Secret Agent Man: How This Petty Thief Became a Double Agent in World War II

February 4, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IISpiesEspionageGreat BritainNazi Germany

Secret Agent Man: How This Petty Thief Became a Double Agent in World War II

Petty thief, con artist, and burglar Eddie Chapman played both sides as “Fritzchen” and “Agent Zigzag.” He even received the Iron Cross from the German government.

Here's What You Need to Know: Nations have often pressed unsavory characters and criminals into service during wartime, rationalizing that such action is in the best interest of the country during extraordinary times.

During World War II, the British Secret Intelligence Service enlisted a petty thief, con man, accomplished burglar, and man of adventure named Edward “Eddie” Chapman to act as a double agent against the Germans. After the passage of time, it is still not clear where Chapman’s true loyalties lay. Did he help his native Britain out of loyalty to crown and country, or was he so devoted to his German spymasters on a strictly personal basis that he would do anything they asked of him to save his own skin?

For students of espionage during World War II, the name Eddie Chapman was initially not as well known as other spies such as Elyesa Bazna aka Cicero, Richard Sorge, and Juan Pujol Garcia aka Garbo. However, all that changed when MI-5, the British Intelligence Service, finally released 1,800 previously classified papers on Eddie Chapman’s role as a double agent during World War II to the British National Archives. Some of these materials were also placed in the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and are now open for public inspection.

What these documents reveal is a deeply flawed man, a womanizer who had a child out of wedlock while having affairs with other women for whom he deeply cared. They tell a story of a man who was wined and dined by two rival intelligence services, the German Abwehr headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and the British Intelligence Service, which also used Chapman for its own ends. For its part, the Abwehr sent Chapman on an intelligence mission by parachute into Great Britain with a bundle of clearly labeled German marks. On the British side, they cared for Chapman’s every personal whim while they dispatched two plainclothes policemen to live with him 24 hours a day.

A Member of the Jelly Gang

Eddie Chapman was born the eldest of three children on November 16, 1914, in the English village of Brunopfield. His father ran a local pub called the Clippership in the town of Roker. The establishment did not fare very well, as the elder Chapman was prone to drink more than work.

At age 17, Eddie joined the Army, entering the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. After spending nine months in uniform, he was granted leave and made a beeline to London where he proceeded to meet lovely English ladies, and more important, went AWOL. He was eventually arrested and spent more than two months in the stockade. After his release, he was dishonorably discharged from the Army, and returned to the Soho district of London, where he began his new career as a petty criminal.

He took on any job available, often working as a barman, an extra in motion pictures, a dancer, a wrestler, and anything else that could keep him in booze and women. He spent most of his free time at a bar called Smokey Joe’s where he met all sorts of crooks and quickly gravitated to the criminal underworld. During the 1930s, Chapman began his second career, breaking into homes and stealing whatever valuables he could find and forging checks. For his crimes, he was given light sentences and served a two-month jail term for stealing a check and for fraud. He no sooner was out of jail than he was rearrested for trespassing and locked up for an additional three months.

During this same period, Chapman joined a ruthless bunch of criminals called the Jelly Gang, whose modus operandi focused on the use of high explosives to break into safes. The leader of the Jelly Gang was Jimmy Hunt, whom Chapman later used in his bogus schemes to fool the Germans during the war. The Jelly Gang proceeded to rob various upscale stores in London, most notably Isobel’s, a furrier from which they stole a number of minks and capes valued at 200 pounds. Next was a pawnbroker where the gang blew open four safes, stealing 15,000 pounds. Chapman was so pleased with his handiwork that he clipped newspaper accounts of his robberies and filed them away in a scrapbook.

In 1939, with the police hot on their trail, the members of the Jelly Gang fled toward Scotland where their luck finally ran out. While trying to rob the headquarters of the Edinburgh Cooperative Society, Chapman and four others were caught by a passing policeman who heard noise and investigated. Before they could stand trial, however, the four men escaped and fled to the wilds of Jersey in the Channel Islands.

Chapman was the subject of a huge manhunt across the marshes of Jersey before finally being captured by the police while he was staying at the Hotel de la Plage. Accompanying Chapman to Jersey was his girlfriend, Betty Farmer. Eddie was locked in a Jersey jail without any means of escape. As fate would have it, however, an event soon took place that changed his life forever.

Released by the Germans

By June 1940, while Chapman was safely in jail, the German war machine was victorious across Europe. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg were securely under Hitler’s dominion. In preparation for the anticipated invasion of Great Britain, the Luftwaffe began attacks on the outlying areas, including the Channel Islands, which became the only sovereign territory of the British Isles occupied by the Germans during the war. German troops soon overran Jersey, and the prisoners now became the responsibility of the German government.

While locked up, Chapman made friends with a 22-year-old fellow prisoner named Anthony Faramus, and the two followed each other’s whereabouts until the end of the war.

Chapman’s luck changed when he was released from prison on October 15, 1941. His buddy Faramus had been released a few months before, and both men found their new freedom intoxicating. They started a small business together, a barber shop that catered mostly to German officers and enlisted men. They also made friends with a British citizen named Douglas Stirling who was into the black market, selling whatever illicit goods he could find. The trio went into business together, operating under the table, making a good living by persuading others to buy their stolen goods.

A Spy for the Germans

Just when Chapman thought he was free from German observation, a freak accident changed his life. One day he was involved in a bicycle accident with a German motorist. Chapman was riding on the wrong side of the road and car and bike collided. Chapman was interrogated by the Germans, who warned him not to get into any further trouble. Fearing for their long-term safety, Chapman, Faramus, and Stirling decided to write a letter to the German authorities in the Channel Islands offering to act as spies for the Third Reich. Writing later of his decision to work for the Germans, Chapman said, “If I could work a bluff with the Germans, I could probably be sent over to Britain. Perhaps it was phony talk even then, and I don’t pretend there were no other motives in the plans I began to turn over in my mind. They did not occur to me either, in one moment, or in one mood.”

Chapman and Faramus wrote a letter offering their services to the commander of German forces in the Channel Islands, General Otto von Stulpnagel. Chapman also had a brief meeting with a German officer who heard his story and then promptly said he would get back to him. Weeks passed before Chapman heard from the German authorities. When he did, however, he was not happy.

Both Chapman and Faramus were arrested on bogus charges that they had cut telephone lines in the Channel Islands. They were put on a train bound for Paris, headed to an uncertain fate.

The two were taken to a prison called Fort de Romainville on the outskirts of Paris. In time, Chapman was interrogated by members of the prison staff about his previous criminal activities. One of these men was Dr. Stephan Graumann, who also went by the name von Groning. Over time, Chapman and Graumann became close personal friends despite the fact that they were on different sides of the war.

It was during these sessions that Graumann made Eddie an offer he could not refuse. In exchange for his freedom and a handsome payday, Eddie would be sent back to Britain by German intelligence to complete certain clandestine missions that he would be told about at a later date. Seeing a chance to get out of jail and return to Great Britain, Chapman volunteered to act as a spy for the Germans. He did so out of complete vanity, accepting a once-in- a-lifetime offer.

Turning Himself In

While Faramus remained in jail and eventually wound up in a concentration camp but survived the war, Chapman was taken to his new training facility, the Villa de la Bretonniere in Nantes, France. The living conditions at the villa were luxurious. He was given a crash course in the fine art of espionage, concentrating on wireless operations, hand-to-hand combat, and the use of secret ink. His training lasted about three months under the direction of Lieutenant Walter Praetorius aka Thomas, and Karl Barton, aka Herman Wojch. Soon, Chapman was adept in all sorts of clandestine arts and was ready to take the next step for his new German masters.