- Popski's Private Army -

History

'Bald, bespectaled, pot-bellied, a bit of a dreamer, 45 years old with a funny accent and a comic name, he lead an oddball group of British soldiers.'. These unlikely specifications for a character in a military force collectively describe Vladimir Peniakoff, commander of one of the most spectacularly successful irregular units of the Second world War: Popski's Private Army.

The British Army in Egypt decided they could get along quite nicely without the service of the middle-aged Russo-Belgian manager of a Cairo sugar refinery. It took the roly-poly would-be warrior a year to talk his way into the war. Nicknamed "Popski" by staff officers who found his name too un-English to pronounce, it was fluent Arabic, which finally swung a commission his way in October 1940.

Peniakoff dreaming of a Lawrence of Arbia type command, found himself in the Libyan Arab Force guarding dumps in Cairo only a gharry ride from peace time home. After a further 18 months harassing and haranging General Headquarters he persuaded the brass-hats that a small unit of Arabs, led by himself, could be of value in gaining intelligence about enemy from a hitherto untapped source, friendly Arabs behind the enemy lines. This idea received the GHQ's blessing in March 1942, the reason being, as any other, to get this pest out of their collective hair. At the end of the month Major Peniakoff and his 25-strong LAF Commandos were out into the blue. After five months in the desert, gathering a good deal of intelligence and rescuing more than 80 Allied soldiers from PW cages, he returned to Cairo to find that in his absence his tiny unit had been officially disbanded. Peniakoff reopened his campaign against the GHQ. The news of the Allied landing in North Africa provided a topical peg on which to hang his argument for his forming another irregular unit. This time, its role would be to raid and sabotage enemy installations between the advancing Eighth and the First Army approaching from Algeria. This new unit began to assemble in November 1942. A facetious staff officer suggested that "Popski's Private Army" might be an appropriate name for the rag, tag and bobtail outfit that Peniakoff was likely to raise.

"I like it; I like it" said Peniakoff. From that moment the official designation, No 1 L.R. Demolition Squadron, was destined only to be  used in the more pompous documents issued by GHQ. When the Axis armies in North Africa surrendered in May, Popski's Private Army, in 24 weeks raiding and wrecking, had destroyed 34 planes, 112 soft-skinned vehicles, 450.000 gallons of desperately needed petrol and captured 600 prisoners at the cost of two men wounded and 7 vehicles lost.

Popski's Private Army spent the rest of the war in Italy, where it was reorganised and enlarged, but its strength never exceeded 120 all ranks. Operating independently well ahead of the main forces, it achieved successes a full-scale brigade would have been proud of. In a series of commando-style raids in the coastal from the river Savio to Ravenna, P.P.A. wrested 45 miles of territory from two enemy battalions, killing 40 and taking 152 prisoners. P.P.A.'s strength in these operations was never more than 45, of whom 3 were killed and 5 wounded. A party of P.P.A. entered Chioggia on 26th April 1945 and bluffed the garrison of 17 officers and 670 other ranks, with three batteries of 80mm. guns, coastal batteries and 120 20mm. guns into surrendering. The P.P.A. force was just 12 men in 5 jeeps. On 6th May, the day before the war in Europe ended, P.P.A. crossed into Austria at Tarvisio. P.P.A.'s short but "merry hell" existence was also nearing its end. By the time it was disbanded 191 men (of whom 10 had been killed, 17 wounded and 1 taken prisoner) had served in the only unit with the cheek to incorporate the derisory term "Private Army" in its title. P.P.A. ceased to exist on 14 September 1945.

Popski's choise of the cap badge was as individualistic as his army. He chose the Astrolabe a medieval instrument of astronomy. The first badges were cut and engraved by hand in brass by a Jewish Cairo silversmith. But these proved to be too exquisite to be practical and subsequent badges were made of silver. When P.P.A. transferred across the Mediterranean it transferred its custum to a Roman silversmith. Altough P.P.A. had been accepted by the powers-that-be, in no way would they countenance its being blatantly advertised on the shoulders of the  personnel. The unit's cloth shoulder title was therefore restricted to the semi-incognito letters "P.P.A.". The first titles, made by an Indian tailor in Cairo, copied those of the unit Popski admired above all others. -Long Range Desert Group (L.R.D.G.) and were embroidered in red on a dark blue. Then Popski changed his mind and his colors. The second pattern of white letters on black was worn until the end of the war.

 

Popski's Private Army

First model, made in brass.

Popski's Private Army

Second model, made in silver.

 

Popski's Private Army shoulderbadges.

 



Popski's Private Army weaponshield.

 

Source:  P.P.A. veterans.
Photos: P.P.A. Preservation Society.

 

 
   

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