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’.

The partisans might well decide that a national leadership about to forswear the Axis nonetheless fell short of their requirements: or that was London’s judgment, and indeed something of the sort happened when the Bulgarian government fell at the end of the summer and the partisans refused to join its successor. The Fatherland Front, as they called themselves, was in E.P.’s words a ‘sectarian … alliance of Left Agrarians, social democrats and radical army officers with the Communists’, but it was the Communists who organised the fighting units, and whom the writer of that FO memo had in mind. In the event, the Red Army stayed in Bulgaria until 1947 and chaperoned the Communists to power with Dimitrov at the helm.

In the spring of 1944, however, the Allies still hoped to do business with someone else. E.P. argues that with this among several ends in view, they stood down all SOE initiatives in the Balkans, with the exception of Albania and Yugoslavia. The directive was issued from Algiers in May, the month Frank crossed into Bulgaria. E.P. suspects that the decision was inspired by Churchill’s antipathy for the Communist liberation movement in Greece, which Frank had hoped to join as a liaison officer. On this reckoning Frank was not just one of many who drowned in the turning of the tide: he was actually pushed under a wave and held there. E.P. quotes a letter from Churchill to the British ambassador in Algiers in April: ‘I suppose you realise that we are weeding out remorselessly every known Communist from all our secret organisations.’ Convenient, then, to have this triage performed by a wavering member of the Axis on Britain’s behalf. E.P. concludes that the Bulgarians would never have shot a captured British officer in uniform if ‘some gesture or signal had not passed which offered them some licence.’ He believes ‘somebody winked.’

When E.P. visited Bulgaria with his mother in 1947, they were feted as the bereaved relatives of a courageous anti-Fascist. Until 1948, when Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform (a postwar Comintern), Major Thompson had been a hero in Bulgaria. The following year, at the Kostov trials, a dozen Communists were accused of colluding with British liaison officers during the war, and now with Tito, to undermine the Bulgarian state. Frank’s reputation took a dive and his name was removed from memorials and museums. Slowly but surely, in the Khrushchev era and then under Brezhnev, the partisans were rehabilitated: there was a proliferation of Fatherland Front memoirs and public monuments. Dorothy accompanied her husband to Bulgaria in 1979 and found that Frank’s name was once again in the memorial record. Returning a year after E.P.’s death, for the 50th anniversary of Frank’s, she was given to understand by one of her contacts that ‘the British liaison officers had been represented to them first … as heroic allies in the fight against Fascism, then as imperialist agents infiltrating on behalf of the western allies and then, after 1991, as Soviet agents intent on establishing Soviet hegemony.’ E.P. was spared this last, exquisite turn of the screw.

Conradi feels there are too many contradictions in the final act of Frank’s life to attribute his death to a conspiracy, and therefore to his Communism. When E.P. suggests that ‘Bulgarian’ operations were ruled out in the spring, and that SOE were already starving his brother of precious food and weapons, Conradi invokes the generous air drops to Frank and his men in Serbia on 10 and 11 May – perhaps thirty sorties on those two nights, a week before they left for Bulgaria. On Churchill, he thinks E.P.’s reading of ‘weeding out’ as ‘liquidating’ is over-imaginative. He maintains that the short-term imperative of separating Bulgaria from the Axis, which meant choking off the partisans, was less important to Churchill than the postwar trade-off he already envisaged, in which Bulgaria would go to the Russians and Greece to the West. Moreover there was no one to give the orders in Sofia at the time of Frank’s death: the pro-German government had been forced to step down the day after his capture and no cabinet was sworn in until the day of the execution, which we now know was on 10 June (five days after the date he was said to have died when E.P. delivered his Stanford lectures). ‘With whom was this supposed British deal entailing Frank’s murder to be brokered?’

Conradi admits it’s hard to call: most of SOE’s files – 87 per cent is his figure – were destroyed in short order after the war. Activity in Bulgaria may well have been wound down without an immediate cessation of supplies to partisans already mustered in Serbia: the missing word here would be ‘henceforth’. Nonetheless Basil Davidson, a liaison officer with Tito’s partisans, felt that E.P. had it right about the drops to Frank and his crew: London wanted the Bulgarian operation to wither. That might have been a tactical decision based on intelligence from the liaison officers themselves: the Fatherland Front was nowhere near as capable as Tito’s partisans, and Frank – polite though he was – hadn’t been the first to point out their shortcomings.

‘The culpability of SOE,’ Conradi feels, ‘was not in abandoning Frank but in sending him on an ill-thought-out mission in the first place.’ This sounds right. Deliberate abandonment would have been out of the question. SOE Cairo was a left-leaning crew, readier to back Communists than ‘agrarian radicals’ or royalists. It was Cairo’s arguments, and especially those of the Cairo staffer James Klugmann (CP, Cambridge, 1933), that prevailed with Churchill when the time came to choose which of the Yugoslav resistance movements, royalist or Communist, to back.

Finally, though full of admiration for E.P., Conradi can’t agree that anybody ‘winked’. Frank Thompson’s death was not an authorised incident, like a nominated drone strike in Pakistan, so much as a life wasted in the transition from one kind of war to another.

*

Frank and Edward were born to unusual parents. Theodosia was the daughter of American missionaries in Syria, Edward Sr a Methodist missionary – later lapsed – who worked in Bengal, and went on to become a scholar-poet and anti-imperialist, though he nursed a purist’s vision of Britain’s objectives in India. The couple married in Beirut and later settled near Oxford. Their two boys (Frank 1920, Edward 1924) were born into a comfortable household where the dying embers of Christianity were revived as art and duty, or poetry and truth as their father might have put it. Both children felt called to poetry and Edward Jr was a lifelong admirer of Blake, campaigning in his last years for a democratic, nuclear weapon-free Albion – and then Europe – as he struggled to finish Witness against the Beast.

Installed in England, their father became a fellow of Oriel College, researching Indian history, teaching Sanskrit and Bengali and writing a string of books about the subcontinent. The first was a ‘life and work’ of Rabindranath Tagore, one of several eminent family friends, who also included Nehru.[*] There is a wonderful photo of Gandhi in the Thompsons’ garden at Boars Hill in 1931: a photographer in a Calcutta studio might have unfurled a backdrop labelled ‘Britain: Home Counties’ and positioned the great man in front of it. It was on this visit that Gandhi told his host he would never say ‘farewell to India’ – the title of E.J.’s most recent book – and went on to explain: ‘You are India’s prisoner.’ By now Frank and Edward would have been attending the Dragon School in Oxford. Theodosia, who had married away from good, prospering American stock, was a mother and minder living comfortably yet modestly, a diligent letter-writer and in due course a stalwart on the home front, organising, collecting money (for the beleaguered Russians, among other causes), distributing this and that, and mulling over the role of women in a postwar world. ‘Does Stalin do his own washing up?’ she wondered in 1944 in a letter to Frank, who would have enjoyed the affectionate teasing but wasn’t alive to read it.

E.P. wrote poignantly about Frank and their time at the Dragon School: of his brother’s vulnerability – he was large and clumsy – and his own wish to fight on Frank’s behalf, blinded with tears, small fists flying left and right. Both boys survived; Frank went on to Winchester as a scholar, but Edward was thought to be dim and was dispatched to Kingswood (founder John Wesley), where his father had been. It was an odd time in the public schools, major and minor. At Kingswood there was a small, flourishing Communist cell, including E.P., Arnold Rattenbury, who went on to edit the Communist cultural journal Our Time, and Geoffrey Matthews, later a Shelley scholar. When they tried to join the Young Communist League their letters were intercepted and the police summoned to interview them in the head’s study. The Thompsons’ neighbours in Boars Hill, the Carritts, had seven children and when one of the daughters died, the five brothers and their mother Winifred joined the CP. Later at Eton one of the boys raised money for a group of hunger strikers in Windsor and asked Palme Dutt, the party theoretician, down to speak. (Two of the older Carritt boys went to Spain, one of them wounded and the other killed, like Julian Bell, at Brunete.[†])

At Winchester Frank was already interested in Marxism. He wasn’t alone. First there was his friend John Hasted, whom he seems to have inducted into ‘libertarian Bolshevism’ and who, like him, went on to New College. (Hasted remained in the CP after 1956; he was a physicist and a vigorous force on the folk music scene.) In 1935, the year of the general election, Robert Conquest stood as the Communist candidate in the mock election at Winchester and Frank deputised for him during the campaign. Some of the teachers were happy to see the boys thinking along these lines – or thinking at all about the drastic turn that matters were taking. Donald McLachlan, who’d covered the burning of the Reichstag and then the trial for the Times, was now teaching at the school. By the time he arrived, Frank and his friend M.R.D. Foot – later New College and SOE – had already read McLachlan’s reports of the Reichstag trial, with Dimitrov at centre stage. (Conradi observes drily that the eloquent figure in the dock in Leipzig would subsequently play an important role in Frank’s undoing.) When the Civil War began in 1936, McLachlan hung a map of Spain in the classroom. In divinity classes he taught the boys Plato and Voltaire.

Frank Thompson

The ethos of the public schools, Winchester especially, was conducive to these early Communist stirrings. School life may have been led in a fug of petty hierarchies and coteries, ostracism and ingratiation, but it was essentially collective and at the same time inescapable. The boys were soundly bombarded with notions of duty, not least in the curriculum. The classics instilled the virtues of sacrifice and honour, and taught the vices of treachery and cowardice. To Frank’s mind there was a lofty cynicism about most Wykehamists, who took all this in but never took it on. Yet to those who were vulgar enough to believe in values and imagine enacting them, College must have been a stirring combination of the Communist youth camp and the plain of Scamander. While E.P. relished the challenge of the playing fields at Kingswood, Frank and his comrades imbibed the lessons of pagan epic and Christian piety to synthesise their Communism. The two brothers reached similar conclusions about the efforts that the privileged few would be called on to make in the name of the proletariat. What could be more chivalrous or public spirited? Yet Frank was keener than E.P. on sacrifice, which he linked with the immersion of the self in some larger instance: for a budding scholar, the quest for the Sangreal might have been a model (the Winchester manuscript of Morte d’Arthur was discovered in the College library in his second year), but in the end the man of action was drawn to the internationalist struggle. Their father was always ready to structure the brothers’ aspirations and wrote to Frank at College of ‘the spontaneous rushing-out of our wills into selfless action’: ‘We have got to lose our self, our soul. Why not?’

There’s something of that rushing out in Frank’s hectic, truncated career, and Conradi, who thinks Theo and Edward Sr were far too severe, comes dangerously close to blaming them for his death. Theo nursed a terrible suspicion that she had driven him too hard with her ‘mythical standards of perfection’, and worried that he never understood how much she loved him, but that is another question. Edward Sr, Conradi tells us in his concluding chapter, had ‘infected Frank with his own alarmingly high-minded chivalry’. He quotes a letter of 1940 in which E.J. explained to Frank that a proper man must be ready to ‘face the breaking of his body and mind’. It’s strong stuff but the shortcomings of old-fashioned, missionary parenting become less obvious as you consider the two young men steered into the world by a fastidious Theo and an idealistic Edward Sr: loyal sons, capable scholars, conscientious citizens, brave soldiers. What more could a mother and father, a society – or a country at war – have asked for? The idea that Frank ‘acted out’ his parents’ principles by dying in the Balkans hangs over this area of the book like a bird in an origami mobile, stirred occasionally by a gust of therapeutic wisdom.

Frank went to Oxford in 1938. He met Iris Murdoch and they formed a close platonic-erotic bond – erotic on his part – which survived the early years of the war by means of a fitful, touching correspondence. In Conradi’s view she had an ‘icy determination’ to ‘hang on to her virginity until after she had gained a First’. No doubt the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was another incentive to chastity, at least in her dealings with Frank. Conradi seems to say as much in code: he describes Murdoch toeing the British party line in 1939 and Frank – who didn’t like it – urging her to take up arms in a poem written that autumn. But Iris, Conradi writes, ‘would refuse his invitation to stand on the barricades beside him (metaphorically speaking) until Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941 and the CP … declared the war effort legitimate.’ At that stage Frank was in Egypt, biding his time in intelligence with Phantom, or GHQ Liaison, and growing restless. His Phantom colleagues had bored him in the mess at Richmond and mostly they bored him in Cairo. He was ever more desperate to work alongside the partisans in Greece. Before he reached Bulgaria, he would be posted to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine; he would fight in North Africa and Sicily; but he was never sent to Greece. The Greeks, he wrote to Iris Murdoch, his ‘Irushka’, were ‘staunch anti-Fascists … very much the same as the Greeks who fought at Scamander and Marathon, drove their chariots by the weeping firs on the Hill of Kronos or packed the slopes of the Acropolis to hear the Agamemnon’.

*

Frank had hoped to excel as an English poet, as well as a kind of Greek. His father published verse; Edward, too, had originally thought of poetry as his calling. Frank never had the opportunity to give it his undivided attention. Then again, his attention was always under siege from his duties and ambitions: as a son, an unrequited lover and an idealist who meant to change things for the better. But how would he have fared after the war he failed to survive? A Communist intellectual in the 1930s could throw himself into editing and publishing, as Edgell Rickword did at Left Review and Lawrence & Wishart, yet still consider poetry the core of his commitment. By 1945 this was becoming harder. The poet Randall Swingler, also a Communist, soon came to grief after returning from the war: the BBC shunted him into obscurity because of his politics, while the party took great exception to the tone of Our Time, the cultural journal he’d founded and edited. Frank was younger than Swingler but a proper poetic vocation would have been hard with the party on his case, his father expecting him to return to New College, and Iris Murdoch – the moving target of his affections – ever more elusive.

Frank had little, if anything, to do with the poets who were in Cairo during the war and who went on to win a reputation, Durrell, G.S. Fraser and Keith Douglas among them. Back at home the New Apocalypse was on its last legs: the third and final anthology appeared in 1945 (without a manifesto column). Cyril Connolly was in charge of Horizon and Stephen Spender was terribly at large: Encounter was in the offing, with Spender at the helm. The Movement poets were preparing the ground for a new English mannerism, insular, bittersweet, and piously anti-intellectual. None of these would have suited Frank. Our Time, probably his best hope, folded in 1949. By the time Larkin became England’s Cold War laureate – he was well on the way in 1955 with The Less Deceived – Frank would have been a marginal poet in his mid-thirties, trying to put his juvenilia behind him.

Perhaps he would have managed, but knowing where you’re headed before the poem has a chance to assert any rights of its own is a difficult habit to kick and Frank’s case is extreme. The poems begin, proceed and in due course end. They have a bleary analogical eye for the things around them. Swingler can shoot a glance at the sky and see ‘the hollow palm of heaven’ where ‘the rooks revolve’; the beady-eyed Douglas can look on as a ‘weightless mosquito touches/her tiny shadow on the stone’ and consider what it is to kill a man. (Both poets, like Thompson, served in the Western Desert and Italy.) Frank’s verse is full of tropes; there is metaphor and argument even in the shortest poems. The trouble is that the two are seldom run together to produce the fluent intellection of a poetry like Auden’s, which Frank seemed to admire, though not enough for his own good. Swingler and Herbert Read might also have been models from the 1930s. But Frank in the end was a Georgian with a volume of Mayakovsky in his knapsack.

Conradi finds that in his lyric verses he can turn into ‘an oracle for his generation’ – a generation under arms, keen to pile back home and bask

In that cool haven of my yearning
To rest with eyes half-closed and savour,
Along with millions Europe over,
The still strong joy of our returning!

But the oracle was false, especially when it spoke of a future at home in England. Frank and Edward were not typical of the British officer class. Men who had shown just as much courage in Europe and Africa, including a rabble of Tory dandies, settled back into civilian life in 1945 with very different assumptions: Frank’s superior officer at Phantom had confided to him in the swanky mess at Richmond that his overarching war-aim was ‘to re-establish the lunch tent at Ascot’. The toffs were as good as the Thompsons at playing down the cruelty of war. The rank and file, too, had their own demotic sprezzatura. But all returned to a class struggle at home – gathering pace after the Labour landslide of 1945 – while younger servicemen braced for dark imperial duties in Kenya and Malaya. Had he survived Bulgaria, Frank would surely have distinguished himself, perhaps with a fellowship in Slavonic languages or classics and on from there, who knows, to public life and letters. He would have seen eye to eye with his brother on the issues of the day and, like his brother, broken with the party in 1956. His postwar poetry would have gathered dust in a box in the Thompson family loft. ‘I come from a family of compulsive hoarders of paper,’ E.P. said in 1981. In time his verse manuscripts would have been dispatched to a campus archive in America, as an annex to his drafts for learned books, lectures, speeches, and his correspondence.

In his last letter to Murdoch, who had sat out the Hitler-Stalin pact, secured her First and duly taken up with his old friend M.R.D. Foot, Frank wrote: ‘I envy you and Michael in one way … I can honestly say I’ve never been in love. When I pined for you I was too young to know what I was doing – no offence meant.’ Who knows how much of that was true? The letter was dated 21 April; the onset of age had come in rapid bursts, the most recent in Serbia when Frank’s little team and their partisans, waiting for instructions to enter Bulgaria, had been caught in a series of ambushes, and lost Mostyn Davis, the leader of the mission, in a sprint across an open meadow under fire. The day before his capture, six weeks later, Frank was infested with lice, and eating leaves with salt and tiny green cherries. He and his radio operator found a snail and divided it between them. In detention he was fed, medicated and beaten by turns. His boots were stolen and his tormentors stood on his bare feet. The heads of his partisan comrades were put on pikes in the village square. Litakovo, says Conradi, was ‘a Golgotha for partisans’.

In 1945 the News Chronicle ran a story about Frank’s last days in which he behaved impeccably at a show trial, denounced the evils of Fascism and had the whole village behind him as he gave the clenched fist salute. The main source was a party hack and the whole thing was confected for the Chronicle, Conradi writes, to ensure ‘a legitimising heroic ancestry for the new regime’. There was no trial and no crowd of dissenting villagers. Frank and his people were simply rounded up, tortured for days and killed. Lying on the ground in his last moments, he turned and shouted something at his captors. He was dressed in a zip-up waterproof, sent by his mother in the last package that reached him along with a few issues of Life magazine. A policeman cut off one of his fingers and removed a ring. When their father broke the news to E.P., he wrote back to say that neither he nor Frank could have had a happier childhood. Theo confided in E.P.: ‘I hope you know … how very much loved you are.’ She added: ‘Do you think Frank knew? Or was I too “fierce”?’ It would be hard, Iris Murdoch wrote, to do justice to Frank’s ‘splendid positive uncompromising faith in the world’s people’. She had come to see him as the best of an impressive generation – ‘pure gold’.

[*] 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.