b. 17/06/1902 London. d. 26/02/1964 Paris, France.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 02/1943 - 1945 France/Germany.
Forest Frederick Edward “Tommy” “The White Rabbit” Yeo-Thomas (1902-1964) was born in London on 17th June 1902, the eldest son of John and Daisy Ethel Yeo-Thomas (nee Burrows). His younger brother Jack, born in 1908, sadly died of meningitis in 1917. His parents were of Welsh ancestry, and his father was a coal merchant, who moved the family to Dieppe in France when Tommy was very young. It was there that he sold Welsh coal to the French railway network. After an abortive year at school in England, Tommy returned to France to study at the Lycee Condorcet. The Yeo-Thomas’ family moved to Paris in 1914, on the outbreak of World War I.
Tommy was keen to enlist despite being well underage for the British and French armies. At the age of 16, he lied about his age to join the US Army and later served with the Polish Army against the Soviets in 1920. He was captured and was faced with execution by his Soviet captors, only to escape having strangled his prison guard, and made his own way back to France. Back in France, and with his parents newly divorced, he trained as an accountant and married Lilian Margaret Walker in Paris on 12th September 1925. They went on to have two daughters – Evelyn Daisy Erica and Lilian May Alice. Tragically, Evelyn would die of meningitis when her father was on operational duty in World War II.
Following his marriage, he worked in a number of banking jobs before taking up the unlikely position of General Manager of the 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. At the end of 1939, he met Barbara Dean in London, and despite the fact he remained married to Lilian, she became his lifelong companion, and even took his surname in later life.
After the declaration of war, he was recruited by the RAF as Aircraftman 2nd Class 504896, 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.
YeoThomas 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 YeoThomas receiving the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Palm for his actions (although bureaucracy delayed their official approval).
In September YeoThomas 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 YeoThomas 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, YeoThomas was informed that Brossolette had been captured after attempting to escape by boat from the coast of Brittany. As RF Section's secondincommand, YeoThomas 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 24th – 25th 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 21st March he was arrested on the steps of the Passy metro station, given up by a newly recruited subagent. 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).
YeoThomas 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 YeoThomas hatched an escape plan in collaboration with Dr DingSchuler, an SS doctor in charge of carrying out medical experiments on prisoners. Although the majority of their group would eventually be executed, YeoThomas, SOE agent Harry Peulevé and French BCRA officer Stéphane Hessel were able to switch identities with three of DingSchuler'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 YeoThomas, 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 YeoThomas 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 8th May.
YeoThomas 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 – SOEdesigned 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 YeoThomas 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 YeoThomas became one of just six SOE agents to be awarded the George Cross and he and Odette Sansom were the only ones who were not posthumous. 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 YeoThomas a public figure. In 1967 the BBC adapted Marshall's book for television, with Kenneth More playing the lead.
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 YeoThomas received a final award, being made a Commandeur of the Légion d'honneur, before his death on 26th February 1964; his ashes were interred in the Glades of Remembrance at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.
In 2010 an English Heritage blue plaque was erected outside YeoThomas'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 RealLife James Bond” published in 2012 claimed that YeoThomas may have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming's fictional secret agent 007. In May 1945, Fleming did receive a copy of YeoThomas's poignant farewell letter written in Buchenwald, which had just been discovered in Germany, but there is no proof of the link. Tommy’s medal group was placed on permanent loan to the Imperial War Museum and are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: BROOKWOOD CEMETERY, WOKING, SURREY.
Picture - Kevin Brazier
Guilford Street, Camden, Central London.
Forest Yeo-Thomas' medals on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (December 2014)
Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych, London
Medal Group in the old Imperial War Museum display