Authors: Sophie Jackson
TWO PREVIOUS WORKS ON Forest Yeo-Thomas have significantly helped in this revision of his history.
The White Rabbit
by Bruce Marshal first appeared in 1952 and is the closest that can be come to an autobiography from Forest. It suffered from Marshal’s rather awkward prose and heavy-handed similes and was not entirely well received.
The second work,
Bravest of the Brave
by Mark Seaman, appeared in 1997 and delved into Forest’s personal papers to give a better understanding of the man and above all followed him post-war, which Marshal failed to do.
Both works, however, were inevitably one-sided due to restrictions on official SOE papers, which meant that they had to rely on Forest’s own words (recorded in unpublished memoirs) or the words of those who were closest to him.
Over the last decade the National Archives have gradually released SOE documents, in particular those relating to Forest’s missions and his personnel file, along with other papers, which enable a greater insight into this amazing man. New research has revealed more about his closest companions, such as Henri Peulevé, as well as opening doors into the Nazi regime. In particular the work of researchers to catalogue and publish the personnel files of the SS has enabled characters that Forest mentioned briefly to be fleshed out.
Among this new research was the discovery of a letter by Ian Fleming, never before published, that indicated his involvement with Forest.
This book could not have happened without the work of many others who have performed their own researches into the Second World War and published insightful accounts. It aims to take the efforts of Marshal and Seaman and build upon them to create a truly 3D image of a remarkable man. There is probably still much more to know about Forest, along with the many men and women who served with him, and only time will tell what new revelations will emerge from the archives.
– 1 –
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
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.