Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said: ‘The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’
Every hero needs a good old-fashioned villain. In fiction, heroes and villains are often depicted as the opposite side of the same coin: Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. This trope goes on and on and has been a staple of storytelling for centuries.
In some rare cases, however, the two sides of the coin reside within the same person, and no person embodies this more than a forgotten anti-hero by the name of Eddie Chapman.
While it would be unfair to describe Eddie Chapman as an evil man, he certainly had a villainous streak which got him into more than his fair share of trouble.
From a troubled youth all the way up to serving his country during the Second World War, Eddie Chapman managed to pack more adventure into one life than most people could pack into five.
The story of Agent Zigzag begins in 1942, but Eddie Chapman was so much more than this mere title. He somehow managed to live the life of James Bond before James Bond was even an idea. His travels took him to every dark corner of Europe, and in his wake, he left more than a few broken hearts still yearning for his touch. Of course, Chapman may not have been the direct inspiration for James Bond, but his duplicitous espionage lifestyle would not have looked out of place in any fictional spy thriller story.
Eddie Chapman started out his adult life in the army, but a dishonourable discharge soon led him down the pathway to petty crime—an obvious career choice for anyone with a taste for danger and enough intelligence to outsmart authorities and victims alike. During the Second World War, Chapman worked as a double agent for both the German army and MI5, eventually earning himself the moniker of ‘Agent Zigzag’. Such a nickname was assigned to Chapman thanks to his less-than-legal extracurricular activities pre-dating the war, showcasing his ability to easily walk the line between good and evil.
When the Second World War ended, Chapman had been once again dispensed of by the war effort and found himself at a loss. This led him to drift back towards a life of petty crime, with his previous good service during the war allowing him to evade any kind of punishment. From this point, his life gradually became stranger and more unfathomable, taking him on some rather unbelievable adventures that even by today’s standards, might sound a little exaggerated. The beautiful part, however, is that every incident that follows is as real as the mud on Chapman’s boots and the scars on his body.
Eventually, Eddie Chapman was able to turn things around and instil a sense of normality in his life, and in true Zigzag fashion, he managed to craft something of a comfortable existence for himself by the time his final days rolled around.
So, how did the elusive Eddie Chapman manage to fashion such an extravagant life, given his humble beginnings and his foray into an inescapable lifestyle of espionage and danger?
To see how the man forever remembered as Agent Zigzag came to be, it requires a look into his childhood and the events that formed him.
Chapman was a typical product of the harsh North East of England, and this showed throughout his early life into his late teens. In his own words, he later claimed: ‘I mixed with all kinds of tricky people’, and it was these tricky people who would come to influence the bulk of his life. During his early years, Chapman held many different jobs before finally taking the plunge into a life of crime, with his preferred being fraud and burglary. He gradually rose up through the criminal ranks, with the proceeds from his crimes affording him an extravagant lifestyle filled with expensive clubs and exotic women. It was these two particular crimes—burglary and fraudulent activity—combined with his unrestrained lifestyle that led to him becoming a criminal wanted by the police, eventually resulting in his arrest during his teenage years. While on bail, Chapman fled to Jersey but couldn’t resist the allure of the criminal way of life. By the time the Second World War broke out, Chapman was imprisoned in Jersey, missing the first two years of the battle until the German forces eventually occupied Jersey.
It was here that Eddie made a deal with the German forces. He agreed to operate as a German spy, resulting in a search for him by the British government, who wanted Chapman’s expertise to work for the Allied side. The German army had paid Chapman a considerable amount to work as an undercover spy for them, but Chapman’s love for his country was one of the few things Chapman favoured over money. In addition, he figured if he could work for the British government whilst concurrently being paid by the enemy, he would receive the best of both worlds. He could be a war hero and get rich on the enemy’s dime.
He undertook a number of operations, proving himself to be so skilled in espionage that the German army awarded him a military medal. He ended up with two fiancées, in addition to a harem of women whom he had promised to marry once his war activities ceased. From here, he developed something of an ego complex, rapidly becoming more erratic and difficult to handle. This only proved that MI5 had been right in awarding him the codename Agent Zigzag.
Chapman was then dismissed from MI5 and returned to his previous life of crime. This time, however, he had an ace in his pocket. He used his service throughout the war as a means to get out of trouble whenever he was caught.
He finally gave up his life of crime and moved towards more legitimate means of supporting himself and his family. By this point in his life, he had chosen a wife from the multitude of women he had been stringing along, and had begun a life as a businessman and author.
Chapman’s story is one of love, violence, crime, and redemption. It’s the story of one man who lied, cheated, and stole his way to one of the most incredible stories to come out of the Second World War. Agent Zigzag had such an impact on the war effort that his life was made into a movie, in addition to numerous documentaries covering his life story. His move into popular culture comes from his achievements during the war, as well as the romanticised views of crime. His intricate skill in the art of seduction adds an element of danger to his life that attracts interest from all quarters. With all this being said, the story of Agent Zigzag isn’t one of plain sailing. Eddie Chapman was many things in his life: lover, thief, husband, father, good, bad, but the main thing he will always be remembered as is a spy. You may feel that Eddie Chapman’s misdeeds outweigh the good that he did, but there is no denying that despite his evil doings, he still managed to cross over that line between good and evil when necessary.