Baron Winfried von Imhof, who has lived in Hermanus for the past 30 years, can trace his noble ancestry back to the middle ages. Yet he is an unassuming man who prefers to be known simply as Fred.
He lives alone in his house at Berg-en-See in Hermanus, surrounded by memorabilia of his early life and that of his ancestors. He has an intriguing story to tell of the extraordinary times through which he lived, especially during the first 25 years of his life.
Fred was born in 1925 in Munich. His grandparents lived in Schloss Untermeitingen, a stately home which dates from the 12th century. This was originally a castle in the possession of various noble families from Augsburg in the kingdom of Bavaria. The Imhof family converted the castle into a residence in the 17th century and it was a family property of the Imhofs for nearly 300 years, until it was sold in 1871.
Fred’s grandfather, Viktor von Muller, was a Prussian officer who distinguished himself as a German tennis champion – his trophies still adorn Fred’s house to this day. He married Gwendolyn Cecilia in 1896. She was one of the twin daughters of Sir Robert Peel, Third Baronet, Lord of the Admiralty and Chief Secretary for Ireland. This distinguished British family was descended from the politician and industrialist, the First Baronet whose son was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
It is not clear how Viktor met his bride – but it might have been during her father’s diplomatic service; he was chargé d’affaires of the British legation in Switzerland in the 1840s. Perhaps Viktor played in a tennis tournament in Geneva and they fell in love then? In any event, they were married in Switzerland. Viktor was a personal friend of Wilhelm, the last Crown Prince of the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia.
The marriage of Fred’s parents was not a happy one and his mother, Viktoria von Muller handed him over to his aunt to raise. She was the youngest child of the Imhof grandparents who lived in Schloss Untermeitingen, where his mother occasionally visited him. Nevertheless, Fred had a privileged upbringing. When he was 10 he became a boarder at Schondorf am Ammersee. A sister school was Schule Schloss Salem (school of Salem Castle), one of the most elite schools in Europe. Prince Philip was a scholar there and played in the hockey team which visited Fred’s school. One of the facilities at the school was glider training and at the age of 15 Fred became an accomplished glider pilot.
However, this was the start of Nazism and he was obliged to join the Hitler Youth. He appealed to his father for a transfer. His father, Rudolph von Imhof, who had an abiding abhorrence of Hitler, still had contacts dating back to his days in the Flying Corps and he was still a member of the flying club.
On a visit to the club in the company of his father, Fred was introduced to the legendary flying ace Ernst Udet who offered to teach him to fly real aircraft. They took to the sky in a two-seater single-engined machine, with Fred in front. He still had to go to a flying school where he earned his wings. He was called up as a pilot for transport planes used for flying top brass military personnel.
Fred’s first major mission was to fly over to Africa as co-pilot to rescue officers from Rommel’s defeated army. His next assignment was to Denmark, again as co-pilot, where he had to fly an old plane back to Germany on behalf of a very senior army officer. This old plane was not really air-worthy, but Fred got back to Germany all right, only to discover that the old bird had no brakes at all! He ended up nose down in a ditch. When the fire truck and rescuers arrived they discovered that the cargo consisted of stolen artefacts.
When, as history recalls, the tide turned against Germany, Fred was transferred to a fighter plane squadron. At this stage of the war, Hitler instructed all fighter pilots to avoid engaging in dogfights but to shoot down bombers. But by now, the American B17 bombers were so heavily armed that it was perilous to get anywhere near them.
As the war drew to a close, Fred and his small group of pilots realised they would have to surrender – to the Americans rather than the Russians. It was vital that the Gestapo not catch them surrendering, as they would be shot.
Their treatment at the hands of the Americans when they surrendered at Nuremburg was harsh in the extreme – they were lashed with knotted ropes and gun butts as they stood helpless in the rain. Fred was on his knees and fearing for his life when an American woman soldier helped him to his feet. The only way he could express his thanks was to pull off his signet ring and press it into her hands. She was reluctant to accept what appeared to be a family heirloom but Fred said she had saved his life and insisted on giving it to her. She said that she would give it back to him after the war. And indeed, that is what happened. She tracked him down in Johannesburg years later and returned his special ring engraved with the family crest.
The prisoners were transferred to a POW camp in French territory in the contested Zaar area, where they were confined in abject conditions. However, Fred did receive some favourable treatment since he was the only prisoner fluent in French and was able to interpret for the French warders who had to record details of their charges for the American authorities. He spent almost two years in that camp in France.
On his release, Fred returned to Munich to link up with his father who had remarried. Fred stayed with them in their flat on the outskirts of the city. The university was 10 minutes away by tram and Fred enrolled there to study for a Bachelor of Commerce. He met Herta, his wife to be, at a dancing class. His professor at the university, impressed by Fred’s Master’s thesis on economics, tried – unsuccessfully – to persuade him to apply for a position as assistant professor.
Fred was fired with a spirit of adventure and decided to move abroad. He made contact with a relative in London who agreed to help him acquire the necessary documents. This required him to travel to Southampton to embark on a Union Castle ship to Durban. He was following instructions given to him in London to take the train to Johannesburg to contact another member of the family, Charles Sydney Goldman, who was married to Agnes Mary Peel. Sydney was a friend of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and would help him get employment.
Sure enough, when he arrived at Park Station, Johannesburg, he telephoned his benefactor. He was told to leave his baggage at the station and meet him at the Rand Club. Mr Goldman was waiting for him in the lounge and accompanied him in a tram to fetch the luggage and thereafter to his apartment. Goldman’s driver followed the tram in a Rolls Royce, much to Fred’s admiration.
A job with Anglo American wasn’t forthcoming after all, but Fred did get employment with Radio Luxor, a company which assembled imported radiograms at a factory in Springs. This was followed by service with the international group, ICL, where he worked for the next 30 years, rising to financial controller.
By this time he had married Herta, who had followed him to South Africa in 1953, a year after he had emigrated. She had obtained a diploma in fashion design and was employed in a clothing factory which turned out ready-made garments and dress patterns.
They lived in Greenside and then in Robindale, where Fred built a fine home, and raised a family. Fred and Herta retired to Hermanus 30 years ago and she took up painting. After 60 years of married life, she died and the 94-year-old Fred now lives alone, surrounded by family portraits and heirlooms, and paintings by Herta.