A former Nazi spy chronicles his training, missions, capture, trial, imprisonment, parole, and return to der Vaterland.
Appearing for the first time in the US, these memoirs were originally published in England in 1957—thus trucks are “lorries” and prison guards are “warders.” But Gimpel writes well in the sort of gee-whiz but prudish style of a half-century ago (no sex or profanity). He begins in 1945 as he’s waiting to hang for espionage in Fort Jay. Naturally, his thoughts turn to how he got into this mess. In 1935, Gimpel was a vacuous, hedonistic young man working for a German firm in Peru. There, he discovered his aptitude for languages, becoming fluent in Spanish and English. When he returned to Germany, the Secret Service recruited him. According to Gimpel, he had foolproof plans to destroy Gibraltar as well as the Panama Canal; the aborted “Project Pelican” called for the bombing of Gatun Dam. Near the end of the war, his superiors sent him across the Atlantic aboard U-1230 in company with an appropriately spineless American traitor named “Billy,” who, unremarkably, got drunk and betrayed Gimpel to the FBI—but not before the spy had sent back to Germany the intelligence that the atom bomb existed, that its creators had arranged to divert Columbia River water for cooling, that an important building stood at Oak Ridge. The author portrays himself as charming, sexy (an American named “Joan” falls for him), hard-nosed, impossible to crack in interrogation, popular with fellow prisoners, guards, and even FBI agents, who grudgingly admire Gimpel’s tradecraft and misplaced patriotism. His demise was postponed by FDR’s death (no executions during a period of national mourning), then forestalled by VE-Day. He spent 11 years in Leavenworth, Alcatraz, and an Atlanta penitentiary before being released and returned to West Germany. He died in 1996.
Brisk and oddly appealing, Gimpel’s narrative nonetheless invites skepticism since it contains no supporting documentation whatsoever.