January 20, 2014

Yeo-Thomas's famous last words

Given that F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas ‐ famously codenamed "The White Rabbit" ‐ is one of SOE's best known agents, I was surprised that I couldn't find this letter on any website or blog, especially since it has a tenuous connection with Ian Fleming (Fleming was among a select few to read it in May 1945, after hearing about it over lunch with SOE's deputy head, Harry Sporborg). So here it is.

After being captured in March 1944, Yeo-Thomas was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp with 36 other agents. Shortly after their arrival, sixteen of the group were hanged. Knowing that he and the remainder would be next, and thinking that a letter might possibly be smuggled out of the camp after his death, he wrote the following farewell to his commanding officer in London, Colonel Dismore (“Dizzy”):

14 September 1944

My dear Dizzy,
These are “famous last words” I am afraid, but one has to face death one day or another so I will not moan and get down to brass tacks.

I will not attempt to make a report on my journey except to say that up to the very moment of my arrest it had been a success and I had got things cracking and woken up a number of slumberers. I was quite pleased with things - I took every precaution and neglected nothing - my capture was due to one of those incidents one cannot provide for - I had so much work that I was overwhelmed so I asked PIC to provide me with a sure dependable agent de liaison, and he gave me a young chap called Guy, whom I renamed Antonin. He worked for me for a week, and then got caught; how I do not know, but in any case, he had an appointment with me at 11 a.m. on Tuesday 21st March at the Metro Passy and brought the Gestapo with him. He was obviously unable to withstand bullying and very quickly gave in to questioning. I was caught coming round a corner and had not an earthly chance, being collared and handcuffed before I could say “knife”. I was badly beaten up in the car on the way to Gestapo H.Q., arriving there with a twisted nose and a head about twice its normal size.

I was then subjected to four days continuous grilling, being beaten up and also being put into a bath of icy cold water, legs and arms chained, and held head downwards under water until almost drowned, then pulled out and asked if I had anything to say. This I underwent six times but I managed to hold out and gave nothing away. Not a single arrest was made as a sequel to my capture. The only trouble was that the party who was lodging me got arrested and will have to be compensated for losing liberty and home. The name is Mlle. Sandoe, 11 rue Claude Chahu, Paris, 16eme. Further information you can get from Mlle. Jose Dupuis, 39, rue de la Felicite, Paris, also Mme. Peyronnet, 102 Avenue des Ternes, Paris. They will be able to clear up much, in addition Paul and Raoul Simon, 32 rue Pierre Demours, Paris, can help a lot.

I was interrogated for about 2 months, but dodged everything. I was offered freedom if I would hand over [Jacques] Bingen - some hopes - I nearly lost my left arm as a result of the tortures, as I got blood poisoning through my wrist being cut to the bone by chains and remaining unattended with handcuffs biting into them for about 6 days. Apart from that I was kept in solitary confinement for 4 months at Fresnes [prison]. I was very unpopular as a Britisher, and one of the German N.C.O.'s, a Feldwebel, was particularly glad at every opportunity of punching me or slapping my face. He gave me 3 weeks of glass-house in a darkened cell, without mattress, blankets, deprived of all means of washing, and with about a ½ pound of bread per day as sole food. I was pretty weak when I came out, had lost about 2½ stone in weight. I was sent to Compiègne [a transit camp for prisoners bound for Germany] on July 17th, whilst there recuperated a bit and had arranged an escape together with a chap well known to Passy and the BCRA  [Free French secret service], whose name is Roberty, and got sent to Weimar on the eve of escaping. Roberty succeeded. Bad luck for me.

The journey here was an eventful one, it took 8 days. The first man I ran into when being entrained was [Stéphane] Hessel of the BCRA and the second was [fellow SOE agent Desmond] Hubble. We had various adventures, all were handcuffed the whole time, 19 men in one compartment and 18 in another. We could not move being packed in like sardines. The gates of the compartments were padlocked and we had very little air, no food had been provided for. We were given 1 day’s rations which had to last 5 days, luckily some had Red Cross parcels or we would have starved. The train was bombed and machine-gunned on the way and we had a very narrow shave. Our escorts ran and left us helpless, had the train caught fire we would have burned like trapped rats. We had to stop at Saarbrücken for 3 days in a punishment and reprisals camp, and were beaten up on arrival. As usual I seemed to attract particular attention and got well and truly slapped and cuffed. We were confined for three days and nights, 37 of us in a hut 9 feet by 7 feet by 7 feet. It was Hell.

We then came on to this place Buchenwald. On the way our escorts plundered and stole practically all our effects. Never believe about German honesty, they are the biggest thieves, liars, bullies and cowards I have ever met. In addition, they delight in torturing people and gloat over it. Upon arrival which took place about midnight, we were locked up in the disinfection quarters and next morning we were nearly hanged summarily, but temporarily reprieved. We were stripped, completely shorn and dressed in prison rags, losing our few remaining belongings, and 16 of us, including Hubble, were told to report to a certain place. We never saw them again and found out that they were being hung without trial on the night of 11/12 September. They have been cremated so no trace remains of them. We are now awaiting our turn. There are 170 airmen (British and American) brought down and captured in France, but they are being treated as Terror Fliers and sleeping in the open, living under appalling conditions in violation of all conventions. They ought to be treated as POW. Men die like flies here. I sent a message to you through Geneva. I hope you received it, but have no means of telling. The bearer of this letter will give you all details so I will not say more – whatever he tells you is Gospel truth. He is no romancer, and he will never be able to really do justice to the horrors perpetrated here. Dizzy, see to it that our people never let ourselves be softened to the German people, or there will be another war in 15 years’ time and all our lives will have been sacrificed in vain. I leave it to you and others to see that retribution is fierce. It will never be fierce enough.

These weren't his last words, of course. The rest of his story can be found on the Yeo-Thomas profile page.


bobkane66@aol.com said...

Nigel, you have done a fabulous job in documenting the epic heroism of these SOE officers.
Its much appreciated

Nigel Perrin said...

Thanks Bob!