"On The Road" - News & Stories

British brigade at Koprinka / Kazanlak 1948

"On The Road" story by Reg Hindley (volunteer at Koprinka dam), whom I met back in 2008 - 60 years after his epic adventure

I was a first year Geography degree student at our University of Leeds, and had no possibility of foreign travel because we had little money and most of Europe was still disorganised or impoverished because of the war. Josip Broz Tito thought it a good idea to boost Yugoslav recovery by appealing for foreign students to come as volunteers to help restore communications in districts such as Bosnia, and they began with a railway (Samac-Sarayevo?) in Bosnia in summer 1947. A few friends of mine went, and praised it highly, so when in 1948 Dimitrov offered similar inducements to come to help in Bulgaria, I volunteered. The first proposal was that we should work on the new town of Dimitrovgrad, but someone must have decided it would be too hot for Britons to work on the great plain, and this was changed to the (start of) building of the George Dimitrov dam on the Tunzha River in the Valley of Roses, higher between the Balkan Mountains and the Shredna Gora - for irrigation, of course.

The volunteers were organized in 'brigades', and the British group was called the Frank (Francis) Thompson Brigade, after a young British officer who was parachuted into Bulgaria to help organize partisan resistance to the Nazis during the war; and who was soon captured and shot. Our members were not particularly 'political', and most were young adults who had been soldiers during the war, were now students, and like me were keen to travel. I had not been in the Army, and was only 18 or 19. Most of us were vaguely socialist and sympathetic to the struggles of the South Slav peoples for freedom and increased prosperity, and we admired Dimitrov because of his record against the Nazis in the Reichstag Fire trial. Many of us also supported his collaboration with Tito in attempting to solve the Macedonian problem by bringing 'Pirin Macedonia' closer to 'Skopje Macedonia' - and perhaps eventually joining all the South Slav peoples into one federation including south (Greek) Macedonia and Western Thrace. We did not know Stalin's hostility to the whole idea, and the 'Cold War' was not all that obvious until the Berlin blockade which Stalin initiated while we were in Bulgaria! We many of us even believed Soviet propaganda and thought that Communism was a true movement towards freedom. Experience of Bulgaria soon cured us of that!
The Party had just begun killing off any opposition, and we were 'buried' in propaganda papers around the trial of Boris Petkov (?), a Peasant leader who was given a Stalinist trial and judicially murdered about the time we were in Bulgaria. Our Bulgarian Communist translators and 'guides' did their best to prevent any casual conversations between us and ordinary Bulgarians, and we were strongly discouraged from going into Koprinka village at night, when we were free. Our camp had a big wire fence - which we made a hole in!

I did not keeps a diary in those days, but have several postcards which I sent home and others which were sent to me at Koprinka. These show that I arived in Sofia on 23rd July 1948 and was at the work camp at Koprinka from 28th July until 17th August, when we left for a final holiday at Varna. I think we had a week there before returning home. My postcards are mostly of central Varna, but the cards mention a motorboat trip on the lake and include a photo of the cliff monastery of Aladzha. I stopped writing when it was obvious that any cards would arive home after me.

At Sofia I remember a lorry trip up Vitosha and a visit to a Bulgarian pen-friend Vasko Alexandrov who lived in a cottage in the city center downhill from the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. We had corresponded for a year or more and I met his family. Our letters stopped soon after my visit, as the Stalinist custom was to regard correspondence with the West as evidence of treason, or at least dangerous thoughts. I often wondered what happened to Vasko... I suspect that Dimitrov's own death may have been a result of Stalin's disapproval, and of his knowledge of Stalin's own record.

I have a couple of letters addressed to me at Koprinka - to Angliiska Brigada pri Iazovira, Koprinka... The 'Angliiska' annoyed our Scottish and Welsh brigadiers.

Memorable dates included 6th August when a tropical storm washed away our lorry, and 10th August when we had a day trip to the Shipka Pass memorial and nearby monastery.

At Varna bathing in the Black Sea (at Sveti Konstantin?) came as a 'culture shock', as no one wore bathing clothes and the girls therefore were taken a mile away to bathe nude but out of sight. The sand burnt our feet by midday.

Dam construction with picks, shovels and wheel barrows was exhausting for Britishers in the Bulgarian summer, and we ended up working from 5 or 6 a.m. and stopping by 1 or 2 p.m. Not many of us earned the Udarnik badges which rewarded other foreign volunteers. The French brigade was little better than us. I remember the Albanians as tiny but tough, and working incredibly hard. The Cominform split isolated them during that summer, and I think the Yugoslavs made them walk all the way home. We had the required trains but were delayed for hours by formalities at the frontiers - badly at Tsaribrod but much worse at Sezana, the border station for Trieste, where the FTT (Free Territory) authorities delayed us because they thought we were all Communists. The journey to and from Bulgaria was terribly slow because most railways had only been temporarily repaired after wartime destruction, and the food was awful - but it was worse in Bulgaria, mostly bread or pasta, with cheese, and a nasty vegetable 'tea'! People were dreadfully poor, but very friendly and eager to talk... I had my hair cut in Varna and got a hairdresser who had worked in Chicago until the Depression drove him home about 1931 or '32.

I will finish now, as this covers most of my memories and record. I hope it is mildly interesting. Our year with the Frank Thompson Brigade was not repeated, as Stalin crushed all contacts across the 'Iron Curtain' - with few exceptions.

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British brigade at Koprinka / Kazanlak 1948
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