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Culture Bytes: Agent Zigzag

Spies are as old as war. They’ve come from every conceivable background and nationality. The English, from Christopher Marlowe to James Bond, have made a specialty of the craft. But Eddie Chapman, Zigzag of MI5, a real double agent during World War II, was the most astonishing of them all.

Eddie, a son of the English working class (or in his case, the non-working class) was a small time criminal and an occasional safecracker. As Zigzag, he ran circles around his handlers, the aristos of England and Germany. He comes alive in Ben Macintyre’s biography, %%AMAZON=073935454X Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal.%%

Chapman was in jail on the Isle of Jersey when the war broke out. He went into prison an Englishman. When he came out the Nazis were running the island. (The Channel Islands are close to France; the Germans planted themselves there long before they started bombing England.) The Nazis offered him a chance to make some money. Eddie never said no to a few quid and so the Nazis sent him to occupied France and trained him in the arts of sabotage.

He was dropped by parachute into the English countryside, assigned to blow up the De Haviland factory, near London, where Mosquito bombers were built. Instead of sabotage, Eddie reported to the Secret Service and went back to being a patriot. Probably.

Eddie and MI5 faked an explosion at the De Haviland factory. The Germans believed it actually happened which gave Eddie credibility with his Nazi handlers. They believed they now had a valuable and proven asset, allowing Eddie to start sending disinformation back to occupied France.

That kind of deception is as old as the Trojan horse, but in the modern era it has been a particularly English skill. For the Brits, there was often an element of the theatre about their methods. Most famously, fake airplanes and ersatz tanks were used to confuse the Nazis about just where the Normandy invasion would take place. There were other similar but less celebrated actions throughout the war – and Eddie Chapman ran his share of them.

I have always thought the British were particularly good at that sort of thing because acting is in the DNA of the country. A nation that could produce the Elizabethan theatre, was quite capable of bamboozling a humorless lot like the Nazis with a bit of show business razzle-dazzle.

Eddie Chapman was a handsome rascal who chased beautiful women, charmed most everyone and stole whatever wasn’t nailed down. The man was a born liar and very good at squeezing money out of both the Germans and the British. Quite rightly, neither side trusted him completely but the Germans bought his act more completely than the English who benefited from it more thoroughly.

Much of Mr. Macintyre’s book comes as a result of recently opened MI5 files. As it happens, a second book about Eddie Chapman, by Nicholas Booth, is about to be published by Arcade. I assume Booth has used the same MI5 files. Things like this happen all the time – a story is in the air and more than one writer starts chasing it. The result, a few years later, is more books on a subject than the market can absorb.

Zigzag spent time in occupied Norway where he struck up one of his romances with Dagmar, who was probably a British spy. Eddie was part of the occupation, which made him a German operative but of course he wasn’t. Or at least not full time. The Norwegians thought of Dagmar as a collaborator, a Nazi’s whore, which didn’t endear her to her friends and neighbors.

When Eddie left Norway he made sure the Germans paid Dagmar a weekly stipend. They thought of her as an insurance policy – as long as Dagmar was in their hands, Eddie would be sure to return. Hah! Eddie loved her, until he didn’t when he loved somebody else. In the UK, he saw to it that MI5 paid a similar stipend to another of his mistresses, this one also the mother of his small daughter.

Eddie’s specialty, after stealing that is, was sending false information to the Germans. By the time Eddie was through dancing them around, the Nazis believed that British ships had a “proximity fuse” (utter nonsense, of course), which could find and then destroy the U-Boats that were the Nazi’s pride.

Of the German spies who believed Eddie was their colleague, Macintyre writes, “Some were Nazi ideologues. But most were the human jetsam that tends to float toward the spy world: opportunists, criminals, and a handful of fantasists… The instincts of the spy and the thief are not so different, both trade in stolen goods…it is a seller’s market.” In other words, perfect for Eddie Chapman.

Eddie was not the first person to find his better self in war. His task, whether he fully understood it or not, was to make sure his venal side didn’t overwhelm that better part. I think it’s fair to say that even if he wasn’t perfect, he did a lot better than anyone who had ever dealt with him would have expected was possible.

This is also a book about class. MI5 was made up of public school boys, many of whom had known each other all their lives. They lived by a gentlemanly code, which was so much horse-manure to Eddie Chapman. Among his handlers was John Masterman, the Oxford don and novelist, “the great theoretician of the double cross.” Lord Rothschild who knew a lot about explosives trained Eddie in how to make things go boom. Most of them used false names when dealing with Zigzag.

Eddie’s favorite handler, one of the very few on either side that he felt close to, was a German aristocrat who seemed to feel more loyalty to Germany than to Hitler. It was members of that class that tried to kill Hitler by blowing him up, in the officers plot of 1944.

Earlier, Eddie had offered to kill Hitler, a suicidal mission of course, but MI5 doesn’t seem to have taken the possibility seriously. If Eddie had been the one to lob a bomb at the Fuehrer, instead of the upper class twit of an officer who made a mess of the job, chances are it would have been done right,

The Nazis gave Eddie the Iron Cross and they gave him money. Fastidious in their record keeping, they made him sign a contract with the terms of service and payment specified. Eddie would sign anything – it was all upper class rubbish to him, German or English.

After the war, Eddie grew old and rich in England and he wrote his memoirs – said to be mostly lies. A movie was made about his life, Triple Cross, unseen by me. This new book has a wonderful movie tucked inside it, just waiting to pop out. The rights have already been sold.

In the end, one wants to take Eddie Chapman at his word – something anyone who ever knew him, English or German, enemy or lover, would say was absolutely absurd.