Deserter, Thief, Patriot, Spy
Monday, October 1, 2007
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
By Ben Macintyre
Harmony. 364 pp. $25.95
"Agent Zigzag" is the amazing but true story of Eddie Chapman, a professional criminal who became a highly effective double agent during World War II, winning the trust of German intelligence services even as he reported back to the spymasters of MI5. With his life constantly at risk, he gathered information that saved thousands of British lives; the duped Germans rewarded him with huge amounts of money and the Iron Cross; his fellow Brits tossed him out onto the street when he outlived his usefulness. Along with his double-agent adventures, the handsome and charming Chapman managed to have a girl in every port: One had his baby, the second went to jail for him, and he married the third. Little wonder that, soon after "Agent Zigzag" appeared, its film rights were auctioned off for a reported seven-figure sum. If done right -- always a huge if -- this could be the most entertaining World War II movie since "Casablanca."
After a harsh childhood in a coal-mining village, and his mother's death in a pauper's hospital, Eddie joined the army at 17. Sent to London, he found he liked the bars and girls of Soho better than soldiering, so he deserted. He was caught, jailed for 84 days and discharged, whereupon he returned to Soho, took up petty crime and soon advanced to safecracking. For a time he was flush, bought his suits on Savile Row and rubbed elbows with the likes of Noel Coward in the better clubs. One of his friends, Terence Young, who later directed the first two James Bond films, recalled, "Most of us knew that he was a crook, but nevertheless we liked him for his manner and personality."
In 1939, at the age of 24, the safecracker with the Errol Flynn looks found himself in prison on the Channel Island of Jersey. It was there he discovered books, becoming a lifelong fan of H.G. Wells and Tennyson. It hardly bothered him that the Germans occupied the island, but when he finished his sentence, with more charges to face back in England, he came up with a plan. He told the Germans he hated the English and offered to be a spy for them. The Germans jailed him for a time, interrogated him at length and finally turned him over to the Abwehr, their foreign intelligence service. He lived for several months in luxury in a French villa while he became proficient with a wireless radio, explosives and invisible ink; then he was parachuted into England to do all the damage he could.
Instead, Chapman's first act was to call British intelligence and offer himself as a double agent. MI5 was even more suspicious of Chapman than the Germans had been, but he had brought with him priceless information about Abwehr's operations, and they came to trust him. England's Mosquito bombers, built by de Havilland Aircraft outside London, were giving the Germans fits, and they wanted nothing more than for Chapman to sabotage the plant. MI5 set off a bomb at the plant, with elaborately faked damage that was good enough to fool German pilots flying over. They were even able to persuade one of the London papers to print a story that seemed to verify the explosion.
MI5 sent Chapman back to France, where the Germans greeted him as a hero. By then, the war had turned against them, and the Germans had the notion that this master spy might somehow save them, so they parachuted him into England again.
By then, they were sending their first V-1 missiles into London, where they inflicted heavy damage. But the Germans didn't know exactly where the missiles were landing and, because they trusted Chapman, he could send back false information that would cause them to adjust their targeting and point the V-1s outside London. With this ruse, Chapman was credited with saving countless lives.
Many colorful characters fill these pages -- the hard-drinking German aristocrat and spymaster who became Chapman's mentor and friend, the fanatic Nazi who had studied in England and became convinced that Morris dancing was "a foundation of world culture" -- but its true villain is the moralistic English officer who decided that Chapman was a degenerate and hounded him out of MI5 with hardly a word of thanks. But you can't keep a bad man down, and Chapman's postwar career proved to be as remarkable as his wartime heroics.
Chapman's story has been told in fragments in the past, but only when MI5 declassified his files was it possible to present it in all its richness and complexity. Macintyre tells it to perfection, with endless insights into the horror and absurdity of war. At one point Chapman bonds with Victor, Lord Rothschild, banker and explosives expert, whose duties included ensuring "that Winston Churchill's cigars were not booby-trapped." Chapman is an endlessly fascinating figure, a man who would save your life one day and steal your watch the next. It's amusing, at this point, to see how the more aristocratic Brits couldn't quite believe that this degenerate, this criminal, could be a patriot. But Eddie Chapman was a patriot, in his fashion, and this excellent book finally does him justice.