Double Agent: The Eddie Chapman Story

Tuesday 15 November 2011, 11:24

Ben Macintyre Ben Macintyre Presenter

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Eddie Chapman was a crook, a womaniser, an opportunist and a manipulator. But he was also an unlikely sort of World War II hero.

He was motivated by a strange combination of self-interest, hunger for adventure, greed, bravery and patriotism.

He was freed from prison and trained as a spy by the Germans, but he claimed he always intended to swap sides and spy for Britain.

His handlers at MI5 were not so sure. Hence his codename: Agent Zigzag.

Researching the BBC Two documentary Double Agent: The Eddie Chapman Story, I became more fascinated than ever by his extraordinary combination of qualities, both good and bad.

I wrote Agent Zigzag, a book about Chapman, in 2007, but since then a great deal of additional material about his life has emerged: we interviewed the people who knew him, gathered photographs and footage, and consulted the Zigzag files in the National Archives, the huge trove of documents recently declassified by MI5.

But by far the most important contribution to the programme came from Chapman himself.

Chapman died in 1997, but four years earlier he was interviewed by the BBC for a programme entitled The Underworld: Thieves.

Deep in the archives of the BBC we found a box containing more than five hours of videotapes from that interview, in which Chapman discussed not only his criminal past, but every aspect of his wartime career, his womanising, his sabotage, and his life after the war.

The most extraordinary discovery was just how gleefully unrepentant Chapman was about what he happily referred to as his "villainy".

The unused footage even includes a masterclass on how crack a safe.

With remarkable foresight, the makers of the earlier documentary had decided to keep the camera rolling, despite knowing that by discussing his wartime intelligence work, Chapman was violating the Official Secrets Act.

They anticipated, rightly, that the laws might one day be relaxed, allowing the footage to be used.

Chapman had been gagged during his lifetime - when he tried to serialise an account of his spying in a newspaper, a judge ordered the entire print run pulped - and probably assumed that the interview would never be shown.

This may explain why, as you will see in the programme, he is such an uninhibited interviewee, swearing, cracking jokes, and blithely admitting to all sorts of skulduggery.

MI5 started releasing the Zigzag files in 2002, which means that Chapman can tell his story at last, from beyond the grave.

Ben Macintyre in front of an image of Eddie Chapman

Ben Macintyre in front of a photograph of Eddie Chapman

Perhaps the most moving part of Chapman's testimony comes when he describes his love affair with Dagmar Lahlum, a young Norwegian woman he met in occupied Norway - where the Germans sent him on a nine-month holiday as a reward for his successful mission to Britain.

Chapman describes how he encountered Dagmar one evening at the Ritz in Oslo, and how they fell in love.

"We had a great love match and I had the intention of going back and marrying her," Chapman says in the recovered footage. "I'd love to go and see her again."

Chapman was parachuted back into Britain, for a second time, in 1944, with a mission to report back on where Hitler's V1 rockets were landing.

He promised to come back after the war and marry Dagmar.

With his MI5 handlers, Chapman sent misleading reports that caused the Germans to shorten their range, ensuring that many of the rockets landed harmlessly in the fields of Kent.

His mission, as far as the Germans were concerned, was a complete success. The British believed he had helped to save thousands of lives.

But he never went back for Dagmar, who was tried as a Nazi collaborator and sentenced to six months in prison.

In a way, the story of Dagmar perfectly reflects the contradictory character of Britain's most extraordinary double agent: fickle, seductive and staggeringly brave.

Ben Macintyre is the presenter of Double Agent: The Eddie Chapman Story.

Double Agent: The Eddie Chapman Story is on BBC Two on Tuesday, 15 November at 9pm. For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Read a post by Martin Davidson, commissioning editor for BBC History and Business, on all four programmes in the Timewatch series.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    Fascinating story and I have both of the recent books on him. Last year I tracked down LaBrettonaire in Nantes and had my picture taken outside but didnt pluck up the courage to knock on the door!

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    Comment number 2.

    Great to see an interest taken in wartime heroes. However, I was surprised and disappointed with certain aspects of the Eddie Chapman programme. His interesting time in Jersey was hardly mentioned nor was his friend Anthony Faramus, and surely the photograph shown was of his second wife Betty Farmer and not his girlfriend Dagmar. Also, modern props did not add to the programme. The book by Nicholas Booth is more informative. But otherwise it was an enjoyable watch.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Fascinating programme. I watched because my father told me to (I am 42!) and I'm glad I did. My Dad met Eddie in the 1950's when he was aged around 12 and Eddie gave him a mini camera which he said was his spy camera - he still has the camera now. I will look up the book on which the programme is based as it felt as though there was alot more to the story than fitted into the 60 minute film.

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    Comment number 4.

    I knew Eddie Chapman very well, and there were a number of inaccuracies in the account of his life, and certain omissions about the interesting life he led after the war. Contrary to what he was told, his criminal record was not expunged, which he discovered about 35 years after the end of the war. Because of some of his post war activities the police were anxious to arrest him on almost anything and he was eventually arrested on trumped up charges. It was during his trial that he found out that the police had retained all his records. He was acquitted, after which the police gave up! At one time he ran a training school for safe breakers, and for many years had a mansion in Hertfordshire which he and Betty turned into a health farm. He was a very charming man.

 

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