The Incredible Life of Louise Fox
‘I was not a Nazi by choice. Very few people in Germany were. The world has forgotten that.’
Daughter of the Reich is a story of an ordinary girl from Germany who became caught up in the inner workings of the Nazi war machine.
Louise Fox had grown up while the Nazis steadily took full control of the country and like so many of her age group Nazism was considered to be just normal. As a teenager she was first involved in the effort to provide anti-aircraft equipment for the Luftwaffe and to kit out Rommel for the North African campaign. She was a hard worker and was promoted to the rank of captain in the Luftwaffe’s supreme command headquarters in Potsdam, near Berlin.
She caught Hermann Goering’s* eye when he awarded her a medal for bravery in the capture of a downed British airman, and was sent to work in the Air Ministry making appointments and assisting Goering. As the war intensified on two fronts Louise was transferred back to Potsdam to manage the huge task of securing appropriate ammunition supplies for the Luftwaffe, a job she held for the rest of the war.
She married an airman who three weeks later was killed in action. Louise was posted with her colleagues to the Eastern front and escaped with them all in Hitler’s ‘strategic retreat’ ahead of the Red Army. In the last few months of the war she was captured and imprisoned by the Americans. She escaped and began an event-filled 1,000-kilometre hike to the safety of relatives.
Life was difficult after the war and Louise entered the black market and was imprisoned. She eventually found a pen pal in Tasmania and much to the amazement of friends migrated there — selling Volkswagens to make a living. She still lives in Australia.
*Goering was the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Third Reich. Louise was his secretary.
Cindy Dowling is an experienced freelance journalist who has worked on a range of magazines and newspapers. In 2004 she published her first book Seachange. She is married with two boys and lives in Sydney.
Louise Fox is now in her eighties and lives in Brisbane, Australia.
Name: Daughter of the Reich
Editors: Cindy Dowling & Louise Fox
eBook also available
Size: 234 x 153mm or 9¼ X 6 in
Of the countless air raids she experienced, there are two that remain most firmly fixed in Louise’s memory, albeit for very different reasons.
‘One of the first things I did when I arrived in Berlin and finally had some time off was to go to the opera. I was very interested in musical and loved opera. The Berlin opera company was still performing, the opera house was still open.
‘The first time I went to see a performance – Aida I believe it was – the sirens went off in the middle of it. The building’s cellar had been reinforced and we all ended up in there – the audience, the production people, the singers and musicians. It was quite strange, and to be honest, I can laugh about it now after all these years. Here we all were, the audience nicely dressed, the musicians in their tuxedos and the performers in full costume and make up, all sitting in this dark cellar waiting for the bombs to drop. I sat near the lead tenor. He was nervous, we all were.
‘Later, when the all-clear signal was given, everyone went back to their seats and the performers went back on stage. The performance carried on as if nothing had happened. It was a good performance too, if I remember. I know a story like that seems so bizarre now, almost like a joke, but that was how strange our lives had become, that was what war did to us all. We put up with a lot and always just tried to get through it in one piece.’
But there was nothing remotely funny about another air raid that hit several months after the opera incident.
While she had been given no clear indication of how long her services would be required in Berlin, Louise had assumed she would be gone from Potsdam a week or two at the most. After four weeks had passed in the Goering HQ, Louise found herself desperately short of clothing, having brought only a small bag with her from Supreme Command. One free evening, she caught the fast train back to Potsdam, collected more clothing from her hotel room, and then headed straight back to Berlin that same evening.
‘The train pulled into Berlin and I had just gotten off, my suitcase in hand, when the sirens started. There was panic of course, but at the same time, people were used to this happening. There was a very large shelter near the railway station, underneath a six-storey building. I ran to that.
‘Soon there were about 100 people in that shelter, even some dogs which howled constantly at the sirens. At first, I hoped that this raid would be like all the others – some were false alarms, other times the bombs fell in another part of the city. This time was different however.
‘The bomb dropped directly on the building above us. It collapsed into a pile of rubble. Thankfully, the shelter withstood the impact and we were all unharmed. However, the debris from the building had trapped us inside. It took a couple of hours for the air raid wardens to dig us out. It was terrifying, of course, and I was very relieved once they managed to partially open the shelter door. I ended up crawling out on my hands and knees over bricks and broken glass, still dragging my little suitcase behind.’
Once back out in the open air, Louise was confronted by a hellish scene.
‘Everything was on fire. There was rubble all around and everything that could burn was alight. People were running everywhere, it was very confused. The heat from the flames was so intense that it had melted a big area of tar on the roadway. People had gotten trapped in the melted road, it was as sticky as honey. These people were screaming in pain. The melted tar had caught fire in some parts as well. The people trapped were being burnt alive. I’d been running, but I remember I stopped when I saw those people on fire. I wanted to help them, I tried to think what I could do to get them out. But there was nothing I could do. Some soldiers appeared and they were yelling directions at the crowd, telling them which way to go to safety. Then I heard gunshots and I realised the soldiers were shooting the people who were burning, putting them out of their misery.
‘A soldier told me to run to a nearby park and pointed out the way. As I ran in that direction, some timber beams from a building fell right behind me. They were smouldering and when they fell, the sparks caught my skirt and set it alight. Luckily, some other people rolled me on the ground and put it out before it could do too much damage.
‘We waited in the park until the raid was over and then I had to walk for an hour to get back to my office. It was early morning by now. It was a difficult walk, I was in pain from the burns on my backside and I was in shock, I suppose. My skirt was a burnt mess, but I didn’t think to change it.
‘When I finally made it back to the office, I was told off for being late. Then, when they saw what had happened to me, they relented a little, but there wasn’t a lot of sympathy really. Everyone had seen this kind of thing before and at least I was still alive and relatively unhurt. I sat down at my desk straight away and started working. I waited until the next morning to have a doctor look at my burns – I didn’t want to risk getting in more trouble by asking for a little time off that day. The only good thing to come out of it all was I managed to keep hold of my suitcase through it all.’
A month after her lucky escape, Goering’s usual secretary recovered from her illness and returned to work. Shortly afterwards, Louise found herself once more on the fast train back to Potsdam and her old job. There were no goodbyes from Goering and few regrets from his replacement secretary about leaving the German capital.
‘There were certain things I would miss about Berlin, but I was just quite glad to get away from it actually. I felt relieved I’d gotten out alive. Not that Potsdam was a much safer place by now. A couple of weeks after I returned, they decided to move the girls out of our hotel and put us up permanently at the Supreme Command Headquarters. A week later, that hotel was bombed and not a single person staying there got out alive. Nowhere was safe.’
Fate had presented Louise Fox with a rare opportunity to closely observe one of history’s most infamous players. What she saw was a man of considerable ability, of significant privilege, of abundant charm; a man who could perhaps have achieved great things had he not been so determined to seek out power at any price.
‘He was friendlier and more open than most of the high ranking Nazis I met. And I do believe that friendliness was genuine mostly. I think Goering was a man who wanted to be liked. I don’t think Hitler cared what people thought of him, as long as they did what they were told. But Goering, with his jokes and his fancy uniforms, to me that shows he was a man who enjoyed being admired.
‘Had he not been under so much stress, he would have been a very good-natured man, I think. As it was, he was the happiest boss I ever had. I liked him in that regard, he was an easy man to like. Perhaps that’s partially why he had achieved so much in such a short space of time.
‘But you must realise that at the time I didn’t know about all the lies, about the terrible crimes the Nazis were committing. If I had known the full story of what was going on in and around Germany every day, I would have seen Goering in a very different light. Goering knew exactly what was really happening – he knew that we were losing the war, he knew about the Jews and others being murdered. He may have seemed harmless enough, but underneath he was a very dangerous person.
‘Perhaps in some ways he had no choice but to be ruthless. Once he had achieved his position and his power, the only way to keep it was to be assertive and to order others to do things he himself perhaps didn’t really agree with. But I don’t want to make excuses for him. He deserved what he got in the end. All the Nazi high command did.
‘Hitler, Goering, Goebbels – they were all power hungry, they would do and say anything to keep control of Germany. But I don’t think Goering was mad, not in the same way that Hitler certainly was. Goering had just been corrupted by power and was prepared to sacrifice everything for it.’
There is one particular photograph and accompanying story of Goering that is particularly memorable – amusing and strangely insightful at the same time.
It shows the Reichmarshal playing tennis in the opulent grounds of Carinhall in the latter years of the war. By this time, Goering’s girth was at its most expansive; he wears immaculate tennis whites and, oddly enough, a hairnet. His moon-face carries a definite look of annoyance and he appears to be glaring at the unseen player on the other side of the net. A guest at Carinhall would later recall that Goering had become furious when he was unable to return some impressive serves from his opponent.
‘Can’t you see where I’m standing!’ he had demanded, seemingly unaware both of the actual point of tennis and the comical effect of his outburst.
Louise laughed heartily and knowingly at the anecdote.
‘I haven’t heard that story before,’ she said, ‘but it certainly sounds like it could be true. It sounds exactly like the Goering I knew.’
In March of that year , something did happen to break up, at least momentarily, the grim monotony of life in Potsdam HQ. Following orders from Goering, Louise’s entire department – several hundred staff – were instructed to move to a new base in East Prussia. The journey – which took over a week on a private Luftwaffe train – was designed to ensure that key Luftwaffe staff would be able to monitor the activities and progress of the Red Army along the Eastern Front more closely. As she soon discovered, champagne and strawberries were not a priority at the new East Prussian base.
‘The East Prussian HQ was quite different to ours. For a start, it was full of typical Prussian soldiers – all very straight and stiff-upper-lipped, as the English would say. They were very professional, very orderly. But they would have been horrified at some of the fun we used to get up to in Potsdam. No punch in the bathtub or merry birthday parties for them. Everyone sensed this different atmosphere right away, and we just went along with it. We were guests really and, to be truthful, I think by this stage most of us were too weary of the war and working to care too much about parties and cognac any longer.
‘The East Prussian base was also very close to the Red Army, so it was in a far more vulnerable position than Potsdam. If the Russians started to head our way, the base could be invaded within a couple of marching days. Being that close to the enemy – especially the Russians who were very much feared by most of us – tended to make things a little more serious.’
There was still time for some light-hearted diversions however. As an incentive for their efforts, staff were occasionally offered the chance to take a field trip to see Hermann Goering’s private villa, located in a forest near the town of Goldap.
‘We hopped on a bus, all quite excited. The countryside was very beautiful, huge lakes, woods that were so wild they still had packs of wolves living in them. It was snowing a little that day, I remember, it was cold but clear. A lovely day and the snow looked beautiful on the trees. Goering’s house was made out of wood – like a traditional German holiday house, only much, much larger. It was incredible to see. Surrounded by the forest, it looked very beautiful, almost like a picture-book house. Inside, I had never seen such luxury before. We were given a tour of the house and offered some drinks. I saw fabulous silk wall hangings, solid gold taps and carpet so thick that it touched your ankles as you walked. And remember, this was only one of his holidays homes! He had several houses – including some castles – in different parts of the country. There were two stuffed wolves at the entrance – Goering had killed them himself. He was a keen hunter, you know, it was his favourite pastime.
‘Another thing that struck me about the house – apart form its incredible size and expensive furnishings – was the paintings hanging on the walls. They were everywhere, so many. The soldier in charge of our guided tour told us Goering had chosen them himself and that they had come from all over Europe, including the Louvre. Of course, what he meant was that they were stolen. God knows what they were worth.
‘What I remember most though were the chairs. Goering was a very fat man and he had his chairs specially made so he could fit into them. They were huge. Three girls got into just one chair and they fitted in easily. We were all laughing at that. Of course, Goering himself wasn’t home that day, otherwise we would never have dared.
‘Looking back, I suppose you could describe the house as kitsch. It was opulent and used the finest material available, but the whole thing was done in a very heavy-handed manner. It was as if Goering was trying to brag about how much he had. There was noting restrained about Goering, I suppose, so it was not surprising his house was so over the top.
‘A few months later, I heard that the Red Army finally reached the house. I imagine the staff were long gone by this stage, but I doubt very much that the paintings and furnishings would have all been removed to safety. There were simply too many. The Russians, knowing who the house belonged to, poured petrol all over the outside and set it alight. I’m sure they looted it first though. I often wonder about some of those priceless oil paintings – whether they were burned by some ignorant Russian who didn’t know what they were, or whether perhaps they are still hanging up somewhere in Moscow even today. Such a waste.’
But by the time Goering’s dream home burst into flames, Louise herself had left East Prussia, forced to evacuate by the continued advance of the Russians. Fearful of losing valuable staff, Louise’s division was told to leave the area immediately and return to the slightly safer environs of Potsdam.
‘When we got word that we were returning to Potsdam, I was quite pleased. Apart form the visit to Goering’s house, I hadn’t really enjoyed my time in East Prussia very much. The countryside was very beautiful, of course, but we hardly ever got the opportunity to explore it. It was not a pleasant feeling knowing that the Russians were so nearby either. Potsdam seemed a much better place to be. On 20 July 1944 – I remember clearly because it was the day before my birthday – we boarded our train to head back.’
However, it wasn’t long before Louise realised that the definition of ‘safe’ had become very relative indeed.
‘The trip back from East Prussia took several days, and they were uneventful. Before arriving at Potsdam, the train had to stop at Berlin. We were just pulling into the station, when suddenly the air raid sirens went off and a bomb fell very close to the railway line. The train wobbled madly from side to side, but thank God it wasn’t a direct hit. In an instant, we were all lying face down on the floor, hands covering our heads. There was silence in the carriage for a minute as everyone waited to see whether more bombs would drop. When it became clear the raid was over for the time being, I put my head up and shouted out to the others in my carriage: “Looks like we are back home again.” That gave everyone a good laugh at least.’
In January 1945, Louise’s department received another order to evacuate – this time from Potsdam HQ. It would the last mobilisation the group would ever be called on to make.
‘The situation in the area around Berlin was unravelling quickly. It was crazy. East Prussia was of course lost to us by then and the Russians were moving towards the capital at great speed. They were like machines, those Russians – so tough and uncompromising. The speed at which they advanced on Berlin surprised many people on our side, I think. We tended to view the Russians as unsophisticated and brutish, we didn’t regard them as soldiers in the same way we did the British or even the Americans to a lesser degree. We didn’t have much respect for the Russians at all. So perhaps we underestimated them. They could certainly march.’
By now, both Berlin and the city of Potsdam itself were virtually shut down. All those able to flee had already done so or were making frantic preparations to leave. In truth though, for the vast majority of people there was simply nowhere to run.
‘Where could people go? The enemy – the Russians, the British, the Americans –were marching all over the country. There weren’t really many places left to hide. And most people simply didn’t have the resources to run. Food was scarce, fuel was virtually impossible to get for a civilian. Both Potsdam and Berlin started to look like ghost towns. Windows were boarded up, curtains drawn, every shop and official building closed. The street were usually empty – those people who had to go out tended to hurry back inside as soon as they could. I think most people had little choice but to lock their doors, bolt their windows and pray that the Russians would leave them unharmed. It was a terrifying time. We were in danger too, of course, but we were lucky in many ways. We were given the opportunity to escape.’
Immersed in the secluded cocoon of Supreme Command, Louise and her peers had been spared much of the deprivation and suffering inflicted on their countrymen by the demands of war.
‘We knew about ammunition and weapon shortages, about supply and inventory. We knew things were bad, but at least we had food, we had shelter and though we certainly weren’t safe, we had better facilities than lots of other people. In some ways we were sheltered from the very worst of it all.’
When it became clear that Berlin was lost, Louise’s department was told to head south, to the mountainous region around Berchtesgaden, near where Hitler had his country headquarters.
The train trip south soon offered Louise a startling insight into just how desperate Germany’s position had become.
‘Our train was delayed at Jena, about one-third of the way back to Berchtesgaden. The line had been bombed further up, and we were stranded until it could be repaired. We just stayed on the train – not very comfortable I suppose, but far better off than those people we had left behind. On the second day, a battalion of our infantry soldiers approached us. They asked if we had pushbikes on board. We said yes, of course. I had brought my own bike, I liked to ride it whenever I had some free time. What those soldiers did next amazed me. They yelled at us and told us they were confiscating our bikes. They took every pushbike off that train and then rode off on them. The reason? They had no trucks, no cars and no vehicles of any kind left. They were German soldiers on bicycles. That was what Germany had sunk to. We were fighting the Allies on pushbikes. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.’