Being a turncoat is tricky business


Many of us are obsessed by the Second World War and the unprecedented devastation unleashed by the German killing machine until the great battles that turned the tide.

But there is more to the stories of Stalingrad and Kursk, El-Alamein and D-Day than stamina, strategy and over-extended supply lines.

Espionage, in particular deception covering all aspects of the equipment, troop movements and battle plans by armies fighting to crush the Nazis, was an effective and essential part of the Allies’ arsenal.

The little-known tale of Eddie Chapman, who became known as Agent Zigzag because he operated as a double agent, played an important part in the success of D-Day.

His story, told brilliantly by British journalist Ben Macintyre, makes for easily one of the best espionage tales ever written, the highlight of my summer reading.

This saga has been told before, but never with such an edgy sense of tension and timing.

The story leaps from the page with veracity because Chapman’s words, actions and appearance are lifted from the record in documents released by MI5, the British secret service, in 2001.

Yes, Chapman was a petty thief and philanderer who thrived on the fast life, but he was also very clever, and he loved his country. Or so he claimed.

He was in jail in Jersey when the Germans captured the island in the English Channel and he offered to work for them as a spy.

He deceived the Germans, or most of them, into believing he was a credible turncoat, but once he was parachuted into England he immediately turned himself in and offered to act as a double agent.

This is very tricky business, high-tension stuff. The double agent had to convince his German handlers, who were paying him well, that he was legitimate.

This in turn meant that his MI5 handlers had to feed him some legitimate nuggets of information, at least consistent with what other German agents were supplying, to convince him that he really was working for them.

Since these other agents were also being manipulated by MI5, this was not that difficult.

Of course, it was not too easy because doubters in both spy agencies were suspicious.

This adds to the tension. You never know if and when he’ll get caught. And since he was paid by both sides, some of his British handlers were never totally certain of Chapman’s claimed loyalties.

This is not a new book—it was published in 2007—but I just discovered it and it is a fabulous read. You will not be able to put it down and you will marvel at the rich detail of this scoundrel-hero’s escapades.

Agent Zigzag, A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre,
Three River Press, N.Y., $16.95.

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