A Kind of Greek

Jeremy Harding

  • A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson by Peter Conradi
    Bloomsbury, 419 pp, £18.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 0243 4

Preliminary sketches for the great canvas of the Cold War were already under way in the Balkans in the summer of 1944 when Frank Thompson was executed. Bulgaria was a member of the Axis and Frank, older brother of the historian E.P. Thompson, was on a mission in the country for Special Operations Executive: the idea was that anti-Nazi partisans should be encouraged and supported in their efforts to stir up trouble, as their neighbours the Yugoslav partisans were doing, and keep German units too busy to deploy elsewhere. Frank was 23 when he fell into the hands of government forces. He had been parachuted into eastern Serbia six months earlier to link up with a band of Bulgarian fighters and accompany them across the border: it was a life of hiding, running and holing up in a hinterland far from the world of his fellow army officers.

His family had a rough idea of his whereabouts and their growing worries were not allayed by the telegrams that kept appearing. ‘Am safe and well, letter received, parcel received.’ (His mother replied: ‘What parcel?’) By August her letters were being returned (‘addressee is reported missing’) but the cables continued. One of the last ended ‘fondest love and kisses’, which wasn’t like their son; it was signed ‘Thompson’ – not like him in the least. SOE’s forward base in southern Italy was faking messages from missing British liaison officers to keep up morale at home. SOE personnel may not have perfected their skills in duplicity – ‘love and kisses’ – but they were giving it their best shot. Shortly, secret services on both sides of the Iron Curtain would hone the arts of lying. Thompson died in early June, but it wasn’t until 21 September that the family got official news that he was ‘missing, believed killed’. His mother had recently cleaned his room and reconditioned his piano. His time as one of the living dead was a prelude to the macabre games that followed.

Thompson entered Bulgaria on 17 May 1944. The regime in Sofia had joined the Axis three years earlier and profited from German advances in the Balkans to occupy most of what is now Macedonia, parts of Serbia and Greece. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 this ‘passive alliance’ with the Axis was bitterly opposed by the Bulgarian Communists. Stalin had secured the release of their leader, Georgi Dimitrov, one of the accused in the Reichstag fire trial, in secret negotiations with the Nazis: Dimitrov had spent nine years at the head of the Comintern and was still in Moscow, exerting a decisive influence on Bulgaria’s postwar future at the time of Frank’s capture. By the spring of 1944 his partisans were being used for postwar objectives that made no sense in the short term. Crucially they were ordered to leave the countryside and show their mettle in the towns, where they could prepare for government once the Red Army had come through.

Peter Conradi handles this material extremely well, and draws on E.P. Thompson’s lectures in Stanford in 1981 about his brother, later collated by his widow, Dorothy Thompson, as Beyond the Frontier. E.P. is more committed than Conradi to the idea that Frank was one of the early casualties of the Cold War. They agree on several points: that the Bulgarian partisans were inept and quixotic, that it was hard for a team of SOE officers to turn them into an effective force, and that their Yugoslav counterparts were altogether better organised. Another problem, for E.P., lay in the nature of the fight: the Bulgarian movement was involved ‘not in a national resistance against the occupiers but in a direct insurrectionary action against its own national government, in conditions of almost impossible difficulty’. The moment a group of partisans who’d assembled in Serbia crossed into Bulgaria, where no war of liberation was under way, they were harassed and pursued by Bulgarian army units and the national gendarmerie. The villagers whom Frank and his partisans encountered were probably unclear about their visitors’ purpose and ambivalent about their cause.

Allied logistics also let them down. Desperate requests for air drops – food and weapons – made to SOE headquarters in Cairo or the forward office in Bari, failed mostly to be met. The reason given was often weather, but the partisans felt they were a low priority, and surely they were. Drops that might have gone ahead had to be scrubbed because Frank’s group was always on the run: they’d fix a point for a drop one day and be forced to cancel the next as they came under attack. This was mostly how it went for Frank Thompson in Bulgaria: in disarray, unable to secure deliveries, hungry, cold, chased from pillar to post by a well organised, well supplied regime, unsure of the brief, clear on the need to be there and give it all he’d got. He was committed to a world-historical struggle of the good against the bad, but his mission in Bulgaria, half-baked, probably irrelevant, was not the challenge to which he’d hoped to rise. There are various stories about his detention and death. The most recent was published by Kiril Yanev, a veteran pro-partisan Bulgarian journalist, in 2001 and pieced together from decades of research. In this account Frank was held for eleven days, at the end of which he was marched to the edge of the village of Litakovo. A policeman tripped him up, and he fell to the ground along with two other partisans. The three of them, tied together at the feet, were then shot and disposed of. Early in September, a fortnight before the Thompson family received formal notice that their son was probably dead, the Red Army entered Bulgaria.

Did Frank’s membership of the party, which he’d joined at Oxford at the instigation of Iris Murdoch in 1939, have to do with his execution? In E.P.’s account, this question looms large (Edward had joined the party in 1942 before being called up). He believes the answer is yes and argues that while Frank was in Bulgaria decisions were being made in Whitehall that were no less prejudicial to the mission than Dimitrov’s instructions from Moscow. The clearer it became that the Bulgarian government and army might be detached from the Axis, the less sense it made for Britain to support partisan activity against a regime that was ready to negotiate. Insurrection may have acted as a spur but what purpose would be served by continued support for the partisans when the Bulgarian army and police might, at any moment, have to turn on the Germans? This was the gist of a Foreign Office memo which E.P. dug up in the archive and which went on to say of the partisans that they were assuredly not ‘the party with whom we hope ultimately to negotiate’.

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[*] E.P. Thompson introduced his father’s memories of Tagore in the LRB of 22 May 1986. Basil Davidson wrote about SOE in the issue dated 22 August 1996. Arnold Rattenbury reviewed Beyond the Frontier in the LRB, 8 May 1997.

[†] Jean McNicol wrote about Julian Bell in the LRB of 24 January.