Eddie Chapman was a professional criminal in the years before the Second World War. He was a member of a "jelly gang", which specialised in robbing safes by blowing them open using the explosive gelignite. His skill as a thief made him a good deal of money and allowed him to live the life of a wealthy playboy in Soho, mixing with the likes of Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and Marlene Dietrich.
By the start of 1939, however, he was being hunted by the police and fled to Jersey. He was caught by the Jersey police in February 1939 after burgling a nightclub and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, with an extra year being added on after an attempted escape in September 1939. He remained in prison even after the Germans invaded and occupied the Channel Islands in July 1940, and was finally released in October 1941.
Life on the occupied Channel Islands was harsh, and Chapman sought a way to return to Britain. He volunteered his services to the Germans as a spy and was eventually accepted by the German secret service, the Abwehr. The Abwehr was in a desperate position; it was getting only very low-quality intelligence out of Britain from its network of spies there. (In fact, though the Abwehr was unaware of this, MI5 had already caught almost all of the German spies in the UK and recruited several of them as double agents.)
The Abwehr saw Chapman as an ideal candidate for a spy. He claimed to be hostile to the British state, not least because he was still wanted by the police for his crimes on the UK mainland. His connections with the criminal underworld offered the possibility that he could recruit additional agents for the Germans, and his expertise with explosives would enable him to carry out acts of sabotage. In particular, the Germans wanted him to attack the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hertfordshire, which made the much-feared Mosquito bomber.
After a year's training in German-occupied France, Chapman was dropped by parachute into a field in Cambridgeshire on 16 December 1942. Instead of disappearing into the criminal underworld, as his German handlers intended, he promptly turned himself in to the police and MI5. His arrival was expected; unknown to him or the Germans, the British had cracked the Germans' secret codes and knew in advance when agent "Fritzchen" ("little Fritz"), the Germans' codename for Chapman, would be dropped into the UK.
Chapman was taken to a secret MI5 detention centre in west London known as Camp 020. He was interrogated by the formidable Lt Col Robin "Tin Eye" Stephens, who owed his nickname to the steel-rimmed monocle which he wore at all times (even, it was said, in bed). Chapman was fully willing to cooperate: he told his interrogators everything about his time in occupied France and the mission that the Germans had given him. He even volunteered to work for the British against the Germans. Although Chapman's criminal past was a cause for concern, Stephens concluded:
"In our opinion, Chapman should be used to the fullest extent... he genuinely means to work for the British against the Germans. By his courage and resourcefulness he is ideally fitted to be an agent."
Eddie Chapman thus became Agent ZIGZAG, one of the most important British double agents of the Second World War. MI5 decided to re-infiltrate Chapman into Germany and obtain more information about the Abwehr. Under the supervision of an MI5 officer, Chapman made radio contact with the Germans and informed them that he was preparing to carry out his sabotage mission at the De Havilland factory. He was sent to the factory at Hatfield, along with an MI5 minder, to work out a plan of attack so that he could tell his German controllers later what he had done.
The "attack" itself was one of the most remarkable deception operations of the Second World War. During the night of 29/30 January 1943, an elaborate system of camouflage was installed at the De Havilland factory to make it appear to German reconnaissance aircraft that a very large bomb had exploded inside the factory's power plant. Bomb-damaged transformers were created out of wood and papier-mache, and buildings were disguised with tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets painted to appear from the air as if they were the half-demolished remains of walls and roofs. Rubble and debris was spread around the power plant, to make it appear as if it had been thrown there by an explosion. Separately, MI5 arranged for a fake story to be planted in the Daily Express reporting "an explosion at a factory on the outskirts of London."
The ruse was a complete success, even deceiving the factory's own staff. Chapman radioed the Germans to inform them of the successful "demolition" of the factory's power plant. The Abwehr was delighted with Chapman's work. In March 1943 he returned via neutral Portugal to Germany and travelled on to an Abwehr safe house in German-occupied Norway. To his amazement, he was awarded Germany's highest honour, the Iron Cross, in recognition of his work for the Abwehr. He was, and remains, the only British citizen ever to have been awarded this medal.
Chapman returned to Britain in June 1944 and survived the war, later publishing an account of his exploits in three books: The Eddie Chapman Story (1953), Free Agent: The Further Adventures of Eddie Chapman (1955) and The Real Eddie Chapman Story (1966). His story has also been told in two books published in 2007, Zigzag - The incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman by Nicholas Booth, and Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy, by Ben Macintyre. MI5's files on Chapman were released to The National Archives in 2001 following his death in 1997, and can be viewed by anyone with a National Archives readers' ticket.