The White Rabbit
Few men in history can claim to have fought such a hard war against tyranny as Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas. Born in London on the 17th June 1902 to parents of Welsh origin, his family later moved to Dieppe, France while he was very young. As a result when Germany invaded in 1914 Yeo-Thomas felt it personally so much so that he tried to enlist in any army that would take him eventually finding his way in to the U.S. Army in 1917 who were a little lax about checking his age (he was 16 at the time).
Having seen combat on the western front in the closing stages of the war he viewed the post-war situation in the east with a popular sense of mistrust regarding Lenin and his supporters who had seized power in Russia during the October Revolution of 1917. When in 1919 fighting spilled over in to Poland over the Kievan Rus’ area of what is modern day Ukraine, Yeo-Thomas volunteered for service with the Polish Army.
While fighting with the Poles, Yeo-Thomas experienced his first taste of life as a prisoner of war (PoW) when he was captured by communist Russian forces in 1920. The Russians took a very dim view on “mercenaries” especially in light of the number of foreign troops that had fought alongside Kolchak’s “White” Russians against the new communist regime (see Britain’s Forgotten Tank War). He was therefore sentenced to death by his Russian captors however an opportunity presented itself for his escape and he took it. A guard spotted him and the two became locked in a fight forcing Yeo-Thomas to strangle him to death.
Having successfully escaped and with his second war over he returned to France to start a new life eventually marrying a young woman named Lillian. Together they had two daughters but the married life was not to last and in 1936 after ten years of marriage they separated though they never formally divorced. Then in 1939 Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany over the invasion of Poland. Yeo-Thomas was determined to put his previous experience to good use and found his way in to the Royal Air Force. The RAF were keen to accept him but for them a combat role was out of the question due to his age (37) and so he found himself involved in a frustrating administrative role.
As France fell he found himself caught up in the chaotic evacuation from Dunkirk leaving behind the land that had been more of a home to than Britain. Once in the UK Yeo-Thomas spent much of what was left of 1940 and the beginning of 1941 working as an interpreter/liason with De Gaulle’s Free French forces that had escaped to the British Isles before the fall of France. His ability to speak fluent French coupled with his own intimate relationship with France eased his relationship with the French soldiers despite the fact he wore the uniform of His Majesty’s Royal Air Force. However it was these traits that brought him to the attention of a different organization altogether – the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The SOE was formed on the 22nd of July 1940 at a time when it was realized that traditional force alone was not going to be enough to combat Nazi Germany which now dominated all of Western Europe. One of the most secretive forces against the Third Reich it was tasked to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and this required working heavily with resistance cells including the French who would later call themselves the Maquis. What the organization needed were men like Yeo-Thomas who could not only exist both in the English-speaking British military and the French-speaking resistance but also had a certain spirit to resist and fight. He was therefore recruited in February 1942.
Finally in 1943 Yeo-Thomas was allowed to enter the field and a plan was concocted to get him in to France along with two of De Gaulle’s representatives; André Dewavrin (known as “Colonel Passy”) and Pierre Brossolette, a pre-war socialist leader in France who it was thought would be more appealing to the French-communist resistance cells. Under the codename Operation: Seahorse the three men were parachuted in to occupied France on the night of February 25th 1943. For two months the three men toured the French countryside meeting with representatives of the French resistance to pledge British support, presenting possible targets for attack by the Maquis and training them in the latests methods of sabotage. In return the three men got more of an idea of the picture on the ground which aided planning back in London upon their return in April 1943. So that the Maquis knew they were dealing with the right people Yeo-Thomas was codenamed Le Lapin Blanc (The White Rabbit).
De Gaulle was so pleased by Yeo-Thomas’ work that he intended to decorate him accordingly with the Croix de Guerre with Palm but because De Gaulle was not technically the legitimate leader of France Yeo-Thomas was not able to receive it. He did receive the Military Cross from his own superiors. Celebrations were short lived however as soon after a high profile member of the Maquis, Jean Moulin, who had been largely responsible for organizing the resistance behind De Gaulle was killed.
Fearing that the Maquis cells would lose cohesion or even turn on themselves Yeo-Thomas was ordered back in to the field in September 1943. Between September and November 1943 Le Lapin Blanc was a name used to repair the damage left in the wake of Moulin’s death. Unfortunately this only raised his profile with the Gestapo who launched in to a series of operations to attempt to catch him ranging from torture to bribery all of which failed. This time Yeo-Thomas’ return to the UK was filled with contempt for his superiors. Actually being on the ground had made Yeo-Thomas appreciate just how little support the Maquis were getting in the previous months from the Allies and he was understandably touched by their commitment to resist the Germans with whatever they had available to them. He pleaded with his superior officers on behalf of the French resistance for more aircraft to be made available for supply drops and agent insertion/extraction missions. With the Americans now fully committed with their own aircraft he felt confident that the RAF could spare more aircraft for the cause but he was bitterly disappointed by their seemingly lack of interest in aiding the Maquis.
Churchill was impressed by Yeo-Thomas’ passion and ideas
Frustrated by this, Yeo-Thomas did something that was considered unthinkable in the stern British military. He used the powerful contacts he had made to set up a meeting with the man at the top – Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He was granted one hour alone with the Prime Minister to make his case. Yeo-Thomas launched in to a passionate and exhaustive speech about the conditions the Maquis were working in, just what support the Allies were giving them and perhaps more importantly how useful they could be for any future invasion of occupied Europe. Churchill had a history of embracing covert operations and the speech struck a chord with him. Churchill agreed and ordered Yeo-Thomas’ superiors to release more aircraft for the Maquis’ cause. It had cost him the high regard of some of his superior officers but nevertheless he had come through for the Maquis who revered him.
By 1944 he was one of the foremost officers in the SOE regarding the Maquis and for that reason it was decided that he was now too valuable to risk again in the field. Then Yeo-Thomas received word that Pierre Brossolette, the socialist leader who had accompanied him in to France on his first mission, had been captured. An operation was conceived to send an agent in to France to ascertain whether or not there was a possibility of rescuing Brossolette who had extensive knowledge of the Maquis and to carry out damage control regarding Maquis operations. With a personal interest in the success of the mission coupled with the fact that the Maquis were at this advanced stage distrustful of new people it was decided to send Yeo-Thomas in for a third time.
For Yeo-Thomas it would prove to be one mission too many for the Gestapo were now well aware of his description and his reputation. Having landed in France on the night of the 24th February 1944, sustaining an ankle injury upon landing under parachute, he continued the work he had carried out on his previous insertions in to occupied France. His luck ran out however when during a meeting in Paris on the 21st March 1944 he was apprehended in a counter-espionage operation. Yeo-Thomas attempted to hide his true identity claiming to be a downed RAF airman but the Gestapo weren’t fooled; his age was a major factor as well as his description. As for Brossolette he would die in captivity just a few hours after Yeo-Thomas was apprehended.
In what were probably the worst four days of his life Yeo-Thomas was subjected to horrific acts of torture in order to make him talk. Although he suspected the Gestapo knew who he was he maintained the story that he was a downed RAF airman. The Gestapo frequently beat him for extended periods of time until the guards became tired. They offered him his freedom if he gave them the name of a local Maquis leader but Yeo-Thomas simply repeated that he was a downed airman and that he had no knowledge.
Infuriated by his lack of cooperation the Gestapo then bound his arms and legs with chains so that his movement was restricted to such a degree that he was barely able to wriggle and kept him that way for days. The chains were so tightly bound that they cut in to his wrists eventually causing blood poisoning that became so bad that he nearly lost his left arm. The Gestapo then proceeded to immerse Yeo-Thomas in bitterly cold water that brought him close to hypothermia and early onset hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Throughout all this he never broke and repeated his cover story.
Buchenwald Concentration Camp
For the next few weeks he was moved around several detention centres along with a number of other confirmed or suspected SOE operatives before eventually being taken to Buchenwald concentration camp where his group were separated for special treatment. Then in September, sixteen of the group were taken to the main gate and executed but Yeo-Thomas was not selected.
As the Russians had found out almost 25 years earlier Yeo-Thomas was not a man who could be detained for long and working with another SOE operative and a French agent the three of them worked together and amazingly were able to switch identities with three men who died of Typhus. Using his fluent French tongue he became a man named Maurice Choquet and was transferred to a handful of other concentration camps where he worked as medical orderly during which time he witnessed the true horrors of the Holocaust first hand. It was also during this period that he began to suffer from troubles with kidney stones for which he never received proper medical attention.
Then in April 1945 he was one of a number being transferred to the Czech frontier when he took the opportunity to escape. Sleeping rough for two days he was eventually caught only to escape yet again and with the help of two other escapees the almost completely exhausted Yeo-Thomas managed to reach an American unit that repatriated him. With France liberated and Germany on the verge of defeat most men who had been through his experiences would have called it a day but not Yeo-Thomas. He instead volunteered for yet another SOE operation that was intended to hunt down officers and guards of concentration camps who had made themselves known to the Allies for acts of brutality against those in the camps. Some sources claim that Yeo-Thomas and his compatriots brought some of these men to justice while others claim it was an assassination unit.
Croix de Guerre
In the years after the war he continued to fight the Nazis by testifying at the Nuremburg trails. During examination by the prosecution he recounted all the scenes he had witnessed in the camps especially regarding the execution of his fellow SOE agents and his time posing as a medical orderly. He had not come out of the war unscathed however and his lack of proper medical attention in the camps left him with long term problems regarding his kidneys and by 1960 he begun to suffer from immobilising headaches and the loss of his manual hand-eye coordination. Despite putting up one last valiant battle against the odds he finally passed away in 1964 from a severe haemorrhage but not before officially receiving the Croix de Guerre with Palm given to him by De Gaulle in 1943.
He died in his home located in the capital city of the country he had done so much to free, France. His legacy however goes beyond the Second World War however as his story inspired a naval intelligence officer by the name of Ian Fleming who would later claim that Forest Yeo-Thomas was the inspiration for a certain literary character named James Bond.