Saturday, July 28, 2007

British Heroes: F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas

Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas is probably a name not many will be familiar with. Known as "Tommy", Yeo-Thomas rose to the rank of Wing Commander in the RAF and was instrumental in organising the resistance movement in France to mount effective operations.

Yeo-Thomas was a fluent French speaker who had lived in France from a young age. To him, Paris was home and German occupation was something personal. After escaping to Britain, Yeo-Thomas found himself working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and mounted three operations into enemy occupied France to help organise the resistance as well as aiding the escape of Allied airmen.

On the third of his missions Yeo-Thomas was betrayed to and captured by the Gestapo in Paris on March 21st 1944. The Gestapo were aware that they had captured the elusive "Shelley" and realised the importance their prisoner. Over the next couple of months Yeo-Thomas endured repeated torture and brutal interrogations but steadfastly refused to divulge any information.

Eventually, Yeo-Thomas was transferred to the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp where he witnessed the inhuman treatment of his fellow man by the Nazis at first hand. Even in this hellish camp, Yeo-Thomas continued to organise resistance and plan escapes. He finally managed to find a way out of Buchenwald by adopting the identity of a dead French prisoner and was transferred to another camp.

In April 1945 and despite being weakened by dysentery, Yeo-Thomas led an escape of 20 prisoners, but after being separated from his comrades Yeo-Thomas was captured again - just 800 yards from the American lines. A few days later, he escaped again and this time succeeded in leading a party of POWs through the German defences and into the safety of the US lines.

Yeo-Thomas was in many ways an everyday ordinary man who, finding himself in extraordinary circumstances, found levels of courage and fortitude which are unimaginable to many of us today. To me personally, Yeo-Thomas epitomises the British hero. Someone who didn't have to get involved, who could have easily seen out the war in relative comfort but who chose instead to risk his life as well as his sanity to defend the things he believed in from those he saw as a threat to our way of life.

A remarkable man.


Anonymous said...

Dear Stan,
Nice article but please don't forget the 13 women of SOE who lost their lives for the exact same beliefs! All 13 never betrayed anything either & some were married & had small children at home. Talk about remarkable women! Their names are on a plaque at ST. Paul's church in Knightsbridge. They are also rememember in a few books too. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Stan said...


I'm not "forgetting" anyone from SOE (including the women or many men who died working for it) any more than listing Douglas Bader as a British hero means I forget the thousands of young men who died fighting the Battle Of Britain.

Yeo-Thomas is, if anything, far less well known than Violette Szabo (Carve Her Name With Pride), but his role in SOE was vital to the war effort. Without Yeo-Thomas it is likely that the French Resistance would not have been as well organised or equipped as they were (Yeo-Thomas managed to secure the personal intervention of Churchill to provide the aeroplanes for weapons and agent drops).

I started my list of British heroes as a response to a BBC listing of "British heroes" which included such luminaries as Boy bloody George and David Beckham but ignored men like General Gordon. The idea was to list people who, for me, epitomise Britishness and heroism in the real sense.

mexicano said...

Good for you for highlighting the role played by the 'White Rabbit' and others of his ilk.

My favourite comment by the man is one he made shortly before he died regarding those who gave their lives in WWII -

'[They] died with an ideal, with the feeling that they had sacrificed everything for something good, something enduring. They did not live to see the sham that it all was, to see the wasting of all their efforts'

Powerful stuff.

camp follower said...

Have just finished reading "Bravest of the Brave" - Mark Seaman. I, too found the comment he made re
"they died with an ideal" incredibly sad . One can feel
his bitter disappointment. I hope he died not carrying
that load to his grave.

Amazing character and i have been thinking a lot about him since finishing the book.