Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre


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“Ben Macintyre’s rollicking, spellbinding Agent Zigzag blends the spy-versus-spy machinations of John le Carré with the high farce of Evelyn Waugh.”—William Grimes, The New York Times (Editors’ Choice)
“Wildly improbable but entirely true . . . [a] compellingly cinematic spy thriller with verve.”—Entertainment Weekly


Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced. In 1941, after training as German spy in occupied France, Chapman was parachuted into Britain with a revolver, a wireless, and a cyanide pill, with orders from the Abwehr to blow up an airplane factory. Instead, he contacted M15, the British Secret service, and for the next four years, Chapman worked as a double agent, a lone British spy at the heart of the German Secret Service. Inside the traitor was a man of loyalty; inside the villain was a hero. The problem for Chapman, his spymasters, and his lovers was to know where one persona ended and the other began. Based on recently declassified files, Agent Zigzag tells Chapman’s full story for the first time. It’s a gripping tale of loyalty, love, treachery, espionage, and the thin and shifting line between fidelity and betrayal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307353412
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 08/12/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 162,131
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 10.48(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

BEN MACINTYRE is a writer-at-large for The Times of London and the bestselling author of A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, The Napoleon of Crime, and Forgotten Fatherland, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of the wartime espionage trilogy.

Read an Excerpt


The Hotel de la Plage Spring came early to the island of Jersey in 1939. The sun that poured through the dining-room window of the Hotel de la Plage formed a dazzling halo around the man sitting opposite Betty Farmer with his back to the sea, laughing as he tucked into the six-shilling Sunday Roast Special “with all the trimmings.” Betty, eighteen, a farm girl newly escaped from the Shropshire countryside, knew this man was quite unlike any she had met before.

Beyond that, her knowledge of Eddie Chapman was somewhat limited. She knew that he was twenty-four years old, tall and handsome, with a thin mustache—just like Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade—and deep hazel eyes. His voice was strong but high-pitched with a hint of a Northern accent. He was “bubbly,” full of laughter and mischief. She knew he must be rich because he was “in the film business” and drove a Bentley. He wore expensive suits, a gold ring, and a cashmere overcoat with mink collar. Today he wore a natty yellow spotted tie and a sleeveless pullover. They had met at a club in Kensington Church Street, and although at first she had declined his invitation to dance, she soon relented. Eddie had become her first lover, but then he vanished, saying he had urgent business in Scotland. “I shall go,” he told her. “But I shall always come back.”

Good as his word, Eddie had suddenly reappeared at the door of her lodgings, grinning and breathless. “How would you like to go to Jersey, then possibly to the south of France?” he asked. Betty had rushed off to pack.

It was a surprise to discover they would be traveling with company. In the front seat of the waiting Bentley sat two men: the driver a huge, ugly brute with a crumpled face; the other small, thin, and dark. The pair did not seem ideal companions for a romantic holiday. The driver gunned the engine and they set off at thrilling speed through the London streets, screeching into the Croydon airport, parking behind the hangar, just in time to catch the Jersey Airways plane.

That evening, they had checked into the seafront hotel. Eddie told the receptionist they were in Jersey to make a film. They had signed the register as Mr. and Mrs. Farmer of Torquay. After dinner, they moved on to West Park Pavilion, a nightclub on the pier, where they danced, played roulette, and drank some more. For Betty, it had been a day of unprecedented glamour and decadence.

War was coming, everyone said so, but the dining room of the Hotel de la Plage was a place of pure peace that sunny Sunday. Beyond the golden beach, the waves flickered among a scatter of tiny islands, as Eddie and Betty ate trifle off plates with smart blue crests. Eddie was halfway through telling another funny story when he froze. A group of men in overcoats and brown hats had entered the restaurant and one was now in urgent conversation with the headwaiter. Before Betty could speak, Eddie stood up, bent down to kiss her once, and then jumped through the window, which was closed. There was a storm of broken glass, tumbling crockery, screaming women, and shouting waiters. Betty Farmer caught a last glimpse of Eddie Chapman sprinting off down the beach with two overcoated men in pursuit.

• • •

There was much that Betty did not know about Eddie Chapman. He was married. Another woman was pregnant with his child. And he was a crook. Not some halfpenny bag snatcher, but a dedicated professional criminal, a “prince of the underworld,” in his own estimation.

For Chapman, breaking the law was a vocation. In later years, when some sort of motive for his choice of career seemed to be called for, he claimed that the early death of his mother, in the TB ward of a pauper’s hospital, had sent him “off the rails” and turned him against society. Sometimes he blamed the grinding poverty and unemployment in northern England during the Depression for forcing him into a life of crime. But in truth, crime came naturally to him.

Edward Chapman was born in Burnopfield, a tiny village in the Durham coalfields, on November 16, 1914, a few months into the First World War. His father, a marine engineer and too old to fight, had ended up running the Clippership, a dingy pub in Roker, and drinking a large portion of the stock. For Eddie, the eldest of three children, there was no money, not much love, little in the way of guidance, and only a cursory education. He soon developed a talent for misbehavior and a distaste for authority. Intelligent but lazy, insolent and easily bored, the young Chapman skipped school often, preferring to scour the beach for lemonade bottles, redeemable at  a penny a piece, and then while away afternoons at the cinema in Sunderland.

At the age of seventeen, after a brief and unsatisfactory stint as an unpaid apprentice at a Sunderland engineering firm, Chapman joined the army, although underage, and enlisted in the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Early in his training at Caterham, he slipped while playing handball and badly gashed his knee; the resulting scar would provide police with a useful distinguishing feature. The bearskin hat and smart red uniform made the girls gawp and giggle, but he found sentry duty outside the Tower of London tedious, and the city beyond beckoned.

Chapman had worn a guardsman’s uniform for nine months when he was granted six days’ leave. He told the sergeant major that he was going home. Instead, in the company of an older guardsman, he wandered around Soho and the West End, hungrily eyeing the elegant women draped over the arms of men in sharp suits. In a café in Marble Arch, he noticed a pretty, dark-haired girl, and she spotted him. They danced at Smokey Joe’s in Soho. That night he lost his virginity. She persuaded him to stay another night; he stayed for two months, until they had spent all his pay. Chapman may have forgotten about the army, but the army had not forgotten about him. He was sure the dark-haired girl told the police. Chapman was arrested for going absent without leave, placed in the military prison in Aldershot—the “glasshouse” —and made to scrub out bedpans for eighty-four days. Release and a dishonorable discharge brought to an end his first prison sentence, and his last regular job. Chapman took a bus to London with £3 in his pocket, a fraying suit, and a “jail-crop haircut.” He headed straight for Soho.

Soho in the 1930s was a notorious den of vice, and spectacular fun. This was the crossroads of London society, where the rich and feckless met the criminal and reckless, a place of seamy, raucous glamour. Chapman found work as a barman, then as a film extra, earning £3 for “three days doing crowd work”; he worked as a masseur, a dancer, and eventually as an amateur boxer and wrestler. He was a fine wrestler, physically strong, and lithe as a cat, with a “wire and whipcord body.” This was a world of pimps and racecourse touts, pickpockets and con artists; late nights at Smokey Joe’s and early champagne breakfasts at Quaglino’s. “I mixed with all types of tricky people,” Chapman wrote later. “Racecourse crooks, thieves, prostitutes, and the flotsam of the night-life of a great city.” For the young Chapman, life in this seething, seedy enclave was thrilling. But it was also expensive. He acquired a taste for cognac and the gaming tables. Soon he was penniless.

The thievery started in a small way: a forged check here, a snatched suitcase there, a little light burglary. His early crimes were unremarkable, the first faltering steps of an apprentice.

In January 1935, he was caught in the back garden of a house in Mayfair, and fined £10. A month later, he was found guilty of stealing a check and obtaining credit by fraud. This time the court was less lenient, and Chapman was given two months’ hard labor in Wormwood Scrubs. A few weeks after his release, he was back inside, this time in Wandsworth Prison on a three-month sentence for trespassing and attempted housebreaking.

Chapman branched out into crimes of a more lurid nature. Early in 1936, he was found guilty of “behaving in a manner likely to offend the public” in Hyde Park. Exactly how he was likely to have offended the public was not specified, but he was almost certainly discovered in flagrante delicto with a prostitute. He was fined £4 and made to pay a fee of 15 shillings 9 pence to the doctor who examined him for venereal disease. Two weeks later, he was charged with fraud after he tried to evade payment of a hotel bill.

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Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 94 reviews.
wurdnurd More than 1 year ago
Engagingly written to capture the charismatic, roguish charm of WWII British double-agent Eddie Chapman, Macintyre's sweeping history exposes many over looked parts of the WWII saga. For those who are not WWII buffs, the various characters, dynamic relationships and outlandish escapades that emerged in wartime Britain and Germany seem to be straight from the pages of Ian Fleming or an action-adventure magazine. While Chapman remains the central figure, the supporting cast is treated respectfully and is given closure in the Epilogue. At times the plot seems to drag a bit, but otherwise a fast-moving, enjoyable read.
sbca2919 More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the book from cover to cover. Very well written and researched. Recommend to anyone who loves to read about war and espionage.
molokaiboy More than 1 year ago
This book was an excellent read for me after having read John Masterman's book about the double cross system over 30 years ago. I am glad that Ben Macintyre was able to get accesss to the archives of MI-5 to write about Zigzag. It is a shame that we have to wait for Governments to release classified information that happened in WWII ! Slowly but surely, we are finding out who the double agents were, their true identities and some of the operations that they were involved in. This is a very good read for anyone, who is a WWII buff !
Lufbra More than 1 year ago
This tale is what the British used to call a ripping good yarn. Eddie Chapmans' story of his double cross of the German secret service in favor of the British while MI5 doubted his every move during WW2 is a story for the ages. Chapmans motives are never really clear but his actions undoubtly helped hte British efforts during the war while the his Nazi spymasters praised his dedication to their efforts to win the war and even awarded him the Iron Cross. His story validates that old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. This book is a good read not only for fans of WW2 or spy stories but for anyone who enjoys a good story. Ben Macintyre really does justice to his subject - as a reader I couldn't figure out Chapmans motives or his alliances - but the author also takes the readers into the machinations and mindset of WW2 espionage on both sides of the conflict. Fascinating stuff. Macintyre write in a Non-fiction as novel style but still manges to fill his books with numerous details and memerable characters and events. A book as much about Eddie Chapman as it is the unsung heroes he crossed paths with both on the side of the conflict.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A rousing good read, even better than the well done books and movies based on such WWII events. Eddie Chapman was a scoundrel and patriot who is hard not to like. The author does a fine job of describing the story's myriad characters and details in a way that can be easily followed.
regina77004 More than 1 year ago
Who said non-fiction can't be fun? I read a lot of non-fiction and actually enjoy the minutiae of political philosophy, histoirical context, etc. But, everyone once in a while it is refreshing to read the personal tales of those who lived the moment. Macintyre's account of Eddie Chapman: English crook turned German spy-turned British Intel agent does just that, and it is deliciously fun to read! "Fiction has not, and probably never will, produce an espionage story to rival in fascination and improbability the true story of Edward Chapman, whom only war could invest with virtue,and that only for its duration." Tin Eye Stephens, British interrogator (pg 287) Eddie Chapman started as a petty thief and his criminal career escalated to crack lock aficionado landing him in a prison that eventually came under German control. Chapman, looking for a way off the island, offered his services to the German army reasoning that his British citizenship, knowledge of explosives, and criminal history made him the ideal candidate to spy on his home country. The Germans took him up on his offer and trained him as a spy. Parachuted back into England Chapman immediately contacts MI5 and offers to spy on the Germans. There are so many things to love about this book. First, Chapman is a fascinating psychological study. He is a crook and can't be trusted. Everything that comes out of his mouth is suspect. Yet while the Germans fed his ego and offered the financial gain Chapman seemed to constantly pursue, he did remain loyal to the British cause and was the source of many successes. Secondly, I learned a lot. I have read a great deal about the success of MI5 and the SOE. They are fascinating agencies to read about. Macintyre does a very good job of showing how the Germans Intel shortcomings actually elevated their British counterparts. Thirdly, key players in other arenas make appearances like Jasper Maskelyne, the magician who is well known for his illusions in the North Africa campaing and Terrence Young who went on to create James Bond. Finally, there are the heroic actions of many individuals that make WWII a favorite among historical readers. Highly recommend it. It is an easy read, entertaining, and informative all at the the same time.
Denise_T More than 1 year ago
Wow! What an amazing story! Great research and writing that never stands still. It's the story of a double agent in World War II, and how he was "handled" on both sides. It's a good, solid story and I am happy to recommend it!
cabegley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eddie Chapman was a ladies' man and safe cracker who ended up in prison in Jersey shortly before the German occupation of the island. In an attempt to get off the island, he offered himself up as a spy, and, after a short stay in a concentration camp, was recruited as such. The Germans spent six months training Chapman and then dropped him via parachute in England, where he promptly contacted the authorities and offered himself as a double agent.Chapman's life story is so wildly improbable that it would never work as fiction. As nonfiction, however, it is fascinating and completely absorbing. Macintyre based much of his book on relatively recently released MI5 documents, as well as interviews with people involved with Chapman during the '30s and '40s, but his writing is almost novelistic in tone. I am intentionally leaving out much of the story above, but to anyone interested in spies and WWII espionage, or really anyone interested in a good, entertainingly told story, I say read this book. Now.
Wheatland on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding narrative of an extraordinary real-life character and his exploits in World War 2. Chapman was a criminal, con-artist, adventurer, and charmer who lived on thrills. The Germans ran him against the British, who ran him against the Germans, and neither side fully accepted his integrity. He appeared to show ultimate loyalty to Britain, although he never seemed to end his life of criminal activity in Britain, or his philandering. World War 2 brought out many remarkable qualities in Chapman's character. The author does justice to the complexity and wonder of this man.
reenum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the most entertaining nonfiction books I have ever read. Eddie Chapman remains a rogue throughout, but MacIntyre makes him sympathetic to the reader. He lived a life few of us will ever have the chance to.
sushidog on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I gave this book 5 stars, not so much on the quality of the book (although the writing is fine, if a bit prudish), but on the quality of the story. This man's life is amazing. A British criminal ends up in jail in Jersey just before the Germans take it. He convinces the Germans to let him out so he can spy for them. He trains in occupied France, then is parachuted back into England to spy. But he contacts the British secret service and convinces them to let him be a double agent. Back to Germany via spy central, Lisbon. He convinces the Germans to let him do another job. It's off to Norway for some more training, and then he's dropped into Britain again. Simply amazing. On top of this, he has a wife and several girlfriends, and seems to be able to charms the pants off just about anyone he meets. Except some of the brass in the MI6, who dump him at war's end. Shameful.
DavidB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A truely compelling story with a fascinating look into WWII British and German intelligence work.
RebeccaReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Was he a spy for the British? Or a spy for the Germans? Or both? Or perhaps Eddie Chapman was just doing his best to survive the dangerous WWII years. Chapman's escapades were so unbelievable, they have to be true.
klaidlaw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The true story of British double agent, Eddie Chapman, known as Agent Zigzag. This is a stimulating portrait of a crook who became one of the most effective double agents in MI5 during World War II. The characters are varied, with the good guys not always being the most likable. At times the book reads like fiction, but at times it seems to drag. All in all I found this to be a good companion read to [10,000 Eyes].
brewbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazing tale, which is well-researched. It held my attention and I read it in a single day. Eddie Chapman was a British criminal who served is a German agent and a British double agent during World War 2. The mind of the double agent ZigZag is summarized by one of his British handlers, Laurie Marshall, quite nicely: "He is endeavouring, perhaps for the first time to understand himself and the meaning of life... During the last three years he has discovered thought, H. G. Wells, literature, altruistic motives and beauty. Although he does not regret his past life he feels he has no place in society and it would be better if he dies - but not needlessly. He wishes to make his own retributions for bad things he has done. He cannot be satisfied that he has done something of value unless he actual performs some controversial action himself."
K.Binkley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A true fascinating story of a charming small-time British criminal who turns double-agent during WWII, constantly reinvents himself depending on the situation and what he wanted at any given moment.
krazy4katz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazing, true story of a con artist turned spy in WWII Britain who does bad, good, bad etc. Hence the name, Agent Zigzag. The writing did not grab me as I thought it should, given the nature of the story and the entertaining personalities, but still worth reading.
WorldReader1111 More than 1 year ago
I was wholly impressed with 'Zigzag.' From a literary perspective, the book shines: well written, good formatting, an engaging narrative, rigorously researched, easy to read, intelligently devised. Also, the author writes with a tone that is both sober and grounded, avoiding sensationalism while retaining wit and humanity. And, finally, 'Zigzag' simply delivers on its premise, providing an excellent, detailed account of the fascinating and complicated life of Mr. Eddie Chapman, and a meaningful review of the saga of World War II as well. I found this to be, on its own, a satisfying tale of action, daring, and calculated endeavor. However, the book transcends mere entertainment, by providing much additional substance. Foremost, it offers a profound human study, in its exploration of deception, manipulation, and the subtle psychology that underlies such behavior, yielding many practical lessons and insights. Likewise, the story has great historical value, plus a generous helping of the sociological; by detailing the deep granularity of loyalties, infighting, and ulterior motives active on both sides of the war, we are shown that the conflict was anything but a black-and-white clash of "good versus evil." And, furthermore, there is a big, relevant question raised by the collective story of Agent Zigzag and the military hoaxes surrounding his missions: if such elaborate, conspiratorial charades were enacted nearly a hundred years ago, then what sort of public subterfuge and manipulation have occurred since, and are perhaps ongoing presently, undisclosed ...? "Fake news" is by no means a modern convention, it would seem. Upon finishing the read, I was left feeling enriched, entertained, and expanded (and, I laughed far more than I thought I would, given the often grim subject matter). My sincere thanks goes out to the author, subjects, and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work. * * * Some notable quotes from 'Agent Zigzag': "All wars -- but this war in particular -- tend to be seen in monochrome: good and evil, winner and loser, champion and coward, loyalist and traitor. For most people, the reality of war is not like that, but rather a monotonous gray of discomforts and compromises, with occasional flashes of violent color. War is too messy to produce easy heroes and villains; there are always brave people on the wrong side, and evil men among the victors, and a mass of perfectly ordinary people struggling to survive and understand in between." -- p.21 "When an independent newspaper, even in wartime, deliberately publishes falsehoods, it ceases to be either independent or a newspaper." -- p.155 "War, briefly, brought out in Chapman an obstinate conscience. His vices were as extreme as his virtues, and to the end of his life, it was never clear whether he was on the side of the angels or the devils, whether he deceived the deceivers, or whether he had made a pact with his German spymaster. He died in 1997 of heart failure, at the age of eighty-three. He may have ascended heavenward; or perhaps he headed in the opposite direction. He is probably zigzagging still." -- p.298
bucherwurm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eric Chapman is a young career criminal. He's sitting in a jail in Jersey when the Nazis take over in World War II. Eric gets the Germans interested in his proposal to become a spy for them, and is whisked off to an Abwehr training camp in occupied France. The Germans question his loyalty to their cause, but after a long period of testing and interrogation they decide to trust him. What they don't know is that Mr. Chapman is a sociopath who is using them to keep out of jail. He is parachuted back into England where he immediately tells British intelligence that he has been sent over as a German spy. So now he becomes a double agent.Eric is a charming fellow, and develops friendships in both countries' intelligence services. It never bothers him that he is betraying people. It also doesn't bother him that he is involved in serious romances with women in England and Norway. He manages to convince his German minders that he has blown up a British airplane factory, and then makes his way back to France where he joins his German friends and has a great time before being sent to Norway.While in retrospect Mr. Chapman doesn't achieve an awful lot as a spy, he does enjoy his new life. The Germans are fond of him as are most of his British minders. He has a fiancé in England, but thinks nothing of carrying on another romance in Norway. He even engages in a few criminal activities while spying. When he finally is dismissed from the intelligence service he happily goes back to his life of crime. He found himself in court from time to time, but never was convicted of anything. As an honorary crime correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph he warned readers to steer clear of people like him.You can read this book as history, but I think you will find it even more interesting as entertainment. In real life people warmed to this engaging crook, and you develop some affection for him while reading this book. Just don't buy a used car from him.
Doondeck on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very interesting story. Told with all the adventure and suspense that this real life character displayed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
joaninoregon More than 1 year ago
Ben Macintyre never disappoints! I've purchased all his works and this is my favorite. I'll continue to buy everything he writes. His wit and vast understanding of the time frame and its players are unbeatable. Bravo!
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JKathleen More than 1 year ago
This book, this story, is a reminder of a truly remarkable time in history and the cast of characters who made it through a horrific time. Agent Zigzag is a person who is unimaginable, and how he got to where he did is a story unlike any other. I also enjoyed finding out what happened to the cast of characters after the war.