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Joseph KanonBooth has done his homework…and his access to Betty [Chapman] offers interesting intimate details, particularly about the postwar years.
—The New York Times
Eddie Chapman was a con man, jailbird, womanizer, and safe-cracker. He was also the most remarkable double agent of World War II.
Broadcaster and author Booth (The Encyclopedia of Space) mines the newly released World War II records of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI5) for this lively and sympathetic account of celebrated double agent Eddie Chapman. A petty criminal, Chapman was incarcerated in a Jersey jail when the Germans occupied the Channel Islands in 1940. After his release, he offered to work for German military intelligence and received training as a saboteur and spy in occupied France. He parachuted into England in 1942 with orders to blow up an aircraft factory, but contacted British intelligence once on the ground. Despite their misgivings-his handlers variously described Chapman as "a very strange character" and "a man without any scruples"-MI5 employed him as a double agent for the remainder of the war. There are legitimate questions as to the enigmatic Chapman's motivation, but Booth, who collaborated with Chapman's widow, Betty, invariably sides with the double agent against his critics. In Booth's judgment, Chapman was the "most remarkable spy of the Second World War," and his treatment by British intelligence was "shameful." Whether rogue or patriot, his story makes for intriguing reading, but Booth's transparent cheerleading for Chapman detracts from an otherwise enjoyable biography. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
'I have always liked working alone and during this time I had been doing villainy, I was never happier than when out at night prowling around like some big cat, over the walls of the side of buildings, always quietly, silently, bent on achieving some nefarious scheme. I knew that one mistake and I would plunge from off my own particular tightrope and the resulting mess would not be pleasant.' - Eddie Chapman recalls his pre-war years
The world into which Arnold Edward Chapman was born was typical of his generation and class. It was one of unremitting hardship, grime and diminishing prospects. Eddie was born on 16 November 1914 in Burnup Field, County Durham, and brought up in Sunderland, the eldest of three children. Eddie's family 'belonged to the sea', for his father, Ralph, was often away from home for five years at a time on tramp steamers. 'And every time he came home,' Eddie's brother, Winston, says with a smile, 'there seemed to be a child in the offing.' For generations, the Chapmans had been masters and pilots but most recently had been marine engineers. His father was a chief engineer-'his universe revolved around an engine', Eddie later wrote-as, in time, his younger brother was to be.
Eddie, though, inherited very little mechanical ability. His widow, Betty, says, 'It makes me laugh when I read he was a safebreaking genius. He couldn't pick a lock to save his life!' Had Eddie not searched for adventures elsewhere, the maritime world might have provided him with gainful employment over the next few years. 'He served his time as an engineer,' Win Chapman says, 'but only for two years, then he decided he couldn't take it any more.' Eddie's younger brother, on the other hand, was happy to complete his training and eventually ended up becoming a director of the company which had originally employed him.
Eddie fondly remembered looking after his siblings (a sister, Olga, was born in 1924). He was a kind, caring boy and the rest of the family adored him, particularly his brother, seven years his junior. To the family he was always called 'Arnie' in those days to distinguish him from his father, whose full name was Ralph Edward. Even then, young Eddie was meticulous about his appearance, which probably explains why the dirt and grime from the Wearside slag heaps loomed large in his later memory. Eddie claimed he was dirty for most of his childhood and regularly dipped in the Derwent to clean himself.
His father wanted him to become an engineer but given his lack of mechanical aptitude that was hardly likely. Eddie had very little interest in school. He was a natural sportsman, though, and captained both the football and cricket teams. And he also learned how to wrestle, for his father taught the Newcastle police ju-jitsu. 'He was a tough character,' says Winston of their father, 'very tough.' By comparison, his mother, Elizabeth, was a gentle soul, an indomitable spirit to whom her eldest son was close. Although Eddie was baptised in the Church of England, according to the family his mother's lineage was Jewish. There was a sizeable, thriving Jewish community in the North-East which had been attracted to the great trading ports in the eighteenth century. 'And remember, his mother's name was Lever,' his widow says. 'Because the line comes from the mother in the Jewish faith, he could be classed as Jewish.'
* * *
Shipbuilding defined the Sunderland of Eddie Chapman's youth. Wherever you looked the towering cranes could be seen, while the relentless noise from the shipyards assaulted the senses. Great names like Swan Hunter and Vosper Thorneycroft employed thousands of local men. Sunderland had become the biggest shipbuilding centre in the country.
But by Eddie's early teens there was a growing worldwide recession, while a flood of men returning home from the Great War had swelled the labour market. Nineteen shipyards had closed by 1930. A year later, 80 per cent of nearby Jarrow's workforce was unemployed.
Economic hardship soon started to bite. Mass unemployment all around Sunderland meant that Eddie's father was forced to find work as a fitter and take a drastic pay cut. As money became tighter, his parents had to cash in insurance policies and sell off family treasures like his father's gold watch. Of particular sadness to the teenage Eddie Chapman was the day when the piano, the focal point for family singsongs, was sold.
In 1927, the Chapmans had taken on a pub called the Clipper Ship in Roker Avenue. Aged only thirteen, Eddie was regularly serving dockworkers and fishermen pints of beer. As was common in those days, no women were allowed to enter-not that they would probably want to, for the pub was small and dirty. In the company of local seamen, Eddie learned to curse like a dockhand. Money, though, remained tight. Some days he would take his sister and brother to the seaside at Roker. He had to push the pram four miles there and back as there wasn't enough money to take the tram.
The depression turned Eddie's world upside down. He left school on his fourteenth birthday and plunged into the task of making an honest living. As he would later sardonically remark, earning a decent honest living was never going to be easy.
* * *
To begin with, Eddie found work in the Sunderland shipyards as his father had done before him and his brother was later to do. Within a few months, though, he was made redundant. His next employment was as a motor mechanic where he often had to work until midnight. Feeling exploited, he went to a shipyard's office where an uncle worked, who helped him get a job as a wages clerk. He loathed it and left the shipyard to work for the Sunder Forge and Electric Engineering Co., where to his chagrin his wages remained static at six shillings a week.
At the time, unemployment was hitting Sunderland, in Eddie's phrase, 'like a sledgehammer'. If he was able to work one week in three in 1930, he thought himself lucky. In those days before the welfare state, the dole-unemployment benefit-lasted just six weeks. Each claimant would be means-tested and, if they were lucky, money might grudgingly be handed over. Perhaps these injustices incubated Eddie's growing contempt for the norms of society. He would later comment bitterly that the slums he saw in his native Sunderland were 'far worse than I had seen anywhere else in Europe, where the people were ill-fed and poorly clothed, and my own most lively memories of childhood had been of the cold misery of the dole'.
Luckily, he was eligible to claim some benefit, but for this he had to attend a special 'skills' school which he found a complete waste of time. Ironically, one of the skills taught was filing iron bars. 'When things were bad, Eddie was at the dole school,' says his brother Winston. 'He had one week at the dole school, one week at work, but soon got fed up with it.' Perhaps this frustration explains why Eddie ended up putting a fellow apprentice in hospital. He had learned how to box from a well-known bruiser who used to frequent the Clipper Ship. At the dole school one day, he got into a fight; his mother made him pay the compensation for the unfortunate fellow's injuries.
In 1930, Eddie's simply stopped attending the dole school altogether. Each day he pretended he was going to the school but instead cycled to the nearby coastal sands. There he would while away his days collecting beer and lemonade bottles, which he would then sell back to the shopkeepers. While hardly lucrative, it was better than being exploited. He decided he had little need to work and was happy to bask in the summer sunshine. 'How pleasant it was to lie there, loafing, free,' Eddie would fondly recall, 'looking at the sky, feeling the soft wind, kicking the warm sand with delight.'
It was inevitable that he would be found out. One morning, a report turned up in the post concerning the progress of his apprenticeship. Eddie's frequent absences had been noted. Terror struck him as to what his parents might do next. Aged sixteen, Eddie Chapman decided to run away from home.
One night he grabbed a loaf of bread and a sixpence and cycled into the darkness. That winter of 1930 the weather was terrible, but he was attracted to the bright lights of London. Eddie pedalled as fast as he could down the Great North Road as far as Doncaster, roughly a hundred miles away. He soon fell in with a miner who was also looking for work. In the Yorkshire coalfields the miner soon found employment, but Eddie didn't. Somewhat crestfallen, he returned home early one morning. It was about 3 a.m. and, to his amazement, rather than wielding a rolling pin, his mother was sobbing with relief that he had returned-if only for the moment.
'It was no good trying to settle down,' Eddie said. 'Wandering had bitten me, and I was determined to go to London.'
* * *
Some months later came an event which passed into family-and local-legend. One sunny Sunday morning in early October 1931, Eddie and his brother were lounging on the beach at Roker when they heard a strange choking noise. 'We were sunbathing,' Winston recalls, 'we had towels on and we heard this cry for help.' About fifty yards away, out at sea, there was a man obviously in trouble. Instinctively, Eddie ran off and swam towards the drowning man. On his return, he realised an appreciative crowd had gathered-and that he was completely naked. Winston went out to him with his towel and they both managed to slip away. The drowning man, George Herring, was given artificial respiration for forty minutes and somehow survived.
'Eddie refused to say he'd saved a life,' Betty Chapman recalls, 'because he said he'd get a good hiding from his mother for not being at Sunday school.' But he was eventually hailed as a hero. Though somebody else initially claimed the credit for the rescue, Eddie himself was invited to the local town hall the following February where the Mayor of Sunderland presented him with a certificate from the Royal Humane Society. When his mother found out that both her sons had bunked off from church, she was, however, none too pleased.
Consciously trying to better himself, Eddie Chapman joined the Coldstream Guards just after his seventeenth birthday at the end of 1931. Eddie was always proud of his time in the Coldstreams, for it was one of the more illustrious regiments of the British Army. Perhaps it is no surprise that Eddie was drawn to this particular regiment. Between the wars, there had been a deliberate policy to expand the Coldstream's scope of recruitment. But the main criterion, according to his brother, was that you had to be six feet tall to join. 'I was six feet tall, lean and pretty hard,' Eddie himself later wrote, 'so getting by with a false age was easy.' By the simple expedient of forging his father's signature, he claimed he was eighteen, and was able to get in a year earlier than he should have done.
When Eddie joined the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, his life became truly regimented and perhaps it was inevitable that so restless a spirit would soon kick against the system. On his first morning at Caterham Barracks as a cadet, Eddie 'slept in' after a bugle call at 6 a.m. The sergeant who came to his billet was spitting mad. 'He let out one astonished yell,' Eddie recalled. For the rest of that day Eddie found himself having to scrub the whole barrack room and stairs-alone. He didn't make the same mistake twice. On another occasion, he turned left instead of right during a drill parade. 'You constipated bleeding crab,' the sergeant shouted, 'do that again and I'll ram this bloody rifle up your arse.' The sergeant seized the weapon and banged it on Eddie's toes for good measure.
Slowly but surely, Private Chapman learned to become a guardsman. His time in the army was mainly spent at Caterham or Pirbright, with the occasional posting to either Wellington Barracks in London or Victoria Barracks in Windsor. Eddie seems to have whiled away his time playing sport. When playing handball a little too energetically one day in 1933, he smashed his kneecap, causing so much pain that he was forced to stay in bed for the best part of a month. While he recuperated, Eddie was sent to Millbank, the main military hospital in London, where his patella was found to be broken. He was given three weeks' leave, and on his return to Caterham was spotted by a sergeant who shouted at him to walk faster. Same old army, Eddie thought.
After his return from Millbank, Eddie was entered into the Guards' boxing tournament. A red-haired Irishman came at him in the first round and knocked him out cold for two hours. 'I have never been in a ring since,' Eddie said.
Within a year, he had passed through the rigours of basic military training and was entitled to wear the red tunic and bearskin of a Guardsman. His insouciant slouching had reduced sergeants on the parade grounds at Caterham to apoplectic rage. Yet spit and polish had some effect: even in later years, Eddie would remain as ramrod straight as the best career soldiers. Indeed, the rigorous training gave him self-confidence and discipline, both of which would stand him in good stead in later life. But first Guardsman Chapman was drafted to the Tower of London where he took part in the ceremony of the King's Keys. 'He guarded the Crown Jewels,' says his widow Betty, 'which I think is quite funny.'
* * *
Where did Eddie's addiction to danger come from? His surviving family agree that he had a great need for thrills and excitement. According to his widow, one of Eddie's favourite phrases was 'Never resist temptation'-usually accompanied by a knowing wink. One comment by the Security Service probably goes to the nub of the reasons. 'He is undoubtedly a man with a deep-seated liking for adventure,' MI5 would later conclude, 'and it is our view that this is more likely to be the cause, rather than the effect, of his criminal career.'
It seems unlikely that the economic climate alone fuelled Eddie's increasing waywardness. There were considerable hardships, but the Chapman children were not neglected. Even their father, despite his prolonged absences at sea, played his part. In the depths of the depression, Ralph Chapman was reduced to working as a temporary fitter where he earned just two pounds eighteen shillings a week. On that, his mother was expected to feed and clothe the whole family. But while his father was not above 'tanning the bairns'-in common with parents across the land at the time-Eddie's parents were also loving and supportive.
According to his widow, it was Eddie's own depression rather than the greater economic depression which explains his often manic behaviour. Braving dangerous situations was a way of exorcising his personal demons. 'Depression was not understood in those days,' Betty Chapman says. 'You were made to get on with it.'
Over the next few years, Eddie would often be overcome with waves of helplessness. Even after the war, he kept a lot to himself about the dangers he had faced and never sought counselling. In those days, people simply ignored the symptoms of depression. It is clear, too, that the death of his mother, in the tuberculosis ward of a local hospital for the poor, affected him deeply. His widow believes that this was the traumatic event that pushed him over the edge.
While at Caterham in the early summer of 1933, Eddie received a telegram informing him that his mother was ill with tuberculosis. By the time he reached Sunderland, it was clear that she didn't have long left. He rushed to the Wearmouth Consumption Hospital as quickly as he could. The memories of what he found there stayed with him until his own death: the carbolic smell, his mother's pride at seeing her eldest in his bright red tunic, her hopes for the future and then taking her dying breath in front of his eyes.
To Betty Chapman, his mother's death turned her future husband against the norms of supposedly acceptable behaviour. His mother had had to care for his siblings and had now died in a hospital along with other impoverished people. 'If that's what society does to my mother,' Eddie later said to his wife, 'then screw society.'
Excerpted from ZigZag by NICHOLAS BOOTH Copyright © 2007 by Nicholas Booth. Excerpted by permission.
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