During the 1920s and 1930s Eddie Chapman was a notorious English safecracker. During World War II he served as a double agent for England and won the Nazis’ Iron Cross for bravery.
Talented in deception as well as in blowing safes open, Chapman, along with other British agents, convinced the Germans that he had blown up an English aircraft factory. And during the final stages of the war he fed the Germans false information that kept them from buzz-bombing central London.
Chapman began his safecracking career by prizing off the back of an old safe in a banana factory. Soon after, he robbed gelignite from a Welsh quarry along with detonators for this commercial high explosive.
His technique was quite simple. He focused on very basic office safes. First he tied an office typewriter to the handle of the safe. Next he wrapped a few grams of the plastic explosive, along with a detonator, into a condom which he pushed through the safe’s keyhole.
He used chewing gum to hold it all in place.
Chapman said that his biggest mistake was when he used too much gelignite. Gelignite is in the same family as trinitrotoluene and nitroglycerin.
Anyway, after stuffing the material into the keyhole he backed off so that he was a safe distance away and blew up the safe.
The small explosion was enough to momentarily push the door outward. There was enough pressure to lift the levers that restrained the mechanism that secured the bolt. Then the typewriter’s weight was enough to turn the mechanism and open the safe.
Chapman successfully robbed approximately forty safes throughout England and was caught just as the war was about to begin.
When he was jailed Jersey in the Channel Islands the Germans seized and occupied the area. He made a deal with them and was sent to France by the Nazis to be trained in sabotage, explosives, and radio work.
In 1942 he parachuted into England. His instructions were to blow up an aircraft factory where the Mosquito bombers were built.
Instead he went to a farmhouse, contacted Scotland Yard, and offered his services. They promised that they would forget about any prison time that awaited him and let him keep any money he made with the Germans if he would become a double agent.
After coming to an agreement the British made arrangements with him to set off a loud pseudo-explosive in the vicinity of the power plant at the aircraft factory. Then they scattered debris in the area and had a camouflage expert pain the aircraft factory’s roof to make it look like there was blast damage.
German reconnaissance photographs appeared to confirm that Chapman did what they sent him to do. This led them to believe the future false reports about British shipbuilding and troop movements that Chapman sent them (courtesy of British intelligence).
After the war, when he was before the British court in 1948 on another charge, a War Office senior officer called him “one of the bravest men who served in the last war.”
Over the years safes have become much more sophisticated. And so have many safecrackers.