Chapman, Eddie

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Eddie Chapman

Eddie Chapman (1914-1997), a British criminal turned spy, was a double agent who so fooled the German government during World War II that it awarded him an Iron Cross for service. While not considered the most important double agent during the war, he “was probably the most colorful,” Christopher Andrew wrote in London's Times Online of the safecracking womanizer. The false information Chapman—dubbed “Agent Zigzag”—provided the Nazis helped divert bombs from London and spare a vital aircraft factory.

Early Life

Chapman was born on November 16, 1914, in Burnopfield, a mining village near Newcastle, England. He worked in shipyards as an adolescent and briefly joined the Coldstream Guards, a regiment of the British Army, but was released in 1933; frequently he was in trouble. Chapman was part of a “jelly gang,” a group that specialized in blowing up safes with gelignite and robbing them. He also engaged in extortion and blackmailed former paramours by showing them compromising photos. Once he even bragged about threatening to tell the parents of an 18–year–old, whom he had infected with venereal disease, that she had given it to him. “His skill as a thief made him a good deal of money and allowed him to live the life of a wealthy playboy in [London's] Soho, mixing with the likes of Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, and Marlene Dietrich,” the British security service MI5 wrote on its Web site.

According to the Times Online, Chapman wrote years later: “I mixed with all types of tricky people, racehorse crooks, thieves, prostitutes, and the flotsam of the night–life of a great city.” After he struck it rich as a safecracker, he drove a Bentley and wore Savile Row suits. “For Chapman, breaking the law was a vocation,” Ben Macintyre wrote in his 2007 book, Agent Zigzag, as quoted in the Times Online.

Authorities arrested Chapman in Jersey early in 1939 and sentenced him to two years for breaking into a nightclub. They added an extra year for attempting to escape. While Chapman was imprisoned, the Germans occupied the Channel Islands, of which Jersey is a part, in July of 1940. Chapman was finally released about a year later.

Unhappy, Chapman yearned to return to Britain; he volunteered to help the Germans, who eventually accepted him into the Abwehr, their military intelligence organization. “The Abwehr was in a desperate position; it was getting only very low–quality intelligence out of Britain from its network of spies there,” the British security service MI5 wrote on its Web site. MI5, in fact, had caught most of the German spies in the United Kingdom and were using some of them as double agents, though the Abwehr did not realize it at the time.

Chapman appealed to the Abwehr; he told the Germans he still harbored a grudge against the United Kingdom, where police still sought him for other crimes. The Abwehr felt he could recruit other agents through his underworld connections and commit sabotage, given his familiarity with explosives. The Abwehr trained him extensively in France and Norway, and called him “Fritzchen,” or “little Fritz.”

Parachuted Back into Britain

On December 16, 1942, Chapman, amid darkness of night, landed by parachute in Britain's Cambridgeshire countryside, near Ely. His assignment was to blow up the de Havilland aircraft factory at Hatfield, where the British made the effective Mosquito bomber. Chapman carried fraudulent identity, ––C990 ($2,000) in used currency, a radio set, and a suicide pill. The Germans had also promised to commute the balance of his prison sentence.

Fritz Schlichting piloted Chapman to England for the flight. Years later, Schlichting, in an interview with Macintyre published in the Times, recalled the voyage. “Chapman seemed quite calm, although he asked lots of questions. On the way over the [English] Channel we sang songs,” the former pilot said. There was one scary moment, when Chapman's parachute almost wouldn't open.”

But Chapman, upon landing, instead called Scotland Yard from a farmhouse and offered to work as a double agent. “The British, having broken German codes, knew he was coming,” Richard Goldstein wrote in the New York Times. Chapman wrote British officials a manifesto two days after his arrival. “I wish like hell there had been no war—I begin to wish I had never started this affair,” Chapman wrote, according to documents MI5 released years later. “To spy and cheat on one's friends is not nice, it's dirty. However, I started this affair and I will finish it.”

British military leaders interrogated him at Latchmere House, also called Camp 020, in west London. The skeptical camp commandant said Chapman considered himself “something of a prince of the underworld,” as quoted on the British Broadcasting Company's BBC News Web site. The commandant added: “He has no scruples and will stop at nothing. He plays for high stakes and would have the world know it.” In an internal memo, also posted on the MI5 site, a British captain urged Lieutenant Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens—named as such for his steel–rimmed monicle—to use Chapman immediately and “to the fullest extent.”

Also drawing on Chapman's explosives background, the British devised a way to stage an explosion of the de Havilland factory that would convey the sight of “damage” from the air. “Rubble was strewn around the site and MI5 planted a story in the Daily Express about the “raid,” BBC News reported. Chapman and others also used fake photographs. In another document that MI5 released (as chronicled by the MI5 site), British military official R.T. Reed wrote: “The camouflage was excellent and the impression gained was that aerial photography from any height above 2,000 feet would show considerable devastation without creating any suspicion …. The whole picture was very convincing, so much so that the operator in charge of the small boiler house near the swimming pool had arrived that morning in a state of great excitement; he thought that his machinery had been hit by a bomb during the night.” MI5 wrote on its Web site: “Bomb–damaged transformers were created out of wood and paper–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.”

The fooled Germans treated Chapman as a hero upon his return, giving him the Iron Cross for “outstanding zeal and success” at a secret ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in the spring of 1943. Chapman, the only Briton ever to receive this medal, also received 110,000 Reichmarks and a yacht. “The Germans came to love Chapman,” one MI5 officer said, as quoted in the British Telegraph newspaper. “But although he went cynically through all the forms, he did not reciprocate. Chapman loved himself, loved adventure, and loved his country, probably in that order.”

MI5 Decided to Retire Him

After he returned to Germany, Chapman was dispatched to Norway to teach at a spy school in Oslo. After D–Day, the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944, the Abwehr sent him back to England to inspect damage from the V bombs. Chapman, who landed on concrete in his parachuting return and lost some teeth, continued to work as a double agent. His misinformation was said to help spare London, as German bombs fell on its periphery instead. Chapman also was credited with averting a German sabotage plot in Portugal; he had alerted a British captain about a bomb that resembled a lump of coal he had planted on a ship.

Chapman at one point admitted he had talked about his work to a Norwegian woman he was dating. “It was therefore thought too dangerous for him to continue,” Michael Smith wrote in the Telegraph. Chapman, who had returned to Britain in 1944, was retired with a ––C6,000 payment from MI5, which let him retain ––C1,000 of the money the Nazis had given him. In addition, outstanding charges based on more than 40 safecracking jobs, which could have landed him another 20 years in prison, were stricken. According to MI5, he continued to date glamorous women and was seen in the company of a professional fighter of ill repute.

The British government attempted to keep Chapman's double–agent work under wraps, but when tried on a currency–related charge in 1948, a senior official from the War Office provided a character reference. The official, as quoted in the New York Times, called Chapman “one of the bravest men who served in the last war.”

Books, Movies Followed

Chapman published three books about his work: The Eddie Chapman Story (1953), Free Agent: The Further Adventures of Eddie Chapman (1955) and The Real Eddie Chapman Story (1966). Also in 1966, the film “Triple Cross” was released, with Tony Award winner Christopher Plummer playing Chapman. Meanwhile, the Germans joined the British in forgiving Chapman. When Chapman's daughter was married, former German spy controller Baron Stefan von Grunen was a guest at the wedding. “The story of many a spy is commonplace and drab. The story of Chapman is different. In fiction it would be rejected as improbable,” Smith wrote in the Telegraph.

Chapman died on December 11, 1997, at age 83 in a nursing home in Brickett Wood, near London. After his death, MI5 released its files on Chapman, and any person with a National Archives readers' ticket can view them. Macintyre added in Agent Zigzag, as quoted in a Carlo Wolff article in the Chicago Sun–Times, “He may have ascended heavenward or perhaps he headed in the opposition. He is probably zigzagging still.”

In 2007, two more books about Chapman were published, though with different slants. While Macintyre's Agent Zigzag portrayed Chapman as a “rogue who so liked living on the edge that he threatened to fall over,” Carlo Wolff wrote in the Chicago Sun–Times, Nicholas Booth, author of Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Eddie Chapman, pictured the double agent more heroically. “The life of a secret agent is dangerous enough, but the life of the double agent is infinitely more precarious. If anyone balances on a swinging tightrope it is her, and a single slip can send him crashing to destruction,” Wolff said Macintyre wrote, quoting high–ranking MI5 official Major John Cecil Masterman. Wolff added: “Macintyre remains skeptical, while Booth winds up an apologist for Chapman despite his distaste for the man's philandering and tendency to embellish.”

Macintyre, a writer–at–large for London's Times, was nominated for the 2007 Whitbread Book Awards, known more commonly as the Costa Book Awards. “Macintyre vividly brought Chapman to life after poring over hundreds of newly declassified MI5 papers-transcripts, wireless intercepts, reports, and letters,” Times colleague Dalya Alberge wrote. “He painted a portrait of a man whose real–life story is the stuff of a screenwriter's imagination.”

Chapman's Legacy

The release of the 2007 books revived interest in Chapman's work. After Macintyre published his book, old friends and enemies alike contacted the author. Journalist Peter Kinsley said, as quoted in the Times: “Eddie would have loved the publicity. His old friends said he should have worn a T–shirt emblazoned ‘I am a Spy for MI5.’ The last time I met him he described how he had missed a fortune in ermine [used in coronation robes] during a furs robbery, because he thought it was a rabbit.”

Then, John Dixon contacted Macintyre. Dixon, an independent filmmaker, had six hours of interview footage with Chapman that he had begun shooting in 1996, intending to produce a documentary. Chapman, however, died one year later. Macintyre watched the footage from a screening room in Soho. “Meeting Chapman for the first time from beyond the grave was one of the strangest experiences of my life,” Macintyre wrote in the Times.

Macintyre, though, caught Chapman in yet another lie, about how he was taken to meet British leader Winston Churchill in 1943. “Chapman could never have imagined that MI5 would release its records, and that the truth about his wartime service would be revealed,” Macintyre wrote. “His own death is imminent, but here is Eddie Chapman still playing by his own rules: a grinning villain, spinning a yarn, looking you straight in the eye, and picking your pocket.”


“Ben McIntyre Shortlisted for Costa Book Awards 2007,” Times Online, (December 12, 2007).

“The Day Agent Zigzag Came Back from the Dead,” Times Online, (November 26, 2007).

“Eddie Chapman, 83, Safecracker and Spy,” New York Times, (November 26, 2007).

“A First–Class Double Cross,” Times Online, (November 26, 2007).

“History: Cases from the National Archives—Documents from the Chapman Case,” MI5 Web site, (December 12, 2007).

“History: Cases from the National Archives—Eddie Chapman (Agent ZIGZAG),” MI5 Web site, (December 12, 2007).

“How Double Agents Duped the Nazis,” BBC News, (November 26, 2007).

“Meet Eddie Chapman: Double Agent,” Bloomsbury, (November 26, 2007).

“The Spy with Two Faces,” Times Online, (November 26, 2007).

“Welsh Spy Helped Defeat Hitler,” BBC News, (November 26, 2007).

“ZigZag, a Womanizer and Thief who Double–Crossed the Nazis,” Telegraph, (November 26, 2007).

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Chapman, Eddie

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