Ducking and Dodging

R.W. Johnson

  • Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
    Bloomsbury, 372 pp, £14.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 7475 8794 1

In December 1940, Ben Macintyre’s anti-hero, Eddie Chapman, was in jail in Jersey – he already had a long record, including everything from safe-breaking to blackmail – when the Nazi occupiers threw a young hotel dishwasher, Tony Faramus, into the same jail; Faramus became Chapman’s cellmate and friend. At Chapman’s suggestion they both offered to spy for the Germans, essentially as a way of getting themselves out of jail and away from Jersey. Faramus, a small-time operator guilty only of obtaining £9 under false pretences and being in possession of an anti-Nazi leaflet, looked up to the older and more experienced Chapman. It did him no good: while Chapman was recruited into a purple career as Nazi spy and then double agent, Faramus was sent to Buchenwald and later to Mauthausen, where he was starved, beaten and worked almost to death through a succession of illnesses; he lost a lung and seven ribs. After the war he became a film extra, playing a starved-looking prisoner in The Colditz Story, and ended up as Clark Gable’s butler in Hollywood. Macintyre says he got the idea for his book from reading Chapman’s obituary (he died, aged 83, in 1997), but he might just as easily have made Faramus the central character.

Chapman was patriotic in an Arthur Daley sort of way, willing to rally to the cause but always on the qui vive for dodgy little earners, a theft here, a con trick there. He was unfaithful to any number of women, robbed people he was quite fond of and, although he formed an enduring friendship with Stephan von Gröning, his charmingly aristocratic German spymaster, he also systematically double-crossed him, in a way that would probably have cost von Gröning his life had Chapman been found out. Yet Chapman was lastingly loyal to Faramus and kept trying to do his best for him throughout the war; in this uneducated little chancer he must have seen an echo of himself.

Macintyre makes much of what an accomplished, guilt-free and amoral rogue Chapman was, as well as being physically very strong and apparently irresistible to women. But what Macintyre leaves out of his account, oddly, is the Depression, which is mentioned only once in passing. Chapman was the son of a drunken publican from the Durham coalfields, and grew up in a world that was coming apart around him. He was 17 in 1931 as unemployment went through the roof. There was nothing he could rely on or believe in: the Great War had destroyed popular confidence in the establishment and deference towards it; the labour movement was at sixes and sevens; he was too cynical for religion and his family was hopeless. Doubtless, a miner or a railwayman could feel supported by a strong working-class culture, but this was not the situation for most. Anyone who has learned about these years by talking to working-class people who had to survive them (rather than by relying on the writings of the Old Etonian George Orwell) knows that even for those who weren’t permanently unemployed it was a desperate business of one short-lived job after another – a bouncer this week, a bottle-washer next week – and of ducking and dodging, a great deal of it at or beyond the margins of the law. Survivors like Chapman learned to live on their wits. They had continually to remake their plans and allegiances, and to have no regrets. It was a period that produced many Eddie Chapmans, and even more Tony Faramuses.

Chapman gravitated to Soho, became a film extra and, as his criminal career prospered, started to mix with movie stars and other raffish members of the middle class whom he met over gaming tables and in clubs. He became friendly with Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and Marlene Dietrich, as well as with Terence Young, who later made the first Bond films. Mixing with these types made Chapman acutely aware of his own lack of education, and he read enthusiastically, trying to catch up. Macintyre is often deeply amused by Chapman’s later ability to interact on equal terms with mandarins like Lord Rothschild: having a bounder for a subject means there is a Flashman-like fascination in seeing just how far he can go. But this shouldn’t blind one to his astonishing abilities. Once inducted into the espionage world he soon became a dab hand at the black arts of cryptography, wireless transmission, explosives and timing devices, quickly picked up good German, French and some Norwegian, and was not only mentally agile enough to stand up to prolonged interrogation but developed a photographic memory that allowed him to reel off all manner of militarily valuable information.

Chapman, then, was wonderfully well equipped for upward social mobility, but on the outbreak of war he was going nowhere: he faced a long jail sentence and, with his criminal record, might never have worked again. The war gave him a chance of breaking out of the social man-trap he was caught in, something that would have been impossible in peacetime. Moreover, as soon as the Germans decided to take him seriously as a potential agent, he found himself translated to a pleasant villa near Nantes, where, although he had to undergo training and endure both celibacy and a lack of privacy, he ate well, was able to consume a good deal of fine brandy, and was sheltered from the war itself. Part of Chapman’s phlegm seems to have derived from his short-termism: this life certainly beat being in jail in Jersey.

Given the immense professionalism of the German armed services, it is always surprising how poor the Abwehr was: the calibre of their agents was often woeful, they never realised that the British had broken the Enigma code and never found out that all their agents in Britain had been turned. They gave Chapman the important task of sabotaging the de Havilland factory in Hatfield where the RAF’s Mosquitos were built. But as soon as he was parachuted into Britain he contacted MI5, who slowly came round to realising that Chapman was telling them the truth, and that he was, in fact, a mine of information. But when he cheerfully reeled off his criminal record they also realised that if the police caught him he faced years in jail, so it was essential to keep him away from the law. (Years later the police were simply informed that it would be a favour to MI5 if he were not arrested. In effect, Chapman’s meritorious war service bought him an amnesty, even though MI5 had no official power of pardon.) MI5 kept up Chapman’s radio transmissions to Germany, fed the Germans inconsequential titbits and arranged to fake the destruction of the Mosquito factory by the expert use of camouflage. This fooled the Germans, despite the fact that the delivery of Mosquitos to the RAF never halted.

Chapman, whose offer to assassinate Hitler, even at the cost of his own life, was turned down by MI5 for reasons that are not entirely clear, then had to be smuggled back into Germany via Lisbon. Somewhat rashly, in order to impress the Germans, he had offered to sabotage the ship he travelled on from Liverpool, thus necessitating another bogus operation by MI5 to try to convince the Germans that only a last-minute intervention had prevented the sabotage from working. Chapman proceeded to Berlin and thence to Oslo. He could not communicate with MI5, but thanks to the Enigma decrypts his progress was easily observed from Bletchley, since his name frequently cropped up in German radio messages.

Chapman was awarded the Iron Cross by a grateful Abwehr, but by mid-1943 the war had begun to go badly for Germany and he was among those tasked with finding out why. Why were the Allies now sinking so many U-boats? What were the radar secrets enabling British night fighters to shoot down so many Luftwaffe planes? What were the RAF bombing schedules? And had the Allies begun, like the Germans, to develop rockets and flying bombs? In addition, he was to report back on the damage inflicted by the early V-1s and the exact times and places of their impact. Parachuted back into Britain, Chapman was again able to pass on a great deal of useful intelligence, including a warning of the imminent V-2 attacks. He kept up the double-bluff almost until the war’s end, at which point he was scurvily treated by MI5: more or less thrown out without reward, he was given a dire warning against revealing any of his secrets.

Macintyre writes well and has fun with the many ironies of Chapman’s career. It all makes for splendid entertainment, even if it hardly changes history. There are small errors: he mistakes J. Edgar Hoover for Herbert Hoover, for example, and refers to Chapman and his wife going to the Gold Coast in the 1960s, by which time it was Ghana. He also seems to have missed the larger black comedy of the V-1s and the double-cross system, since Chapman was far from being the only (turned) German agent instructed to report on where the missiles were landing. The cabinet’s Home Affairs Committee, under Herbert Morrison, had to decide what they should all say, the choice being whether to tell the Germans that the V-1s were all landing to the south or the north of where they actually were falling, thus causing them to overcorrect the rockets’ trajectory. Morrison objected that they would be playing God and would effectively be deciding whether North or South London should take the brunt. His civil servants said it had to be safer to avoid overflights of the capital and so the agents should report that the rockets were overshooting, causing the Germans to shorten their trajectory so that they would land mainly in Kent and South London. Morrison accused the civil servants of living comfortable bourgeois lives in North London and wanting the working class to cop it instead. So, do you want us to direct the rockets further north, they asked? In a great (though perhaps simulated) fury he stormed out of the meeting saying that Providence would have to decide where the rockets fell. His civil servants sat round appalled, concluded that Morrison simply wanted to avoid responsibility for killing any of the inhabitants of his home borough of Lambeth, and gave the order that the spies should tell Peenemunde to redirect their missiles southward. South London did indeed bear the brunt of the onslaught.

Chapman ran great risks – there were always people on either side insisting he must be a fake – and was probably particularly lucky to get out of Germany just before the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, after which the entire Abwehr was placed under Gestapo control. He was also extremely lucky that the Germans didn’t work out that in Oslo he was having a long affair with a member of the Norwegian resistance: he was always happy to take risks in order to get the women he wanted. But it didn’t really make much difference that he faked the attack on the de Havilland plant, and even when he warned of the coming of the V-2s this made it not one whit easier to defend against them. Above all, one is struck by the enormous amount of time spent in training him for missions and on his briefings and debriefings. A large part of Chapman’s war was spent in fairly cushy billets (far cushier on the German side than in Britain), where he romanced innumerable women before settling at war’s end for the girlfriend he’d been with when he was arrested in Jersey, though his amorous adventures continued for many years.

After the war Chapman returned to the world of crime, but it seems never to have been crime of the Kray variety: Chapman used to boast that he’d never needed to use his considerable skills in martial arts and this seems to have been true. Indeed, there is a whiff of the Lavender Hill Mob about what we know of his exploits. After a spell smuggling gold across the Mediterranean, he and his gang got involved in a bizarre plot to smuggle cigarettes into Morocco, where they also planned to kidnap the sultan, presumably for a large ransom. The whole thing fell apart in classic Ealing Studios manner and Chapman returned to England to help knock off a GPO van and £250,000, after which it proved prudent to have a spell in Ghana, in the building industry. This ended with a corruption inquiry but Chapman was long gone by this time. He got rich, wore coats with fur collars (like Arthur Daley), drove a Rolls and owned a castle in Ireland and a health farm in Hertfordshire. We will only really know half the truth of these years when the police files are opened. But what we do know makes sense. If Eddie Chapman, a child of the Depression, could survive so well through the 1930s and the war, it was always likely that he was going to prosper in the far spivvier world of postwar Britain.

But Chapman wanted recognition too. He briefly became ‘honorary crime correspondent’ of the Sunday Telegraph and was a natural for the tabloids, insisting that he didn’t have a bad conscience about anything he’d done and had always been ‘an honest villain’. He kept on trying to publish his war memoirs but was repeatedly frustrated by the Official Secrets Act. In the end, two poorish books and one bad film (Triple Cross, directed, inevitably, by Terence Young) appeared, but this didn’t come anywhere near fulfilling Chapman’s expectations. He met up again with Faramus, and admitted that he was largely to blame for his old cellmate’s tribulations. The two men got drunk together in brotherly style and it would be nice to think that Chapman gave Faramus a leg-up into the film world. Chapman also finally managed to meet von Gröning again and the two happily reminisced. Von Gröning had always been a not-so-secret anti-Nazi and seems not to have been disturbed to learn that Chapman had so completely double-crossed him. But such satisfactions were essentially private. It is a great pity that Macintyre wasn’t able to interview his subject and try to talk the truth out of him.

But even what Macintyre tells us may be only a partial version. Chapman certainly believed for quite a time that Germany was likely to win the war and at one stage was actually training German agents for espionage and sabotage missions against Britain. There is no doubt whatever that if Germany had won the war he would have bounded into that postwar world with a very different story, carefully omitting his work for MI5 and portraying himself as one of the heroes of the Thousand Year Reich. It’s not difficult to imagine him being decorated by a grateful Führer and cutting a swathe through the ranks of svelte Aryan women who would doubtless have populated a victorious Berlin. But even then, one suspects, there would have been cigarette smuggling jobs in the Med and post office vans getting clobbered on the Kurfürstendamm, not to mention other nice little earners in Lower Saxony and Upper Silesia.