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Conrad Fulke O'Brien-ffrench. Artist and Spy.

Barry Bingham VC sends a message

Conrad recieves an invitation he cannot accept

vcthehon.edwardbarrystewartbingham.jpg
Barry Bingham VC


One day a message arrived from camp A and was passed to Conrad. It just read 'Come at once. I must see you,' signed SBO (Senior British Officer). The SBO was Captain the Hon. Barry Bingham, RN, who had won the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Jutland. The only means of crossing to the other camp was by means of a parole system, with a card signed by the prisoner and countersigned by the commandant. You were on licence and by the rules of the parole unable to participate in any escape attempt. Had Conrad escaped now, the British would literally have delivered him back into German hands. This was a gentleman’s war too, despite its ferocity. Bingham took Conrad to the vegetable garden between the villa and the lake. He pointed out a line of bamboo sticks. “These are vents to our tunnel,” he told him. Bingham had also been awaiting news from the Admiralty and the details of their escape route. It had arrived the day before. Although he had been instructed to take Conrad with him, this was now impossible because of the parole rules. Conrad had no choice but to return to camp B and await the inevitable searches and alarms when the escape was discovered. 

That night, sixteen men went through the tunnel. Bingham and two or three others were captured almost immediately. The rest made their way to a small wood on the Baltic shore near Rostock. Here a yacht flying a particular burgee awaited them. When the only German-speaking member of the group went to make contact, he found the harbour cordoned off and was arrested when he attempted to gain entry. They sent a second to try to get supplies, but he too was caught. Cold and hunger eventually made them give themselves up. The Kriegsministerium in Berlin were incensed by the escapes and instituted a harsher regime in the camp. The guards were no longer as amenable and life was full of privations and reprisals.

One morning, the pilot sought out Conrad. Anxiously, he enquired what had been done with the letter Conrad had written the night before. It had been posted. The censor, he was told, now had a fumigating box which would reveal the secret message. Conrad would be facing a firing squad as a spy. The letter must be retrieved at all cost. Conrad caught the censor on his way to luncheon.

"Going for lunch, Herr Censor?"

"Jawohl."

"Would you care for a can of butter for your bread?" asked Conrad amiably.

"Ja I agzept mit bleasure." (DM p. 49)

Conrad knew that the food parcels were held in the censor's office. He opened the door allowing Conrad into the room with the fumigating cupboard. There on a clip hung the letter. As the censor retrieved Conrad's parcel, in a flash the letter was removed.

"Und here is your box, Herr Kapitain. You have just one can of butter left."

“You are entirely welcome to it, Herr Censor," said Conrad smiling warmly, the letter safe in his pocket. Not long after this, the belligerents agreed that all POWs who had been three years in a camp were to be interned in neutral countries. Conrad was sent to Holland where he remained until the Armistice in 1918.

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