Gimpel, Erich 1910-1996

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GIMPEL, Erich 1910-1996


Born 1910, in Germany; died, 1996, in Germany. Education: Studied high-frequency transformers and radio engineering.


Spy. Telefunken, radio engineer, 1935-1939; German spy, 1939-45.


Agent 146: The True Story of a Nazi Spy in America, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2003, originally published in Germany as Spion fur Deutschland, 1957.


Erich Gimpel grew up in Merseburg, Germany, and was interested in radio from a young age. After graduating from high school, he studied high-frequency transformers and then became a radio engineer.

In 1935, Gimpel was hired by Telefunken, the largest radio company in Germany. He was sent to Peru, where he worked for the firm. The job paid well and was not very demanding, and Gimpel lived luxuriously. When the German embassy there asked him to do some minor spy work, Gimpel agreed. He observed ships in the port at Lima and socialized with American army officers stationed there, gleaning bits of information about their operations. He was not subtle enough, though, and the officers eventually became suspicious of him. He was arrested and sent to the United States, which had just entered World War II, to Germany, and was ultimately returned to Germany.

Gimpel continued his spy training in Hamburg, Germany, and became a very good agent. The Nazi government asked him to devise a way to blow up the Panama Canal. Although Gimpel thought this was a ridiculous idea, he did come up with a plan to transport disassembled planes across the Atlantic on German submarines, put them back together on a Caribbean island, and then use them to bomb the canal. The German authorities were so impressed with this idea that they approved it. In 1944, shortly before the mission was scheduled to begin, the German authorities canceled it in order to send Gimpel to the United States.

Gimpel's partner in this new mission was William Colepaugh, an American traitor. Although Colepaugh had been born in Niantic, Connecticut, the son of an American father and a German mother, he had decided to work for Nazi Germany as a spy.

In December of 1944, Gimpel and Colepaugh were rowed to shore in Frenchman Bay, Maine, from a German submarine. Their mission was to learn everything they could about the American atomic bomb and then send the information back to Germany. They were also supposed to join with other agents, who would sneak into the United States from South America, to sabotage American defense plants.

The two men took the train from Maine to Boston and then to New York City, where they were arrested. Gimpel was sentenced to be hanged, but through a series of events, he escaped this fate. After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death, there were no executions during a period of national mourning, and when the Americans defeated the Germans, his execution was commuted to life imprisonment by President Harry S. Truman. Gimpel served eleven years in American prisons, including Alcatraz. In 1956, he earned parole and was sent back to Germany, where he lived until his death in 1996.

Gimpel tells the story of the mission and its aftermath in Agent 146: The True Story of a Nazi Spy in America. The book was originally published in Britain and Germany in 1957, and was published in the United States in 2003.

In, Bob MacDonald noted that although many readers would initially be offended by the subject matter of the book "How can one feel empathy for a Nazi or want to hear his side of the story?" However, McDonald wrote, "Gimpel was not a [Nazi] party member; rather, he was a man who thought of himself as a patriot fighting for his country and later becoming disillusioned." Sherryl Connelly wrote in the New York Daily News that the book is "a log of terse episodes" and commented that in places it "reads like a boiled-down spy thriller."



Booklist, December 1, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of Agent 146: The True Story of a Nazi Spy in America, p. 643.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2002, review of Agent 146, p. 1587.

Library Journal, December, 2002, Elizabeth Morris, review of Agent 146, p. 148.

Newsweek, February 10, 2003, Andrew Nagorski, "An Eerily Timely Tale of Fanaticism," p. 68.

Publishers Weekly, November 25, 2002, review of Agent 146, p. 53.

ONLINE, (April 23, 2003), Bob MacDonald, review of Agent 146.

New York Daily News Online, (January 17, 2003), Sherryl Connelly, review of Agent 146. *