In 1943, an ex-British soldier found himself in Germany, but not as a prisoner, rather he was an agent of the Nazis. He was the toast of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service, for he had just returned from Britain where he had blown-up the power plant of the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, London. So pleased were his German masters, the saboteur was said to have been awarded the prestigious Iron Cross Second Class in recognition of the deed. What the Germans did not know, however, was the attack on the factory had been faked, and ‘their man’ was in fact not working for them at all, but was a double agent in the employ of MI5, Britain’s Security Service. His name was Eddie Chapman.
Born in 1914 in Burnopfield, County Durham, Edward Arnold Chapman was the eldest of three children. Along with his siblings, he was somewhat unruly and seldom attended school, much preferring to find other more enjoyable ways to fill his day. Yet despite this, he was an intelligent individual, and grew up being able to think on his feet and become self-reliant.
When he turned 17, Chapman enlisted in the British Army, joining the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Although military life had seemingly promised adventure, much of his time was spent performing ceremonial duties in London, and it would not be long before the fickle Chapman became bored. Following a short period of leave, he failed to return to barracks and instead made off with a girl he had met in Soho. However, the army soon caught up with him and put him in prison. After almost three months in the Glasshouse, Chapman was booted out of the service.
Now unemployed, Chapman found what casual work he could but he was never seemingly able to earn enough. Despite his modest means, he developed a taste for the high-life, regularly drinking in fashionable clubs in Soho and became an ardent gambler. In desperate need of money, he turned to crime, committing petty theft and fraud. One day, following the forging of a cheque, Chapman was caught by police and subsequently sentenced to two months in Wormwood Scrubs.
Turning from petty crimes to more serious offences, Chapman would become a member of one of the so-called ‘Jelly Gangs’. These West End gangs earned their nickname from their use of gelignite to blow open safes, the contents of which they then liberated. So successful did Chapman’s criminal career become that he was able to lead the life of a wealthy playboy in Soho, and it is known that he regularly mixed with Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and Marlene Dietrich.
Later, Chapman travelled to Scotland where he blew open the safe used by the Edinburgh Cooperative Society, but he would be caught and jailed. Following his subsequent release on bail, he decided to try his luck on the Channel Island of Jersey.
While on Jersey, Chapman went with his lover, Betty Farmer, to the Hotel de la Plage for dinner. It was when he was eating with his future wife that he suddenly realised two plain-clothed police officers were closing in on him, without doubt intending to arrest him for outstanding crimes committed on the mainland. Chapman managed to escape, through a window, but was caught later that same evening when he committed a burglary. He was put in prison, where he was to serve a two-year sentence, but after an escape attempt it was increased to three.
At the end of June 1940, Germany invaded the Channel Islands while Chapman was still in prison on Jersey; he was not released until October 1941. Desperate to get off the island and return to Britain, he told the Germans that he would like to work for them as a spy, an offer that was accepted. Chapman was sent to Fort de Romainville in France, after which he was placed under the supervision of Stephan von Gröning, the head of the Abwehr in Nantes, who put him through a training programme that included handling explosives, the use of a radio and how to parachute.
It would be his existing knowledge and previous experience of explosives, coupled with his criminal past, the latter of which Chapman used to argue that he hated the British establishment, that made him attractive as a potential saboteur to the Germans. His connections with the criminal underground also promised the possibility of recruiting further agents like himself. The Abwehr was struggling to gain any meaningful intelligence out of Britain, and their new man seemed to offer a much-needed solution to the problem.
Chapman, who the Germans codenamed ‘Fritzchen’ (meaning ‘little Fritz’), was instructed to return to Britain, where he was to carry out an act of sabotage against the De Havilland aircraft factory. Thus, on 16 December 1942, he was flown by plane over Norfolk, but as he attempted to exit the aircraft he became stuck, and by the time he managed to free himself he missed his target, instead landing near Littleport in Cambridgeshire. Nevertheless, he landed safely, carrying his radio set, pistol and a cyanide capsule in case he was caught.
Unfortunately for the Abwehr, the British knew Chapman was coming following the interception of encrypted German transmissions, which could be read thanks to the breaking of the Enigma codes the previous year. As a result, the police were waiting for him, and when they found him he immediately gave himself up. Chapman informed his captors that he wanted to work for MI5 and, following an interrogation at Camp 020 by the formidable, monocle wearing Lieutenant-Colonel Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, he was recruited as a double agent. According to Stephens:
‘In our opinion, Chapman should be used to the fullest extent … he genuinely means to work for the British against the Germans. By his courage and resourcefulness he is ideally fitted to be an agent.’
Fritzchen now became Agent ZIGZAG, and his assigned MI5 case officer would be Ronnie Reed.
Section B1A of MI5, which had responsibility for turning German spies into double agents, had eagerly awaited Chapman’s arrival. However, they now needed to convince the Germans that their man was still working for the Abwehr. Knowing of his instructions to sabotage the De Havilland factory, it was decided to fake the attack, paving the way for Chapman to return to Germany to spy for the British. Thus, on the night of 29/30 January 1943, Chapman and his MI5 minder cleverly made the De Havilland factory look like it had suffered an explosion in its power plant.
To accomplish this, they set up an elaborate system of camouflage. The bomb damaged transformers were actually made out of wood and papier-mâché, while the buildings were covered with tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets, which were painted to look like partially damaged walls and roofs from the air. Rubble and other debris was then thrown around to give the impression an explosion had occurred.
So convincing was the ruse that when a German reconnaissance aircraft later flew over the site to take pictures, the developed images convinced Chapman’s Abwehr handlers that he had successfully completed his mission. Even the Daily Express ran a report mentioning ‘an explosion at a factory on the outskirts of London’, which further added to German belief in Fritzchen’s loyalty.
Chapman subsequently requested, via his German radio, for a U-Boat to be sent to pick him up, but the Abwehr refused. Instead, they instructed him to make for Lisbon, a neutral port, from where he could travel on to Germany. Reed believed the Abwehr was attempting to avoid the payment of £15,000 that they had promised as a reward for bombing the factory. Travelling to a neutral port in wartime, however, was no easy task, since Chapman needed a reason, and a good one at that.
The British got round this issue by installing Chapman as a member of crew aboard the merchant ship the City of Lancaster – he was given the fake identity of Hugh Anson – which sailed to Lisbon from Liverpool. Once docked, the double agent jumped ship and made for the German embassy, where he requested that two bombs were given to him disguised as lumps of coal. These, he claimed, he would use to blow-up the ship, but in reality he passed them to the ship’s captain, who was to return them to Britain for analysis. Incredibly, the Germans never noticed if the ship had been damaged or not, but a fake investigation was held in Britain to suggest that a sabotage attempt had been made against the vessel.
Pleased with their agent, the Germans next sent Chapman to Oslo in Norway, where he was to teach newly recruited German spies the art of their craft. For his success in bombing the De Havilland factory and damaging the City of Lancaster, Chapman was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class – it has been suggested that it was in fact the War Merit Cross Second Class – after which he was made an oberleutnant in the Wehrmacht and given 110,000 Reichmarks, as well as a private yacht. Unbeknown to the Germans, Chapman continued to work for the British, taking secret photographs of the spies he trained for later identification.
The End of the War
In the latter part of the war, following the Allied landings at Normandy, Chapman was sent by his German handlers back to Britain, from where he was given instructions to transmit reports on the effectiveness of the V-1 flying bombs. Landing by parachute in Cambridgeshire, on 29 June 1944, he quickly set to work sending misleading messages regarding the V-1s, claiming they were hitting their targets when in fact they were often missing them. This, it is believed, resulted in the Germans assuming their flying bombs were accurate, thus having no need to adjust their aim.
Chapman, however, now turned into a liability for MI5 after he once again became involved in criminal activities. Despite his previous successes, he was soon dispensed with by MI5, who effectively fired him in November. As part of his severance package, they paid him £6,000 and allowed him to keep a further £1,000 that he had received from the Germans. Perhaps most importantly for Chapman, he was pardoned from all his outstanding pre-war crimes.
With the war over, Chapman slipped back into associating with criminals, and got himself into trouble with the police on a number of occasions. In an attempt to make some money, he offered his wartime adventures to the French media, who published it in serial form. This was in breach of the Official Secrets Act in Britain, and so he was fined the sum of £50. Nevertheless, he would go on to publish a book called The Eddie Chapman Story in 1953.
In the 1960s, Chapman became an antiquarian in Italy, although he later returned to Britain to set up a health farm at Shenley Lodge in Hertfordshire with Betty, who was by now his wife. He also remained good friends with Gröning, who attended the wedding of one of Chapman’s daughters.
On 11 December 1997, Chapman died of heart failure at the age of 83. His wartime exploits are well remembered, and in recent years he has been the subject of a detailed study by Ben Macintyre in his book Agent ZIGZAG. Chapman was, and remains, one of the most intriguing double agents of all time.
Thank you to Mark for speaking with us again about another truly fascinating piece of Britain’s Secret Service history during the Second World War.
You can also read other WWII Nation articles written by Mark Simner, that focus on a few of the other remarkable episodes of British espionage in WWII:
Photo Credits: Eddie Chapman | Coldstream Guards on Patrol | Channel Islands | De Havilland DH-98 Mosquito | Lt-Colonel ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens | De Havilland Factory Explosion Mockup | Aerial View of de Havilland Factory | Germans Entering Oslo | The V-1 Flying Bomb | Eddie Chapman with Rolls Royce |