Pink Floyd's Roger Waters revives interest in British major shot in Bulgaria
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.