Eddie Chapman was a safebreaker and crook, a highly successful double agent and the only Englishman to be awarded the Iron Cross. The false information he sent back to Germany about the effects of the V1 and V2 rockets probably saved the lives of a great many Londoners.
Born in the North-East during the First World War, Chapman was well versed in the harshness of life. As a youth he joined the Coldstream Guards, but spent considerable periods in the "glasshouse" (the army term for gaol) before being thrown out of the Army. He turned to smash-and-grab before progressing to safebreaking, specialising in gelignite.
In 1939 he was arrested for safebreaking in Glasgow, and while awaiting trial, escaped to Jersey, where he was immediately imprisoned. He was about to be returned to Scotland when the Germans invaded the Channel Islands.
Sensing a way out of his predicament, Chapman offered to carry out sabotage for the Germans on the UK mainland. He was extremely well trained by them, given the code-name Fritz, and in 1942 dropped by parachute near Littleport in Cambridgeshire. Equipped with wireless, pistol, the obligatory cyanide capsule and pounds 1,000, he was detailed to blow up the De Havilland aircraft factory at Hatfield where the new Mosquito fighter-bomber was being made.
On landing he reported to the local Littleport police station where he had difficulty in convincing the policemen on duty that not only was he an escaped prisoner turned German spy, but that he wanted to pass on secrets to MI5. But MI5 already had information from Bletchley Park on his activities and realised how valuable he was. They allowed him to radio his German controller and agreed that he should appear to carry out his mission. To obtain the necessary explosive material he returned to an old haunt, a quarry in Kent, to steal gelignite.
With his new British code-name Zig-Zag and the aid of Jasper Maskelyne, a stage illusionist and expert in deception and camouflage, he raided the factory. He created an enormous explosion which blew off part of the roof. They then smashed holes in all the windows, covered the rest of the roof in camouflage netting and threw debris around. German aerial reconnaissance recorded a successful operation and from that moment Fritz's signals about troop movements and other information were accepted by the Germans.
Soon afterwards he was ordered back to Germany. MI5 found a British ship bound for Lisbon. En route it was attacked by the Luftwaffe. When they arrived in Lisbon Chapman reported to the local Nazi representative, who gave him two pieces of "coal" which he was instructed to put aboard the ship before he finally left. This was in fact explosive material designed to detonate when put into the furnace. Not easily deceived, Chapman handed the "coal" to the captain. On his return to Germany he received a hero's welcome.
He then seemed to disappear in Europe and was later located by MI5 in Norway, where he was blowing his pay and talking with a very bad German accent. Shortly after D-Day, with the tide turning against them, the Germans planned to launch extensive raids on London with the V1 and V2. Chapman was briefed and told to report back on the effects of the rockets. Before departing he was awarded the Iron Cross. There is little doubt that, in his own inimitable way, Chapman had created a considerable bond with the Germans he worked with, which he recalls in The Eddie Chapman Story published after the war.
Dropped again in Cambridge, he reported to the nearest police station, where they again didn't believe a word of his story, until he insisted that they telephone Littleport, where the same desk sergeant who he had spoken to two years earlier remembered him. He was debriefed by MI5 and set up in a flat in Kensington. He reported back to Germany, giving grossly inflated figures about deaths from the V1 and V2 rockets and wherever possible redirecting them to sparsely populated areas. However, the double life and the large amount of money the Germans had paid him led Chapman back to his old cronies in the West End and nights at Smokey Joe's and the Shim Sham Club. He was indiscreet about the sources of his income and MI5, unable to control him, never used him again.
When the war ended Chapman, now a little short of money, had his wartime memoirs serialised in France. He was charged under the Official Secrets Act and fined pounds 50. A few years later, when they were due to be published in the News of the World the whole issue was pulped. But Chapman was not easily put off a mission, and managed to get his book, The Eddie Chapman Story, published in 1953, while the film Triple Cross, which opened in 1967, was loosely based on his own life. He continued his adventurous life, getting involved in smuggling in North Africa - and having to be smuggled out of Tangiers himself - and working in the colonies. In the Eighties he ran a health farm in Hertfordshire.
Perhaps the greatest accolade for this extraordinary, complex and genial man who made an art-form of deception came from Baron Stefan von Grunen, the German Chapman had reported to while an agent. Although he had been deceived throughout the war, von Grunen attended the wedding of Eddie Chapman's daughter.
- Max Arthur