This exceptional and important Second War S.O.E. ‘Force 133’ Balkan Operations D.C.M. group of eight went under the hammer at the Dix Noonan Webb Orders, Decorations, Medals & Militaria auction on 13 January 2021 and sold for £95,000 (plus 24% buyers premium).
The group was awarded to Sergeant K. A. J. B. Scott, Royal Signals and Special Operations Executive, late King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who was ‘dropped’ into Eastern Serbia in April 1944, linking up with Major Frank Thompson’s ill-fated Operation Claridges in support of Bulgarian Communist Partisans. As anti-partisan reprisal operations closed in, Thompson took the fateful decision to lead his private army ‘T. E. Lawrence Style’ into Bulgaria, where, with Scott continuing to serve as wireless operator, they were repeatedly ambushed and fought running battles with the Bulgarian Army and Gendarmerie before being ultimately broken up.
Starving and exhausted, Scott and Thompson were encircled and captured before being subjected to brutal beatings and threats under Gestapo interrogation. Learning of Thompson’s execution, Scott was then compelled to extract intelligence from S.O.E. Cairo via his wireless set but, cleverly ensuring that Cairo were not deceived, at great danger to himself he disclosed nothing, surviving fourteen nerve-wracking weeks under Gestapo orders until finally, with the Red Army closing on Sofia, he was released, finding his way to London via Istanbul and Cairo as the only British survivor of the mission.
The lot which was offered for sale to Dix Noonan Webb at the request of the family was sold together with an important associated archive of material, elements of which include the recipient’s unpublished autobiography of his war years; private correspondence regarding the Claridges Mission between the recipient and both the author Stowers Johnson and the eminent historian E. P. Thompson, and a rare surviving S.O.E. original typescript of the recipient’s D.C.M. recommendation.
The rare, surviving S.O.E. recommendation, not previously publicly available or held by the National Archives – an original typescript of which is with the lot – submitted by S.O.E. Cairo staff officer and author of the renowned S.O.E. memoir ‘Baker Street Irregular’, Major Bickham Sweet-Escott, states:
‘Sergeant Scott was dropped to join a mission in East Serbia on 7 April 1944. The mission crossed into Bulgaria in early May and on 11 May [sic – actually 18 May], was ambushed by a large party of Bulgarian troops. In the fighting the mission and the Partisans to whom they attached were split up, and Sergeant Scott, together with an officer, were the only British survivors. The wireless transmitting apparatus of the mission which had been dropped into a river during the fighting was rescued by Sergeant Scott at a great personal risk of being captured by the enemy. Several days of flight ensued during which the officer was ill and Sergeant Scott was left alone to face heavy responsibilities. By tact and perseverance he managed to keep the depleted Partisan band together.
On 31 May, a second ambush was encountered and Sergeant Scott together with the officer were captured. Questioned under threats and beating by the Gestapo and Bulgar Secret Police, Sergeant Scott consistently refused to give away any vital military or technical information to the enemy. He was kept imprisoned until 9 September, at Bulgar anti-Partisan Headquarters in Sofia, and during the whole of this time made every effort to gain what information he could about the enemy’s activities. He was then compelled to work his wireless transmitting set to Cairo, but by great ingenuity succeeded in indicating that he was operating under duress, with the result that the messages thus sent by the enemy completely failed to deceive us. By this behaviour he put himself in considerable personal danger, since had he been discovered, he would certainly have been shot. Throughout the whole period, 7 April to 9 September, Sergeant Scott has shown considerable initiative, fortitude and steadfastness to duty and has thus contributed positively to the work of the Force in Bulgaria.’
Kenneth Alec John Baliol Scott was born on 1 March 1920 in Lewisham, London and was educated at Dulwich College. On leaving school he joined the The Rangers, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps – Territorial Army and was mobilised in August 1939, being quickly promoted to Signal Sergeant. Volunteering for Special Duties at the first opportunity, he was transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals in August 1943 and, before long, identified as suitable for Special Operations:
‘Eventually Kenneth Scott found himself at one of the most important finishing schools of the war: S.O.E. Middle East Training School for Wireless Operators. Men here had been selected (after volunteering) from every type of unit, and anticipated being sent to work behind the enemy lines with partisans in the Balkans, or on small Allied craft in enemy waters – anywhere, in fact, where danger was greatest and communication most vital. It mattered not what their previous military experience had been, for it was this that really united them – the consciousness that they had left unit and regiment behind, and all belonged to the same firm; and this indeed was the cognomen for their outfit: the ‘Firm’, Force 133 of S.O.E.’ (Agents Extraordinary by Stowers Johnson refers)
Completing specialist training – including a five jump parachute course at Ramat David, near Haifa, in late 1943 – he was driven to a privileged district of Cairo serving as the home of S.O.E. Middle East H.Q., where he was to spend a lazy three months relaxing in S.O.E. surroundings, enjoying not just comfortable furnishings but Arab waiters, cooks and houseboys, pending further orders. Then, suddenly at midday on 5 April 1944, orders arrived for him to pack everything he needed and catch a flight that night to Bari, in Southern Italy. Scrambling into action, he just caught the plane en-route for Benghazi and Malta, arriving at Bari at 1800 hours on 6 April where he was whisked away to the local H.Q. of the firm and briefed on some aspects of his particular mission. The following day, now entrusted with further orders, codes and secret equipment, he was taken to draw his parachute and, completing a blur of further preparations, by 2130 hours he was aboard a plane headed due East from Bari, still not aware of his precise destination. Two hours later he was above the drop zone:
‘The plane was circling. Far down below a group of fires were burning right on the top of a Balkan mountain. Then suddenly, fully and immediately, did Kenneth Scott realise he was making the drop absolutely alone. He groped for his half-pint flask of army rum and began taking an occasional swig. Five times the plane circled and each time, as it crossed above the fires, the heavy bundles of arms and equipment were released through the bomb doors. The sixth circle was the final and Scott sat in the hole ready.
“I look down, [he said, himself describing that vital moment] and even in the circumstances I cannot help wonder at the wild, cold beauty of those hills slowly sliding away below. – We’re running in! The Red Light! “Action Stations!” “Go!!” I heave myself – then the hole – and plunge down to God knows what. The ‘chute opens and I widen my legs to get the straps more comfortable, when from under the ground mist comes a faint cry: “Get your feet and legs together!” – the good old paratroopers’ cry! Soon I land, scarcely a few feet from the fires, and am shaking hands with a couple of English lads, Major Dugmore and Sergeant Rogers. They take me down to the house, where I offer my rum flask, only to find that I’ve already emptied it!”
Not till next day did Kenneth Scott realise he had actually dropped to ‘Entanglement Pin Point Radovnica’ at 2355 hours on Good Friday. Dugmore and Rogers spent the day acquainting him with local conditions and listening in turn to gossip about Cairo. Late in the afternoon the mission, his mission, arrived in a condition entirely belying the code name ‘Claridges’. Major Thompson and Sergeants Walker and Monroe had come down from their latest trek over the Mountains to the north. They were tired and quite drawn with fatigue, very, very dirty, unshaven and hungry. They spoke of heavy fighting ambushes and occupied villages, but the sight of the new wireless operator was as great a tonic for Frank Thompson as were for his famished companions those gastronomic delicacies brought by Scott’s own “air mail”.’ (ibid)
Scott’s arrival in Eastern Serbia, near the border of Bulgaria, had landed him into the centre of one of the more confused and under analysed of the S.O.E. areas of operation during the Second World War. His mission – ‘Claridges’ – led by Major Frank Thompson, a man whose short but eventful life has been the subject of biographies and memoirs (see footnote), aimed to estimate the strength of the communist underground Bulgarian resistance movement and gather evidence for a considered opinion as to whether Britain should support it.
They soon found Bulgarian guerrillas in Serbia and established contact with representatives of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Air drops of supplies and arms were arranged. However, whilst other areas of the Balkans had seen organised and determined partisan groups operating, Axis-aligned Bulgaria had never been occupied and until 1944 the resistance to Prime Minister Filav’s pro-Nazi regime was militarily weak. As the Germans decided that the partisans must be wiped out, the net closed in on Claridges’ location in Serbia and the Bulgarian partisans with Thompson announced in early May that they had decided to wage their campaign back over the border in Bulgaria. Thompson’s orders were to remain with the Bulgarian leaders if possible but this would require the Claridges force to venture east into Bulgaria itself, where large numbers of anti-partisan soldiers and policemen were active and brutal. It would be a gamble and an altogether more dangerous undertaking than the operations that they had hitherto been conducting under Major Mostyn Davies and a Brigade of Bulgarian guerillas in an area of Serbia controlled by the Yugoslavian Partisan leader General Tempo, a representative of Tito. Although warned of the dangers by Tempo and faced with a difficult decision without clear orders, the restless and ideologically driven Thompson chose to play his part in attempting to foment a communist uprising of the Bulgarian population. His small party, with Scott as the mission’s wireless telegraph operator, left the Cerna Trava area on 12 May 1944, in the company of 150 to 200 partisans of the 2nd Sofia Brigade, crossing the border with the intention of moving into Central Bulgaria. They ran into trouble almost immediately:
‘On the night of the 13/14 May the party fell into a police ambush of approximately 20 Bulgarian policemen armed with knives. The ambush party had been lying in wait across the track on which the Partisans were moving, and succeeding in establishing considerable surprise. In the skirmish which ensued one Partisan was killed and Dencho received three knife wounds. One policeman was stabbed and another taken prisoner. This prisoner stated that he had been recently conscripted into the Bulgar Gendarmerie, adding that he was a married man with children. This ruse to gain lenient treatment and, perhaps, to save his life, was unsuccessful however, since his papers showed him to be unmarried and a member of the Regular Forces. His head was smashed in with a rifle butt [by the partisans].’ (The Outline History of the Claridges Mission based on field signals and the evidence of Sergeant Scott refers)
They were now travelling in unfamiliar and hostile territory, very short of provisions and at constant risk of betrayal to the Gendarmerie or army. Exhausted, their rest in a wood on 18 May was interrupted by machine-gun fire at noon, causing them to scatter and split into two groups. Scott fled with Major Thompson, around twelve partisan officers and five or six other ranks including three women. A search for a new hideout was then delayed by one of their number being shot in the ankle and by increasing numbers of Bulgar troops, and by their own hunger and exhaustion. That night was spent in thickets on a hilltop with just a small amount of cheese for sustenance. With their confidence in the leaderless partisans now waning, Thompson and Scott agreed to split from the group when the first opportunity presented itself. Scott later recalled Thompson jokingly commenting, ‘These partisans are no good: maybe we should find some better ones.’
Indeed, many years later, Major J. Henniker-Major, another S.O.E. Balkans Operative, would state of Thompson’s Bulgarian Partisans: ‘I’m glad they were not my prop and stay – a pretty inexperienced and low level mixture of individual deserters and Communist civilians from the towns. Compared to the Yugoslav army they had an unreal and slightly horror-comic air of a brigand army, boastful, mercurial, temperamental and with an inexperienced yen to go it alone.’
Betrayal and Capture
On 30 May Thompson and Scott, desperate for food, attempted to eat leaves with salt and then shared a live wood snail. Three partisans were sent into a village despite it being occupied by an army unit and returned with some bread which was carefully divided. Then, exhausted once more they slept in an orchard.
On 31 May, after a Gendarmerie patrol was spotted at dawn 300 yards away, they decided not to move further. But at 14.00 a twenty-strong police patrol approached from the village where their presence had evidently been betrayed and two hours later fired the first bullets into the wood. Thompson and Scott, as they had planned, split from the group, moving uphill while the Partisans were fleeing down and hid between four trees growing close together in ground cover of dead leaves and branches.
They could hear small-arms and mortar fire, and the screams of one of three women who had stayed with the Partisans and who, despite her painful shrapnel wounds had killed several Bulgarian troops with grenades. A small force of troops then entered the copse in which Thompson and Scott were hiding and, advancing nearer and nearer to them until just ten feet away, the pair were spotted. A shot was fired at Scott which miraculously missed and then both men were captured. Dragged from their hiding place they were brutally kicked and struck with fists and rifle butts until an N.C.O. arrived. Both had their hands tied behind their backs, Thompson with a belt, Scott, whose hand was poisoned and swollen, with a rope, his wrists being so tightly bound that they were cut almost to the bone. As they were led back to the local village, peasants turned out to swear, spit and strike them with their fists or any heavy article they could seize. It was later realised by the captives that this attitude of the population and the Army was largely due to the loss of life caused by the Allied bombing of Sofia – raids which Thompson had encouraged: some accounts report that Sofia was 25 per cent destroyed, with thousands killed.
On reaching the village, Thompson, now extremely weak from lack of food, the march and ill treatment, lost his balance and collapsed. After preliminary questioning to ascertain that they were British fighting with the Partisans, they were taken to a cellar where, without any preliminaries, a shaved and well dressed civilian beat them with a truncheon, while soldiers, policemen and other civilians crowded in the doorway to watch. Their possessions were then set out on a table and an interrogation on more orthodox military lines followed, conducted by a commanding officer who had extracted shockingly precise information about the mission and its history from a captured Partisan.
Two hours later they were handcuffed and taken to a room inside a commandeered school on the edge of Sofia. Sharing the room were a number of captured Partisans and the three villagers who had sold them bread. A high ranking Gendarmerie officer then arrived and began the now familiar routine of spitting, kicking and beating, all conducted in front of an audience of soldiers, Gendarmerie and citizenry. Sleep was impossible owing to the injuries they had received at the hands of the Bulgars and also on account of the continual stream of sightseers. The screams of two women partisans who had also been captured continued through the night, accompanied by sounds of heavy furniture being thrown: they were never seen again. At this point Thompson was taken for three hours of interrogation at around three in the morning and returned looking haggard, scarcely able to stand; Scott followed. Then there was another more military and clear-cut interrogation, in a room containing three Gestapo representatives, in front of two wireless transmission sets, only one of which was recognisable to Scott. Many questions concerned the S.O.E. signals school in the Middle East, the exact station to which Scott had signalled, and the whereabouts of other British missions in the Balkans. These interrogators were extremely well informed but Scott avoided replies to all the questions by pointing out that his operation, and all those of the organisation to which he belonged, were carried out with the highest degree of secrecy, and that owing to these security measures he was totally ignorant of the activities or organisation of other personnel.
Working ‘under Gestapo orders’
On 1 June Scott’s request for medical attention was granted, the doctor being especially interested in discovering where Thompson had learned Bulgarian; since Scott had been asked this question multiple times during interrogation the Bulgars obviously attached some importance to it; it is a horrible irony that Thompson’s meagre knowledge of the language probably helped to incriminate him as a ‘spy’. During the following twenty-four hours, sightseers and Scott’s poisoned arm rendered sleep impossible and on 2 June Scott was taken off into individual imprisonment in Sofia where his captors required him to operate his wireless set in their attempt to acquire information from Cairo.
Scott never saw Frank Thompson again and was informed around 11 June, by a Bulgarian officer, that he had been shot, not as a soldier but as a rebel, and that he too would be shot unless the reports of his behaviour and co-operation were satisfactory. Stowers Johnson, whose account of Operation Claridges in Agents Extraordinary was later described by Scott as ‘factually correct’ and ‘the accurate story of this isolated wartime incident’, wrote that the object lesson for Scott here was that he was still alive because he had not been mixing himself up learning Bulgarian and getting into politics, with the ominous implication that if officers were shot so simply, then there would be even less hesitation with other ranks. That being said, it cannot be ignored that Scott, as the wireless operator of the mission, was of more obvious use to his captors than the equally brave Thompson. Now he would be put to work but, as per his D.C.M. citation, Scott, at great personal risk to himself, succeeded in indicating to Cairo that he was operating under duress, with the result that the messages thus sent by the enemy completely failed to deceive Cairo:
‘His captors were in earnest when they had demanded the set be worked at once. He was taken immediately to a large room entirely used for wireless telegraphy and set to work. A long and rambling account of the Battle of Batulia was drawn up, representing the incident neither as a disaster nor a success, and indicating that the British mission would very soon give details so that a sortie could be received, arms and supplies being urgently needed.
Now came the divergence of theory from practice. German N.C.O.s came at regular intervals to give, receive or monitor messages which were carefully checked somewhere by superiors whom Scott never saw. He realised each message was always reworded! This thwarted part of his plan, but was encouraging in that it must make for a difference of style which might be noticed. He could also make a few mistakes such as an inexperienced, badly trained operator might make. He left out deliberately his security check message. To his relief nobody came to point this out. Perhaps they did not know.
When that first message went out Kenneth Scott had the most trying time of all. If there had been no change in the staff at Cairo, they should suspect the situation at once. But if there were nonchalance in the decoding room, or haste or even sickness there, he might find himself responsible for calling out some Allied aeroplanes with their crews and equipment to be destroyed in the Sredna Gora Mountains. Or if the message were bluntly queried, he might be betrayed!
He need not have worried. At the British receiving station the absence of the security check message was noted with alarm and the errors seemed many more in decoding than even Scott had intended. The whole message stood out in front of the S.O.E. chiefs as a warning signal. Kenneth Scott had the reputation of being one of the best operators in the whole Middle East field. Such mistakes would fail even a trainee operator and when coming from their most capable sergeant of signals could not be regarded as accidental.
At once they knew he was in German hands and sent out warnings to other missions to watch carefully for Major Thompson or any other survivors who might be in hiding. More definite than anything, however, Kenneth Scott by his bravery in making those mistakes had placed responsibility for the safety of his life squarely upon the shoulders of Force 133. If they showed any doubt or distrust, if they queried the authenticity of the message, or indeed if they failed to respond to any request the pseudo ‘Claridges’ might make, the Germans would suspect and Scott would be sacrificed to Gestapo torture and elimination.’ (Agents Extraordinary by Stowers Johnson refers)
Whilst enduring the next fourteen weeks in captivity, under the continual threat of being shot, Scott continued to operate his wireless transmission set according to Gestapo orders, all the while contriving with Cairo to reveal nothing.
Finally, on 9 September, with Russian forces crossing the Danube and the Germans and Bulgarian troops in disarray, Scott was taken to the centre of Sofia by tram to be left abandoned in a side street. He slowly made his way back to London via Istanbul and Cairo. In 1945, Scott returned to Cairo as representative on the Allied Commission for dealing with Bulgarian war crimes. He was discharged on 4 June 1946 and was personally awarded his D.C.M. (which was originally gazetted on 9 August 1945) by the King at Buckingham Palace on 10 December 1946.
After the war Ken Scott became a ventilation engineer, starting as a draughtsman, rising to become sales director. In 1954 he married Sonia Townshend and in 1962 they retired to Galloway in Scotland and bought a holiday home in the Algarve in Portugal. In 2000 Scott returned to the scene of his wartime exploits and met the few partisan survivors. He was welcomed one of their own, a man who had shared their hardships. And he exorcised his ghosts by paying his respects at the graves of fallen partisans – and that of Major Frank Thompson. Ken Scott passed away on 30 September 2008. He was survived by Sonia and their two daughters.
The lot was sold with the following original related archive material:
The recipient’s typed and hard-bound autobiography of his war years entitled ‘Life in the Army’ being the story of his nearly 7 years in the army at home and abroad as described in his letters written home, also containing documents, news cuttings relating to his time during the war, illustrations and three original photographs of the recipient in uniform, in excess of 200 pages;
An original copy of the outline history of the Claridges Mission, based on field signals and the evidence of Sgt. Scott;
A silk map of the Balkan region in good condition and two more silk map cuttings of the Balkan region these last two aged and worn;
An original copy of the recipient’s D.C.M. citation; War Office D.C.M. investiture invitation, dated 23 October 1946;
A quantity of photographs of the recipient, seven of which are contemporary images of the recipient in uniform – one being a fine, card mounted, studio portrait, 25cm x 19cm, four also featuring the recipient’s brother Ron in uniform of which one also features the recipient’s mother;
Private correspondence, dated 1975, between the recipient and Stowers Johnson, author of Agents Extraordinary, in which the recipient congratulates Johnson on the accuracy of his account and also, dated 1984, in which Johnson provides thoughts on the attitude of Bulgarian officialdom towards the mission; correspondence, dated 1977 and 1979, between the recipient and the the socialist historian E. P. Thompson (younger brother of Major F. Thompson);
The recipient’s Record of Service card – Army Form W5258;
A well captioned album of photographs documenting the recipient’s visit to Bulgaria in 2002, containing images of the recipient meeting former partisans, visits to memorials, television interviews and press conferences etc;
Two VHS videos, the first with handwritten title ‘From Bulgaria and Revisit + 7 days – Thompson’ the second with handwritten title ‘7 day interview Bulgaria Oct 2002 / Mrs Thompson, filmed in UK by Transki 14/4/1978’;
Five books: ‘There is a Spirit in Europe A Memoir of Frank Thompson by T. J. Thompson and E. P. Thompson, the front end paper signed by Scott and also by the Bulgarian Partisan leader Slavcho Transki with a handwritten tribute to Scott, dated 1978; A Very English Hero, the Making of Frank Thompson by Peter J. Conradi; Agents Extraordinary by Stowers Johnson, the front end paper signed, ‘To Kenneth Scott, with kindest regards and best wishes from Stowers Johnson 10 August 1975’; The Left Side of History by Kristen Ghosdee; Baker Street Irregular by Bickham Sweet-Escott, front end paper signed by Scott.
Footnote – Major Frank Thompson
William Frank Thompson, educated at the Dragon School, Winchester College and Oxford University, was a highly gifted classics scholar, linguist and nascent poet of immense promise who became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s under the influence of his close friend Iris Murdoch. His exceptional record of service as a British Army officer began courageously with the Special Reconnaissance Unit ‘Phantom’ in North Africa, the Levant, and the hazardous landings in Sicily in 1943. However, it is his remarkable service with the S.O.E. in Bulgaria that really stands out. Parachuted into Macedonia on 25 January 1944, under the command of Major Mostyn Davies, he was part of Operation Mulligatawny which established links between the British staff and the Bulgarian partisans under Slavcho Transki. When Davies was killed, Thompson assumed command of the mission, now named Claridges, and crossed the frontier into Bulgaria together with Sergeants Scott, Walker and Munroe. All but Scott were killed. The extent to which Thompson’s personal politics were a factor in the outcome of the mission is still debated but there is no doubting his bravery and determination:
‘Along the way, he and his men experienced constant danger from enemy patrols, desertion and treachery by their own ilk, instant betrayal from intimidated villagers and peasants, extreme hunger, verminous lice, vicious sores and scratches from moving at night, bleeding, blistered and calloused feet, bitter cold and pernicious wet; yet, not once did he turn back despite ample good reason for doing so after the first ambush on 18 May. He pressed ahead indomitably to complete his task, however remote and impossible it must have seemed on many occasions. Thompson’s immortality was indeed his own individuality as he assumed the mantle of leading his mission into the heartlands of Axis Bulgaria, an erstwhile T. E. Lawrence of the Balkans or not.’ (Through Hitler’s Backdoor – SOE Operations in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria 1939-1945 by Alan Ogden refers).
After the war and the establishment of a communist government in Bulgaria, the villages of Livage, Lipata, Tsarevi Stragi, Malak Babul, Babul and Zavoya were merged and renamed Thompson ((Томпсън, in the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet) in his honour. While most Bulgarian towns and cities which were renamed by the communists adopted their former names soon after the collapse of Bulgaria’s communist regime in 1989-90, Thompson, to this day, remains Thompson.
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