Doris Magener: Survivor of two World Wars who saw Zeppelins over London and fire bombs in Tokyo

Doris Magener lived a long and unusual life in which she saw Zeppelins bombing London during the First World War and survived the Second World War in Japan.

Born to a German father, a former Prussian army officer and a great Anglophile, and a Scottish mother, Doris von Behling was born in London, where she lived until she was seven. Her first memory was of Zeppelins dropping bombs on London, and of visiting her father, who had been interned to the south of Oxford Street. Doris's first language was English and although she later learnt fluent German, she always found English preferable.

After the Armistice her father was deported. The family moved to Rotterdam and later, when Doris was 17, to Berlin. Her mother forbade her to study architecture, so Doris took a job as assistant to Wolfgang von Gronau, the celebrated aviator who in 1932 became was the first person to fly east to west around the globe. Through him, she became friends with the renowned German aviatrix Elly Beinhorn.

When Von Gronau was offered the post as air attaché at the German Embassy in Tokyo, he invited Doris to be his assistant – an opportunity to leave pre-war Germany that the young woman excitedly took and which started her lifelong enchantment with Japan. Having little to do, she toured the country witnessing many scenes that seemed to linger on from a different age, including the many precautions taken to prevent commoners seeing the Emperor, or the fact that Tokyo then consisted almost entirely of buildings made from wood and paper.

"I saw all of Japan," she said. "In Hokkaido in the far north they had not seen many 'Dijin' – big-nosed white people – and the children would bunch around the car like grapes to look at me." At the Embassy, Doris von Behling got to know the spy Richard Sorge, who worked for the Soviet Union, regarded as one of the most influential intelligence officers of all time. When food became scarce during the war, diplomats were permitted to visit China to obtain supplies. Von Behling seized the opportunity, visiting occupied Shanghai and Peking by ship and rail, each trip lasting for several weeks.

When the United States entered the war she recalled how the Japanese became very nationalistic, never imaging that they would not be victorious or that the country could ever be besieged. A Japanese military officer told her not to bother with black-out curtains as there never would be an air raid; a certitude all too soon proved wrong. Without air-raid shelters, people endured the first raid on Tokyo in 1942 in earth holes. Doris recalled it as one of the most terrible events in her life. She received a "diploma for bravery" the next day from a Japanese official, which she managed to bring back to Germany years later.

Towards the end of the war she met her future husband, Rolf Magener, who had staged an ingenious escape from internment in British India in 1944, together with six fellow POWs including Heinrich Harrer, who later wrote Seven Years in Tibet. Doris and Rolf survived the systematic bombing of Tokyo during the winter of 1944-45 and the firestorm caused by incendiary bombs in March 1945 which left over half of the capital destroyed and killed more than 100,000 people.

"Incendiary bombs were the only bombs that were dropped because the wooden houses would easily catch fire," she said. "A dreadful hot wind arose in the firestorm. We were terrified and thought we would never survive; in some places people on fire threw themselves into rivers but the rivers were already boiling. We eventually got out from the shelters to see a total wasteland of ash."

Listening to Emperor Hirohito announcing Japan's surrender on the radio in August 1945, Doris was witness to the Emperor's voice being heard in public for the first time and was baffled to find that her translators were not readily able to understand his formal, courtly, archaic Japanese. It took several days before she and Rolf found out exactly what had happened.

"We did not know that the atomic bombs had been dropped for some time," she said. The Tokyo newspaper only reported in three lines that Japan had been attacked by a special bomb, and no official announcement was made. People only knew through friends and relatives. At the approach of a single enemy aircraft a warning of "Eki" would be given, as this was only a photo-reconnaissance plane. For a full raid, the warning was "Hentai" and everyone would take to air-raid shelters, but because the atomic bomb was dropped from a single aircraft, only the "Eki" warning was given and the inhabitants of Nagasaki had not taken shelter, which is why so many were killed."

After the American occupation, fearing they would be repatriated to Germany separately and would never find each other, Doris, British high church, and Rolf, Russian Orthodox, were married in a Japanese ceremony with two witnesses at a police station.

They whiled away the time before repatriation. Rolf wrote down his escape adventures, eventually published in 1954 as Prisoners' Bluff, and republished in 2001 as Our Chances Were Zero, with Doris smuggling pages past the guards under her skirt after each visit. Doris learnt Japanese painting and flower-arranging and one by one exchanged her valuables for scarce food.

After repatriation in 1947 they were interned south of Karlsruhe and, after many complications, were finally able to settle, penniless, in Frankfurt am Main. Rolf worked for Deutsche Commerce and BASF and the couple divided their time between London and Heidelberg for the next 40 years.

Rolf's work also allowed for extensive travels including further trips to Japan, for which they always kept a special admiration, and they installed a small Japanese stone garden as part of their garden in Heidelberg.

"After an adventurous life, everything turned out well," Doris said.

Doris von Behling, survivor of First and Second World Wars: born London 15 May 1911; married Rolf Magener; died Heidelberg 23 September 2010.

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