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RELATIONS OF GREAT BRITAIN AND BULGARIA 1938-1941

Author: Ilcho Dimitrov

 

William Rendel in Sofia

Sir George William Rendel (1889-1979) was a British diplomat. He entered the Diplomatic Service in 1911. He was head of the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office, 1930-1938. In 1937 he and his wife, Geraldine, crossed Arabia. His wife was the first European woman to be received for dinner at the royal palace in Riyadh. Rendel said of Riyadh: :"It was a revelation to me of how fine in line and proportion modern Arabian architecture can be."

In 1941, he was appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a post held until 1943. He was knighted in the latter year and served as Ambassador to Belgium between 1947-1950.

Rendel also served on various UN committees. Though officially retired, he continued to be employed by the Foreign Office until 1964. His 1957 published memoirs are entitled "The Sword and the Olive".

Whilst Rendel was His Britannic Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Bulgaria, United Kingdom broke off diplomatic relations as the country was now under the control of the Nazis. It fell to Rendel to take his staff of 50 by train to Istanbul, in Turkey. His party was caught in a huge bomb explosion at the Pera Palace Hotel. Rendel was upstairs when the bomb in the baggage room exploded with devastating consequences. In all there were four deaths and 30 injured. It was later claimed by the Germans that various bombs had been placed in the Legation's luggage before it left Sofia.

Here is Mr. Rendel's story, former British Minister in Sofia (13 March 1941):

"The bomb was contained in one of two suitcases which were surreptitiously added to the hand luggage of the British Legation Party before it left Sofia. As a result of a careful enquiry the following facts have been established. The stage at which these cases were added to the luggage is not yet clearly established, but it seems probable that they were brought to the legation and treated as belonging to some member of the party.

Mr. Embury and Mr. D. de Bethal, clerks to the Air Attache and Military Attache respectively, took charge of the suitcases but having been unable to find any owners for them after a change of carriages at the frontier station at Svilengrad, they opened them. These appeared to contain dirty clothing, shaving materials, old Turkish newspapers (which may been intended to throw suspicion on some Turkish national), and in one case one and in the other case two electric dry batteries. The case which contained two batteries was taken to the Pera Palace by Mr. de Bethal. That which contained one was taken to the Alp Hotel by Mr. Embury. Mr Embury was on his way to the Pera Palace Hotel to see Mr. de Bethal when he heard the explosion. On seeing the results of the explosion it occurred to him that what had appeared to be dry batteries in the suitcase might in fact be bombs of enemy origin. With the utmost presence of mind, he hurried back to his hotel, opened the suitcase containing the single battery and threw the battery into a pit in some open ground nearby thus probably averting a second disaster.

The Turkish police were immediately informed. They retrieved the battery and removed what turned out to be a fuse. It was in fact a bomb filled with a powerful charge of TNT. Therefore it is clear that powerful bombs had been added to the luggage of the legation party by some hostile agent before the party left Sofia. It appears probable that the intention was that they should explode in the train, which would have been wrecked with great loss of life. The escape of the majority of the members of the party is providential and the greatest credit is due to Mr. Embury for his courageous action and presence of mind."

***

 

American foreign policy towards Bulgaria during World War II

The history of American foreign policy towards Bulgaria during World War II is marked by the identification of the basic American political goals while taking into consideration the interests of the other leading Allies against the Axis — Great Britain and the Soviet Union. In spite of the traditional gratitude that the Bulgarian people had towards Russia because of its role in the late nineteenth-century liberation from over 500 years under the Ottoman yoke, Sofia entered both World Wars on the side of Germany. The reasons for these historical choices included hopes of regaining territories that had ethnic Bulgarian populations and that traditionally were considered a part of Bulgaria (Macedonia, Thrace, and Dobrudja). Another important factor which determined the pro-German orientation in both World Wars was the Habsburg kinship of the Bulgarian royal family. However, in Bulgarian political life until 1947 there were traditionally strong political parties and non-governmental organizations with influence in Bulgarian society which had a pro-Western orientation.

On the eve of World War II, Bulgaria was often considered to be a key to the Balkans. Because of its defeat in 1918 as an ally of Germany, it had a very difficult time in the interwar period, which was marked by military coups, political assassinations, and a foreign policy and foreign trade pattern dependent on Great Power politics. When the Nazis began to take over in Europe in 1939, King Boris tried to avoid direct involvement in the hostilities of either bloc. In 1940, it became clear that this policy was ineffective, and Bulgaria was expected to take sides in the rivalry. Some Great Powers were eager to offer a deal to the Bulgarian political leadership, basically tempted by the country’s strategic location and its large and well-disciplined army. One of these great powers was the United States.

The first American attempt to pursue Bulgarian involvement on the side of the Allies came as a result of a specific request from London. Great Britain feared a German invasion of Greece, and was concerned about the victorious march of the Axis Pact in Europe. In January 1941 President Roosevelt responded to the British request. He sent the future Chief of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), Bill Donovan, on a series of meetings with leaders of some Balkan countries, so that he could promise them assistance in case of resistance against the German expansion. However, this “gentle persuasion” did not bring the desired success. In a meeting with King Boris, Donovan was informed that Bulgaria had already made its choice. The OSS Chief’s journey to Sofia was not completely useless, however. When the developments of the war showed the Bulgarian political elite that they had bet on a losing horse in 1941, they remembered the fact that actually the door was never closed to Bulgaria as a potential Allied partner. Donovan confided to the British Ambassador that the King was “an honest if confused idealist who sincerely wished to avoid bringing Bulgaria to trouble.”

Pressed by its commitments to Berlin, Bulgaria declared war on the United States and Great Britain following the events of Pearl Harbor. Washington was clearly aware of the reasons for this Bulgarian choice, and delayed its own declaration of war until June 1942. Throughout the whole of 1942, both Bulgaria and the United States were preoccupied with their own involvement in World War II.

In the spring of 1943, when Washington and London started considering opening a second front in Europe, Bulgaria was back in the diplomatic scene as a player worthy of attention. King Boris, anticipating the future development of events, was trying to find the best possible way out of the Axis, or at least the way that would be least catastrophic for Bulgaria and its territorial integrity. According to Michael M. Boll, from 1943 on there was an Allied operation underway for invading the southern Balkans; it was led by the Office of Strategic Services, the State Department, and the British Secret Service. The American plan was to align Bulgaria with the West. Thus it was a covert action, financed and controlled by two democratic states, yet also coordinated with the Soviet NKVD. This plan was anticipated to be reasonable and gained the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Roosevelt. The plan envisaged Bulgaria’s participation in the war against Nazi Germany and its further reintegration with the democratic states.

The main point of the plan was to expand the threat to the Axis without committing additional manpower and resources from the joint allied effort, because the main focus was still on the invasion of Europe. This idea of using local forces in the Balkans was from the very beginning a failure. British postwar planning for Eastern Europe clearly called for groups of states based upon regional confederations. However, in August 1943, the Soviet Ambassador to London made it clear that the Soviet Union would object to any postwar confederations in South-East Europe. That warning led Great Britain to decline to accept any responsibility for Bulgaria’s future after the war. America was left on its own in implementing the OSS plan for the Balkans.

Unfortunately, a couple of factors prevented the pursuit of that plan, most of which were determined by the fast development of the war. The shifting fortunes of war, the reluctance of the wartime Bulgarian cabinet to desert Hitler in the face of the German occupation of Hungary, and the unexpectedly rapid advance of the Soviet armies through Romania in the summer of 1944, however, converted Bulgaria into a test case for post-war American-Soviet accommodation in the Balkans.

American foreign policy concerning Bulgaria in the post-World War II period was influenced by a feeling of moral obligation towards the pro-democratic circles in Bulgarian society. After the fall 1945 elections in Bulgaria, the Soviet determination regarding the socialist future of Bulgaria became clear. The confidence with which the Communist Party won the elections and established control over the whole political spectrum by purging the members of the opposition was quite striking. There is much evidence that these events would have been somewhat different if the Red Army had not maintained occupation forces in Bulgaria.

The decision to maintain diplomatic and political pressure on Bulgaria, even when it was clear that a pro-Western orientation was inconceivable, may have been dictated by the hope of the American leadership for a possible opportunity for Bulgarian society itself to overcome its preoccupation with fear, owing to the Soviet terror. However, such events were not expected to be inspired through American involvement because American-Soviet relations could not be held hostage solely to events in a small Balkan land, no matter how important the moral and political commitment. When the prospects of reform in Bulgaria and of an improvement in East-West relations waned in 1946, the U.S. government wisely decided to concentrate its limited resources on containing Soviet expansion in areas not occupied by the Red Army. In 1947, in spite of the oppression of the Bulgarian opposition and the bloody purges, the United States pragmatically established relations with Sofia, hoping to retain some influence in that country.

Some of the arguments defending the American diplomatic and political elite for their “non-policy” approach refer to the lack of specific assets in the region. However, the “loss” of Bulgaria was not a result of a lack of interest or effort but stemmed from a well-reasoned calculation of the American strategic interests and capabilities in Europe. There were no troops on the ground able to enforce American policy decisions. Moreover, there is a reasonable explanation for the concentration of U.S. military commitments in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe in preference to the Balkans, and this decision was consistent with the strategic objectives and available assets, as well as domestic American politics.

In 1943 and 1944, Moscow’s intentions were unclear regarding Bulgaria’s future. After the failure of the OSS plan it was still not clear what the Soviet intentions were. The preoccupation with the military objectives of the war and the lack of a strong and influential ally in Bulgarian political life made the Soviet strategic and political aims probable but not certain. It is quite difficult to determine when the strategic preoccupations prevailed over the tactical military objectives. There is some strong evidence that this moment might have been during the 1945 London Peace Conference. The fates of Bulgaria and Romania were decided by the perception of a compromise for weightier strategic commitments — Germany and Japan. Moscow found the best place and moment, even though it meant violating the agreements concluded at the Yalta Conference, to establish its control over much of the Balkan Peninsula. The best way to do so was by holding immediate elections, which brought to power Communist governments in both Bulgaria and Romania.

American security policy in Bulgaria at the beginning of the Cold War often involved shifting tactics, designed to secure unchanging security objectives. If America’s commitment to Bulgaria had not been taken hostage to larger interests (namely Japan and Germany) during the relatively fluid period of East-West relations immediately after the war, a democratic future for Bulgaria might have been possible. The shifting fortunes of war and the rapid advance of the Red Army in the summer of 1944 made Soviet pre-eminence in the Balkans inevitable. The American expectations were that the Bulgarian army, which by education, training and commitment was pro-Western, would become a basis for Western influence. Unfortunately, when the political future of Bulgaria was decided, its Army was engaged in combat elsewhere in Europe, fighting in the last phase of World War II as part of the Allied coalition against Nazi Germany.

Once it was clear that there would be no agreement on the Balkans with the Soviet Union, America. concentrated its efforts on the other critical issues of East-West relations. The overriding problems such as the future of Germany and Japan, however, were far more central in the increasingly antagonistic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

Pictures 1 & 2: It is commonplace to define the participation of Anglo-American forces in both World Wars as unity (actually, Australia and New Zealand also sent combat units under the same flag). So the Commonwealth members, though negotiating separately and having unrelated commanding staff, had the same moral obligations towards each other in the war, ditto.

(i). Pay attention to this excerpt from modern circulation press. The Balkans, which Winston Churchill called a Europe's "soft underbelly, were of moderate interest to the Allies in World War II. Bulgaria, which was "playing the Italian game", proved at the end to be at draw. It shrewd the advancing Soviets and gave Germany a check, which earned admiration from the Anglo-American side.

 

(ii). This is photograph of General William "Wild Bill" Donovan. His shuffle in East Europe on request from London took place at the end of January 1941. He visited Italy, Greece, and Albania. Then suddenly on 20 I. 1941, on his way to Belgrade, he visited Sofia. Donovan stayed for 24-hours, had confidential talks with King Boris, and departed without much fuss. He couldn't prevent Bulgaria joining the Triple Axis.

 

 

Copyright © 2011 by the author.