Author Ian Fleming had played a role in intelligence matters during the war, and was even named in a bit of misinformation about anti-submarine technologies in 1944. The chap responsible for morsing this lie to Germany was one Eddie Chapman. Chapman was a hugely accomplished double agent: the only British citizen to receive the Iron Cross, a pal of Noel Coward and Dennis Wheatley, and, according to one anonymous lady acquaintance, “an absolute shit”.
He’s the subject of Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, on which I have just gorged. Cor, it’s a bit good. John le Carre is on the nose in his assessment (which is the reason I picked the book up):
“Superb. Meticulously researched, splendidly told, immensely entertaining and often very moving.”Chapman was a small-time crook with a thing for explosives who found himself in a jail on Jersey when the Nazis took the island over. He avoids the labour and death camps by offering them use of his explosive skills, and is soon being trained as a German agent. He learns how to hide explosives in pieces of coal and there’s quite a lot on the different ways to make timers from watches and alarm clocks. We get insights into the mechanics of spy work and the ornate puns and anagrams of which the coders were so fond.
The Germans then parachute him into England. He doesn’t fasten his mask properly so nosebleeds down his suit; his pack is so big he gets wedged in the plane’s trapdoor when he tries to bail out, and one of the pilots has to give him a kick; and when he finally hits the ground, he gives himself up to the British.
What follows is a complex tangle of intrigues as the British debrief and then use the double-agent, all the time struggling with his amorality, his need for excitement and cash and loose women. Macintyre musters a huge wealth of newly declassified contemporary reports and more recent interviews to give a comprehensive picture of the man.
As Sir John Masterman, chair of the misinformation-making Twenty Committee noted of his charge,
“Certain persons … had a natural predilection to live in that curious world of espionage and deceit, and who attach themselves with equal facility to one side or the other, so long as their craving for adventure of a rather macabre type is satisfied.”
quoted in Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag, p. 71.But it’s not just that Chapman is such a fascinating, charismatic snake. Macintyre also expertly guides us through the complexities of spy work, the conflicting hierarchies of British and German military and intelligence groups, and the real and perceived events of the war that Chapman reported on, lied about and affected. It is an extraordinary achievement that so richly detailed a study as this is so straightforwardly engaging. In explaining the context, Macintyre packs in a wealth of brilliant top facts and details.
“Between the extremes of collaboration and resistance, the majority of Norwegians maintained a sullen, insolent loathing for the German occupiers. As a mark of opposition many wore paperclips in their lapels. The paperclip is a Norwegian invention: the little twist of metal became a symbol of unity, a society binding together against oppression. Their anger blew cold in a series of small rebellions and acts of incivility. Waiters in restaurants would always serve their countrymen first; Norwegians would cross the street to avoid eye contact with a German and speak only in Norwegian; on buses no one would sit beside a German, even when the vehicle was jam-packed, a form of passive disobedience so infuriating to the Nazi occupiers that it became illegal to stand on a bus if a seat was available.”
Ibid., p. 228.This wealth of detail means Macintyre can marry up the inconsistencies in people’s accounts with solid facts – and several times he can point out when Chapman lied through his teeth. He also makes us care about the people Chapman met and worked with, so that it’s as rewarding to find out about the post-war lives of Chapman’s guards and mentors as about his later scams.
If there’s any criticism at all, it’s that occasionally the descriptions are a little too overwrought – “the sun that poured through the dining-room window of the Hotel de la Plage formed a dazzling halo around the man sat opposite Betty Farmer” (p. 3).
It’s also interesting that one other of Chapman’s many acquaintances, called upon to as a character witness, was Terence Young. Young later directed the film Triple Cross, in which Christopher Plummer played Chapman – though Macintyre dismisses it as bearing “only a superficial relation to the truth. Chapman was disappointed by it” (p. 318).
But more famously, Young was director of the first two James Bond movies. Many have said that Sean Connery based his performance on Young. But in the cool, funny, sophisticated, adventure-loving rascal that is more Connery’s invention than Fleming’s, there’s clearly something pinched from Agent Zigzag.