Lt Col Vladimir Peniakoff DSO MC – POPSKI
Russian born, former sugar-manufacturer of Cairo, master of five languages, cultured, well-read, and known as Popski.
Before WW2 Popski was a desert navigator who spent much of his holidays and spare time crossing the Libyan Desert. He had also served in the Libyan Camel Corps. When war broke out he immediately volunteered for the British Army, and was commissioned to the General List in Cairo. Fluent in Arabic, and very familiar with the Libyan Desert from pre-war expeditions deep into the Sahara, war found Popski working alongside the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS behind enemy lines, raiding airfields, and generally being a nuisance to the enemy.
The Middle East, at this stage in the war, had become a Special Forces and Small Raiding Units paradise. It offered open flanks, few civilians and towns, and the birth of many private armies. In Cairo mid-1942, all these Private Armies were being assessed for their usefulness and organised into some kind of order. Popski, at this stage, had just returned from a raid on the desert airfield at Barce, and was recovering in a hospital in Cairo, having been injured in his hand with the loss of a finger. He asked for an interview with Brigadier Shan Hackett to discuss his future.
Initially, he wanted to remain with the LRDG, but left the office, rather reluctantly, forming a new unit called No 1 Long Range Demolition Squadron. He was not happy with the title. Within five days he sported shoulder flashes bearing ‘PPA’ – Popski’s Private Army – and an astrolabe cap badge worn on a black beret. The title of Popski’s Private Army was agreed by Brigadier Hackett.
As with most Special Forces units, all men are volunteers, who revert to the rank of private on joining, starting on the bottom rank of the promotion ladder within the unit – although they retain their rank in their parent unit when/if they return. Then, as now, few Regiments were agreeable to the release of their best men to Special Forces Units, and many arguments ensued. In many cases Popski recruited prisoners from the Regimental guardrooms.
The unit operated throughout the North African Campaign in specially adapted jeeps. In liaison with the SAS and LRDG [Long Range Desert Group], PPA’s main roles were sabotage, raiding, and Intelligence gathering. Eventually, after having linked up with allied forces in Tunisia, the war in North Africa came to an end.
With a change of operational venue to Italy imminent, new training methods, new vehicles and organisation, including travelling into battle in gliders and landing craft, were under consideration. The unit’s days in the open desert were over, mountains needed to be crossed and fought over. Working alongside No 1 Special Force in Italy, PPA became raiders, Intelligence gatherers, fought alongside Italian partisans in the mountains and collected in and assisted POWs escaping from the camps. During an action in Northern Italy, Popski was badly injured, resulting in the loss of his left arm. After being hospitalised, he re-joined the unit, and continued into Austria, chasing and harassing the enemy back into Germany. Finally, near Wolfsberg in Austria, PPA linked up with the Russian army. After the war Popski settled in London with his wife and daughter. Sadly, he died a short time later.