Rolf Magener, German Escapee, Dies at 89
By Wolfgang Saxon,, July 3, 2000
The tales of daring escapes by Allied soldiers from a stalag or Colditz Castle have been told many a time in print and action movies. But Rolf Magener, a German business executive who died on June 3, was known for an escape from the other side, from a remote British internment camp in northern India.
Mr. Magener died in Heidelberg, his hometown. He was 89.
His successful four-month, 1,500-mile flight across India to Japanese lines in Burma entailed derring-do, cunning and perseverance. He was helped by the fluent British English he had acquired while studying industrial management in Exeter, England, and the ambiguous attitude of many Indians toward the war and representatives of the Raj, their British overlord.
He chronicled the experience in a book "Prisoner's Bluff" (Dutton, 1955). A German edition appeared as "Not a Chance -- The True Story of a Daredevil Escape."
Born in Odessa to a German father and Russian mother, he grew up in Germany and studied industrial management. Part of his training was in Exeter, England, where he became fluent in the Queen's English.
In 1935 he was employed by the I. G. Farben chemical concern, which sent him in 1938 to join its operations in East Asia and India. The following year he was interned as an enemy alien.
In 1944 he found himself with 1,500 other foreigners in a camp at Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foothills, near the Nepalese border. He and a friend, Heins von Have, plotted to break out and teamed up with five other Germans with the same idea, among them Heinrich Harrer, a well-known mountaineer.
Their scheme was risky, but it worked. Mr. Magener and Mr. von Have did what they could to dress and look like British officers, complete with pith helmets and swagger sticks. The others tried to look like Indians, darkening their skin and donning work clothes.
The party cut through a fence into a passageway to a Gurkha guard post. They passed as two officers leading a wire repair crew; Mr. Magener even showed the guards "plans" he had drawn up for the "work detail." The seven disappeared along a path in the jungle, ran and soon split up.
Mr. Harrer, disguised as an Indian, headed straight for Tibet, where he became the tutor and a confidant of the current Dalai Lama. His adventures were recorded in his "Seven Years in Tibet" (1953, paper 1997, Tarcher/Putnam).
The hostile climate and terrain quickly showed Mr. Magener and Mr. von Have that they could not travel as fugitives. Both businessmen, they had sufficient cash and the disguises, prompting them to hide in the open, and they reached Calcutta by train.
Versed in the language and mannerisms of the British upper class, they took a chance and joined the real officers in their compartments and dining car, keeping the conversation to a minimum. Despite a few close calls, the impersonations worked as well in Calcutta, where they dined with British and American guests at the most exclusive club and could employ the right swear words at the right time and put Indian officials in their places.
The rest of their odyssey was the hardest as they approached the uncertain battle lines in Burma. In the guise of Swiss businessmen, they proceeded by train, river steamer and sampan and on foot until they ran into a Japanese patrol in the insect-infested jungle. Their would-be rescuers concluded that they were spies and handed them over to the dreaded Kempetei military police.
They spent two uncomfortable months being interrogated before they were flown to Tokyo and the relative safety of the German Embassy. There Mr. Magener met and married Doris von Behlin, whose mother was English and who was working for the German air attaché.
The couple was briefly detained once again by the invading Americans. Finally back in Germany, Mr. Magener eventually became an executive at the chemical giant BASF and played a major role in its international expansion.
An Anglophile, he was posted to Britain soon after he joined BASF in 1957. He and his wife kept an apartment in London even after that assignment ended and collected English paintings and furniture there.
His wife survives. Mr. von Have died in 1995, and Mr. Harrer is living in Liechtenstein.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov