The formidable Colonel ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, who ran MI5’s inmost interrogation centre, once recorded that ‘fiction has not, and probably never will, produce an espionage story to rival in fascination and improbability the true story of Edward Chapman, whom only war could invest with virtue, and that only for its duration’. If Ben Macintyre had presented this story as a novel, it would have been denounced as far too unlikely; yet every word of it is true. Moreover he has that enviable gift, the inability to write a dull sentence. An enthralling book results from the opening up of once deadly secret files.
Chapman was a professional burglar, who thought himself right at the top of the criminal tree. He was born in a slum village in Co. Durham in 1914, the son of a drunken publican, joined and deserted from the Coldstream Guards and became a barman in Soho. Then he and a friend discovered how to use gelignite, wrapped in condoms, to blow open the doors of safes, and by 1939 he had plenty of money. He was well known to the police, who picked him up in Jersey that summer; he was in prison there when the Germans arrived next year. Denounced (wrongly, for once) as a saboteur, he was packed off to a French internment camp at Romainville in the eastern suburbs of Paris, and was rescued by the Abwehr, the German armed forces’ secret service, for whom he had volunteered to work.
They spent over a year training him as a spy, and parachuted him back into Cam- bridgeshire late in 1942. He gave himself up immediately to the police, not knowing that they had been expecting him, provided a flood of intelligence about Abwehr personalities and methods and was taken on by the Double Cross committee as a double agent. This was a risky decision, but the deception service reckoned that he had not found out anything really important in England — above all, he had no notion of the fact that we were reading most of the Germans’ ciphers. He lived with a pair of minders in a quiet street in Hendon, using his wireless transmitter frequently, always with a minder at his elbow.
Each side made one ghastly blunder. The Germans sent him over with nearly £1,000, in used notes, £900 of which, in nine bundles, still bore labels reading Reichsbank. Nobody on the German side had noticed. They had also arranged with him that every message he sent was to begin FFFFF, as a sign that he was still free. Over Christmas he forgot, and so did his minder; he got away with an abject apology for having been drunk. The whole double cross system, that ran about 40 German agents, hinged on this sort of slip never happening at all, for if the Germans once suspected what was going on the entire deception scheme would collapse.
As it was, the Germans had confidence in Chapman, because with the great conjuror Jasper Maskelyne’s help he forged an explosion at the Hatfield factory where De Havilland made Mosquito bombers, and took press cuttings of this back to Portugal with him when he was let go there, ill disguised as a merchant seaman — another tremendous risk, justified in the event. The Abwehr, enchanted by him, took him to Norway for further training. There he picked up a local girlfriend who turned out to be in Norwegian resistance, to whom he confessed that he was working for the British. The Abwehr secured for him an Iron Cross — of which he was the only British holder — and parachuted him back a second time, so that he could report the fall of doodlebugs and V2 rockets. In fact he misreported them, helping to persuade the Germans to change their aim. He had done wonders to help his country when it was in danger; but his criminal instincts stayed with him — he pocketed for instance a pair of gold nail-scissors that belonged to a minder. As the war died down, he eased his way back into Soho, and began to drop heavy hints to his friends about what he had done. This gave MI5 an excuse to drop him. He was good-looking, and a tremendous womaniser, hence many twists to his story, unravelled by Macintyre with consummate skill. He did not die till 1997; his old Abwehr chief came over to his castle in Ireland to help celebrate his daughter’s wedding.