During his January 2002 trip to Bulgaria, the Monkey explored the Iskar Gorge north of Sofia. He went there to see the area around Batulia and Thompson, the scene of one of the Second World War’s countless instances of heroism.
Bulgaria’s royalist dictatorship was a Nazi ally during the war, and Bulgarian troops were assigned to police Bulgaria and occupy parts of southeastern Serbia and northern Greece. Unlike the situation in neighboring Yugoslavia, where the Nazis occupied the country outright and a massive Partisan force rose to confront the unpopular occupiers, the Bulgarian resistance was left to confront its own government, army, and police. Maneuverability for the mostly Communist Bulgarian Partisans was extremely limited, owing to the fact that their neighbors and even relatives might well be hostile to their aims and inform on them. Nonetheless, the Allies recognized the strategic importance of assisting Bulgarian Partisan insurrection.
To those ends, a four-man detachment of the British Special Operations Executive parachuted into Albania in September 1943. Slipping across the Yugoslav border, they made haste through hostile and rugged terrain to a rendez-vous with a brigade of Yugoslav Partisans holding a high plateau in southern Serbia. Using their cumbersome wireless, they called in their position to Allied aircraft, who dropped supplies on January 5, 1944. Another British team, with two operatives, arrived to join the mission. The goal was to infiltrate Bulgaria, meet the Bulgarian Partisans, and open an offensive that would draw Bulgarian occupation troops out of Serbia and thus free up Yugoslav Partisans for heightened attacks on the Nazi southern flank. A corollary hope was that the small Bulgarian uprising might incite a greater insurrection in Bulgaria that would complicate matters for the Axis in the Balkans.
The mission did not go as smoothly as planned. Bad weather repeatedly disrupted supply drops, throwing off the timing of the rendez-vous with the Bulgarian Partisans. Then, on March 18, an enemy offensive in Serbia caught the British operatives and their Yugoslav Partisan allies off guard, forcing them higher into the freezing cold of the mountains. The commander of the British mission was killed, and leadership fell to a 23 year-old Major, Frank Thompson. Harried by enclosing enemy forces, lacking supplies, and facing serious communication problems, Thompson tried to carry on with the mission. In May, his team crossed into Bulgaria and met a small band of Bulgarian Partisans as arranged. From there, they were to cross the Iskar River and rendez-vous with a larger Partisan force in the Stara Planina Mountains before wiring for airdropped supplies to launch the insurrection.
What the small group did not know was that the larger Partisan unit had already been killed. Marching on empty stomachs and no sleep through hostile territory, Thompson and his group became disoriented in the mountain mist. After conscripting two locals as guides, they stopped to rest near Batulia. While the team slept, the guides sneaked away and alerted the Bulgarian authorities, who promptly attacked the sleeping group. The band split up in the firefight, and within a few days all of them had been captured or killed. Thompson and the surviving Partisans were brutally interrogated by the Bulgarian authorities and a Gestapo officer, revealing nothing more than their belief in Communism. Found guilty together in a show trial, the group was brought to a cliff and executed by firing squad. Witnesses said they yelled, “Death to fascism” as they were shot.
The Monkey sits on the platform of the station named in honor of the World War II British Major Frank Thompson (see caption and wider view above). Much of what we know about the failed mission comes from two sources: the letters Thompson wrote to his close friend, the poet Iris Murdoch, and the fact that Frank was the elder brother of the eminent British labor historian E. P. Thompson.
E. P. Thompson, who survived his military service in Italy, researched his brother’s fate for a lecture series and a 1997 book called Beyond the Frontier. The excellent book examines both the mission’s facts and the ways it was subsequently denied or mythologized by Cold War regimes in Britain and Bulgaria. The British sought to distance themselves from the fact that they had secretly supported the Bulgarian Communist Partisans, conveniently denying the crucial role Balkan Partisan movements had played in the Allied victory.
The Bulgarian Communists that had fought as Partisans respected Thompson as a hero, while Thompson’s contribution was disparaged for some time by the Moscow-exiled Bulgarian Communist leadership that arrived with the Soviet Army to take charge of Bulgaria in September 1944. Apparently, the presence of an “imperialist” (despite Major Thompson’s belief in Communism) among the Bulgarian Partisan ranks irked the early Bulgarian Communist hierarchy. Thompson’s legacy was rehabilitated by later Communist leaders, and he is widely revered in present day Bulgaria.
The Monkey visits the monument to the small band of Bulgarian Partisans and their British allies in the village of Batulia, where they were betrayed and captured. The Cyrillic text behind the Monkey reads, “Death to Fascism”—the group’s last words as they were executed.
Bulgaria’s decision to join the Axis during the Second World War was motivated largely by irredentist desires: Hitler had promised the Bulgarian king (actually of German descent himself) that Bulgaria could reclaim its former holdings in Macedonia (a promise the führer had also made to the Yugoslav royal dictatorship). Otherwise, the population at large shared little of the ideologies prevalent in Hitler’s Germany. In fact, widespread popular resistance to Nazi calls for Bulgaria’s Jews to be rounded up and sent northward to the death camps actually saved the lives of all of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews. While an admirable act that should help dispel some of the mythology of the alleged ethnic bloodlust of the Balkan peoples, the Nazis did manage to convince the Bulgarian tsar to allow the passage of trains full of occupied (Greek) Thessaloniki’s Jews through Bulgaria on their way to the death camps.
The Monkey wears a martenitsa while taking in the rural landscape of the Iskar Gorge region, some kilometers further north from Thompson and Batulia. The lifestyle here hasn’t changed much in centuries.
The Monkey maneuvers for another view of the monument to the Bulgarian Partisans in Batulia.
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