Europe, Bulgaria, Northwest Bulgaria

The Iskar Gorge and the Bulgarian Partisans

No Comments 21 July 2010

The Iskar Gorge and the Bulgarian Partisans

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.

Thompson, Bulgaria
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.

Thompson, Bulgaria
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.

Batulia, 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.

Iskar Gorge, Bulgaria
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.

Batulia, Bulgaria
The Monkey maneuvers for another view of the monument to the Bulgarian Partisans in Batulia.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 6398 times since the 2010 website relaunch.



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7,262,675 (2008)

Land area:

110,550 sq. km.


Sofia (pop. 1,113,674; 2005)


In 2006, Bulgaria ranked 55th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 66th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $4,089.22. Public debt accounts for 10.5 percent of total GDP, while 14.1 percent of Bulgarians are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):


Monkey's name:

Maimunka (my-moon-ka)

Fun fact:

Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say “no,” while they shake their heads from side to side to signify “yes.” That is, unless they adjust their head movements to accommodate for visitors accustomed to the more conventional non-verbal cues. Either way, head symbols can be a confusing affair in Bulgaria.

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Recommended reading

A Concise History of Bulgaria
R.J. Crampton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This short book has become the go-to summation of this Balkan country’s long and complex history. A perfect introduction to the country.

Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944
E.P. Thompson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)
A fascinating exploration of a British mission to rendez-vous with Bulgarian Partisans and raise a force against the Nazi-allied royalist dictatorship during World War II. Reads like a spy novel at times, but also a memorial to the author’s brother, who was killed in the effort.

Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer
Zlatko Anguelov (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2002)
Part personal memoir, part exploration of the all-encompassing nature of Bulgaria’s Communist government, this book poses uncomfortable questions about the banal, everyday forms of repression and victimization that take root under coercive governments. Anguelov’s observations resonate far beyond Bulgaria’s borders…

The Balkans: A Short History
Mark Mazower (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2002)
As the title says, a short history of the Balkan region. A helpful intro to this corner of Europe.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999
Misha Glenny (New York: Penguin, 2001)
A rather epic undertaking by a former BBC correspondent for Central Europe, this book traces the tumultuous two centuries of the Balkan states’ struggles for independence from the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of pan-Slavic tendencies and their tribulations, and the reign of various regimes of the right and left during the 20th Century. A worthwhile read—don’t let its dimensions frighten you…

Description of a Struggle: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing
Editor: Michael March (New York: Vintage Books, 1994: Out of print)
A great anthology of short stories from the former Eastern Bloc, providing an evocative snap shot of the early post-Cold War era. Stories are organized by state, with the Bulgarian Victor Paskov’s tale of “Romanian” exiles in the Paris Metro a particular highlight.

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