Agent Zigzag – Ben Macintyre

29 March 2011
Chapters 1-13
What can I say? For a start, it’s hugely enjoyable. Macintyre begins at one of the beginnings – at the moment when our man is about to stop being the Nazis’ secret weapon, and start being the Brits’ secret weapon instead. He was never really the Nazis’ secret anyway: the British have known all about Agent Fritz – giving him the Brits’ all-purpose nickname for Germans is the Abwehr’s little joke – because since the cracking of the Enigma codes they’ve known about most things they do. It’s one of the themes of this middle section of the book: the Brits are better at just about everything than the Germans. I’ll come back to that. At the start of the book, this man in a suit – we don’t know who he is yet – has parachuted into a field and doesn’t know where he is. He had a map when he set off, but he seems to have lost it….

After Macintyre rewinds to an earlier beginning and starts again, it takes all but one of the chapters I’ve read so far to get back to this point. And we find out all about Eddie Chapman. In Macintyre’s presentation of him – and it’s the only one we’ve got – he’s a small-time crook, then he’s a slightly bigger crook working in a gang, then he’s on the run…. But all that isn’t the best bit. Using documents that have only been declassified in the early years of the 21st Century – as Macintyre explains in his Author’s Note at the beginning – a picture is built up of an intelligent, brave, resourceful man who has absolutely no compunction about stealing more or less anything. But – and it’s an important part of the picture – he is never violent. In this presentation of him, our Eddie is the sort of lovable rogue familiar from novels and films, the sort we can’t help liking.

After a botched job, Eddie and the gang have scarpered to Jersey in the summer of 1939. Luckily for him, he is caught following a solo raid on a local business. The others have already been rounded up and deported back to London, but he faces trial, then jail, on the island. Which is where he is at the outbreak of war, and still is after the Nazi invasion. He and a cell-mate apply to be German spies, and are rejected. It was a long shot anyway.

Months later he and his mate are taken to Romanville, a Paris not-quite château converted into a Nazi hell-hole, Almost anybody who doesn’t toe the line can find themselves here, effectively held hostage: dozens at a time might be executed in reprisals for Resistance activities. It’s miserable – but for Chapman it comes to an unexpected end. His application to be a spy has found its way to the Abwehr, and it has pressed some buttons: he is exactly the sort of person they would like to groom as an agent.

They are nothing like as efficient and well-run as the British think. At least, this is how Macintyre explains the ineptitude of what comes next: Chapman is so exactly what they want they fail to vet him properly. (This is in contrast to the ultra-efficient grilling he gets later when he’s back in Britain. But that’s later.) Von Groening, the aristocratic, Anglophile boss of the Abwehr in Nantes, decides that this man has nothing to lose if he works for them and everything to lose if he doesn’t. Our man needs no reminding of the long jail sentence he would have to serve in Britain for his criminal activities before the war, but they remind him anyway. And his new boss adds an element of blackmail: his old cell-mate back in Paris will be all right if Chapman co-operates.

The training he receives, described in detail, is the stuff of novels. We learn about Morse code, firearms, explosives in general – and the details of sabotage in particular – from the man Eddie calls the Professor. It’s all entertaining fun, made better by the fact that our man is such a quick learner. Meanwhile, Macintyre makes it clear that Chapman hasn’t really defected. Throughout his time in Nantes he listens to secret conversations, picks up any documentation and encryption codes that he can. At least, that’s the story he presents to his new British masters once he’s given himself up, and that’s the one Macintyre presents to us. What else could he do?

The British secret service, in Macintyre’s version, is everything the Abwehr isn’t. It’s led by old school heroes with old-school nicknames like Tar Robertson and Tin-eye Stephens. They make smart-arse Oxbridge-style jokes, like calling their project of running hundreds of double agents the Twenty Commission because it’s based on the ‘double-cross’, and XX in Roman numerals is twenty. But they get the job done: their way of checking Chapman’s bona fides is to compare his stories with what they’ve already found out from the months of interceptions they’ve been making following the breaking of the Enigma code. They decide he’s reliable.

But Macintyre wants to make Chapman as human as he can. When he isn’t showing extraordinary courage and resourcefulness he can become quite bored, even depressed. He’s no Boy’s Own hero – there’s his womanising to put alongside his matter-of-fact criminality – but he has a kind of honesty, and everyone who meets him seems to like him. And one of his main reasons for wanting to be in Britain is the three-year-old illegitimate daughter he’s never seen. That isn’t what the Brits are interested in, obviously; they’re interested in the way he genuinely seems to want to help in the war effort. They’re definitely going to be able to work with him, but realise they’ll have to treat him quite carefully. They send him to live with two police minders in Hendon while they decide what to do next. Fair enough.

3 April
Chapters 14-23
In these ten chapters the running thread is to do with mirror images; talk about a Looking-Glass War, a la John le Carré. The set-up in Britain is almost the same as in Nantes, but not quite. When Chapman returns to Europe, ostensibly to carry on working for the Germans, Macintyre can’t resist nudging us into noticing the extent to which our man is now leading parallel lives.

But that’s later. Chapman’s life now is on hold until he can do something that will convince the Germans that he really is good at his job. I didn’t mention before just how much the Germans admire the quality of British goods. Von Groening describes how he looks forward to having a British radio after the invasion, and Macintyre seems to be inviting us to feel a kind of rueful pride about how good we used to be, once. All the talk among the Nazis is about the annoyingly fast and troublesome De Havilland Mosquito, and as Agent Fritz, the major task that Chapman has been charged with is to blow up the factory in Hatfield. Now it’s time to do it.

The chapter subtitled ‘Abracadabra’, describing how the sabotage is faked, is one of the most entertaining in the book. The newest member of the venerable Maskeline dynasty of magicians has already been used to disguise manoeuvres and troop movements in North Africa. Now his job is to make the De Havilland factory look as though it’s been bombed. Meanwhile, Chapman and his minders have to make the story of his success plausible, and ensure that German reconnaissance planes will be left alone that night to see the apparent damage. The trick works, and intercepted messages let the Brits know exactly how successfully.

Much later, on his way back into his other life via a merchant ship – he has the temporary identity of a ship’s steward while on board – he sets up another scam on his own. In Lisbon, the portal to occupied Europe in nominally neutral Portugal, he meets a Nazi agent who takes his suggestion of one of the Professor’s coal bombs back to his bosses. They like it – and for a day or two the Brits, who immediately know all about it, wonder whether he’s doing the dirty on them. Of course he isn’t – and later they fake an explosion in a bunker to give the impression that although the ship isn’t sunk, it isn’t for want of a great independent effort on Chapman’s part. Soon he’s their golden boy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Macintyre has spent long chapters on Chapman’s time in Britain, and the constant contact he has with members of the secret service. As we read, we realise the extent to which the spy novels of the postwar period must have been based on these people, and Chapman becomes a kind of literary archetype. Macintyre even mentions that one of the boffins – I can’t imagine that there could ever be a more appropriate word – is the model for Q in the James Bond franchise. Ronnie Reed is the radio expert who makes sure, usually, that Chapman’s transmissions are up to scratch. And there’s ‘Mr Fisher’ – aka Lord Rothschild – who strikes up an instant rapport with our man. (Later he’s disappointed that they can’t actually blow up a ship for the sake of verisimilitude in Chapman’s fake attempt at sabotage.)

However. Chapman’s bosses realise how volatile he is, and his police minders, who are now his mates for all practical purposes, are commissioned to arrange sessions at clubs and with prostitutes. But that’s no good, really, and they eventually bow to his insistent demands to be with Freda and their daughter Diane. Macintyre reminds us of the almost surreal turn that things are taking: as well as keeping a convicted criminal away from the police, some of the most important men in the war effort are providing conjugal visits for him…. Anyway, by the time they’re ready for him to go back to Europe, he’s able to make more demands: Freda and Diane need a place to live, a weekly allowance, protection. His bosses say, ok.

I’m telling you this because eleven months later, in Oslo, he makes exactly the same demands for the new love in his life from his other bosses. Go figure. He’s been in Norway on a kind of sabbatical following weeks of debriefing sessions that the Nazis subject him to. Not everybody in Germany is as convinced of his loyalty as Von Groening. Macintyre is at pains to explain why the old Anglophile might be reluctant to suspect his protégé: the system of running agents in the Abwehr has a built-in flaw: each spymaster is in complete charge of his own spies, so he is bound to believe the best of them. Silly Nazis. And Von Groening, having been spending his inherited fortune all his life, is practically bankrupt – so he slices off a big percentage of the reward money Chapman has earned. Chapman knows it’s happening, and seems to be ok with it: he can see that it ties Von Groening closer than ever to him.

Are we there yet? Nearly. While Chapman is being debriefed, the Brits have fed news of the fake explosion to the rumour mill. Soon it’s all over the world, and by the time Von Groening brings Chapman the results of his debriefings from Berlin he also brings an Iron Cross. My goodness. But Von Groening’s bosses must still be less than 100% sure of this man, and he’s sent to Norway for further training. He likes it at first, particularly the renewal of the friendships it brings about – because yes, reader, he is able to be the friend of these people while betraying them. Of course, he doesn’t like Praetorius, he of the fascination with morris dancing (I’m not making this up). But Praetorius gets a kind of come-uppance in the end: instead of the heroic Aryan Knight fantasy he’s always dreamed of, he gets to be dancing-master to the Reich. (I’m not making this up, either.)

But all this bonhomie isn’t nearly enough. Chapman comes to hate the looks of contempt he gets from the Norwegians – in Macintyre’s presentation of them, they are much more overt than the French in their disdain for their new masters – and needs something positive in his life. He finds it in Dagmar, whom he meets in a club for Nazis and collaborators. For some time, neither of them realises that the other is working against the Nazis. When the secrecy gets too much for him and he tells her, she tells him she’s working for the resistance. If it happened in a novel you wouldn’t believe it – and I wonder whether, in fact, she’s telling the whole truth. Chapman wonders as well, and sets her a couple of tests. She’s ok, and he sets her up as a kind of assistant.

Which is why, when he’s about to be sent off on his next big mission, he can demand the same kind of privileges for Dagmar as he’s got for Freda. Cheeky monkey.

4 April
Chapter 24 to the end
In a lot of respects, we’ve had the best bits of the story already – which means that Macintyre has to do something new to keep things interesting in this final 20% of the book. At first things carry on as before, with the Nazis feting their star agent in Berlin, and the Brits talking amongst themselves following his return about how he really does seem to be pure gold. His return isn’t auspicious, via a bumpy landing on the road out of Six Mile Bottom – a village I know, so the comedy is lost on me – but once in Britain he can spill more beans than ever. And he can start to feed misinformation back to the Germans about where their V1 rockets are landing in order to get them to adjust their aim, wrongly.

But it’s thin stuff compared to what we’ve had before, and it’s time to wind things up anyway. In this version, the end of Chapman’s secret service career is down to a catastrophic change of personnel. Reed is promoted out, and Chapman gives him his Iron Cross as a token of genuine friendship. Enter Ryde, a bean-counter (in Macintyre’s scornful phrase) promoted, if we’re to believe it, beyond his competence. In this story he’s the wicked intruder, with no interest at all in Chapman’s service record and a priggish distaste for everything about his lifestyle. As Macintyre tells it – and for all I know it might be true – Ryde sets out to work against his own agent and does everything he can to get Chapman out.

Chapman does his best to help him. In Britain with not enough to do he begins to mix with low-lifes, makes money from a betting scam on the dog track – all this in a chapter called ‘Going to the Dogs’, which is Ryde’s gleeful phrase when reporting to Masterman and Robertson – and, worst of all, seems to have been boasting of his exploits to a recently released crook. His bosses are left with no choice. In a chapter entitled ‘Case Dismissed’ Ryde is given the job of throwing him out, which – boo, hiss – he does with great pleasure.

Fat lot of good it does him. Macintyre likes to work a seam of poetic justice, and it isn’t Ryde who survives unscathed: the drink problem we already know about ends up killing him. Whereas Chapman is never found guilty of any crime despite the police’s efforts spanning decades, and gets married. Not to Dagmar, who dies in old age unmarried, with unsent letters to Chapman still in the house, or Freda who, being far more practical, gets on with her life. It’s Betty he looks out for and finds. Who she? I don’t think I ever mentioned her, but Macintyre has done, in Jersey in 1939. She’s the one Chapman invited to Jersey, the woman he left high and dry when he escaped from the police through the hotel window. He always told her he’d come back.

He lives into his eighties, and is even able to invite Von Groening to a castle in Ireland. The book – I nearly wrote novel – ends with the old friends at night, singing in the garden after a party.

At one level – a level I’ve been happy to stay with all the way through – this is a page-turner, a rattling good read. But at another level Macintyre is able to play with notions of storytelling and historical reliability. Usually, he gives us a version of events that we have no choice but to accept. But in these last chapters he holds up the notion of versions for us to have a better look at. Chapman’s own version is first vetoed, then goes through three further mutations, none of them satisfactory. Masterman eventually publishes his own version in the USA in the 1970s, and other accounts by insiders find themselves being written. Unsatisfactorily.

And there’s a secret service man that Macintyre coyly introduces us to as Ian Fleming, a friend – just like Chapman – of Terence Young, who directed the first two Bond movies. Ah, we think – we’ve already thought, because these connections have been mentioned before – but Macintyre stops us: if the persona played by Sean Connery is based on anybody at all, it’s on Terence Young himself. Well, believe that if you want to. We know better, we think, because we’ve had the definitive version. As if.


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