Saturday, September 12, 2020

Back To Popski

We've all heard of fabled desert raiders like the Special Air Service and the Long Range Desert Group, not so much the smaller and perhaps more eccentric Popski's Private Army (PPA). 

Popski or Vladimir Peniakoff was a Belgian of Russian descent who emigrated to Egypt between the wars, where he worked as an engineer as well as learning Arabic and desert navigation in a Ford he called "the pisspot."

When war broke out in 1939 Peniakoff, in his early 40s, tried to join the British Navy and Airforce but was turned down. Eventually he was awarded a commission in the British Army and served in  the Libyan Arab Force (LAF). 

LAF bored the adventurous Belgian, so he applied to set up a small, highly mobile commando to operate behind enemy lines, the Libyan Arab Force Commando, LAFC. The unit was approved and off it went, blowing things up and providing reconnaissance in conjunction with the LRDG for some 5 months.

On return to Cairo, Peniakoff was less than happy to discover the LAFC had been disbanded and he'd been without pay for 4 months. Colonel Shan Hackett, who controlled British special forces in the Middle East, told him had only himself to blame and sent the restless Belgian off to the LRDG for a raid on an airfield, Barce.

Back from the raid, Peniakoff was given the green light to set up his own unit, the 1st Demolition Squadron, which when pressed for something more catchy by Hackett became Popski's Private Army, "Popski" being Peniakoff's LRDG call sign.

The rest is history. PPA went on to do significant work in the western desert and from there moved on to Italy, where the tiny Jeep-mounted commando expanded to around 100 men. And Popski, who spoke Italian as well as Arabic, was notorious for gathering intel in Italy by phoning up German garrisons while pretending to be "friendly forces." Not dissimilar, when you think about it, to those Russians who call up Democrat leaders pretending to be Greta Thurnberg.

Regardless, PPA suffered very few casualties (12 KIA?) in years of fighting, a testament to Popski himself and the quality of the men under his command. He celebrated victory in 1945 by driving around St. Mark's square in Venice seven times, the first and maybe last motorised event of its kind.

So there you have it. I hesitate to post all this because I know some of the few people who read this inconsequential mind blog know far more about these kinds of things than I do. But still, Popski stands out as a remarkable man, a hero to me in my youth and also now.

Let's see more of the same and let's be honest, who doesn't want a Jeep with mounted .50s?




The area between Route 16 and Adriatic, from the SAVIO to the UNITI canal presented a problem to Porterforce. The area was intersected by canals, in some places densely wooded, and for the rest a flooded marsh. Major Peniakoff during the first fortnight in November with three patrols has liquidated all enemy opposition in this area. Every operation was planned by him, and in the majority of cases he actually led the patrols which have resulted in 31 PW and many enemy cas, and a retreat by the enemy from the SAVIO to the UNITI.

His own personal courage and drive have been the dominant factors in a notable achievement. When the floods made operations seemingly impossible Major Peniakoff personally led a Duck assault patrol, and supervised the building of a most unorthodox bridge over the GHIAIA canal in face of enemy Spandau fire. This bridge enabled a joint 27 L and PPA raid to surprise and capture 14 enemy in the village of GHIAIA.

This officer's consummate coolness and gallantry has not only made it possible to clean up a wide area of country which should easily have been held by the enemy, but his own personality has so impressed itself upon the Partisans in the coastal sector that their activities under his guidance have proved quite exceptional.


Well Seasoned Fool said...

Remarkable man.

Ed Bonderenka said...

That's a great slice of history I was ignorant of. Thanks.
A giant.

RHT447 said...

We had a surplus jeep on our ranch. By the time I was 10, I was driving it around the ranch by myself. When the series "The Rat Patrol" came out, I thought it was just about the coolest show ever.

Anonymous said...

In addition to all that ‘required’ reading I’m a bit of a sci-fi fan, specifically that sub-genre known as military sci-fi. Some of the best authors of such are published by Baen. Two of which, David Drake’s “The General” series and David Weber’s “Safehold” series, are particular favourites. The premise of these series is the (re)introduction of modern firearms into a culture still using muskets.

My point (I do occasionally have one, even if I take some time to get there) is these fictional examples examine the complete change in the tactical landscape these advances force.

We’ve all known the ‘truth’ that the coming of the longbow brought about the reduction of the power and prestige of the mounted knight, even if it took some considerable time for that fact to be recognised (especially by those knights) and early firearms to utterly destroy it/them.

Popski was an artist in the tactical use of that newest, at the time, weapon of war – mobility (specifically independent small unit).

Special forces are small, elite units carrying a significantly greater ‘punch’ than their size would generally indicate, but their effectiveness is primarily their ability to ‘be in places they aren’t supposed to be’ to use that force .

“If you are far from the enemy, make him believe you are near.” – Sun Tzu

“If the enemy know not where he will be attacked, he must prepare in every quarter, and so be everywhere weak.”― Sun Tzu

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” – Sun Tzu

So those jeeps, as you noted, ‘were’ the crucial factor (despite the fact you wanting one has more to do with ‘cool’ than any tactical evaluation lol).

(The definition of a ‘special force’ has very little to do with the actual role they perform, but more to do with how they, often using ‘unconventional’ means, get there to do it in the first place).

Peniakoff, Stirling, Wingate et al weren’t the pioneers of such (look to Rogers Rangers as proof of that) but they were at the vanguard of a complete sea-change in tactical and strategic thinking (the biggest of the war, the equivalent of Monash's combined ops in WW1). (We should be having another, though I fear we British may no longer be capable of recognising it. That baton has passed, I hope you make good use of it - we 'the free world' are all depending on you).

His DSO at least shows that the (stodgy, hidebound, fossilised) establishment recognised his contribution.

It may seem ‘controversial’ but it has always ‘annoyed’ me (I’m miffed or even, possibly, peeved by it) that there has always been a major ‘movement’ that disparages British military commanders (primarily led by ‘our own’ leftist academics). Look at WW1, Haig who spent more time visiting the front than all the German command combined did, rotated his troops religiously, attempted any and every tactical and technological possibility to protect his troops … and yet he is portrayed, almost universally (away from British military circles) as an evil, callous incompetent (Look at John Monash, universally recognised as being one of the best generals in WW1. But who recognised, put him in charge, and supported his combined operations – again not something he ‘invented’ but expanded considerably with whose support?). Yet the German officers, with as high if not higher casualties, facing the same tactical stalemate and caring not one whit about their troops, are lauded as superior (even to inventing Lions/Donkeys false slanders).

My point (again)? Peniakoff was a tactical maestro but, I’d go so far as to say, ‘only’ the British Army would have promoted, and supported him at the time. Only the British had begun to recognise and tentatively embrace the changes, and possibilities, that mobility allowed.

Name any other army where such covert small unit infiltration tactics were used, let alone widespread, until proven by us?

Joe said...

I learn something every day

Jim said...

Very interesting read, and the comment by anonymous is relevant too. I don't recall seeing many gun jeeps with .50s in place though mounting an M60 was common.

Anonymous said...


It was a case of catch as catch can. They (Popskis’s, LRDG, SAS, etc.) armed their Bantams (Willy’s MB’s) and Canadian Chevy’s (1533 x 2 30 cwt) with whatever they could. They used water-cooled Vickers .303’s, Lewis .303, even Boyse .55 anti-tank rifles, Browning .50’s and even twin Vickers K’s they ‘acquired’ when the RAF Lysanders were decommissioned and stripped.

They used all sorts of vehicles (whatever they could acquire or capture). Ford 01, Chevy 1311 15cwt and Willy's Jeeps as ‘pilot’ vehicles. Chevy WB, Ford F30 and Chevy 1533 30cwt as ‘patrol’ equipped as support, medical and even light artillery. They had crucial ‘heavy section’ trucks too for supply and artillery.

There is no such thing as ‘overkill’. Imagine a Chevy 1533 with a 40mm Bofors lol

Anonymous said...


Sorry, forgot to add.

The philosophy for the .50 was that they could be/were going up against light tanks and half-tracks and the idea was that at least with a .50 the greater mobility of the Willy’s allowed them a chance.

LSP said...

He sure was, WSF.

LSP said...

He really was, Ed, and not many know about him these days. Anon reminded me the other day.

LSP said...

Nice one, RHT. Now I want a Jeep...

LSP said...

Anon -- "It may seem ‘controversial’ but it has always ‘annoyed’ me (I’m miffed or even, possibly, peeved by it) that there has always been a major ‘movement’ that disparages British military commanders" -- I'm right with you there.

Have you read Montgomery's autobio account of WWI? I forget the title, but was struck by the professionalism he described. That's not to excuse the mistakes and horrendous loss of life, but the "lions led by donkeys" slander is just that, a slander. At least that's the way I see it.

And good point, "name any other army..." I think there's an eccentricity to the British "thing" which encourages, is that the right word?, people like Popski and the PPA. Is that so true now? I'm not sure because the culture's changing so rapidly.

Speaking of which, my eldest who's serving in S Korea uses the phrase "high speed" to describe units/attitudes he likes. As in "air assault's really high speed, dad."

That speaks, I think, to "passing the baton."

LSP said...

Joe, I'm right with you!

LSP said...

Peniakoff's pretty fascinating, Jim. And I want a Jeep with a .50, obvs.

LSP said...

Good philosophy explanation, Anon, and neat pics/links too.

Just put a Bofors in your Chevy, dammit.

Anonymous said...

I don't think eccentricity is a particularly British thing, but I do think we're the only country that ever actually celebrated it. I suspect it has to do with the fact that from the industrial revolution onwards almost all our scientific, engineering, political and military leaders were definitely in that category. (seriously, consider any of 'the greats' and they were 'flamboyant' to say the least)

The 'funny' thing is it was perhaps, despite PC reinterpretation (lying), the most tolerant of times. No one cared if you 'played for the other team' or wore a pink chiffon nightgown (at least not in the mess) as long as you did the job. Whereas now 'we' are 'made' to care and competence seems to have gone by the wayside.

Oh, the eccentricity still exists, I think it may be part of being British, but it now has to at least be able to pretend to be normal (at least when politicians and staff officers are about).

Montgomery is unfairly pilloried, and hated, especially by Americans purely, I suspect, because of Patton (who had the ear of Eisenhower, and hated being second fiddle - prima donna). Americans, amazingly considering how open towards others becoming American they are, has an almost pathological case of not invented/from here and not one of us syndrome at times. From an American perspective, and thus almost all modern documentation, he never achieved anything (except get in their way - they do have another 'issue' with remembering that whilst their involvement was crucial, mainly from a logistics perspective, there were other - ie. massively more non-American soldiers involved as well. Not that you'd know it from any American or French 'history' lol)

I may be old(ish) but even I remember 'high speed, low drag' from decades ago. Slang and terminology seems to ebb and flow in direct proportion to how 'annoying' it is to the old hands.

LSP said...

Anon, "high speed" seems to have made a comeback! Hey, the kid can get into that for all he's worth, imo.

Speaking of which, I remember a friend of the family remarking, "You speak the the way we used to in prep school in the '30s." I was 10, he was maybe in his 50s and a boor. Dead now, RIP.

And yes, tolerance. We're losing that on both sides of the Atlantic and I hate it. Do you remember the old word "cad"? Partly sums up the attitude of mind.

Off topic but... a couple of decades ago I went to meet a man at the Cavalry and Guards. As we were climbing the stairs I remarked on a famous painting of a famous charge, "Quite a thing." He replied, "Oh yes, and I was was trained to do it. Quite useless against tanks, you know."

I feel his generation was a better thing than our own.