Eddie’s cover. It worked perfectly. German Intelligence swallowed the fake sinking completely and provided Eddie with a little surprise of their own for what they thought was their most successful double agent.

To his amazement, he was awarded Germany’s highest honour, the Iron Cross, in recognition of his work for the Abwehr. He was, and remains, the only British citizen ever to have been awarded this medal, with a citation personally signed by a certain Adolf Hitler. The Adolf Hitler.

After his return to Occupied Europe Eddie spent a little holiday in Berlin and a longer one in Occupied Norway before being offered another mission into Britain. The Germans had been firing their V1 ‘buzz bombs’ into London for a while now and wanted somebody to confirm they were hitting their targets. Eddie was happy to oblige and was dropped back into Britain. Eddie helped the British by sending false radio reports, causing the Germans to reprogramme their bombs to land in places relatively harmless instead. Yet again, ‘Agent Zigzag’ was leading them a merry dance despite his old crimes (and possible 20-year sentence) still hanging over him.

Eddie spent the rest of the war tapping lies in Morse code, supposedly helping the Germans while really helping the British. Eventually, though, he returned to type when he developed a profitable sideline in fixing greyhound races by doping all the runners except the ones he’d put money on. Having already wiped his previous criminal record in return for his remarkable career moves, British Intelligence were not amused. They read him the riot act, threatened to prosecute him and eventually fired him without so much as a commendation for all he’d done during the war.

He spent the remainder of his life still hanging out with other crooks, doing the occasional dodgy deal, getting married (he bumped into his Jersey girlfriend in a London bar after the war and somehow charmed her into becoming his wife) and even worked for a national newspaper as its honorary crime writer. His advice to readers was, like everything else in his life, unconventional. He warned them that under no circumstances should honest people have anything to do with people like him.

Eddie died in 1997, still married to his Jersey girl and still the only Englishman ever to have been awarded the Iron Cross. He fathered two children, retired to Spain’s notorious ‘Costa del Crime’ (home to many an English crook, especially when they were on the run) and spent his sunset years living off his fame and enjoying the high life he loved so much and had risked so much to achieve.

All in all, possibly the most unusual British hero of WWII.

SOE memorial plaque in the cloister of Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire, unveiled by Major General Gubbins in April 1969.

A variety of people from all classes and pre-war occupations served SOE in the field. The backgrounds of agents in F Section, for example, ranged from the daughter of an Indian Sufi sect leader (Noor Inayat Khan) to working class, with some even reputedly from the criminal underworld.

In most cases, the primary quality required of an agent was a deep knowledge of the country in which he or she was to operate, and especially its language, if the agent was to pass as a native of the country. Dual nationality was often a prized attribute. This was particularly so of France. In other cases, especially in the Balkans, a lesser degree of fluency was required as the resistance groups concerned were already in open rebellion and a clandestine existence was unnecessary. A flair for diplomacy combined with a taste for rough soldiering was more necessary. Some regular army officers proved adept as envoys, although others (such as the former diplomat Fitzroy Maclean or the classicist Christopher Woodhouse) were commissioned only during wartime.

Several of SOE’s agents were from the Jewish Parachutists of Mandate Palestine, many of whom were already Émigrés from Nazi or other oppressive or anti-semitic regimes in Europe. Thirty-two of them served as agents in the field, seven of whom were captured and executed.

Exiled or escaped members of the armed forces of some occupied countries were obvious sources of agents. This was particularly true of Norway and the Netherlands. In other cases (such as Frenchmen owing loyalty to Charles de Gaulle and especially the Poles), the agents’ first loyalty was to their leaders or governments in exile, and they treated SOE only as a means to an end. This could occasionally lead to mistrust and strained relations in Britain.

The organisation was prepared to ignore almost any contemporary social convention in its fight against the Axis. It employed known homosexuals, people with criminal records (some of whom taught skills such as picking locks) or bad conduct records in the armed forces, Communists and anti-British nationalists. Although some of these might have been considered a security risk, there is practically no known case of an SOE agent wholeheartedly going over to the enemy. However, there were cases such as that of Henri Déricourt, in which the conduct of agents was questionable but it was impossible to establish whether they were acting under secret orders from SOE or MI6.

SOE was also far ahead of contemporary attitudes in its use of women in armed combat. Although women were first considered only as couriers in the field or as wireless operators or administrative staff in Britain, those sent into the field were trained to use weapons and in unarmed combat. Most were commissioned into either the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) or the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Some (such as Pearl Witherington) became the organisers of resistance networks. Others such as Odette Hallowes or Violette Szabo were decorated for bravery, posthumously in Szabo’s case. Of SOE’s 55 female agents, thirteen were killed in action or died in Nazi concentration camps.

Statement by Eddie Chapman, 16 December 1942.

Statement by Eddie Chapman, 16 December 1942.

After the death in 1997 of Eddie Chapman, villain, philanderer and double or possibly triple secret agent, researchers began queuing up for the release of MI5 material that might resolve whether Chapman was working for Britain or Nazi Germany.

The bizarre story of agent Zigzag retains a poignant fascination, not least for the character of the man himself.

Chapman comes over as a waif set on winning love and status. After a horrible childhood in county Durham and an unsuccessful experiment with the Army, he developed some skill with gelignite and a lucrative line in safe-cracking. He was arrested while on a “business” trip to Jersey, where he was still imprisoned when the Channel Islands were occupied. Chapman then volunteered his skills to German intelligence (his version) so that he could escape to England.

As agent Fritz, he was dispatched to blow up the De Havilland Mosquito factory outside London. Instead, he surrendered himself to MI5. The sabotage was faked and as double agent Zigzag Chapman posed as a merchant seaman and made his way back to the Germans via Portugal. Pleased with his performance, his friends in the Abwehr awarded Chapman the Iron Cross and returned him to England to direct V-rocket attacks.

To his great disappointment, Chapman was dumped by MI5 soon after. His drinking and love of low-life were security risks. He was depressed if not diverted by what MI5 officers delicately termed “feminine relaxation” and, to avoid the incessant supervised trawls for prostitutes; he had been set up in a safe house with a former girlfriend, Freda Stevenson, whom he had run out on in 1939. Freda had since given birth to Chapman’s daughter.

Policed by MI5 minders, who also cooked and cleaned for Eddie, this unusual ménage at 35 Crespigny Road, Hendon, marked a happy period in Chapman’s life. Back with the Germans and based in Norway, Chapman soon replaced Freda with Dagmar Lahlum, who was herself later replaced by Betty Farmer, a girl who had been with Chapman when he was originally arrested in Jersey.

The British viewed Chapman as highly courageous and dangerously ambivalent. Chapman’s British interrogator, Lt-Col Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens wrote: “I do not wish to be held wanting in admiration of a brave man [but] I must issue a warning about this strange character.” In England, Chapman was a wanted criminal, but in Germany “he is admired and treated royally by the German Secret Service”.

“Where do the loyalties of Chapman lie?” asked Stephens. “Personally, I think they are in fine balance.”

Chapman could be all things to all men. He read Pierre Corneille in French but liked a punt on a dog race, and liked it all the better if the race was fixed. He saw himself as a patriot and offered to kill Hitler, but was evidently fond of his German colleagues, even the Nazis. His loyalties crossed frontiers and he would risk all for love, but he seemed adept at looking after number one.

John Masterman, the ascetic chairman of the “Double Cross” committee responsible for turned agents, took a Pygmalion-like interest in Chapman, and wondered if he might be reformed. In the end, Chapman’s MI5 file noted that Chapman was a crook “whom only war could invest with any virtue”.

Chapman married Betty Farmer, and together they ran a spa in Hertfordshire. Farmer was a trouper but Chapman never settled. He was no good with his own money and was regularly unfaithful. Farmer helped Booth with his research, and she remains firmly on her husband’s side (“the moment Eddie did anything they didn’t like; they thought something up about him”).

Chapman had Jewish forebears, there is some credit to his story that he met Churchill and it has been noted that his Iron Cross may have been a War Merit Cross, 2nd class.

When it comes to Chapman’s value as an agent, it suited everybody to sex up his dossier. On the German side, there had been few intelligence successes to boast of. Their network of agents was so compromised that Chapman said his German masters were astonished to hear that he had dined in a London restaurant without using ration cards.

It was suggested that Chapman’s “handler” Stephan von Gröning, an amiable, lazy aristocrat, had an interest in exaggerating his agent’s importance because he was skimming Chapman’s fees to pay for his art collection. The proof seems to be that Chapman and von Gröning got on like a house on fire: Eddie liked a fellow fraud.

Chapman may well have proved useful in British attempts to misdirect the V1 and V2 attacks on London, but much of what Chapman told MI5 about German intelligence was already known to them through other agents and the Ultra decrypts. A disproportionate emphasis on individual sources was part of the process by which the British concealed the success of their industrial-sized code-breaking operations, even to their allies. It was perhaps as a brilliant sideshow that Chapman played his most valuable part in the great game.


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