A Wearside crook who was awarded Germany’s Iron Cross medal by a grateful Adolf Hitler is the subject of a special talk this week.
Eddie Chapman – thief, hero and ruthless spy – will be discussed by historian Bernard Hope during a Heritage Open Days event on Thursday.
“Given the chance of freedom by spying and committing sabotage on his homeland, Eddie became a double agent. It is an incredible true story,” said a spokesman.
Nothing in Chapman’s early life could have prepared Britain and Germany for the whirlwind force for both good and evil that Eddie was to become.
Born in Burnopfield in 1914, he moved to Sunderland as a child, where his father ran The Clippership pub in Roker – and drank most of the profits.
The death of his mother, in the TB ward of a paupers’ hospital, was often blamed by Chapman for “sending him off the rails” while still a young boy.
He never received the recognition he thought he deserved. But then, he could probably only have achieved that by assassinating Hitler.
“Intelligent but lazy, insolent and easily bored, Chapman skipped school often as a child,” revealed author Ben Macintyre in his 2007 book Agent Zigzag.
“Then, while still very young, he took a bus to London with just £3, a fraying suit and a jail-crop haircut, and headed straight for Soho.”
Chapman’s sharp wits helped him earn a few bob as a film extra, masseur and boxer.
But, as the money came in, so he acquired a taste for fine living.
Dodgy deals followed, from cheque fraud to burglary. Even prison failed to persuade him to go straight and, by the 1930s, he was using gelignite for break-ins.
“Chapman – careless, guiltless and Godless – revelled in his underworld notoriety,” said Macintyre.
Eddie’s luck, however, was about to run out. Arrested after ransacking a safe in Edinburgh, he absconded from bail – and was finally caught in Jersey.
His stay in the “dreary” island prison lasted until 1941. After that, he found Jersey to be just as much of a jail, as it was controlled by the Germans.
Eventually, probably out of boredom and a desire to escape, Eddie hatched a cunning plan – opting to volunteer to spy for the Germans.
And so it was, after months of exhaustive training in bomb-making, Chapman – codenamed Fritz – was parachuted into Cambridgeshire in 1942.
His task was to blow up the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hertfordshire, where Mosquito bombers – the scourge of the German air force – were built.
But instead, muddy and bloody from his parachute jump, he knocked on the door of the nearest house and gave himself up.
News of Chapman’s capture immediately sparked the interest of British intelligence officers at MI5, who interrogated “Fritz” for hours.
Eventually, when all Chapman revealed was proved to be true, they came up with an offer he couldn’t resist – it was time for him to become a double agent.
Working under the codename Agent Zigzag, Chapman repeatedly risked his life for Britain – and was even awarded a German Iron Cross at the same time.
But, when the war ended, so did his career as a secret agent.
Instead of going straight, however, he returned to what he knew best – the shady underworld.
“Unpredictable, dashing and louche, Chapman proved a handful for both his German and British spymasters,” said Macintyre.
“In the estimation of the Nazis, he was their super-spy, to whom they awarded the Iron Cross for ‘heroics’ in Britain and occupied Europe.
“In the estimation of MI5, he had the courage to ‘achieve the unbelievable’. He diverted bombs away from London, deceived the Germans with false information and nonchalantly volunteered to assassinate Hitler.
“He never, however, received the recognition he thought he deserved. But then, he could probably only have achieved that by assassinating Hitler.”
l The talk on Eddie Chapman will be held at the City Library, Fawcett Street, at 10.30am on Thursday. Contact 561 1235 to book a place.