Agent Zigzag’s Hertfordshire Connections

The world is mourning the death of Sir Sean Connery at the age of ninety. Connery’s portrayal of James Bond, the world’s most famous fictional spy, is widely acknowledged to be the best among the six actors who have played the role, and it set the benchmark for the 25 Bond films released so far.

Moving on from make-believe spies, December 11th marks the anniversary of the death of a real-life super spy, the wartime double agent Eddie Chapman, who died in 1997. Perhaps better known as Agent Zigzag, Chapman has strong connections to our local area. His colourful life is actually the stuff of make-believe, and he has been the subject of several books as well as the 1967 film Triple Cross, in which he was played by actor Christopher Plummer.

Edward Chapman was born in the Co Durham village of Burnopfield in November, 1914. A rebellious childhood lead to Chapman joining the Coldstream Guards at the age of 17, but boredom soon caught up with him and after nine months service he absconded with a girl he had met in Soho. Two months later he was arrested, sentenced to 84 days imprisonment in Aldershot, and subsequently dishonourably discharged from the army. Back in Soho Chapman drifted into a life of petty crime until he was sentenced to two months in Wormwood Scrubs prison for forging a cheque. Later exploits as a safebreaker saw him back in prison several times and he became a member of the so-called “Jelly Gang”, a west London safe-breaking gang well-known for their use of gelignite.

By now a career-criminal Eddie Chapman was arrested in Glasgow and charged with blowing open the safe of the Edinburgh Co-op. Once out on bail he escaped to Jersey, evading arrest while dining at the Hotel de la Plage with his lover by diving through a window. Freedom was short-lived, and he was soon arrested by Jersey police and sentenced to two years jail on the island.

With the Channel Islands soon under wartime occupation and seeking a way to get out of jail, Chapman and another prisoner offered their services to the Germans as spies. Transferred to the French mainland Chapman was trained in explosives, radio and coding, before being parachuted back to his homeland in December, 1942. He was now known as Agent Fritz, with a brief to sabotage the British war effort.

However, after landing in Cambridgeshire Chapman immediately gave himself up to local police, and hoped to avoid going back to jail by offering his services to Britain as a double agent. Soon Chapman and his new handlers had faked an elaborate attack on de Havilland’s Mosquito aircraft factory at Hatfield, in January 1943, in an attempt to convince the Germans that he was still active. German reconnaissance photographs and a fake article in the Daily Express appeared to convince them of the success of the attack.

MI6 was keen to send Agent Zigzag, the code name given to Chapman, back across the Channel to spy on the German secret services, and arrangements were made to land him in Lisbon where he could contact the German embassy. The Germans subsequently sent Chapman to teach at their spy school in occupied Norway, paying him handsomely, offering him his own yacht, and awarding him the Iron Cross for his sabotage work.

With the war turning against Germany after the D-Day invasion, Chapman was then sent back to Britain with the task of reporting back on the accuracy of the new German weapon, the V-1 flying bomb. From his base in Kensington Chapman repeatedly misreported the landing sites of V-1s, making the Germans re-direct their flying bombs and causing them to fall mainly in rural Kent or the suburbs of south London.

Chapman soon fell back in with the criminal fraternity in London. He was living the high life and by late 1944 the patience of MI5 had run out. Chapman was paid off and pardoned for his pre-war criminal activities.

His love life was no less complicated than his professional one. Abandoning both his Norwegian fiancée Dagmar and his British fiancée Freda, Chapman instead married Betty Farmer, the former lover he had left behind when escaping through the window at the Hotel de la Plage in Jersey.

After the war Chapman continued to associate with criminals and undesirables, (allegedly including the Kray twins and “Mad” Frankie Frazer) and was frequently in trouble with the police. He was involved in gold smuggling across the Mediterranean, and hatched a plot to kidnap the Sultan of Tangiers. With his earnings from the Triple Cross film Chapman eventually set up a health farm with Betty at the Grade II-listed Shenley Lodge, near St Albans. The couple ran the health farm until the late 1970s, and it now houses Manor Lodge School, an independent primary school.

Eddie Chapman died of heart failure at an old people’s home in St Albans on 11th December, 1997. He remained an enigma throughout his life, often telling contradictory stories about his real name, upbringing and escapades to anyone who would listen at his local pub, the Black Lion in Shenley. For all his faults and often erratic behaviour no-one can deny that Eddie Chapman had lived life to the full.