Thompson, William Frank

William Frank Thompson was born on 17th August 1920 in Darjeeling, the son of Edward John Thompson, poet, novelist and Indian historian and Theodosia Jessop, the daughter of Dr William Jessop.  His parents met in Palestine, where his father had been posted as a Methodist chaplain during the war, and his mother was working as a nurse in Jerusalem. Edward was working on the completion of “Rabindranath Tagore – His Life and Work” (1921), a survey of the prolific output of this distinguished Indian author, a friend of the couple.

The family returned to England the following year, living on Boars Hill, near Oxford.   Edward became a lecturer in Bengali at Oxford University, and in 1936 a Fellow of Oriel College.

Frank was first educated at the Dragon School, although from 1929 to 1930 he attended a New York school while his father was working as Professor of Greek and Latin at Vassar College in New York State.  He came to Winchester in 1933 and had a most distinguished school career, winning the English Verse and Latin Verse Medals, and the Hawkins English Literature Prize. He also began to learn Russian, an introduction to the study of Slav languages which eventually led him to special service in the war. Whilst at Winchester, Frank Thompson travelled widely in Europe, spending time in France, Holland and Austria.

He left Winchester at the end of Common Time 1938, to spend four months at the British School of Archaeology in Athens, acquiring a good working knowledge of modern Greek. An introduction from Sir Arthur Evans enabled him to dig on Crete with the distinguished archaeologist John Pendlebury (D1918-1923), who died whilst fighting alongside the partisans in Crete in May 1941.

In 1938 Thompson went up to New College, Oxford.    Already a committed socialist by the time he left Winchester, the following year he  joined the Communist Party.

On 2nd September 1939, the day before war was declared, although under age, he volunteered for the Royal Artillery, and in March 1940 obtained a commission as a Second Lieutenant.  After a short period of training he was appointed to the GHQ Liaison Regiment (“Phantom” Regiment) with whom he spent three years, eventually becoming its Second-in-Command.

Thompson left Gourock for Suez on 19th March 1941.   Training periods in the Syrian mountains and in the Sinai Desert occupied the summer and autumn of 1941, although in early September he was ill with septicaemia and was hospitalised for two months.

“H” squadron, to whom he was attached, first went into action in November 1941 during Operation Crusader in Libya.  By August he had been promoted to Captain and was with his regiment in Syria in 1942 although from August that year they moved back through Palestine and Iraq and into Persia (modern Iran).  It appears that Thompson spent much of his time there listening to Soviet radio in an attempt to improve his Russian.  He was in hospital again in late October suffering from jaundice.

During all this he was still politically active and published articles in two underground left wing newspapers in Iraq, trying to counter the anti-Soviet propaganda being spread by the Polish forces in the Middle East.   In June 1943 ‘H’ Squadron moved back to Alexandria to train for the landings planned for Sicily, spending May and June on amphibious exercises around Suez and Port Said, and sailing for Sicily on 4th July.   On July 8th Thompson attended a church service aboard ship: “One of the hymns was “All People that on Earth do Dwell”, with rich Wykehamical memories. I found Winchester a good thing to remember at this time. The teaching we had there gave us next to no idealism, but instead, and equally helpful, a strong intolerance of all folly, especially of folly which involves cruelty. Further, its long history gave us some sense of proportion, reminding one at every turn of one’s own unimportance.For a true Wykehamist it would seem well worth dying so that a few fine old buildings might be saved from war’s havoc and handed on to a generation capable of appreciating them. There’s a lot one can say against the Wykehamical tradition, but one can never say that it squares up with Fascism.”

Landing on 10th July, attached to HQ 151 Brigade, by the afternoon of July 14th they were in Syracuse. As a classicist, Thompson found much to interest him but his unit was withdrawn from Sicily the following day and returned to Alexandria via Malta.

Thompson had recently encountered James Klugmann in Cairo, where the main Special Operations Executive office was located; Klugmann was in charge of the Yugoslav section of MO4, the branch of SOE which supported the liberation movement in the Balkans. Klugmann had been secretary of the Communist Students’ League at Cambridge, and he felt that Thompson would be ideal liaison officer material, given his political beliefs and military experience. Thompson jumped at the chance. His first day with MO4 was Monday September 13th 1943.  First he had to prepare for his new role at the Commando Training School in Cairo, undergoing parachute training in Palestine, a prospect that terrified him and gave him many nightmares.  He confided in his diary:  “The old dreams have come back again. I do between two and three descents a night. Last night [October 25th] I had a touch of fever, which made it worse. The whole night I was caught up in the rigging-lines – a hand there, a foot above my head – struggling and kicking to get free. From time to time I would wake and there would be a moment of sanity……”  The following morning “Woken at five [on October 29th]. Rather steep. Spent half an hour struggling with a cup of tea through my mosquito-net. Head very muzzy, slightly aching. No sensation of impending catastrophe… Went to the latrines. All the best people seemed to be there. Then went back and shaved by lamplight. One should never jump from a plane unshaven. I attach great importance to this… Our first jump was to be from a Hudson – a door jump… Our first turn must have come about 0730. We were emplaned and airborne in no time. Crouched up in the front of the plane, I watched four successive pairs jump out before my turn came… I wasn’t as terrified as I’d expected. The cold in my head had the same effect as a drug… I didn’t make a good exit… I didn’t get the thrill from my first jump that I should have done. My cold robbed me of that… I landed up on the back of my left shoulder and bit right into my tongue…”

At first he had hoped to serve in Greece but became disillusioned with British policy towards that country’s anti-communism and he asked to be transferred to the Bulgarian section.   Bulgaria had been under Fascist rule since 1923 and was closely allied to Germany, although on the strict understanding it was not at war with the Soviet Union.   In 1934 all political parties had been banned, the Communists had already been viciously suppressed.  German influence was strong although Bulgaria’s Jewish population was spared the genocide which occurred everywhere else.

On the night of 25th January 1944, with a wireless operator and a large supply of weapons, Thompson was parachuted into southern Yugoslavia.   From the moment of his arrival, Thompson was aware that the Bulgarian partisans needed all the help they could get and eventually it was decided that he would be in a better position to assist if he worked largely on his own, assisting the partisans wherever his help was most needed. They carried a radio, with which to keep in touch with Cairo, although this eventually broke down and there was no contact with headquarters after 11th May.

By May 1944 the Bulgarian partisans were being continuously attacked by government forces which made their re-supply all but impossible.   In mid-May, following a much needed arms drop, a small party of SOE, including Thompson and about 100 poorly trained Bulgarians, calling themselves the Second Sofia Brigade of National Liberation, crossed the border into Bulgaria. They were ill-equipped, unprepared and, as it turned out, could not rely on local support.   Thompson’s instructions were to stay with this group though he did so reluctantly.  The only map they had was his small scale silk escape map.

At first they met with little opposition, having taken the government forces by surprise.  As they drew closer to Sofia they discovered considerable devastation, with villages burnt and the partisan group who they had hoped to join destroyed.

Exhausted, Thompson and his comrades took shelter for the night of 22nd May in woods near the village of Batoulia but locals betrayed them to the authorities and many members of the party were killed in an ambush.   Thompson, with Sergeant Kenneth Scott, his radio operator, managed to escape.  May 30th found the group hiding in woodland north of a village called Eleshina.   That night a small party went into Litakovo to obtain supplies.   The following morning, May 31st 1944, the group was surrounded by enemy  forces, which attacked in the afternoon.   Thompson and Scott tried to hide as the group was over-run, but, together with the few survivors, they were taken prisoner and moved to Eleshina for questioning by the Bulgarian authorities and by the Gestapo.

Thompson tried to claim prisoner-of-war status for himself and Scott.  Scott had been shot in the hand and was taken to Sofia for medical treatment,. After being imprisoned by the Nazis in Sofia, he was released soon after the Red Army’s arrival following the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Bulgaria.

Thompson’s admitted Communist sympathies and his fluent Russian and Bulgarian did not go down well with his interrogators and he refused to co-operate with his captors.  His claim to the protection of the King’s uniform was not allowed and he was treated as one of the rebels.     As a result he had to undergo a “trial” in the village hall at Litakovo, which gave him the opportunity of speaking out, in his now fluent Bulgarian, against Fascism.  The whole trial lasted no more than half an hour.

Condemned to death, Thompson, aged twenty-three, and his companions were executed by firing squad on June 10th 1944.  The official Bulgarian port-war report states: “Major Frank Thompson… was executed on about June 10th after a mock trial at Litakovo… He had been in captivity about ten days. With him perished four other officers – one American, a Serb and two Bulgarians – and eight other prisoners. Fifty-seven of Thompson’s companions had already been executed.”

The execution took place on a cliff above Litakovo, the firing squad having been brought in specially from the capital, Sofia.   The bodies were quickly buried in an unmarked grave.

The British did not know the details of Thompson’s fate, though his death had been assumed, and he was posted ‘missing, presumed killed’ on September 27th 1944. A notice in The Times read:  “Missing in Bulgaria, believed killed after capture, May 31st 1944, Major W.F. (Frank) Thompson RA. Any information gratefully received by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Thompson, Bledlow, Bucks.”

On November 12th 1944 over fifty thousand people attended a ceremony on a hill-top overlooking Litakovo. There Thompson and many other partisans were laid to rest in common graves: Thompson lies in the second grave of seven. Exactly a year later, British officers and officials attended a ceremony at the site: “On behalf of the mother of the dead British Major Frank Thompson, Mrs Tollinton laid a wreath on his grave. Wreaths were laid by the Fatherland Front committees of Litakovo, Botevgrad and the neighbouring villages.”  A Greek Orthodox priest conducted a ceremony, laying on the graves – in accordance with local custom – flowers, wine and apples.

He is commemorated on the Special Memorial at Sofia War Cemetery.

The Diaries of Frank Thompson
The Letters of Frank Thompson
Beyond the Frontier by E P Thompson

War: World War 2

  • Surname: Thompson
  • Forenames or initials: William Frank
  • House: College
  • Years in School: 1933-1938
  • Rank: Major
  • Regiment: Royal Artillery, attached to the SOE
  • Date of Birth: 17th August 1920
  • Date of Death: 5th June 1944
  • How Died: Shot by firing squad
  • Location in War Cloister: Inner A2
  • Decoration: NA
  • Burial Site: Litakovo, Bulgaria