F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas
Photograph of Yeo-Thomas taken eight hours before he parachuted into occupied France in September 1943
|Birth name||Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas|
17 June 1902|
|Died||26 February 1964
|Service/branch||Royal Air Force|
|Unit||Special Operations Executive|
Second World War
Military Cross & Bar
Legion of Honour (France)
Croix de guerre (France)
Cross of Merit (Poland)
Wing Commander Forest Frederick Edward "Tommy" Yeo-Thomas GC, MC & Bar (17 June 1902 – 26 February 1964) was a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent in the Second World War. Codenamed "SEAHORSE" and "SHELLEY" in the SOE, Yeo-Thomas was known by the Gestapo as "The White Rabbit". His particular sphere of operations was Occupied and Vichy France.
Life and career
Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas was born in London to John Yeo Thomas, a coal merchant, and Daisy Ethel Thomas (born Burrows). Early in his life, his family moved to Dieppe, France. He spoke both English and French fluently. He saw action in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1920, fighting alongside the Poles. He was captured by the Soviet Russian forces, and avoided execution by escaping, in the process strangling a Soviet guard.
Life as an agent
Between the wars, Yeo-Thomas worked for Molyneux, a successful fashion-house in Paris. However, after the fall of France and the chaotic evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, he escaped back to England, where he initially worked as an interpreter for de Gaulle's Free French forces. However, he was quickly prised away from de Gaulle by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), a newly formed intelligence and subversion organization. He had enlisted in the RAF but was soon made an officer.
At first Yeo-Thomas worked in an administrative capacity, but SOE soon used him as a liaison officer with the Bureau Central de Renseignements et d'Action (BCRA), the Free French intelligence agency. He was parachuted into occupied France for the first time on 25 February 1943. Both within France and back in England, Yeo-Thomas forged links with Major Pierre Brossolette and Andre Dewavrin (who went under the codename "Colonel Passy"), and between them they created a strategy for obstructing the German occupation of France. During his missions in France, he dined with prolific and infamous Nazis, such as Klaus Barbie who was known as the 'Butcher of Lyon', to gather vital information, before returning to France on 17 September 1943. He was appalled by the lack of logistical and material support which the French resistance movements such as the maquis were receiving, to the extent that he begged five minutes with Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. Churchill, reluctant at first, but fascinated by what Yeo-Thomas told him, agreed to help him obtain resources for the resistance.
In February 1944, Yeo-Thomas was parachuted into France after flying from RAF Tempsford. However, he was betrayed and captured at the Passy metro station in Paris. In endeavouring to hide his true identity, Yeo-Thomas claimed he was a British pilot named Kenneth Dodkin. He was then taken by the Gestapo to their headquarters at Avenue Foch and subjected to brutal torture, including repeated submersion in ice-cold water (each time to the point that artificial respiration was required to bring him back to consciousness), innumerable physical beatings, and electric shocks applied to the genitals. Held in Fresnes prison, he made two failed attempts to escape and was transferred first to Compiègne prison and then to Buchenwald concentration camp. Within the camp, he began to organize resistance, and again made a brief escape. On his recapture, he passed himself off as a French national and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag XX-B, near Marienburg.
While at Buchenwald, Yeo-Thomas met Squadron leader Phil Lamason, the officer in charge of 168 Allied airmen being held there. At great risk, Yeo-Thomas assisted Lamason in getting word out of camp to the German Luftwaffe of the airmen's captivity, knowing that the Luftwaffe would be sympathetic to their situation. He had to don many disguises, as well as shooting an enemy agent point blank with a pistol to escape. Eventually he succeeded and reached Allied lines in late April 1945.
After the war
After the war, Yeo-Thomas was to be an important witness at the Nuremberg War Trials in the identification of Buchenwald officials. He was a key prosecution witness at the Buchenwald Trial held at Dachau Concentration Camp between April and August 1947. At this trial, 31 members of the Buchenwald staff were convicted of war crimes. He was also a surprise defence witness in the war crimes trial of Otto Skorzeny, particularly on the charge of Skorzeny's use of American uniforms in infiltrating American lines. Yeo-Thomas testified that he and his operatives wore German uniforms behind enemy lines while working for the SOE.
He died at the age of 61 in his Paris apartment following a massive haemorrhage. He was cremated in Paris and then subsequently repatriated to be interred in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. His grave can be found in the Pine Glades Garden of Remembrance. In March 2010 his life was commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque erected at his flat in Queen Court where he lived in Guilford Street, Camden, Central London.
George Cross citation
The KING has been graciously pleased to award the George Cross to Acting Wing Commander Forest Frederick Edward YEO-THOMAS, M.C. (89215), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
- This officer was parachuted into France on 25 February 1943. He showed much courage and initiative during his mission, particularly when he enabled a French officer who was being followed by a Gestapo agent in Paris to reach safety and resume clandestine work in another area. He also took charge of a U.S. Army Air Corps officer who had been shot down and, speaking no French, was in danger of capture. This officer returned to England on 15 April 1943, in the aircraft which picked up Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas.
- Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas undertook a second mission on 17 September 1943. Soon after his arrival in France, many patriots were arrested. Undeterred, he continued his enquires and obtained information which enabled the desperate situation being rectified. On six occasions, he narrowly escaped arrest. He returned to England on 15 November 1943, bringing British intelligence archives which he had secured from a house watched by the Gestapo.
- This officer was again parachuted into France in February, 1944. Despite every security precaution, he was betrayed to the Gestapo in Paris on 21 March. While being taken by car to Gestapo Headquarters, he was badly "beaten up". He then underwent 4 days continuous interrogation, interspersed with beatings and torture, including immersions, head downwards, in ice-cold water, with legs and arms chained. Interrogations later continued for 2 months and Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas was offered his freedom in return for information concerning the Head of a Resistance Secretariat. Owing to his wrist being cut by chains, he contracted blood-poisoning and nearly lost his left arm. He made two daring but unsuccessful attempts to escape. He was then confined in solitude in Fresnes prison for 4 months, including 3 weeks in a darkened cell with very little food. Throughout these months of almost continuous torture, he steadfastly refused to disclose any information.
- On 17 July, Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas was sent with a party to Compiègne prison, from which he twice attempted to escape. He and 36 others were transferred to Buchenwald. On the way, they stopped at Saarbrücken, where they were beaten and kept in a tiny hut. They arrived at Buchenwald on 16 August and 16 of them were executed and cremated on 10 September. Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas had already commenced to organise resistance within the camp and remained undaunted by the prospect of a similar fate. He accepted an opportunity of changing his identity with that of a dead French prisoner, on condition that other officers would also be enabled to do so. In this way, he was instrumental in saving the lives of two officers.
- Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas was later transferred to a work kommando for Jews. In attempting to escape, he was picked up by a German patrol and, claiming French nationality, was transferred to a camp near Marienburg for French prisoners of war. On 16 April 1945, he led a party of 20 in a most gallant attempt to escape in broad daylight. Ten of them were killed by gunfire from the guards. Those who reached cover split up into small groups. Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas became separated from his companions after 3 days without food. He continued alone for a week and was recaptured when only 800 yards from the American lines. A few days later, he escaped with a party of 10 French prisoners of war, whom he led through German patrols to the American lines.
- Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas thus turned his final mission into a success by his determined opposition to the enemy, his strenuous efforts to maintain the morale of his fellow prisoners and his brilliant escape activities. He endured brutal treatment and torture without flinching and showed the most amazing fortitude and devotion to duty throughout his service abroad, during which he was under the constant threat of death.
Awards and honours
Yeo-Thomas's medal list:
|Military Cross & Bar|
|France and Germany Star|
|War Medal 1939-45|
|Légion d'honneur (Commander)|
|Croix De Guerre 1939–45||France – 4 bronze palm leaves|
|Croix du combattant volontaire 1939–1945|
|Croix du combattant volontaire de la Résistance|
|World War I Victory Medal (USA)|
|Gold Cross of Merit (Poland)|
|Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal|
In popular culture
- Ian Fleming wrote in his memoirs of his fascination with the military career by Forest Thomas, becoming one of the inspiration behind the fictional character James Bond.
- Michael Caine in the 1958 film Carve Her Name with Pride (minor uncredited appearance)
- Kenneth More in the BBC 1967 television mini-series The White Rabbit (1967).
- Peter Hudson in the 2008 French television mini-series La Résistance 
- James Hutchison, ‘Thomas, Forest Frederic Edward Yeo-(1902–1964)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2010
- "Alias Shelley". Time magazine. 2 February 1953. Retrieved 13 March 2009. The White Rabbit book review
- Preece, Rob (September 23, 2014). "The Second World War spy whose ruthlessness with enemies and charming way with women inspired author to create James Bond". Daily Mail. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
- "STALAG 20b POW Camp" Wartime Memories Project. Retrieved 7 June 2011
- "POW Memoirs, WWII, Europe and North Africa: Marshall, Bruce as told by Yeo-Thomas F." War, Literature, and the Arts. Retrieved 7 June 2011
- BBC TV News report 31 March 2010, accessed 31 March 2010 – NB the spelling of the street name is incorrect on the BBC site
- Richard Norton-Taylor (1 April 2010). "Forgotten spy and escape artist extraordinaire comes in from the cold". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2010.
- The London Gazette: . 12 February 1946.
- Group of 13 miniature medals, unmounted, attributed to Wing Commander FFE Yeo-Thomas GC
- Coping, Jasper (September 23, 2014). "Second World War hero who inspired the creation of James Bond". Telegraph. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
- The White Rabbit (TV mini-series 1967– ) – IMDb
- La résistance (TV mini-series 2008– ) – IMDb
- Bruce Marshall, The White Rabbit (1952)
- Mark Seaman, Bravest of the Brave: True Story of Wing Commander Tommy Yeo-Thomas – SOE Secret Agent Codename, the White Rabbit (1997)
- Brigitte Friang, Parachutes and Petticoats (1958)
- Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's Story 1941-1945 (1998)
- Sophie Jackson, Churchill's White Rabbit (2012)