When former Pink Floyd front man, Roger Waters, visited Bulgaria in August, one of his must-see sights was the grave of Major Frank Thompson, in the village of Litakovo outside of Botevgrad. If you are exiting from the Sofia Metro at the James Bourchier station, there is a large sign directing you to Major Thompson Street. In the town of Svoge, the train station is named after this mysterious Englishman and there is a also village called "Tompsan" in the Svoge Municipality.
I first learned about Frank Thompson from the world-renowned British physicist, Freeman Dyson, back in 2007 when I was a visiting fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. At that time, Professor Dyson was 84-years-old. He had been schoolmates with Frank Thompson in the late 1930s at Winchester in England. Dyson had fond memories of his old friend, Frank, who had been a consummate linguist (he spoke nine languages) and an aspiring poet. It was because of Dyson that I became fascinated with this British officer who died in Bulgaria in the summer of 1944.
Frank Thompson was born in India in 1920. He was the son of Edward James Thompson, an English Methodist missionary, and Theodosia Jessup, who had been born in Syria to an American Presbyterian missionary family. Frank’s parents returned to England when he was three years old and settled in Oxford. His father wrote many books on India and was a widely recognised expert on Indian affairs. Young Frank grew up in an intellectual household infused with politics. Robert Graves and Sir Arthur Evans were their neighbours. The Thompsons counted Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi among their house guests. Frank’s younger brother,
Edward Palmer (EP) Thompson, would go on to become the most famous social historian of the 20th Century.
During the 1930s, Frank Thompson read with great interest about the Leipzig trial of Georgi Dimitrov and was deeply influenced by the deaths of two older friends who had fought in the International Brigades on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. Even as a schoolboy at Winchester, Frank had been concerned with the rise of fascism in Europe. It was his consummate hatred of fascism that drew him toward the left.
Thompson arrived at Oxford University in 1938. He made the acquaintance of an intriguing Irish girl who hated fascism even more passionately than Frank. Her name was Iris Murdoch, and it was partly because of his love for her that Frank Thompson ultimately joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Although he was not eligible for the draft until his 20th birthday, Frank Thompson volunteered for military service on 1 September, 1939, two days before the official British declaration of war against Hitler. Both his parents and Iris Murdoch were desperately opposed to his enlistment, but Frank was determined to fight. He wrote a poem to Murdoch, explaining his decision:
Sure, lady, I know the party line is better.
I know what Marx would have said. I know you’re right.
When this is over we’ll fight for the things that matter.
Somehow, today, I simply want to fight.
That’s heresy? Okay. But I’m past caring.
There’s blood about my eyes, and mist and hate.
I know the things we’re fighting now and loathe them.
Now’s not the time you say? But I can’t wait.
Thompson started out in the Royal Artillery. He set sail for the Middle East in March of 1941 as part of a unit called Phantom, and was stationed in Cairo. After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Frank was transferred to Syria. Frank was then sent to the Western Desert in North Africa, and then back to Syria, Iraq and Persia.
Throughout his time in the Middle East, Frank was a faithful pen pal with his parents, his brother and his friend Iris Murdoch, whom he may have married had he survived the war. Frank’s letters and diaries provide an incredible window into his thoughts and fears in the time leading up to his fateful decision to enter Bulgaria in January 1944.
Frank’s unit participated in the Sicilian landings in June 1943. Although he survived unscathed, he witnessed the deaths of many of the men in his unit. After Sicily, Frank was sent to Libya. His letters and diary entries show that he was restless and frustrated with the Allies for not opening a second front. The Soviets were taking heavy losses in the East, but Churchill refused to move.
In April 1943, Frank heard about the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a new unit that sent British officers in to work together with local resistance movements in the Balkans. The strongest of these partisan movements was in Yugoslavia where Josip Broz Tito was successfully wreaking guerrilla havoc on the Germans. In Greece, there were both Communist and nationalist partisans who were trying to liberate the country from Nazi and Bulgarian occupation.
The SOE was looking for someone to work with the partisans in Bulgaria. There was little quality information about their numbers and effectiveness, although they were credited with several successful acts of sabotage. Partisan bands had removed train tracks, disrupting Nazi supply lines to Greece. If the SOE could establish contact with the partisans, equipping them with arms and other essential supplies, the British hoped that partisans' detachments would grow in size and inspire a local peasant uprising against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy. Since Frank spoke Russian and had taught himself Bulgarian, he was the ideal officer for the mission.
Thompson parachuted into Bulgarian-occupied Serbia in late January 1944. From the beginning the mission was plagued with logistical difficulties. By the spring of 1944, the Bulgarian gendarmerie had stepped up their reprisals against partisans and their families by burning houses and promising other harsh punishments for anyone who collaborated with or gave food to the bands operating in the mountains. The Bulgarian minister of the interior also placed a bounty of 50,000 leva on the head of any dead partisan. Local villagers soon formed mercenary hunting parties.
Simultaneously, bad weather and miscommunication prevented regular British supply drops. Thompson and his band of partisans were constantly on the run. In mid-May of 1944, Thompson was safely encamped with some Serbian partisans in a liberated zone along the Bulgarian-Serbian border. Then an order came from Moscow that all Bulgarian partisan brigades should make their way to Plovdiv. Although the Serb partisan general warned that it would be a suicide mission, Frank Thompson's orders were to stay with the Bulgarians. He tried to radio SOE headquarters for clarification, but received no reply. In the end, Frank Thompson accompanied the partisans of the Second Sofia Brigade on their final, fateful march.
It was a disaster. Desperately on the run and without regular supplies, the partisans were forced to eat grass and raw snails. On 31 May, after marching for almost two weeks without proper rest, Frank Thompson and the Bulgarian partisans collapsed in a clearing outside the village of Batuliya to sleep. They were soon discovered and surrounded. Many were shot. Frank Thompson and several others were taken prisoner and interned in Litakovo.
After being tortured and questioned, Thompson was held for weeks in Litakovo as the Second World War raged on. By June 1944, the Soviet Army was making steady westward progress and the beaches at Normandy had been stormed. As per the Geneva Convention, Thompson was a uniformed British officer and should have been treated as an official prisoner of war.
On 10 June, however, Frank Thompson and 11 other partisans were told that they were being transferred to another village. A young Bulgarian boy watched as the partisan prisoners were marched out of Litakovo. The boy recognised Frank Thompson because he was taller than the others, and because the boy later saw Thompson’s photograph in the newspaper.
Once the partisans were out of Litakovo, the gendarmes pushed them all down into a ditch. The young witness remembers hearing Frank Thompson shout at the gendarmes, twisting his head back with an angry countenance. The gendarmes opened fire. All twelve prisoners were shot. Thompson was the last to stop convulsing. He died face down in a ditch. His body was later tossed into an unmarked, mass grave.
On a hill outside of Litakovo today, Frank Thompson's remains have been reinterred in a grave shared with eleven other Bulgarians, two of them named and nine unknown. The inscription on the tombstone reads “Captain Frank Thompson, Englishman” (he was promoted to Major after his death). On a plateau above the grave, there is an obelisk to those who died fighting fascism. There, too, one can find the name of Frank Thompson, a name now mostly forgotten in Bulgaria. On another side of this obelisk are the words of the great Bulgarian poet, Nikola Vaptsarov:
Just tell our story simply
To those we shall not see,
Tell those who will replace us –
We fought courageously.