Erich Gimpel

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Erich Gimpel (1910 – 3 September 2010) was a German spy during World War II. Together with William Colepaugh, he traveled to the United States on an espionage mission (operation Elster) in 1944 and was subsequently captured by the FBI in New York City.[1]

German secret agent[edit]

Gimpel had been a radio operator for mining companies in Peru in the 1930s. When World War II began, he became a secret agent, reporting the movement of enemy ships to Germany. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Gimpel was deported back to Germany. He then served as an agent in Spain.

He was next chosen to attend a spy-school in Hamburg. His final exam was to infiltrate German-occupied The Hague, where he first met the American malcontent and traitor William Colepaugh, an unstable drifter who would ultimately betray him. As unreliable as Colepaugh was, Gimpel felt he needed an American to help him succeed on his mission in the United States.

The pair were transported to the USA by the U-boat U-1230, landing at Frenchman Bay in the Gulf of Maine on 29 November 1944. Their mission was to gather technical information on the Allied war effort and transmit it back to Germany using an 80-watt radio Gimpel was expected to build.

Together they made their way to Boston and then by train to New York. Before long Colepaugh decided to abandon the mission, visiting an old schoolfriend and asking to turn himself in to the FBI, which was already searching for German agents following the sinking of a Canadian ship a few miles off the Maine coastline (indicating a U-boat had been nearby) and suspicious sightings reported by local residents. The FBI interrogated Colepaugh, who revealed everything, enabling them to track down Gimpel.

Prisoner of war[edit]

After Gimpel's capture, the spies were handed over to US military authorities on the instructions of the Attorney General. In February 1945 they stood trial before a Military commission, accused of conspiracy and violating the 82nd Article of War. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but for Gimpel, this was delayed by the unexpected death of the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt due to a custom not to hold any executions during a period of State Mourning. Later, after the war ended, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Gimpel was sent to Alcatraz, where he played chess with Machine Gun Kelly. After ten years, Gimpel was released in 1955 and returned home to West Germany. He later would make his home in South America.

Post prison life[edit]

Gimpel was the last person to be tried before a U.S. military tribunal. His autobiographical account of his undercover work, Spy For Germany, was first published in English in 1957, in Great Britain.

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, several books about Nazi spies in America were published, and his book finally appeared in the U.S. under the title Agent 146 (2003).

Gimpel was interviewed by Oliver North for his Fox News Channel program War Stories with Oliver North in the episode "Agent 146: Spying for the Third Reich".

He died in São Paulo, Brazil in 2010.[2][3]


The story of Erich Gimpel in the U.S. was documented in the 1956 film Spy for Germany (German title: Spion für Deutschland). The actor Martin Held played the leading role.


  1. ^ [1] Lamphere, Robert J. and Schactman, Tom "The FBI-KGB war: a special agent's story,"Mercer University Press, 1995, Page 7. ISBN ISBN 978-0-86554-477-2. Retrieved March 11, 2011
  2. ^ [2] Book review, Publishers Weekly, 2002, reprinted at Retrieved March 11, 2011
  3. ^ Connelly, Sheryl (January 19, 2003). "The sidekick from hell; how a Nazi agent was thwarted by his drunken partner". New York Daily News. Archived from the original on 2011-06-29.  Although widely repeated in reference sources that Gimpel died in 1996, it is known that Gimpel celebrated his 94th birthday in 2004 in Brazil.

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