Convenient Death of a Hero

Arnold Rattenbury

  • Beyond the Frontier: the Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944 by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin/Stanford, 120 pp, £12.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 85036 457 4

E.P. Thompson, historian and peacemaker, known as Edward to his friends, died at his home near Worcester in 1993. Four years on, Beyond the Frontier is a volume of material set aside far earlier. Indeed, there occurs in it a passing reference to ‘the raw material for half-finished books on William Blake and Customs in Common’, works long since published. From the mid-Eighties mountainous illness surrounded Edward, from which he nonetheless retrieved the last big works: Customs in Common (1991), which traced a disappearing culture back over ground where he had earlier seen ‘the making of the English Working Class’; the hugely original Witness against the Beast (1993) about Blake; the far less noticed Alien Homage (1993), about his father’s see-saw relationship with Rabindranath Tagore (his father, also Edward Thompson: Indianist, novelist, Georgian poet, polemicist, editor, hereinafter Old Edward – which is how I knew him). All these books are of a piece, inveighing against an academicism which mythologises history, against his hated ‘anti-history’ and attempting a greater order of clarity. In Alien Homage he abominates ‘abbreviated categories which too often close enquiry before it has commenced. Some in the West are prisoners of vast undiscriminating categories ... and bring those ready-made slide-rules to measure, and often to obliterate, the complexities of the past.’ That could stand as motto for all three works. Beyond the Frontier is hacked from the same hard material, and came first.

The book is basically three lectures given at Stanford University in 1981 about the war-time murder, in Bulgaria, of his admired and beloved brother, and about so-say histories and myths arising from that event. The lectures have been reconstructed, from extensive notes and drafts, by the historian Dorothy Thompson, Edward’s widow, who also supplies a brief Introduction and a briefer Epilogue. All this is done with astonishing reticence. Although Dorothy Thompson shared in the determining research both in Bulgaria and in War Office archives during the Seventies, the voice is indisputably Edward’s, even down to the habit – his since schooldays – of sliding a verbal whoopee-cushion under any undue solemnity and, for that matter, of inventing solemnity in order to do so: ‘Bowed with years I stand before you and offer you my methodological advice, the fruit of many years of research. It is this. If you find yourself in the back of an official Volga car, talking through an interpreter to a high military officer of a Warsaw Pact country, then watch it.’

On 31 May 1944, Major Frank Thompson, wearing the British uniform that should have protected him, was captured along with the Bulgarian Partisans to whom he was attached, near Likatova, north of Sofia, found guilty at a staged trial, and publicly shot on 5 June. His bearing throughout was by all accounts courageous, even blithe. News of the event was slow to reach Britain, but by 1947 Frank’s mother Theodosia and Edward, now demobilised – he had been fighting in the Italian campaign at the time of Frank’s death – were able to publish a memoir, There Is a Spirit in Europe. This included such material as was then available, gathered both in Britain and in Bulgaria: an apparently eye-witness account of the trial and shooting, many of Frank’s poems, journal entries and letters to his parents, to Edward and to Iris Murdoch. Such memorials had become almost a convention of the times, at least on the intellectual left – Frank was both intellectual and Communist – following similar books in memory of John Cornford, Julian Bell and David Haden-Guest, all killed in the Spanish Civil War. (The present title, Beyond the Frontier, nods towards Stansky and Abrahams’s 1966 Journey to the Frontier, a reworking of the lives of Cornford and Bell.) Immediately after the war Frank became for many of us an emblem of anti-Fascist heroism – a glorious simplicity where much was soon to become murky. And indeed, his story has remained emblem-simple in the mind. Beyond the Frontier is largely about the many ways in which it never was straightforward.

In 1944, when Frank crossed from Yugoslavia into Bulgaria (probably towards the middle of May), the Allies had been victorious at Stalingrad and in North Africa, had advanced through Sicily and up into mainland Italy – Edward among them; and were now pressing towards the Balkans from the east. Meanwhile, the ‘Second Front’ in Europe was clearly imminent, and in fact was launched from Britain on the day of Frank’s murder. Until these Fascist setbacks, Bulgaria had been an Axis partner, at war with the West though not with Russia. Alongside Germany she was one of the occupying powers against which Tito’s Partisans, with British support, were fighting in Yugoslavia. Now, however, self-interest was bringing the country under the increasing influence of an advancing Russia, even while the Comintern, based in Moscow and led by the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, was encouraging Bulgarian Partisans against the Bulgarian Government. In Britain, too, the Foreign Office was trying to swing Bulgaria to the Allies, so there was already a tussle for spheres of influence between Russia and Britain within the alliance. The position was therefore precisely not as in Yugoslavia, where Tito was an ally. Very much smaller, weaker Bulgarian Partisan forces were attacking a regime which both Britain and Russia were wooing. So why were British units, of which there were two, liaising with them?

In Yugoslavia, Frank himself had been asking for orders by wireless, not getting them, asking again, and again without response. ‘Matters were further complicated,’ Edward writes, ‘by a characteristic military balls-up.’ Early in April a new wireless operator, Sergeant Kenneth Scott, was parachuted in to join Frank, while Scott’s code-book was dropped to a wholly different unit ‘somewhere in Thrace’ – and this at a time when the unit’s headquarters were being transferred from Cairo to Bari in Italy. Those repeated requests for orders, like every other message from Frank, necessarily used the previous code now only decipherable at Bari, while the orders themselves had still to come from Cairo. Hopelessly understaffed, the Bari base – under the command, as it happens, of another Communist, Major James Klugman – had to decode and re-encode all traffic between Frank and Cairo in both directions. The matter of the code-books was at last sorted out, just before Frank and Sergeant Scott crossed the frontier into Bulgaria, when they were immediately involved in running battles, break-outs from encirclement and wild marching across mountains. Scott’s wireless equipment, already extremely dicey, always cumbersome, fell into a river. Cairo in fact received no message from Frank after 11 May, and only from Scott’s equipment a month later when, rescued and repaired by Germans, it was in enemy hands. By then Frank was dead. Beyond the Frontier carefully examines far more confusion than this. But perhaps the most general non-simplicity of all is the way Frank’s talents got him to the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, and by what military means.

Volunteering as an Oxford undergraduate of 19 at the outbreak of war, Frank had transferred from the Royal Artillery to the small communications and intelligence unit known as Phantom and was posted to the Middle East early in 1941. A classical scholar and brilliant linguist, he was to serve between then and his death in the Western Desert, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Sicily, Serbia and Bulgaria, plucking languages out of the air as he went – and loving them:

All the Slav languages are good, but beside Russian, Polish and Czech seem nervous and restless, Bulgarian poor and untutored, and Serbo-Croat, which is probably the next most satisfactory, a fine language for guerrillas and men who drink slivovitz in the mountains, not yet fitted for the complex philosophies of our times. But Russian is a sad, powerful language and flows gently off the tongue like molten gold.

And two months later, revising an opinion: ‘Bulgarian, I find to my delight, as far as reading it goes, is another of those languages like Italian that is handed one on a plate. It is simply Russian as a Turk would talk it – a surly Turk who wasn’t sure his false teeth were going to stay in place.’ Not only languages, then, but their literatures, about which his letters are equally discursive and loving. Apart from anything else, this attests an astounding availability of open doors, and library doors at that: a world of intellectual contacts to enter quite easily, even in intervals of action. Wykehamism, perhaps? Edward, who had another education, discusses this; and it is certainly true that, in Cairo particularly, Frank happens upon Wykehamist contemporaries, including the illustrious Evans-Pritchard. But I think it went wider than that – into the sorts of international élite his father inhabited.

Old Edward seemed (to me) to ‘know everyone’, not just the Tagores and Nehrus of Alien Homage. There were, for a start, all those Boars Hill neighbours and the academic connections of his professorship (in Bengali) at Oxford. The family home, when I first knew it, had moved to Bledlow and, especially in wartime, was little visited. Even so, Members of Parliament from any party and civil servants from umpteen ministries wandered quite comfortably into any conversation about his Indian campaigning. And when it came to literature, why, he had dealt with Belloc, Blunden, Bridges, Edith Sitwell, Graves, Sassoon, Meynell, W.J. Turner, Phillpotts, Day Lewis, Auden – to a tyro like myself, it did at times seem everyone – for the series of Benn’s ‘Sixpenny Poets’ which he edited. (In 1944, though I did not know it then, he was editing the poems of Nancy Cunard, with whom I was working at the time.) There were wider political and publishing contacts yet. In one episode of Beyond the Frontier, Theodosia and Old Edward are so appalled at what they consider the waste of Frank’s becoming a soldier that they arrange to have his voluntary enlistment rescinded, only to face an irate son who cancels the rescinding. Not all parents could have managed that; nor all sons.

Frank’s hitherto constant letters to family and friends ceased abruptly on 21 April 1944, for reasons that are now obvious: no writing was possible from the kind of running mountain battle in which he was engaged. Even then, however, they had a reasonably accurate idea of where he must be, derived in part from classical allusion in earlier letters to Iris Murdoch. At home Old Edward was terminally ill, Edward fils serving in Italy, and so in her anxiety Theodosia quite naturally reeled me in as a serviceman recently ‘invalided out’, a friend of Edward, an acquaintance of Frank, myself connected (she said) as an editor – of the journal Our Time – and most fortunately a Communist too. ‘I’ll look after Bobby Vansittart and the Foreign Office,’ she decided. ‘You look after Harry Pollitt and the Comintern.’ (If only I had known that Nancy was en route for ‘Sixpenny’ poethood, for she had all the push and connection I had not!) This was the way things got done in the world from which Frank came. Every door, it was assumed, flew open. Or should.

Such a creature was an obvious recruit for the Special Operations Executive set up by Churchill in 1940 to ‘set Europe ablaze’ from within. But once Frank was transferred into it, non-simplicities regrouped themselves. As an army officer he came under the War Office, as an intelligence officer principally under Foreign Office direction, in SOE under Churchill’s Ministry of Economic Warfare. Foreign Office, if not War Office, was now concerned with swinging Bulgaria to the Allies. Churchill was pushing things further. On 6 April 1944, to the British Ambassador in Algiers: ‘I suppose you realise we are weeding out remorselessly every single known Communist from all our secret organisations’; 13 April, in a minute: ‘We are purging all our secret establishments of Communists because we know they owe no allegiance to us or our cause and will always betray secrets to the Soviet, even while we are working together.’ Edward gives more of this – Churchill’s goading notes to Anthony Eden in particular. The trouble is that now – for the period April, May, June 1944 – when one wants most detail, it disappears. Frank’s letters have ceased, Kenneth Scott’s equipment has fallen in the river, Bulgarian archives are closed to research, and War Office archives so heavily weeded as to be a nonsense. In the light – the dark, perhaps – of more recent events, one is haunted by visions of some large Soames-like figure, tripping about the War Office picking out papers to scatter willy-nilly, with not a care as to how ridiculous he is going to look later, in Parliamentary tutu, answering questions, for of course, as with sick ex-servicemen, there are questions to answer. How is it, for instance, that Sgt Scott was not tried and shot with Frank?

Edward does not doubt that his brother was expendable and British records, such as they are, show ‘very heavy and specific weeding’ – that is, expending – of Communists at the time of Frank’s death. ‘The right hand of the Western alliance,’ Edward writes, ‘was active in these months’ and Bulgaria was an object of keen attention: ‘what the Bulgarian authorities wanted, in return for a promise to switch allegiance at an opportune moment, was an end to Western stimulation of Partisan and subversive activities. What promises were made we cannot say ... The decision to shoot [Frank] was not taken by a local police captain. Martial law was indeed in force, but the order for this action came from a higher authority.’ At this critical period in the war, Edward argues, ‘it seems inconceivable that the authorities would have ordered the execution of a British officer in uniform if some gesture or signal had not passed which offered them some licence. Somebody winked.’ Recently Peregrine Wors thorne, himself a member of Phantom at the time, has been blunter: ‘In executing Major Thompson, the Bulgarian authorities were doing the British Government’s dirty work.’

On the Bulgarian side, Beyond the Frontier discovers four shifts in attitude about Frank Thompson. First, he is officially declared a People’s Hero, a railway station is named after him, there is a graveside ceremony which Theodosia and Edward attend, Dimitrov dines them. Harry Pollitt has proudly proclaimed Frank a Communist, rendering impossible what might have been his denunciation as an imperialist spy-the quite unwarrantable fate of Major Mostyn Davies, leader of the other SOE unit in Bulgaria. Second, after the Soviet breach with Titoism, a total silence during which he may even have been formally demoted from Heroic status. Third, in the Khrushchev era, the Hero is rediscovered, a day nursery in Sofia is named after him, and a film and a book about him produced. Fourth, during Edward’s final visit in 1979, the notion, yes a Hero, but a Hero duped, the proposal that the movements of Frank’s unit in Bulgaria were being betrayed by his own imperialist colleagues in Cairo – easily disproved by the signals breakdown. His own imperialist colleagues in Cairo didn’t know where the hell he was. To these four stages must now be added a fifth. In 1994, revisiting Bulgaria, Dorothy Thompson was told that Frank had been treated, since 1991, as ‘a Soviet agent intent on establishing Soviet hegemony’.

For the British there is no such orderly sequence, but four versions in uneasy coexistence. Officially he has always been shrouded in silence: despite his undisputed bravery, no question of posthumous decoration, for instance. To a few SOE bellet-rists he has become a would-be Lord Byron of Bulgaria: the poems, a high prose vein, even flamboyance (which he never had), oh, you know. To a diminishing huddle of elderly lefties – ‘pinkly-wrinklies’, I’m told – he remains an emblem of anti-Fascism. And there is of course Churchill’s ultimately murderous view: the longest-lasting and most generally-held, the Cold War view, enshrined in 1979 by Lionel Trilling in The Lost Decade. It is precisely one of those abbreviating or ‘vastly undiscriminating categories’ of Edward’s Alien Homage which so often ‘obliterate the complexities of the past’. It claims to know, but does not much examine, what Communism was likely to mean to a Communist of 1944.

Except as linguist, Frank Thompson was clearly no Russophile, nor ever, save perhaps in one sonnet, much wedded to Marxist dogma. He was of course, as his brother puts it, ‘committed to a communist cause ... I say “a” and not “the” communist cause, since Frank Thompson can scarcely be described as an orthodox communist’. Anti-Fascism; a sense of classes at war in a historical direction; a wish to replace impoverishment, cultural as much as economic, with richness; also a Thirties sense that no other grouping was doing much about these things: his Communism was that sort of amalgam, responding to something even larger and more vague. He wrote, for instance:

There is a spirit in Europe which is finer and braver than anything that tired continent has known for centuries, and which cannot be withstood. You can, if you like, think of it in terms of politics, but it is broader and more generous than any dogma. It is the confident will of whole peoples who have known the utmost humiliation and suffering and have triumphed over it, to build their own life once and for all.

When Churchill ‘whistle-stopped’ his way through the 1945 election, the year after Frank’s ‘remorseless weeding out’, he came to Fulham Cross, where a large crowd had gathered to cheer him. The welcome was vociferous and happy for this cheeky cartoon of Rhetoric for Victory. Then Churchill took the megaphone to make his party political speech, and by ones and twos at first, in the end by very large numbers, people turned where they stood, presenting him their backs. He had been in a different war from the one he thought he’d been in – and which the rest of us had fought – or from the Cold one started in Bulgaria.

Everyone’s experience differs of course – Edward’s and Frank’s and mine, for instances. Edward’s conclusion is that Frank’s Communism ‘would scarcely have lasted another three years ... certainly not as long as my own’. I cannot be, nor do I have the right to be, so sure. The Communist Party as I knew it most certainly contained dogmatic bigots, doctrinaires and Muscovitical sycophants – not least that same Major James Klugman of the SOE at Bari, who later wrote to order the truly creepy From Trotsky to Tito. But around Our Time and Theatre Today, the journals on which I worked, were the happily idiosyncratic Communists Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edgell Rickword, Patrick Hamilton, Montagu Slater, Randall Swingler and, around them, particularly in nearby pubs, such friends as Nancy Cunard, Lennox Berkeley, Roy Fuller, John Minton, Dylan Thomas, Julian Trevelyan and so on. Our Time and Theatre ‘Today, like Horizon, Poetry London and nearly every other wartime and immediately postwar journal of the arts, had collapsed by the Fifties; but even later, when I had moved to Bristol and Edward to Halifax, there were still plenty of independent-minded Communists. Among my acqaintances, the marvellous Frank seems not so very unorthodox.

Just as Edward’s intention for Customs in Common was larger than any illness permitted him, and the Blake book was (I think) intended to begin a more sweeping study of the Romantics, so these three lectures at Stanford were meant to lead to a general study of war memoirs and of years about which, he wrote, our generation had been ‘reticent’. While I agree about the reticence – the Cold War’s silences and suppressions, the Spenderish mist-memories have been terrible – it is a great blessing in my view that the wish to expand the lectures, too, was thwarted. The beauty of Beyond the Frontier is precisely its limitedness. It takes a bearing, cross-bearings, looks bird’s-eye, worm’s-eye, eye to eye, goes to and fro (but only between two countries), wonders, imagines, supposes, rejects – all with a leisureliness I do not know that Edward ever allowed himself elsewhere. The result is not only a perfect chapter of history, but an essay in how to do history.