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Bookclub: Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

Wednesday 2 January 2013, 13:58

Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4

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Editor's note: This month Jim Naughtie talks to the author Ben Macintyre about his book Agent Zigzag. You can hear the programme on Sunday 6 January at 4pm and on Thursday 10 January at 3.30pm.  Next month's bookclub features George Orwell's Homage To Catalonia. PM

Little wonder that when Tom Hanks read Agent Zigzag, he wanted to film it. The story is wartime melodrama of the finest kind: featuring a gangster who’s only one step ahead of the law, and heading for a long time in jail, who hooks up with the Germans who are occupying Jersey and offers to spy against Britain for the Nazis. But no sooner has he been parachuted into East Anglia to make merry hell in Hitler’s cause than he goes to the police and MI5 to turn himself into a double agent on the spot, spying on his new German friends. And every word of it is true.

Eddie Chapman’s story dug up from the archives and told with great verve by Ben Macintyre, sometimes has the air of an Ealing comedy and reveals the slapstick side of the spying game, especially in wartime. When Chapman parachuted from a German plane to start his career of spying and sabotage, he was carrying a packet of sterling notes bound by a paper band that had on it the words:  “Reichsbank, Berlin”. He was wined and dined by the Germans in Paris, picked up glamorous women wherever he went, yet got involved in escapades that could, at any moment, turn the course of the war. After he became a double agent, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park were listening to the German wireless traffic, night after night, to find out if Chapman was telling the truth and – just as important – whether the Germans suspected him.

They concluded that his ultimate loyalty did lie at home.. but it was a close-run thing.

One of our listeners wondered about Chapman’s description of himself as an honest villain, and Ben Macintyre suggested that the conundrum of the man whom MI5 christened Agent Zigzag – you can see why – was that he did see his criminal past in that way and was, nonetheless, an honest spy. Work that one out.

Who knows the truth? For example, as Ben still wonders after writing Chapman’s story, what are we to make of Von Gröning, the senior officer in Hitler’s secret service, the Abwehr, who took Chapman under his wing and prepared him for his first mission against Britain. Von Gröning was anti-Nazi – on his attic wall Hitler was depicted as a carrot – and was sympathetic to the many German officers who would have liked to see a successful putsch against the Fuhrer. Did he know all along that Chapman turned against the Germans from the start? We can’t tell.

Naturally in our conversation, we talked about spies in general, for whom Ben has developed a fascination. He mused about the similarity between spies and novelists, and those who have been both – Greene, Fleming, le Carré. “These are people who knew spying from first hand.  And spies create a version of the truth and lure the enemy towards them - so they are sort of novelists.  One of the pleasures and challenges is to strip away the self-mythologising that goes on and you end up with documentary truth.”

Maybe the truth about Chapman is that in the battle of wit that accompanies a military campaign there’s a place for the unpredictable personality, the maverick. They will turn up, and no doubt many of them look like Chapman – safecracker and charmer, womaniser and brave secret operator. Reaching the ‘documentary truth’ doesn’t mean that the story becomes simpler. Sometimes it becomes more mysterious, certainly more ambiguous.

But here’s a thought. When the Germans began to attack London with their flying bombs, Chapman was able to convince them that their aim was inaccurate and the V1’s were flying too far before they dropped. It wasn’t true, but it worked. The consequence was that many bombs destined for the east end and the City dropped many miles short. Next time you walk past St Paul’s Cathedral, ask yourself if it was saved by Agent Zigzag.

Here's a clip from the programme:

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Ben Macintyre talks about Agent Zigzag, the story of the World War II spy, Eddie Chapman.

Happy reading, and a happy New Year.


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