I am sure that like many other readers of this super book, I had to keep checking that I was enjoying a book of non-fiction, rather than a golly good thriller. Entertaining as this book is, I could not help thinking that the whole tale underlines the banality of war fuelled by the greedy, the inept and, in the case of Eddie Chapman, Agent Zigzag, the opportunist.
on 5 February 2007
This book was a most approachable war-book. Written with a light but highly informed touch it explored the complex character of a man of infinite resourch and cunning, not to mention raw courage coupled with a refined sense of fun and the ridiculous. The shortcomings of both the British and German secret services in 1939-1945 were displayed but the British did have the edge. That the double agent, Cameron, was highly decorated in Germany but ignored in the UK was a symbol of the remnants of a rigid class system which could not accept that a "common" man was capable of the exploits so faithfully reported. For sheer entertainment and un-put-down-ability, you could not do better.
This is fascinating reading. It is the story of Eddie Chapman, a small time crook and con man, who becomes a secret agent during the war - convincing the Germans that he is working for them undercover in England whilst really working for the British all along. It is difficult to believe that this is real but the author has done his homework and although it is difficult to know what impact, if any, Chapman had on the overall war effort his story makes for gripping reading.
You really get a feeling from this book of the excitement that some agents felt in doing the work that they did and also of the danger that they placed themselves in. Chapman was obviously a man who thrived on adventure and deceit but it is also obvious that he had a real sense of patriotism and a desire to contribute to the war effort. This book is full of interesting characters on both the German and the British sides and the author presents them all as real people with human motives rather than stereotypes who are all good or all bad. The events at the end of Chapman's career in the Secret Service and how is treated, mostly because of his class, are very sad.
Chapman was a rogue, a petty criminal, a thief and a womaniser and he behaved the same before, during and after the war. I felt that the author rather minimised some of this behaviour in order to elicit sympathy and understanding for his main character. Chapman's war record speaks for itself - whatever his motives he was prepared to serve his country by acting as a double agent and by living in Germany during the war and reporting back to Britain - you can see by what happens to some of his compatriots that this is a very risky life.
Chapman rather reminds me of Oskar Schindler in Thomas Keneally's "Schinder's Ark" - he is a weak man who often does things which are unacceptable but when the time comes to take a stand he is prepared to take risks and put himself in peril for others and for his country. I really wonder what each of us would have done in Chapman's situation ?
This book had been sitting on a shelf for some time. I originally bought it for my husband - it's the type of book he enjoys and, true to form, he loved it. The "boys own" adventure story didn't really appeal to me but the history aspect did so eventually I picked it up.
Ben McIntyre is well known for his detailed research and, with this book, he continues his reputation by using the recently made available information to good use. The facts of the story are all there and they are presented in a way which is engaging from start to finish.
The book begins with a map and details about his research which is always guaranteed to pique the interest. When the story starts, I found myself being pulled in immediately and never let go.
It's a breathtaking, fast moving tale which the author manages to tell in a factual, controlled manner whilst never losing any of the excitement.
Eddie Chapman is portrayed as an unpredictable character, equally fascinating to both Britains and Germans during the war. Talking about the personnel that he deals with on both sides also gives a taster of the intelligence operations during the war.
Whilst all the adventure stuff is interesting (far more so than I expected), I found the most gripping aspect of the book to be the description of all the personal relationships he forges, particularly with his handlers, on both sides.
Delightfully, the side of Eddie Chapman's character which shines through is his intelligence, further enhanced for narrative purposes when compared to the almost stupidity of the people around him. Whilst everyone (well most!) seem to love him, there is never anyone who actually trusted him completely.
Great book for anyone with an interest in the period.
Agent Zigzag is the remarkable story of Second World War double agent Eddie Chapman. Along the way Eddie meets an extraordinary cast of characters. Here's a couple of examples:
Jasper Maskelyne who was Britain's official illusionist (and a master-illusionist at that) who came from a long line of magicians, alchemists and astronomers. In addition to his marvellous war work he also invented the coin operated toilet door.
Praetorius, one of Chapman's Abwehr (German Secret Service) minders. A fan of English folk dancing and who adored Morris dancing. As the war was concluding, Praetorius left the Abwehr, to take up a role as dance instructor to the Wehrmacht.
There are many, many more. You couldn't make some of this stuff up. It's incredible.
The most incredible thing of all is Eddie's tale: from criminal, to British prisoner, to Nazi prisoner (both in Jersey and Paris), to Nazi agent, and then to British double agent. Eddie's gift was his charm and his cunning. Almost universally liked, he seemed to win over even the most sceptical. This appears to be because he frequently developed real affection for the many people he met, including his Abwehr controllers. He also seemed to genuinely love the various women with whom he became entangled.
Ben Macintyre tells Chapman's story with skill, verve, and wit, and does his subject justice. Chapman emerges as a real life, working class James Bond-type character: handsome, charming, and drawn to danger, gambling, fine food, drink, and women. He is a seething mass of contradictions, with one essential attribute, he was the perfect double agent.
If you enjoy either good biographies, or larger-than-life characters, then you'll almost certainly enjoy this book.
I bought the hardcover of this book several years ago, and for one reason or other, I got around to reading it only a couple of days ago. Once I had begun though, I couldn't stop reading, because this World War II tale about a minor London villain-turned-double-agent is utterly riveting.
Of all the books on espionage that I've read (and I am addicted to them), this one differs from the others in that instead of concentrating upon the highly-educated upper echelons of SIS and MI5, it focuses upon the running of a low-level but important cog in the intelligence wheel. By concentrating on the running of Eddie Chapman (self-educated behind bars), "Agent Zigzag" gives us a penetrating look into the workings of the British XX (double-cross) system of turning German agents into British agents, and covering their activities by means of ULTRA (the secret cracking of the German codes)--or using the double agents to cover ULTRA, depending on how one looks at the problem.
As with all spy narratives, that of "Agent Zigzag" is ambiguous. What were Eddie Chapman's motives? Purely mercenary? To save his own skin? Eventually patriotic? The ambiguity carries over to his handlers, both in MI5 and in the Abwehr. Were these organizations' agents who risked their lives merely pawns in a life-and-death chess game? Were they expendable? Did promises made to them become negotiable, depending upon which way the winds of war were blowing? What part did class play in decisions affecting their lives? For that matter, did either the British or German intelligence agencies concerned hold a monopoly on "goodness" or "badness"?
These are only a few of the questions that Mr. McIntyre raises in a book that not only kept me reading but also kept me thinking about it afterwards.
on 19 November 2011
Spellbinding throughout! Ben Macintyre tailors this fascinating true story in masterly fashion. He even includes that all important last chapter on the final fates of all the key dramatis personae. My best read in 2011.
Chapman is regaled as something of a British wartime hero. Partly true, there may still be some problem to this. As we know, Chapman's own testimony is not entirely reliable and in places lacking. He did remain in favour with the Nazi security services for some considerable time. Yet there is an absence of their detailed records on him such as we however find with M15 - probably destroyed in air raids over Germany.
It would not be unreasonable to surmise then, that Chapman may well have contributed more to the enemy war effort that we will ever be aware of or he made us aware of. The real sub-text to his time in Oslo for example.
In other words, he did that which he was best at. Playing the field - whether in Britain, Germany, France, Portugal or Norway - in his own personal interests throughout; carefully covering his tracks and ensuring his options for safe passage whoever his paymasters; outwitting his intelligence superiors at their own game, in each case almost to the end - when it no longer mattered anyway. And in this may lie Chapman's true genius. Not quite so much the national hero as the brilliant, crooked, supremely plausible wartime con man who finally emerged on the winning side by 1945.
on 21 December 2014
I really enjoyed this book and read it in under two days, having bought it to enliven a train journey. I was vaguely familiarly with the story after a visit to Bletchley Park earlier in the year, but the book fleshes out the story superbly. It is difficult to believe it is all true, Mr Chapman clearly led an extraordinary life, and a very unusual experience of World War Two. You can't help but want Chapman to survive throughout the book, as he seems to be immensely likeable, despite the fact he was a career criminal who properly should have been in jail for the whole war. His good luck was to manage to be in a Jersey prison when the Nazi's invaded, and he made the best of the opportunities he was offered to live a relative life of luxury that couldn't have been imagined at home, albeit with the very real risk of death an ever-present possibility.
Whether it is the story of a true British war hero or that of a roguish chancer living on his wits is very much up to the reader to decide, but Ben MacIntyre tells the story very well indeed; the cast of characters are brought to life in fantastic detail and although it's clear we're supposed to be on Chapman's side, his less admirable traits are not glossed over. I enjoyed the book immensely and would recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in World War Two, and I have already ordered two other McIntyre books to enjoy in the future.
on 9 September 2012
A hardened if rather unsuccessful criminal, Eddie Chapman found himself in a Jersey prison cell when the Germans invaded the Channel Islands. He saw volunteering to spy for Germany as a way of getting back to Britain, where he planned to turn himself in and offer to send false information to German intelligence.
What follows is a cloak-and-dagger escapade that would've been denounced as far-fetched if it were the plot of a novel as this unlikeliest of heroes is trained (and wined and dined) by the Germans, survives a parachute drop into East Anglia, turns himself in and, with the full backing of MI5 (who already knew about his mission thanks to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park), embarks on a life of double-cross and deception as he passes false information to German intelligence. MI5 even fakes a sabotage attack on the De Havilland factory in Hatfield at one point to convince the Germans that Chapman is still loyal to the Third Reich.
Although as suspicious of Chapman as his MI5 handlers were (rightly so, given that the man himself even admitted that ordinary people shouldn't trust men like him), Macintyre has written a highly enjoyable biography which shines a light onto both a fascinating if very disreputable man who for all his faults must've had nerves and other body parts of solid steel, and the murky world of wartime intelligence.
on 6 May 2014
Ben Macintyre is a journalist. He can write. The story he has written about could not be a better one. It's true, it's got sex, the British class system underpins it, you are there with Nazi investigators who clearly don't have 'vays of making you tok', and it's got lashes of derring-do. The excitement wound together in a biographical narrative.
The central character - Eddie Chapman - wrote his own autobiography and nearly all the extensive Mi5 files are also now available. The exciting details (he was eating a roast 'with all the trimmings' before he jumped out of a hotel window pursued by the police) are there. For anyone who has simply watched James Bond, or Le Carré films (better still if you have read fiction and non-fiction spy books) it gives you a huge insight into what real spies, and double agents, and the people running them are all about.
Eddie Chapman was a colourful crook (a safe blower) who absconded from prison in the Channel Islands to work for the Germans but immediately became a double agent when they parachuted him into the UK. As someone in Mi5 said if this story was written as fiction it would 'be rejected as improbable.'
Now read it yourself!