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Churchill's White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real-Life James Bond

Churchill's White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real-Life James Bond

by Sophie Jackson

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A revealing biography of Edward Yeo-Thomas GC, the man who inspired Ian Fleming's James Bond

Edward Yeo-Thomas GC was one of the bravest of the brave. A fluent French-speaker, he joined SOE and was parachuted into occupied France three times to work with the Resistance. Appalled by the lack of help the British were providing, he managed to arrange a


A revealing biography of Edward Yeo-Thomas GC, the man who inspired Ian Fleming's James Bond

Edward Yeo-Thomas GC was one of the bravest of the brave. A fluent French-speaker, he joined SOE and was parachuted into occupied France three times to work with the Resistance. Appalled by the lack of help the British were providing, he managed to arrange a five-minute meeting with Winston Churchill, during which he persuaded him to do more. On his third mission he was betrayed and captured by the Gestapo; he suffered horrendous torture before being sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, from where he eventually managed to escape, making it back to Allied lines shortly before the end of the war. This biography reveals new information about how the torture affected Yeo-Thomas, the state of SOE-Resistance cooperation, Gestapo typhus experiments at Buchenwald, and how "White Rabbit," Yeo-Thomas, provided the inspiration for Ian Fleming's famous secret agent, James Bond.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though there’s evidence that Ian Fleming was aware of the exploits of the subject of this book, it’s unlikely that British secret agent Forest Yeo-Thomas (1902–1964), code-named “White Rabbit” by the Gestapo, really inspired the fictional character of James Bond. Jackson’s (Churchill’s Unexpected Guests) account is entertaining and well documented, but it lacks the pyrotechnics and thrilling triumphs of the 007 series; she mostly documents Yeo-Thomas’s furtive travels, clandestine meetings, and political quarrels. But that doesn’t mean the White Rabbit didn’t live an extraordinary life in service of his country—as with any good true tale of wartime spying, there are tense nighttime encounters with shadowy enemies and plenty of duplicitousness. As a member of the British Secret Operations Executive, Yeo-Thomas, a fluent speaker of French, parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to help unify and supply its many disorganized and feuding resistance groups. Soon after, he was arrested, relentlessly tortured, and shipped to the concentration camp at Buchwenwald, from which he and a small cohort miraculously escaped. Though the subtitle is a stretch, fans of WWII espionage will relish Jackson’s portrait of the White Rabbit. (July)
From the Publisher
"Fans of WWII espionage will relish Jackson’s portrait of the White Rabbit."  —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

The History Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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Churchill's White Rabbit

The True Story of a Real-Life James Bond

By Sophie Jackson

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Sophie Jackson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7893-7


Beware the Agent who isn't Punctual

IT IS MARCH 1944 in Paris. SOE agent Shelley takes the familiar steps up to Passy Métro station ready to catch a train to Rennes. He is due to make a last contact with agent de liaison 'Antonin' to pass on last-minute instructions and an encoded message. The Métro station is the ideal place for a casual rendezvous. Since the Nazi occupation of 1940, cars have been virtually non-existent in Paris; aside from a ban on civilian motorists, most of the petrol stores were blown up in the invasion and what fuel is left has been secured for German use. Parisian citizens have had to fall back on other forms of transportation – the bicycle has seen a tremendous surge in popularity. But longer distances require faster transport and the Métro serves this purpose. The Nazis know that Paris cannot be brought to a standstill forever, so they ensure that the Métro runs smoothly and frequently. As Shelley saunters into Passy station bustling crowds instantly surround him. The platform is a hub of activity, filled with all kinds of passengers, and it affords solid cover for a clandestine meeting.

For the obsessively discreet Shelley, this is the perfect meeting point. He is a stickler for security. As part of his work in France developing the various resistance movements and coordinating them with British efforts, he often infuriates his espionage colleagues by drumming into them the need for strict protocol and utmost secrecy. He has come close to capture due to the recklessness of a resistance agent more than once. Others have died at Gestapo hands and whole resistance cells have been annihilated through the carelessness of a single individual. But as he calmly heads up the Passy steps that spring morning, he is unaware that his cover has already been blown – the last minutes of Shelley's freedom are numbered.

Shelley has his last day in Paris perfectly mapped out. He leaves his apartment at 9 a.m. for an 11 a.m. meeting with Antonin, then he plans to have lunch with two women – 'Maud' Bauer and Jacqueline Rameil, secretaries to journalist and resistance member Pierre Brossolette. Brossolette has recently been arrested, though the Germans are ignorant of his identity and importance. Shelley is planning a rescue mission, and his visit to Rennes, where Brossolette is in custody, is part of this operation. At lunch with the ladies, he will discuss news of Brossolette, as 'Maud' is in close contact with the prisoner, masquerading as his mistress in order to get access to him in prison.

With his plans organised down to the last detail, Shelley is feeling confident as he arrives at the steps of the Métro, looking forward to a brief spell away from the constant and disturbing gaze of the Paris Gestapo.

Shelley walks nonchalantly up the station steps. His meeting with Antonin will appear to be by pure chance. Antonin has been instructed to signal that the coast is clear to Shelley by having his hands in his pockets – any deviation will mean that the encounter is called off. In the last few weeks Shelley has been tailed more than once, has seen ill-disguised Germans loitering outside his rooms and has even had to accost a contact who had failed to realise he had two Germans following him to a meeting. It is imperative that Antonin respects the danger they are in and acts accordingly.

Stopping by a newspaper kiosk, Shelley pretends to browse the few 'patriotic' papers and magazines. He is uncomfortably aware that 11 a.m. is rapidly passing with no sign of Antonin. Punctuality is another part of the 'Shelley code' – a late contact is a worrying sign. With any other agent, Shelley would have argued that the meeting should be aborted there and then, but at that crucial moment he finds himself torn with indecision.

Heading down the far side of the Métro station he pauses to consider his options: his principles tell him he should abort the contact and flee the station, but the information he is to pass to Antonin is so important that he is loath to give up so easily. Besides, he is due to be in Rennes for several days and he doesn't like the idea of leaving without passing on vital instructions. The final nail in his coffin is the over-confidence that has been growing in Shelley since his first successes in France. He has outwitted the Gestapo on several occasions with the most audacious schemes, and lost tails and taken risks with seeming impunity. Right at that moment it seems as though Shelley has luck on his side, so he turns around and walks back into the station.

Glancing up the steps there is still no sign of Antonin, but Shelley heads upstairs anyway, and back to the kiosk, his contact point. The arrival of a train, which disgorges a large party of passengers, encourages him, and the commotion seems a good mask for his own clandestine activities.

Shelley is still on the stairs when, suddenly, five men break from the new arrivals and grab him. In seconds the stunned Shelley has his hands wrenched behind his back and handcuffed, while all around him train passengers scurry past and pretend not to notice. As his captors rifle through his pockets, Shelley spots the missing Antonin being escorted away between two Gestapo men. His heart sinks as he realises his hasty decision has led him straight into a trap.

Around him the Germans are yelling at the crowd to keep moving and threaten to shoot anyone who tries to intervene. The warning is hardly necessary as most Parisians are familiar with Gestapo tactics and are quick to avert their eyes from the scene. Shelley's last hope is that he has only fallen into a security check, albeit a serious one, and that his captors have no real idea who is in their hands. But his hopes are dashed when elated Germans begin congratulating each other on the capture of 'Shelley', one of the top names on the Gestapo most-wanted list. As Shelley is forced through the Métro to a waiting car, his heart sinks further. He knows the game is up.

At SOE headquarters back in London, news of Shelley is slow in arriving and when it does come it is laced with misinformation and outright lies. It is not until May that dribbles of news, leaked from less-than-reliable sources, filter down the corridors in London. By that point, unbeknown to the SOE team, Shelley has already endured torture and is sitting in a prison cell wondering when he will be shot.

Early news suggests that Shelley is already dead. Rumours have it that on 21 March a tall Englishman with a moustache took poison while in German custody and the Germans tried to pump his stomach, but failed. Whoever this Englishman is SOE don't believe it is Shelley based on the rather flimsy theory that he would have poisoned himself with cyanide (all agents carry the infamous death pills) and the Germans would have known it was futile to use a stomach pump with such a poison. Besides, they argue, Shelley is 'fairly short'.

But other stories circulate that differ from the truth even more bizarrely. On the same cyanide report is another suggesting that Shelley had been on a mission to meet a woman called Brigitte. This was Brigitte Friang, secretary to Clouet des Pesrusches, another resistance operative. During this supposed meeting between Shelley and Brigitte, the secretary was supposedly shot by the Germans when she put her hand in her bag, as they assumed she was reaching for a gun. This was all said to have happened on the Passy Métro stairs, after which Shelley simply vanished.

In fact this story is a muddled rendition of two truths. Brigitte had been attending a meeting when she was shot in the stomach by Germans, however the meeting was not with Shelley, but with Antonin. It was later believed that the Brigitte meeting, held at the Trocadero, was what finally turned the tables on Shelley. At the meeting four Germans approached the pair, shot Brigitte and searched and interrogated Antonin. On him they found a document that broke yet another golden rule: it stated 'Shelley Passy 11' and told the Germans everything they needed to know about the planned rendezvous. How ecstatic they must have been to stumble onto a way of trapping the infamous Shelley so easily! They dragged the terrified Antonin to the Métro station and forced him to point out the man he least wanted to betray.

Even worse than the rumours and lies is the SOE's misunderstanding of Shelley's mission. Communication between agents and headquarters is notoriously difficult, as direction-finding vans operated by the Germans regularly scan for wireless telegraph (W/T) transmissions in France. The Germans have the great advantage of being in charge of Paris and are able to switch off the power to housing blocks whenever they choose; by doing this they can isolate a transmission and wait until it is abruptly stopped due to power failure to confirm where it is coming from. Then the search vehicles are sent out to find the errant transmitter.

In this hunted atmosphere agents are supposed to keep messages short and move their W/T sets to new locations frequently. Added to that complication is the need for personalised codes for agents based on letter replacement or the alteration of key words, with special false codes involving deliberate misspellings or the use of prearranged warning words in case of capture, and the arduousness of keeping London abreast of every development becomes apparent. SOE headquarters inevitably find themselves in the dark most of the time and such is the case with Shelley – they only have a vague idea of what he was doing on the Passy Métro stairs.

Some of their information comes from Shelley's former secretaries. One cleared out his apartment after hearing that Brigitte had been shot and was puzzled to find no money; she assumed he had taken it in his suitcase to Rennes for the purpose of bribing people.

A second secretary received a typewritten note reading 'CHEVAL est a FRESNES': Cheval is at Fresnes. Cheval is an unofficial codename of Shelley's used for secret communications with his secretaries, and Fresnes is a prison. Whoever sent the message is a mystery. It is unlikely to have been Shelley himself, but at least it goes some way to confirming his capture and where he is. His secretaries live in hope that the Germans are ignorant of Shelley's real identity and that he has avoided the hardships of Gestapo interrogation.

Time, however, reveals the truth. An SOE agent, who is a close friend of Shelley's and had seen him only four days before his arrest, arrives in England in May, going by the name of Polygone. He is interviewed by SOE and is able to give an accurate account of what has become of Shelley. British hearts despair as they hear that Shelley was arrested by the same Gestapo men who had shot another agent, Galiene II, quashing hopes that he had been picked up by accident. Polygone is damning of his friend's security precautions and describes him as indiscreet. He carried a revolver in a holster at all times, which Polygone deemed unwise. Furthermore he had the dangerous habit of frequenting the same restaurants, but to allay the British disappointment at finding their best agent so fallible, Polygone assures them that on the whole Shelley's security was good and he rarely carried important documents on his person unless absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately Polygone also knows that the Gestapo have raided Shelley's apartment and it is widely thought that they have taken a microphotograph of Shelley's mission orders and another document that includes a sketch of Shelley's railway sabotage plans. Polygone is also concerned that at least thirty coded telegrams Shelley had sent to England have apparently gone astray; what has become of them no one seems to know, but with the Gestapo breathing down resistance necks, the missing messages are cause for grave concern.

SOE finally know most of the truth about Shelley's disappearance. He is in the hands of the Gestapo, being held at Fresnes and more than likely enduring the worst kinds of interrogation the Germans can mete out. Rescue is an unlikely option as SOE takes the pragmatic view that they could easily lose more good men trying to regain one lost agent, and they simply do not have the resources for such high costs. Instead they begin to try to unravel where the blame for Shelley's loss might lie. In any secret organisation betrayal is always at the back of people's minds.

Polygone is of the firm opinion that there is an informer in their midst. He finds it highly alarming, let alone suspicious, that three agents de liaison have vanished at the same time as Shelley was arrested. One reappeared a month later but the other two remain unaccounted for. Then there is Antonin, who Polygone knows is missing but is unaware that he has been arrested with Shelley by the Gestapo. Lastly, a fifth agent de liaison who worked between Shelley and another important resistance member has vanished without a trace. Polygone cannot imagine that all these disappearances are pure coincidence and now SOE fear that they have a mole in their network.

This is not the first time that SOE's French operations have been so badly compromised. Two of their resistance networks dealing with the introduction of Allied agents have in fact been completely infiltrated by the Germans and at least one has been operated and run by the Gestapo pretending to be a resistance network. On other occasions agents have been caught and forced to transmit false messages back to the British; sometimes this is spotted, but on many other occasions it is not.

Damage limitation is now key: whatever contacts Shelley made, whatever arrangements, need to be protected. SOE know that even the hardest of agents will break under the intensity of interrogation; there is a reason that the Gestapo use torture, even if it is considered a fallible system by more conscientious interrogators. The assumption has to be made that Shelley has been broken, and the relevant security precautions must be taken, especially if a traitor still loiters somewhere in the network.

Despite knowing that rescue is almost impossible, SOE continue to search for their lost agent. He is by no means the only one they are trying to track information on, but he is special in that he has a powerful reputation within the secret service community. Even a budding spy novelist working with the Admiralty is caught up with the mystery of Shelley's loss and discusses it over dinner with colleagues. His name is Ian Fleming and he follows Shelley's story with great interest.

SOE is rife with rumours about the missing agent. A telegram arrives with a strange jumble of information; the source is a member of a sub-unit of 72 Wing, engaged in wireless jamming operations. The source, in turn, heard his information from a liberated prisoner of war called Corporal Stevenson, who had been held in the Bad Homburg camp by the Germans. Stevenson had met a man going by the name Maurice Chouquet, who claimed he was actually SOE agent Wing-Commander Davies. Stevenson did not relate how he had earned Chouquet's trust enough to learn such dangerous information (it was unwise for an SOE man to confide in anyone who was not also a known agent), but the significance of the message is that this could have been Shelley going by two assumed names.

Shelley is in fact making great efforts to convince his superiors and loved ones that he is still very much alive. He slips out whatever messages he can in the vain hope that they will reach home, and amazingly quite a few do. One finds its way into the hands of Sister Eanswythe of St Mary's Mission. She comes by the information via her contact with Warrant Officer John Lander, a wireless navigator in the RAF who was shot down in early 1944. He had sent his son to the mission's school before the war and regularly confided his family problems to the nun. When he failed to receive any post from his family during his confinement he complained in a letter to the good sister and asked her to see what she could do. In a short postscript he asked that she write to Mrs Thomas (Shelley's wife) to let her know that he had met her husband and that he was alright. He failed to elaborate any further and SOE are disappointed that the nun is a dead end.

There are other letters, and SOE acquires them as soon as they can in order to analyse them. Agents are taught secret codes that can be innocently dropped into letters to family should they be caught, and Shelley's letters are scrutinised for any clues. There is a feeling that SOE is clutching at very thin straws and their strained desperation even seeps into their analysis reports.

We are sorry, but [the letter to Mrs Thomas] does not contain a message according to the innocent letter conventions arranged here with [Shelley].

[However] it would seem that an investigation of the names and addresses [mentioned in the letter], and possibly replies, containing hidden messages on [Shelley's] conventions might achieve good results.


Excerpted from Churchill's White Rabbit by Sophie Jackson. Copyright © 2012 Sophie Jackson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sophie Jackson is the author of Churchill's Unexpected Guests, The Horse in Myth and Legend, and The Medieval Christmas.

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