BookBrowse Reviews Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

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Agent Zigzag

A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2008, 384 pages

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The enthralling true story of double-agent Zigzag, an amoral charmer and former safeblower who risked his life for his country

Agent Zigzag is one of two books recently published about double-agent Eddie Chapman. The other is ZigZag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman by Nicholas Booth. Of the two, Booth's comes in about 100 pages longer than Macintyre's and is written in collaboration with Eddie's wife Betty (Eddie having died in 1997), and thus is more personal in tone. Despite this, reviewers in general favor Macintyre's version - which is the subject of the remainder of this review.

Every war creates its villains and its heroes, occasionally they can be one and the same, as in the case of Eddie Chapman.

Eddie was languishing in prison in the Channel Islands* when the Germans invaded in 1940. His latest incarceration was the result of being arrested for safe-blowing, just one of a series of crimes for which he had spent stretches in jail over the previous decade. On completing his sentence he was released into Nazi-occupied Jersey, only to find himself rearrested shortly after and shoved unceremoniously into a French jail, where he was offered the opportunity to spy for the Germans.

Chapman is a gift to a writer. Fictional characters simply can't be written like him and remain credible. Having said that, considering Chapman's ability to disseminate, it is not always clear whether what we read about him based on the official papers is real truth or Chapman truth. What is unquestioned is that he was an amoral charmer with a taste for sharp suits and an ability to remain cool under hours of interrogation, who turned in his life as a self styled gentleman-thief for that of a double-agent - a role that he was born to fill.

Quickly becoming proficient in German, he was a dream come true to his German handlers - a master of explosives with a long criminal record who seemed quite willing to do their bidding. Shortly after being recruited, Chapman was on his way back across the channel where, after landing in England, he turned himself into the authorities, offering his services as a double agent. Was this altruistic or opportunistic? The records point to a bit of both. Certainly his English handlers were wary of him, realizing that they had their hands full with Chapman. Chapman, in turn, had his hands full extracting wads of cash from both the Germans and the British! Having proved his credentials to the Germans with a (faked) explosion in a de Havilland factory (see the sidebar for more about de Havilland) he was feted by his German handlers, but treated with caution by many in the British secret service who saw him as a petty criminal, and were not at all convinced that their double-agent hadn't turned into a triple-agent.

Extraordinarily, despite his careless ways, Chapman was dependable in his own way as his handlers bounced him back and forth on increasingly demanding missions. He blew up factories and ships for the Germans (at least, they thought he did), he delivered "stolen" plans to the Germans showing that the British had a non-existent submarine-seeking bomb; he brought the British information on the V-1 rocket and sent the Germans false information on where the V-1s were falling in England. Apparently, the Germans were so pleased with him that they awarded him the Iron Cross (if this is true, he would be the first Englishman since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 to receive one, but some suggest that he received the War Merit Cross 2nd Class, not the Iron Cross, as the latter was reserved for military personnel during the Third Reich).

Like some other larger than life characters (such as Churchill, who apparently was a fan of Chapman), Chapman's nature did not fit well into peacetime. Even before the war was over he had blotted his copybook with MI5 when found to be involved in some rigged dog races; so, at the close of the war, he was quickly pensioned off by MI5 with his criminal slate wiped clean.

More thrilling than most spy thrillers and a lot more incredible, Macintyre's tale of Agent Zigzag's wartime adventures is a must read!

*Closer to France than England, the group of islands known to the British as The Channel Islands (map) include Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. As "Crown dependencies" the islands are effectively self-governing and are not represented in the British Parliament, but are treated as part of the United Kingdom for British nationality law purposes. From 1940-1945, the islands were occupied by German forces (the only part of the British Commonwealth occupied by Germany) who built huge numbers of defensive positions as part of the "Atlantic Wall". By 1944, most islanders were near to starvation and many had been taken to the continent as slave laborers. The islands were liberated in May 1945, an event celebrated every May 9. For more about this, see the sidebar to The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.

This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the August 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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