SOE Agent Profiles

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Forest Yeo‐Thomas

Recruited: February 1942

Role: Deputy Head (RF Section)


Codenames: Shelley, "The White Rabbit"

Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, survived

image of SOE agent Forest Yeo-Thomas

Born in London on 17 June 1902, Forest Frederick Edward Yeo‐Thomas was the son of British parents of Welsh ancestry, and grew up in Dieppe and Paris. At the age of sixteen he lied about his age and joined the US army, and later served with the Polish army against the Soviets in 1920; captured and faced with execution, he strangled a prison guard and made his escape back to France. In 1925 he married Lillian Walker, another Parisian with a mixed (English and Danish) background, and worked through a string of banking jobs before stepping into the unlikely role of company secretary for fashion house Molyneux in 1932.

Unfortunately family life came to end in 1936 when he separated from Lillian (she would not agree to a divorce), but he continued to see his two daughters. After the declaration of war he was recruited by the RAF, but was frustrated when he was refused any active role, being considered too old. However, following the defeat of France in 1940 he was transferred to the RAF Intelligence Branch as an interpreter, and eventually came to the attention of SOE's RF Section, which worked in collaboration with the BCRA(M), de Gaulle's Free French intelligence service.

Yeo‐Thomas joined SOE in February 1942. A year later he undertook his first mission: codenamed SEAHORSE, he was to accompany de Gaulle's intelligence chief André Dewavrin (known as "Colonel Passy") and journalist and socialist leader Pierre Brossolette, visiting representatives of various Resistance movements in Paris and northern France. The mission was a success, and all three were safely flown back to England in April 1943, with Yeo‐Thomas receiving the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Palm for his actions (although bureaucracy delayed their official approval).

In September Yeo‐Thomas and Brossolette returned to France on a further SOE liaison operation, codenamed MARIE CLAIRE, which collected valuable information on the health of Resistance groups following the arrest of de Gaulle's emissary Jean Moulin in June. As Yeo‐Thomas toured and encouraged maquis desperate for Allied support, tales of "The White Rabbit" – a codename that would soon become legendary – spread quickly across the country. But as much as his visibility raised morale, so they also raised the price on his head. He faced increasing dangers, not least having to make light conversation with Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie on a train to Paris, but he was safely picked up by a Lysander aircraft near Arras in November, while Brossolette stayed behind.

Some days after imploring Winston Churchill to divert more aircraft for SOE's operations, dropping agents and arms to the resistance, Yeo‐Thomas was informed that Brossolette had been captured after attempting to escape by boat from the coast of Brittany. As RF Section's second‐in‐command, Yeo‐Thomas would pose a serious security risk if he returned to France – if captured, he could potentially divulge the names of all of the Section's agents and details of their operations. But he was determined to rescue his friend and hurriedly began arranging a third mission, codenamed ASYMPTOTE, a geometry term describing a curve that approaches a line, but never meets it.

He parachuted back near Montluçon on 24/25 February 1944, spraining an ankle on landing. It didn't stop him taking the night train to Paris and resuming work immediately, but his plans to free Brossolette would never be carried out. The famous Shelley was now at the top of the Gestapo's wanted list, and on 21 March he was arrested on the steps of the Passy metro station, given up by a newly recruited sub‐agent. Tragically Brossolette would die just hours later, suffering fatal injuries after falling from the fifth floor of the Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch (either the result of an unsuccessful escape attempt, or a suicide bid, to prevent himself talking).

Yeo‐Thomas was subjected to repeated beatings and other tortures by his interrogators, but he stubbornly stuck to his cover story of being Kenneth Dodkin, a downed RAF pilot, and gave no other agents away. Moved to Fresnes prison, he spent three weeks in a dungeon cell, then in July he was transferred to a transit camp at Compiègne. Just a fortnight before the liberation of Paris, he and 36 other captured SOE and French Intelligence agents were deported, first to Saarbrücken transit camp on the German border, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, where they were segregated from the rest of the prisoners.

In September sixteen of the group were called to the main gate and later executed by hanging in the crematorium basement. It was clear that the remainder of the group would soon share the same fate, and Yeo‐Thomas hatched an escape plan in collaboration with Dr Ding‐Schuler, an SS doctor in charge of carrying out medical experiments on prisoners. Although the majority of their group would eventually be executed, Yeo‐Thomas, SOE agent Harry Peulevé and French BCRA officer Stéphane Hessel were able to switch identities with three of Ding‐Schuler's subjects who had died from typhus. To maximise their chances of survival they were each sent out to satellite camps: Hessel and Peulevé were transferred to Schönebeck near Magdeburg, while Yeo‐Thomas, now masquerading as 'Maurice Choquet', went alone to Gleina in November 1944. Shortly afterwards he was moved again, to Rehmsdorf, south of Leipzig, where he worked as a medical orderly in horrific conditions.

In April 1945 the camp's prisoners were evacuated east towards Czechoslovakia by train, and during a stop to bury dead prisoners Yeo‐Thomas and a small group took their chance to escape into the woods. After sleeping rough for several days he was recaptured just a few hundred yards short of the Allied lines and placed in a French POW camp at Grünhainichen north of the Czech border, but two days later he escaped yet again with a group of ten. Despite being completely exhausted by dysentery and the cumulative effects of his ordeals, two of his comrades helped him to cross a minefield to reach the Americans. He arrived in Paris on 8 May.

Yeo‐Thomas had barely begun to recover before he launched a new mission codenamed OUTHAUL, seeking out concentration camp guards laying low in Germany. That he managed to persuade SOE to approve it is yet another example of his extraordinary force of character, but his request for silenced Sten submachine guns and Welrods – SOE‐designed assassination pistols – revealed OUTHAUL's true intentions, as well as his brutalised psychological state: privately he had referred to the operation as 'Mission Thug', which was clearly motivated by a hunger to exact his own fierce retribution against his former captors. With fears that the mission might 'degenerate into a romp which may have unpleasant repercussions', SOE instead returned Yeo‐Thomas to France to tie up loose ends and close down his old network.

In addition to receiving a Bar to his Military Cross, in 1946 Yeo‐Thomas became one of just six SOE agents to be awarded the George Cross (you can read the citation in the London Gazette). He and Odette Sansom were the only ones to survive, the rest being given posthumously. The following year he testified at the war crimes trials at Dachau, and in 1952 the publication of Bruce Marshall's biography The White Rabbit made Yeo‐Thomas a public figure. In 1967 the BBC adapted Marshall's book for television, with Kenneth More playing the lead in a four‐part mini‐series; the reviews were positive but sadly all protests against some particularly stringent copyright restrictions, which demanded that all copies of the programmes be destroyed after broadcast, were ignored.

Despite returning to work for Molyneux in Paris and later taking a post with the Federation of British Industries, the physical and psychological scars of his captivity began to take their toll on his health, and he increasingly relied on the support of his partner Barbara. In 1963 Yeo‐Thomas received a final award, being made a Commandeur of the Légion d'honneur, before his death in February 1964; his ashes were interred in the Glades of Remembrance at Brookwood cemetery, Surrey. In 1972 a street in Paris's 13th arrondissement was renamed rue Yeo‐Thomas, and in 2001 a bust was installed in the mairie of the 16th, the district in which he'd lived after the war. In 2010 an English Heritage blue plaque was erected outside Yeo‐Thomas's London home in Guilford Street, Bloomsbury. A second biography, Bravest of the Brave by Mark Seaman, written with Barbara's help, was published by Michael O'Mara Books in 1997.

Sophie Jackson's Churchill's White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real‐Life James Bond published in 2012 claimed that Yeo‐Thomas may have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming's fictional secret agent 007. In May 1945, Fleming did receive a copy of Yeo‐Thomas's poignant farewell letter written in Buchenwald, which had just been discovered in Germany (it had been smuggled out of the camp but was never transmitted to London), and in August some of Fleming's colleagues at the Admiralty were so moved by it that they asked the Director of Naval Intelligence to encourage SOE to publicise the story. Yeo‐Thomas's letter was featured in the War Office Intelligence Review in September, but his secret work was considered too sensitive for general release and his identity only became public five months later, when the award of a George Cross was announced. Although a brief note confirms that Fleming knew of Yeo‐Thomas, unfortunately there is no evidence to suggest that he was particularly fascinated by his ordeals or that he based James Bond, or any of his exploits, on this remarkable man.

Further reading

Bravest of the Brave: True Story of Wing Commander Tommy Yeo-Thomas by Mark Seaman (Michael O'Mara, 1997).

The White Rabbit by Bruce Marshall (Cassell, 2000).

George Cross citation

London Gazette, 12 February 1946

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