The real life James Bond’s in the Second World War: Forest Yeo-Thomas

As the previous post has stated Bond was inspired by a number of special operators and secret agents who Ian Fleming came in contact with while working in Naval Intelligence Division (NID) in the course of the Second World War. One such individual was Forest Yeo-Thomas, one of the most famous agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the war. [1] SOE had been formed in the summer of 1940 and was tasked with conducting sabotage and subversion and also to assist and work alongside resistance groups in Axis occupied Europe. Being fluent in French Yeo-Thomas was an ideal recruit for operations in occupied France. On two occasions in 1943 he was parachuted into France and tasked with establishing contacts with French resistance groups. He established himself as a major member of the SOE RF section and provided detailed reports about the situation in France. [2] During his time in France he was an effective and ruthless agent whose tactics echoed those used by Bond. He was known frequently to carry a concealed gun and on one occasion personally eliminated an enemy agent who has infiltrated a resistance network. In February 1944 he was again parachuted into France for a third time but while in Paris he was betrayed by a collaborator and captured by the Gestapo. [3] He was subjected to severe torture and was, on six occasions, stripped naked, immersed in an ice-cold bath while chained by his arms and legs, and held under water until he almost drowned. [4] He was also whipped and repeatedly beaten ‘on his head, arms, legs, body and testicles’ by the German guards. [5] At one point he was suspended him by his wrists above the floor for eight hours and this resulted in the dislocation of Yeo-Thomas’s shoulder and he almost had to have his left arm amputated after he developed a blood infection when his handcuffs bit into the bones of his wrist. [6] Throughout all of the torture Yeo-Thomas refused to give away any information and an SOE report on him stated that ‘throughout these months of almost continuous torture…Yeo-Thomas displayed supreme self-confidence and devotion to duty in refusing to talk’. [7]

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Among the NID records it was noted that ‘Yeo-Thomas is known in the NID as one of SOE’s most reliable and gallant agents’. [8] Further handwritten notes by NID officers record their ‘admiration of [Yeo-Thomas’s] …outstanding gallantry’ and stated that they were ‘speechless with admiration for such sublime bravery’. [9] Fleming was aware of Yeo-Thomas and this is corroborated by correspondence from May 1945 which reveals that Fleming was interested in hearing more about him. Fleming specifically requested a copy of the letter written by Yeo-Thomas to his sister which was dated September 1944 but had only reached SOE in May 1945. [10] This interest in Yeo-Thomas’s career showed that Fleming was aware of important heroic special operators during the war, and Yeo-Thomas and his patriotic heroism may have come to Fleming’s mind when he created Bond as the man of action, secret agent. For example, at the end of Casino Royale, the first Bond novel which was published in 1953, Bond was captured by the villain of the novel, Le Chiffe, and subjected to brutal torture including beatings and humiliation. However, Bond did not break under this extreme torture, and when writing this scene Fleming can be viewed as recalling the torture of Yeo-Thomas which was contained in graphic detail in the letter which Fleming had read in May 1945. [11]

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1 Three histories of him exist: Jackson, Churchill’s white rabbit; Seaman, Bravest of the brave; Marshall, The white rabbit.
2 Information given by F/Lt Yeo-Thomas. 22 April 1943; Talk by Yeo-Thomas on his experiences in the hands of the Gestapo, 15 Feb. 1945 (HS 9/1458, TNA).
3 Seaman, Bravest of the brave, pp 104‒7, 135.
4 Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ’Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (HS 9/1458, TNA).
5 Seaman, Bravest of the brave, pp 136‒53; Marshall, The white rabbit, pp 109‒41.
6 Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ’Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (ADM 223/481, TNA); Seaman, Bravest of the brave, pp 145‒6.
7 Squadron leader Forest Frederick Yeo-Thomas, undated [Sep. 1945] (HS 9/1458, TNA).
8 Minute by Director of NID, 12 May 1945 (ADM 223/481, TNA).
9 Notes on Yeo-Thomas’s letter, 13,14 May 1945 (ADM 223/481, TNA).
10 Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ’Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (ADM 223/481, TNA).
11 Fleming, Casino Royale, pp 118‒27; Forest Yeo-Thomas to Daisy ‘Dizzy’ Yeo-Thomas, 14 Sep. 1944 (ADM 223/481, TNA).

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Jonathan Best

I historian of modern British history. In particular my research has focused on the activities of British secret services during the twentieth century, particularly during the two world wars and the early decades of the Cold War. In addition to this my current research has also examined the history of British spy fiction with a particular focus on the British spy novel between the late Victorian era and the 1960s. This interest is fueled by my personal passion for the secret world of espionage, intelligence, clandestine operations both fictional and factual.

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