Look at the photo. Ask yourself what you think. Dashing? Handsome? A gentleman? Wealthy and successful? Eddie Chapman was all these things. He was also an army deserter, career criminal, safecracker, con artist, thief, triple agent and, in all fairness, one of Britain’s most unlikely heroes. He was a Northern lad with a champagne appetite and beer budget. Sure, Eddie loved fast cars, faster women and fast living. What he didn’t have was cash to satisfy those tastes.
However, Eddie did know where to get it in amounts large enough to keep him in Bentleys, champagne, expensive tobacco and tailor-made suits. The answer, for a spirited young man with a taste for adventure and a distaste for anything remotely resembling convention, was simple. He joined the British Army, deserted and headed for the bright lights and dark deeds of Soho, epicentre of London’s underworld, made a few contacts, stole anything worth stealing and began a grand scheme to get as much cash as possible without the tiresome necessity of honest work. Why stand in line on payday when he could blow the safe instead?
Eddie’s chief problem was that, like most career villains, he could steal huge amounts of money without actually saving any. Cars, women, champagne, expensive cigarettes and heavy gambling eat into one’s disposable income and Eddie always loved the high life. He’d soon find himself betting more than just money. He’d gamble his life too.
By 1939 Eddie was one of Britain’s most wanted crooks. He’d blown safes all over the country and had over 40 counts of burglary against him. If caught, he’d be off to Dartmoor Prison and spend the next 20 years breaking rocks instead of safes. Eddie wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with enthusiasm and, having somehow made bail from a robbery in Scotland, promptly jumped it and, taking only some clothes, some gelignite and his latest girlfriend, ran to the island of Jersey where he hoped he’d be safe.
It turned out that Eddie had a definition of the word ‘safe’ that you’re unlikely to find in any dictionary, in any language, anywhere on Planet Earth.
Eddie was with his girlfriend, enjoying a nice evening meal as you do, when he noticed the two detectives stomping towards him. Being the dashing type, our brave blaster promptly kissed her goodbye and leapt through the dining room window without actually opening it first. He fled, with his unwelcome visitors in hot pursuit, was caught and sent to Jersey’s prison for 2 years, with another 20 waiting for him back home. Eddie languished, contemplating his future and realising that it didn’t look terribly promising when WWII provided an exciting new career opportunity. The Germans invaded Jersey in 1940 and Eddie chose a novel means of early parole. Spying for the Germans.
German Intelligence were doing badly, they couldn’t have been doing worse if they’d tried. They’d sent twenty agents into Britain and they’d all been caught (apart from one who’d shot himself). They needed a spy who could actually do some proper spying. Eddie’s offer was more than wlcome. An inconspicuous native (unlike most of his predecessors) with a working knowledge of explosives, a perfect saboteur. The Germans gave him all the training a professional traitor needs if they’re to have any chance of survival. Eddie learnt fast and well and dropped into Britain to destroy a factory building Mosquito bombers. Everything in the Nazi garden was rosy, the factory was doomed and German Intelligence couldn’t be happier.
Eddie landed and immediately made British Intelligence a remarkable offer. He was a Brit working for the Germans, now offering to pretend to work for the Germans while really working for the British. The British, perhaps as confused as anybody, grilled him until they felt he could be trusted (as far as someone like Eddie can be, anyway) and then made a little joke. Every spy has a codename, Eddie needed one too. Eddie’s was ‘Zigzag’ because by now nobody involved (possibly including Eddie) ever quite knew which way he was going at any given time.
British Intelligence based him near London and obligingly faked a blown-up factory for German consumption, something that would look right on aerial recon photos, and then Eddie pushed his luck even further with yet another remarkable offer. He offered to return to Occupied Europe via neutral Portugal while, on the way, fake the sinking of a British troopship that German Intelligence wanted sunk. Again, the British played along, Eddie returned to his Nazi masters and newspapers reported the ship lost at sea to bolster Eddie’s cover. It worked perfectly. German Intelligence swallowed the fake sinking completely and provided Eddie with a little surprise of their own for what they thought was their most successful double agent.
Eddie was the only Englishman to be awarded the Iron Cross. With a citation personally signed by a certain Adolf Hitler. The Adolf Hitler.
After his return to Occupied Europe Eddie spent a little holiday in Berlin and a longer one in Occupied Norway before being offered another mission into Britain. The Germans had been firing their V1 ‘buzzbombs’ into London for a while now and wanted somebody to confirm they were hitting their targets. Eddie was happy to oblige and was dropped back into Britain. Eddie helped the British by sending false radio reports, causing the Germans to reprogramme their bombs to land in places relatively harmless instead. Yet again,’Agent Zigzag’ was leading them a merry dance despite his old crimes (and possible 20-year sentence) still hanging over him.
Eddie spent the rest of the war tapping lies in Morse code, supposedly helping the Germans while really helping the British. Eventually, though, he returned to type when he developed a profitable sideline in fixing greyhound races by doping all the runners except the ones he’d put money on. Having already wiped his previous criminal record in return for his remarkable career moves, British Intelligence were not amused. They read him the riot act, threatened to prosecute him and eventually fired him without so much as a commendation for all he’d done during the war.
He spent the remainder of his life still hanging out with other crooks, doing the occasional dodgy deal, getting married (he bumped into his Jersey girlfriend in a London bar after the war and somehow charmed her into becoming his wife) and even worked for a national newspaper as its honorary crime writer. His advice to readers was, like everything else in his life, unconventional. He warned them that under no circumstances should honest people have anything to do with people like him.
Eddie died in 1997, still married to his Jersey girl and still the only Englishman ever to have been awarded the Iron Cross. He fathered two children, retired to Spain’s notorious ‘Costa del Crime’ (home to many an English crook, especially when they were on the run) and spent his sunset years living off his fame and enoying the high life he loved so much and had risked so much to achieve.
All in all, possibly the most unusual British hero of WWII.