Message in a Matchbox
There is a mention in "The Way Back" of Pat O'Leary meeting an anonymous prisoner of war whilst on a work party at Bad Tolz. In late October 1944, Pat was unloading railway wagons at Bad Tolz station and one day he asked a fellow worker if he were British. The man said that he was a British POW. Did he write home through the Red Cross - yes he did. Would he send a message for him. Pat claimed to be a British officer but the soldier must have found this very odd as Pat had such a pronounced Belgian accent and didn't seem to be an ordinary POW. In fact Pat had come on a work party from Dachau but eventually he convinced the young POW to include his message, which he supplied inside a matchbox, in his next letter home.
5837346 Pte Albert E Rudland (Buffs) had been captured on 16 November 1943, in the final day of the fighting for the Dodeconese island of Leros, and sent to Stalag VII-A at Moosburg near Bad Tolz.
On 1 November 1944, Albert Rudland wrote to his mother and family in Ipswich. In addition to the normal words of reassurance, he included a casual request that when she got a chance, perhaps his mother might drop a line to his 'friend' Jimmy Langley at Brooks Club, St James Street, London to say that he, Pat and Tom were okay and had been talking about him just the other day. He also asked if 'Jimmy' could write back as he had not received any mail for some time.
'Tom' was Tom Groome, O'Leary's Australian (with French born mother) radio operator, arrested with the Cheramy family at their house in Montauban in January 1943. Held at Fresnes at the same time as O'Leary, from September 1943 they stayed together, along with Johnny Hopper and SOE agent Brian Stonehouse, through the camps at Saarbrucken, Mauthausen, Natzweiler and finally Dachau.
Albert's mother Daisy obviously realised this could be important because on 2 January 1945, contrary to Brome's account of her visiting in person, she forwarded Albert's letter direct to Brooks Club. Lt Colonel James Langley was in France at the time and the letter must have been forwarded to him there. He replied to Mrs Rudland on 1 February, thanking her and returning her son's letter and promising to write to Albert and send him some cigarettes. It may be assumed that Langley also passed this news on his superiors as Colonel Ablit of MI9 wrote to Mrs Rudland from Curzon Street on 8 February asking her to write back to her son and include the message "Jimmy is no longer in the country but it so happened I saw another mutual friend of yours and Patrick's called Don Prang and gave him your news", which Ablit stated would make it clear to Albert's friends that their message had been understood. Ablit also said it would be undesirable for Langley's name to be mentioned in this reply.
The name 'Don Prang' was private confirmation for O'Leary that his message had been properly received and it refers to Donald Darling (I believe he was actually with the 'Awards Committee' in Paris at this time). Having developed a taste for RAF slang, O'Leary often ended his messages to Darling in Gibraltar with the signature 'Prang'.
This news that O'Leary and Tom Groome were still alive was the first that anyone in England had received for more than a year. Albert wasn't able to pass the carefully worded reply to O'Leary as Pat was soon returned to Dachau. All three men (and Hopper and Stonehouse) were repatriated after American forces reached their respective camps in April 1945.
On his return to England in May 1945, Albert wrote to James Langley again with news about O'Leary and Tom Groome, but by that time both men had also arrived back in the UK and Langley says O'Leary was actually with him when Albert's letter arrived. He also said that O'Leary and Groome were sharing a flat at Ormond House in St James Street and would like to meet up to thank him personally.
It's not known if the three men ever did get together again - Albert's wife thinks they may have done, not in London but perhaps at Jimmy Langley's home at nearby Alderton - O'Leary was certainly there that month. Albert had another opportunity in 1964 when he was invited to the 'This is Your Life' program featuring O'Leary but he chose not to attend. Albert Rudland died in July 1971.
Postscript: During the final days of Stalag VII-A, when General Patton arrived for the document signing, Albert (who spoke fluent German) was involved in some of the translation. After the signing a British officer gave him a German bayonet as a souvenir. He used this bayonet to cut the cake on his wedding day.
My thanks to Albert's son Chris and his widow Irene for contacting me and sending copies of the correspondence mentioned. Thanks also to Roddy Langley for confirming O'Leary's visit to his family home in May 1945.