In 1944, Britain’s top intelligence agent, Lieutenant Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, went to the trouble of writing a top-secret report on Edward “Eddie” Arnold Chapman. It was finally declassified in 2005. The opening sentences of the report describe Chapman as “a man who likes—perhaps he needs—to live on the fringes of society and has a strong desire to break his rules. He is driven by adventure and is often contemptuous of authority, with a talent for bad behavior.”
It was those less-than-healthy qualities that enabled Chapman to become one of Britain’s most successful and controversial World War II double agents. Let’s take a closer look at 10 intriguing facts about Eddie Chapman.
Related: 10 Little Known Facts About WWII
10 A plethora of early crimes
Edward Chapman was born in a village near the northern English city of Durham in 1914, into a home that was neither extremely poor nor particularly well-to-do. Apparently, the school did not suit him, and he often missed classes. An apparent attempt at respectability came in 1932 when he joined the prestigious British Army regiment, the Coldstream Guards. But that didn’t last long: he ended up in a military prison after deserting.
That was the first of many spells Chapman served in prison during the 1930s, with convictions for everything from robbery and fraud to lewd behavior and blackmail. Eventually, Chapman rose through the criminal hierarchy and joined an elite gang of safecrackers known as the Jelly Gang.
9 A prince of the underworld
It seems that Chapman had finally found his natural environment. Tin Eye Stephens wrote that “Subject is a thief, but as a thief he is by no means a failure”, adding: “In his own estimation [Chapman] he is something like a prince of the underworld.” But Eddie’s position as criminal royalty fell apart in Scotland. Police have arrested him on suspicion of blowing up a safe in Edinburgh. Recklessly, the police released Chapman on bail, and he quickly went on the run, fleeing south to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. 
These islands in the English Channel are British Crown Dependencies, a status they have enjoyed since 1066. It didn’t take long for law enforcement to catch up with Chapman, however. Sticking to what he knew, Chapman did another safe-blowing job on the island, but was arrested for it and tried in a Jersey court in March 1939.
8 a nazi invasion
Chapman was sentenced to two years in Jersey prison. The irrepressible rogue now managed to escape from prison a couple of months after his sentencing, but he was soon recaptured and sentenced to another 12 months. Then, in 1940, the Channel Islands had the unenviable distinction of being the only piece of British territory occupied by the invading Nazis. Now Eddie was effectively a prisoner of the Germans. However, in 1941, he was released.
Although she might now be free, life was not easy in Nazi-occupied Jersey. Chapman was forced to earn a living working with a gang of black market dealers, men he had met in prison. But Chapman’s sincere wish was to find a way to return to England.
7 Vital Intelligence and Sabotage
The ever resourceful Chapman came up with a plan. He approached the German authorities and offered his services as a spy who would travel to Britain. From there, he could provide vital intelligence to his Nazi paymasters, as well as carry out acts of sabotage. Unbelievably, the Germans bought it and Chapman had now become a Nazi spy. Or at least that’s what his teachers believed.
In fact, the Nazis thought they had found the ideal man for their purposes. He made no secret of his criminal history, and the Germans believed that he could potentially recruit more agents from his underworld contacts. Also, as a practiced safecracker, Chapman already had a working knowledge of blowing things up.
6 Chapman becomes Fritzchen
In Nantes, the Germans gave Chapman a solid foundation in the art of espionage and sabotage. He was given a code name, Fritzchen, which can be translated as “Little Fritz”. During his training with the Abwehr, the German secret service, Chapman was able to live Riley’s life. His handlers gave him generous supplies of money, alcohol and food. As the year 1942 drew to a close, the Nazis decided that his new star agent was ready for action.
On December 16, Chapman boarded a plane bound for England, where he would be parachuted near the city of Cambridge. His kit included a suicide pill, a gun, a radio, invisible ink, and a wad of cash. His mission was to cause as much damage as he could to the vital DeHavilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, not far north of London.
5 A deep-rooted hatred of the Huns
Chapman’s plane successfully crossed the English Channel into England. As expected, the German agent jumped out of the plane and landed in the field. But what he did next was far from what the Nazis intended. Without delay, he turned himself in to the police, who, in turn, turned him over to MI5. He was now being held at Latchmere House in London, the facility run by Tin Eye Stephens, the senior security officer we met earlier.
Unsurprisingly, Stephens and his colleagues were initially deeply suspicious of this career criminal turned Nazi spy who now insisted he really wanted to work for his own country. But eventually, Chapman convinced Stephens of his sincerity, with the spymaster writing that his new double agent “certainly has a deep-seated hatred of the Huns.”
4 Fritzchen becomes zigzag
While Stephens was far from entirely flattering in his estimation of Chapman, one feels grudging admiration for the senior MI5 agent’s report. “Today he is a German paratrooper spy; tomorrow, he will take a desperate risk as an active double agent, whose life is at stake. And so Chapman agreed to travel back to Germany, now as a full-fledged double agent, under a new MI5 code name, Agent Zigzag. But there was a pressing problem that had to be solved first. The result of Chapman’s mission in England for the Germans.
The British had to show the Nazis that Chapman was a real agent for them. To do this, they needed to prove that the mission to sabotage the DeHavilland factory had been successful. Of course, they could not literally blow up the vital factory. But they could pretend that it was badly damaged.
3 the iron cross
In an inspired subterfuge scheme, MI5 set off some small explosions at the DeHavilland factory and brought in a top-notch magician and illusionist named Jasper Maskelyne. He lined the place with tarps and debris to make it appear seriously damaged. A story was planted in the British press reporting a damaging attack on the factory.
Chapman now traveled back to France via neutral Portugal, where Chapman was greeted as a hero by his Abwehr controllers. They paid her a generous bonus for the success of his mission. He was even awarded an Iron Cross, making him the only Briton to receive Germany’s highest military honour. Chapman also got a much easier job: training rookie agents in German-occupied Norway.
2 nazi missiles
The Germans found another mission for Chapman, reporting on the damage caused by the Nazis’ V-1 and V-2 missiles raining down on southern England. After parachuting back to England, Chapman asked his MI5 supervisors to send him back to Norway to do more undercover work. But MI5 discovered that he had been having an affair with a Norwegian woman, a member of the resistance there.
Chapman admitted that he had told his girlfriend, Dagmar Lahlum, that he was a double agent. Sensibly enough, MI5 decided it was too risky to allow him to return to Norway.
1 A handy double payday
So now Chapman was retired from his adventures as a double agent. Chapman received a substantial bribe from MI5 and was allowed to keep the money the Abwehr gave him, a handy double payday. He too was granted an unconditional pardon for his previous criminal offences. He continued to live a life full of adventure, sometimes breaking away from his old underworld habits. He but he stayed out of jail for the rest of his life and died peacefully in 1997, aged 83.
A final word from “Tin Eye” Stephens. In his MI5 report, he wrote: “Chapman’s story is different. In fiction, he would be dismissed as improbable.”
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