The Criminal Who Became a Secret Agent

Daniel Ganninger
September 28, 2021
Criminal turned secret agent Eddie Chapman photo

Eddie Chapman wasn’t who you would think could be a secret agent, but he was instrumental in helping to pull off one of the greatest deceptions of World War II.

Before the start of World War II, Eddie Chapman was a professional criminal. He was also a safecracker and a member of the “Jelly Gang” in London, who got their name because they liked to use the explosive material gelignite to get into the safes they were burglarizing.

Chapman had already served time in jail for a previous crime and was on the run again in 1939. In order to evade police, he fled to Jersey, the largest island of the Channel Islands located near Normandy, France. Chapman had escaped from police at one point by crashing through a closed window as he was dining at a hotel restaurant with his current love interest, a woman named Betty Farmer. He continued his criminal ways and was caught by the Jersey police after he burglarized a nightclub. Chapman was sentenced to prison for two years and later had an extra year added on because of an attempted escape.

On July 1, 1940, the German army invaded and began an occupation of the Channel Islands. Chapman was still in prison at the time of the occupation but was released over a year later in 1941. He wanted to return to Great Britain and hatched a plan to work for the Germans as a spy. He was transferred to Paris, which the Germans already occupied. It took some time, but the German secret service, known as the Abwehr, finally took him on as a spy.

Chapman was a good fit in the eyes of the Abwehr since he was still a wanted man in Great Britain and more likely to hold a grudge against the government. His criminal background was also a plus because the Abwehr saw the potential for him to recruit other agents, and he had explosives experience, which would come in handy for what the Germans wanted him to do.

Chapman trained for a year in France, and his first mission was to sabotage the de Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, England. He was flown to Britain on a German bomber and landed by parachute in Cambridgeshire. MI5, the British secret service, knew of Chapman’s existence since they had decrypted many of the German messages. They had tracked his aircraft to determine where he had landed, but Chapman didn’t flee or hide. He quickly surrendered to police at the local police station.

He was taken to an MI5 interrogation center located in London known as Camp 020. Chapman was interrogated, but instead of being obstinate, he agreed to cooperate and gave his interrogators all the information he knew about his time in France. He even offered to work for MI5, and the spy service agreed to use him as a double agent. Chapman received a codename and became known as Agent Zigzag.

MI5 had Chapman continue to stay in contact with his German handlers to keep up the ruse that he was going to destroy the de Havilland factory. They came up with a plan to convince the Germans that Chapman had completed his mission. It would become one of the most incredible deceptions of World War II.

The fake attack on the de Havilland factory took place during the night hours of January 29 and 30, 1943. The factory’s power plant was camouflaged to give the appearance that an explosion had taken place and that Chapman had been successful. Rubble was strewn around the area, and the British used painted iron sheets to give the effect that the building had been demolished. The power plant’s transformers were re-created out of papier-mâché and wood. Everything around the site would look like it had been demolished as seen from the air. 

MI5 had prepared to deceive the German reconnaissance aircraft, but they needed something else to back up the fake explosion. To fortify their story, MI5 had a fake new story placed in the Daily Express the next day that reported that an explosion had indeed happened at a factory near London.

The de Havilland Factory in England
The De Havilland Factory in Hatfield where the fake attack took place

Chapman informed the Germans that his mission had been a success, and the factory had been demolished. The Germans bought the story and what they had seen as proof, and they ordered Chapman to return to Germany by way of Portugal in March 1943. To get to Portugal, Chapman joined a merchant ship called The City of Lancaster that was sailing from England to Lisbon. When he got to Lisbon, he made contact with the Germans at their embassy and suggested that he should be tasked with blowing up the ship using explosives.

This, too, was a ruse coordinated by British intelligence. They wanted Chapman to get his hands on what explosives the Germans were using for sabotage. Chapman was given two bombs, both of which he handed over to the captain of the ship. The Germans never realized that the ship hadn’t exploded, but to seal the story, the British had the ship investigated when it returned to port in England, knowing that the information would get back to German intelligence.

Chapman ended up being sent to Norway to an Abwehr safehouse and began to teach at a German spy school in Oslo. The German command was so impressed with Chapman’s work that they awarded him the Iron Cross, the highest decoration a German or civilian of a country allied with Germany could receive. Chapman was the only British citizen ever to receive the medal.

The criminal turned double agent returned to London in 1944 to report on the V-1 rocket strikes hitting the city. He gave the Germans false information on the accuracy of the rockets, saying they were hitting the central part of London when in fact, they were not. Later that year, Chapman was dismissed from MI5 because he began to return to his past unscrupulous ways. MI5 did pardon him from all of his past indiscretions and the 20-year prison sentence he was supposed to be serving.

The now-former spy even had adventures in his love life. During his time as a double agent, he kept a fiancé in Britain and another in Norway, who herself was a spy, but Chapman left both women after the war. He later married and had a daughter with Betty Farmer, the same woman he was dining with when he eluded police in Jersey in 1939. Chapman remained married to Farmer until his death in 1997.

Sources: Warfare History Network, NY Times, Mi5, Independent UK