Recruited: February 1942
Role: Deputy Head (RF Section)
Missions: SEAHORSE, MARIE CLAIRE, ASYMPTOTE
Fate: Captured, deported to Germany, survived
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 avec palme 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 the Resistance groups following the arrest of de Gaulle's emissary Jean Moulin in June. During this mission Yeo-Thomas 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 discussing SOE's lack of air support with Winston Churchill, Yeo-Thomas was informed that Brossolette had been captured after attempting to escape by boat from the coast of Brittany. Now 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 details of all of the Section's operations - but he was determined to rescue his friend and hurriedly began arranging a third mission, fatefully codenamed ASYMPTOTE, a geometry term describing two objects that never meet. He parachuted safely near Montluçon in mid-February 1944, but unfortunately Shelley was now well-known to the Gestapo in Paris, and five days later he was arrested at Passy metro station, given up by a 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 male prisoners - mostly 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 transferred to Schonebeck 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, this time with ten other prisoners. Now completely exhausted by dysentery and the cumulative effects of his ordeals he was almost ready to give up, but with the support of two comrades he crossed a minefield to reach the Americans. He arrived in Paris on 8 May.
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 (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 (a codename for him used by French resisters) made Yeo-Thomas a public figure. 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 Commander 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.
Sophie Jackson's biography Churchill's White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real-Life James Bond published in September 2012 claims that new evidence reveals Yeo-Thomas as 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. This led to Yeo-Thomas's letter appearing in the War Office's secret Weekly Intelligence Review; his identity became public five months later, when the award of a George Cross was announced. Although a brief note in his file confirms Jackson's claim 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. A more thorough and reliable biography of Yeo-Thomas, Bravest of the Brave by Mark Seaman, was published by Michael O'Mara Books in 1997.Back to SOE Agent Profiles