One of Britain’s greatest spies of the Second World War, a secret agent who went by the code name White Rabbit, has been identified as the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
He’s the dashing secret agent who surrounded himself with women, ruthlessly despatched his enemies and had a series of swashbuckling adventures.
It is not James Bond but a real Second World War hero who has now been identified as the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s fictional creation.
A new biography of Wing Commander Forest “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas, one of Britain’s greatest secret agents of the war, claims the writer based the character of 007 on the spy and recreated many of his real life experiences in his novels.
Yeo-Thomas, who was known by the code name White Rabbit, was parachuted into occupied France three times – after one mission reporting back directly to Winston Churchill – before being captured and tortured by the Gestapo.
He was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp but managed to escape and reach the Allied lines.
His link to Bond is revealed in a document discovered at the National Archives, in west London, by historian Sophie Jackson during her research into a new account of Yeo-Thomas’ exploits, Churchill’s White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real-Life James Bond.
In a dossier of recently declassified documents, she found a memo from May 1945 in which Fleming, who also worked in intelligence during the war, briefs colleagues on the agent and his successful escape from the Nazis.
The two men worked in different units – Yeo-Thomas for the Special Operations Executive and Fleming in the Naval Intelligence Division – and this is the first time a connection has been established between them.
Miss Jackson, a former editor of History Magazine, said that the link – along with remarkable similarities in the characters of Yeo-Thomas and Bond, as well as echoes between the escapades of the real life and fictional spy – supports the idea that Fleming based his character on the agent.
“It shows that Fleming was interested in the case of Yeo-Thomas and had been following it,” she added. “Fleming picked up the story and was interested in it.
“On top of that, there are other significant parallels between Yeo-Thomas and Bond, in their personal life, their relationships with women and attitudes towards women and the way Yeo-Thomas acted as a secret agent. He acts in a way we think of fictional spies acting.
“Some of the sequences that Yeo-Thomas went through are things which are then portrayed in James Bond. And these were experiences that Fleming knew about.”
Yeo-Thomas becomes the latest in a long line of suggested inspirations for the character of Bond, including other intelligence officers of the period: Conrad O’Brien-ffrench, Patrick Dalzel-Job and Bill “Biffy” Dunderdale, Fleming’s brother, Peter, and even the author himself.
In support of her theory, Miss Jackson has detected several parallels between Yeo-Thomas’ war record and sequences in Fleming’s novels.
The most striking is the experience of the agent at the hands of the Gestapo, which was recreated in a scene from the first Bond novel, Casino Royale – as well as the more recent film of the same name – in which the fictional spy is tortured using the same techniques.
On an earlier mission, on a train containing lots of Germans, Yeo-Thomas had found himself having tea with Klaus Barbie, a notorious Nazi known as the “Butcher of Lyon”.
Taking the last seat in the dining car of the Lyon to Paris express, the agent realised he was sitting next to the notorious local chief of the Gestapo.
The Nazis were on the lookout for Yeo-Thomas at the time, but the agent, who was fluent in French, engaged Barbie in conversation and pretended that he was a supporter of the German occupation.
At the end of the meal he was uncertain whether the German had twigged who he was. But he managed to get away safely when the train reached Paris.
The encounter has echoes of a scene from the novel, From Russia, With Love, in which the Bond is on the Orient Express, and has dinner with an enemy agent, who is pretending to be an ally.
On another occasion, Yeo-Thomas adopted the identity of another man to evade detection, a tactic used by Bond in Diamonds Are Forever and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Indeed, several of the techniques used by Yeo-Thomas to repeatedly escape or evade his enemies – at various times, by hiding in a hearse, jumping from a train, strangling a guard or adopting disguises – echo tactics later used by Bond.
And like the licensed to kill 007, Yeo-Thomas always carried a weapon – even though it was contrary to SOE policy. He was also prepared to use it.
On one occasion, he was unable to shake off an enemy agent pursuing him through the streets of Paris. So he lured him to a bridge and hid in the shadows. When his pursuer arrived, Yeo-Thomas pounced on him and shot him at very close range, before tossing his body in the river.
He could also kill with his bare hands. In 1920, after volunteering to serve with the Polish army against the Soviets, he escaped from a Russian prison by strangling a guard.
Miss Jackson also believes the actual character of Bond was based on traits Fleming must have observed in Yeo-Thomas. The real spy was, like the his fictional counterpart, charming and attractive to women and was also surrounded by them – the main members of his personal cell were all female.
He was dashing, having worked at a French fashion house before the war, and had a tangled love life. He never officially married his partner, Barbara, who he met during the war – although she changed her name to his – because he was unable to obtain a divorce from his estranged wife, Lillian, who was living in occupied France.
After the war, Yeo-Thomas succumbed to recurring nightmares and illness, attributed to his wartime experiences. In this, he appears closer to the “darker” and more “psychologically troubled” Bond of the Fleming novels than the more light hearted depictions of the later films. He died in 1964, at the age of 62.
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