Book Review: Agent ZigZag by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury 2010)

Subtitled ‘Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy’, this is the true story of Eddie Chapman, a professional criminal who ends up spying for both the UK and Germany during World War 2.

Ben Macintyre’s research into the history of Chapman and his ability to weave this into a beguiling narrative is impeccable.  However, I disliked Chapman from the outset, and whilst the story is very interesting and highly readable, it’s difficult to separate this from antipathy towards the main character.

Chapman is a flawed character but as Macintyre says “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, “.

After being discharged dishonourably by the army, Chapman fell into a life of crime, drinking and womanising.  He was a vain character and kept a scrapbook with cuttings about robberies he was involved in.

Chapman was arrested in Jersey shortly before the outbreak of the war and was therefore subject to German rule after they invaded the Channel Islands.   At this point, Chapman became a traitor and volunterred to spy for the Germans.  Chapmans motives were unclear but it is certain that he had no love for the English establishment after his incarceration.  He may simply have wanted to get out of jail too.

After much interrogation, Chapman was accepted by the German secret service, the Abwehr.  His ‘handler’ was an individual named Dr Graumann, also known as Von Groning, a German Aristrocrat with a taste for champagne.

Charged with a sabotage mission, Chapman lands in the UK and immediately gives himself up to MI5, offering to act as a double agent.  The story then moves to the various acts of sabotage and intelligence gathering the Chapman was involved in.  Macintyre rightly gives credit to a whole host of others in British intelligence who assiste Chapman along the way.  Whilst Chapman’s actions  help to spread disinformation and confusion amongst German intelligence, it is clear that the true heroes were the men and women of Bletchley Park who cracked the German Enigman codes meaning that the UK could read all messages from Germany.  

As a double agent, Chapman is often moody and petulant, wanting to be given respect, indulged and enterained. There is no doubt that he took risks but it is hard to view him as a British hero.  

Near the end of the war, Chapman falls in with his old criminal colleagues and his indiscretion and admission that his German handler, Von Groning, was embezzling cash from the Abwehr led to MI5 ending their relationship with Agent ZigZag.  

This is a very well written and gripping book, but your enjoyment of it could be tempered by your feelings for Eddie Chapman.