Double-agents, spies ostensibly acting for one intelligence organisation while in fact working for the enemy, place themselves in a highly vulnerable position. They need to not only provide a credible service to their cover organisation, they must also continually prove their usefulness and loyalty to their true masters. Apart from the threat of being uncovered by those they are exploiting, there are the ever-present fears that they will be betrayed by defectors, lose the trust of their handlers or be exposed as part of a wider strategic move.
But British double-agent Eddie Chapman seems to have lived a life completely at odds with this perception. Prior to the Second World War, Chapman was a professional criminal. He had a successful stint in the thirties as a safe-cracker, often involving the use gelignite.
While on bail for one of these jobs, he escaped to Jersey where he was apprehended again and sent to a Jersey prison. He was still there when war broke out and Germany invaded the Channel islands. Chapman offered his services to the German secret service, the Abwehr, who believed Chapman’s professions of hostility towards Britain and valued his expertise with explosives. He spent a year in training before being parachuted into Cambridgeshire in 1942 on a sabotage mission.
Chapman immediately handed himself over to police. During interrogation by MI5, he was asked to act as a double-agent and was given the codename ZIG-ZAG, a reference to his less than conventional past.
Chapman’s mission for the Germans was to destroy the De Havilland aircraft factory. In January 1943, he reported back to his German handler that he had accomplished his mission. Photographs from a German reconnaissance plane confirmed the destruction of the factory, a feat for which Chapman was awarded Germany’s highest military honour, the Iron Cross.
In fact, the facility was still intact and fully operational. MI5 (possibly with the aid of stage magician Jasper Maskelyne) had faked the attack on the factory. They scattered rubble around the area and covered the building with tarpaulins painted to give the appearance from above of a bombed building. False stories of the factory’s demise were also fed to local newspapers. The Nazis swallowed the ruse hook, line and sinker. Chapman was feted as a hero, inducted into the German army as a First Lieutenant and given a yacht.
Later in the war, he falsely reported to Germany that their V-1 rockets were hitting central London. As a result, they failed to adjust their aim and missed their targets.
Eddie Chapman was one of the most successful and flamboyant spies of the Second World War but eventually, his indiscretions became a liability and MI5 had to let him go. After the war, he befriended his German handler, Stefan von Grunen who attended his daughter’s wedding. He died in 1997.