Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 18 News List

'Agent Zigzag' led Germany and Britain on a merry dance

After being released from prison, hooligan Eddie Chapman spied for the Germans, betrayed them to the British and vice versa during World War II

By WILLIAM GRIMES  /  NY Times News Service , NEW YORK

Book Review: AGENT ZIGZAG: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

On the moonlit night of Jan. 29, 1943, a mighty blast awakened residents near the De Havilland aircraft factory on the outskirts of London. As dawn broke, workers returning to the plant, which produced the speedy, efficient Mosquito bomber, shook their heads as they surveyed a scene of awesome devastation. Yet all was not as it appeared. In fact, none of it was. The entire event was staged, all for the benefit of the amazing Agent Zigzag.

Agent Zigzag, known to friends, lovers and the police as Eddie Chapman, was by any measure Britain's most unlikely intelligence asset. He was a longtime criminal turned double agent who, in the course of his career as a spy, would flit back and forth between Britain and Germany, occupied France and occupied Norway on one top-secret mission after another. His incredible wartime adventures, recounted in Ben Macintyre's rollicking, spellbinding Agent Zigzag, blend the spy-versus-spy machinations of John le Carre with the high farce of Evelyn Waugh.

Eddie Chapman was a handsome, amoral charmer with a Ronald Colman mustache, a taste for sharp suits and an insatiable appetite for danger. A career robbing safes and cash registers, punctuated by spells in prison, took an abrupt turn in 1941. After completing a three-year prison term on the Isle of Jersey, he emerged to find himself, like the rest of the islanders, living under Nazi rule. In a rude series of events he was whisked away to a prison in occupied France, where he was recruited as a German spy. On his first mission to Britain he immediately offered his services to his native country.

Britain and Germany, each mistakenly convinced that the other had a highly efficient spy network, were desperate to acquire agents. Chapman, sniffing an opportunity, jumped for it. Macintyre, a writer at large for the Times of London, paints a detailed picture, supported by newly opened MI5 files on espionage training in the Third Reich and Britain's desperate scramble to throw the enemy off course through a campaign of disinformation.

Publication Notes


of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre

364 pages


In this fevered atmosphere, Chapman flourished like an exotic flower. He was heedless of danger and cool under pressure. A born liar, he could withstand hours of interrogation without breaking a sweat. He became fluent in French and German, polished his already considerable skills as an explosives expert, learned how to write with invisible ink and quickly mastered the art of extracting large wads of cash from his German and British handlers.

Both sides were unsure what they had gotten themselves into. "It is not easy to judge the workings of Chapman's mind," one British spy handler reported. That was an understatement. On his first mission to Germany, Chapman obtained two explosive devices disguised as lumps of coal, which, he informed German intelligence, he intended to place in the bunkers of the merchant ship he had used for transport to neutral Portugal. (Because the British had broken German codes early in the war, they could monitor all intelligence traffic relating to Chapman.)

Had Chapman turned into a triple agent? As monitors held their breath in London, Chapman returned to the ship and turned over the bombs to the captain, assuming, rightly, that this new bit of German technology would fascinate the boys back home.

Chapman was feckless and erratic but, in his own way, dependable. "Slowly at first, and with great care, Chapman began to build up a stock of secrets that would be of supreme interest to British intelligence," Macintyre writes.

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