Popski's Private Army

by Allen Parfitt
Reprinted with the generous permission of Allen Parfitt

Vladimir "Ponski" PeniakoffHis name was Vladimir Peniakoff. His nom de guerre was bestowed by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) when their radio operators had trouble getting their tongues around "Peniakoff". He liked it, it stuck, and as Popski he is remembered. His parents were Russians who emigrated to Belgium in 1894. His father, Dr. Dimitri Peniakoff, was a scientist, inventor, and industrialist who developed a technique for extracting aluminum from bauxite and built two plants in Belgium to exploit this discovery. Popski was born in 1897, the middle of three children; there was an older sister Eugenia and a younger sister Olga. Rather eccentrically, his parents brought him up to speak English as his first language, although he also spoke excellent French and German and passable Russian and Italian. He was attending the Universite' Libre of Brussels when World War I broke out, upsetting his life, his family's life, and the lives of millions of others. Popski and his father walked over the Dutch border, leaving the women to hold the fort temporarily in Belgium. He and his father soon went to England, and Popski attended Cambridge for a short time. By 1915 the whole family had made it to Paris, where Dr. Peniakoff went to work in the French war industry and the girls attended the Sorbonne.

Popski's activities during the World War I are mysterious. In the introduction to his memoir "Popski's Private Army", he writes that he "left [Cambridge] enlist as a private in the French army", that "eleven days later I reported to my battery, a full fledged gunner." and that "I was invalided out of the army shortly after the 1918 armistice". However, his biographer, John Willett, was unable to find the slightest trace of his service in the French Army, and, having access to the family papers, found several pieces of correspondence to his family indicating that Popski was working in war industries in 1916 and 1917. Did he serve briefly in the French army, as Willett thinks is possible? Did he invent the whole thing? Or did he in fact serve on the Western Front and the records are lost and the correspondence misleading? We may never know.

After the War Popski attended Grenoble University, and received a Diplome d'Ingenieur-Electrician, his only formal degree, and returned to Belgium to rebuild one of the family factories there. He did so successfully, but several unpleasant events left him depressed and unhappy. The most important was the sudden death of his beloved younger sister to pneumonia and influenza in 1921. In the same year Tanya Drapchenko refused his proposal of marriage. Tanya was also of Russian background, serious, attractive, a specialist in skin diseases. Her refusal was not the end of their romantic relationship; they saw each other off and on for the next five years and were "engaged" at one point, but they could not make their relationship work and finally parted in 1926. "Many of Popski's friends see this as the great tragedy of his life", says Willett. In response to these disappointments, Popski did two rather surprising things. First, he moved to Egypt in 1924 and took a job as an engineer in the sugar industry. The job was undemanding and routine, he did not like his fellow workers, he constantly complained and talked about quitting, but he worked there for the next sixteen years. Second, he married Yvonne ten Bergen in 1928. Yvonne was young and pretty, but they had little in common. Willett suggests that Popski was envisioning a Pygmalion-like relationship. The marriage produced two daughters, but was not a success. "My wife, whom I had been on terms of friendly disagreement for many years....." says Popski in a terse paragraph summing up the end of his civilian life. Divorce came in 1942. There were, however, two things Popski very much liked about Egypt: the desert, and the people, especially the "Badawan". He learned Arabic, and traveled in the desert with help of a modified model A Ford that he christened "The Pisspot".

There was not the slightest reason for Popski to become a British soldier. He was in his forties when the war began, working in a food producing industry. His only military experience was his shadowy career in the French Army. He was a Belgian citizen. Yet from the very beginning he was determined to get into the war. He talked to the army, the navy, the air force. They told him to go home. As a national of a neutral country, they had no use for him. When the Germans stormed into Belgium this changed his status enough that the authorities were willing to look at his unique qualifications and offer him a commission in October 1940 as an officer in the 3rd Battalion of the Libyan Arab Force. In principal, the LAF was a good idea. Italian Policy in Libya resembled American Indian policy in the 19th century--at best, reservations and handouts, at worst, genocide. The Arabs hated the Italians, and there were enough Arab refugees in Egypt to form several battalions, officered by British. But the attempt to train and prepare the Arabs, armed with antiquated light weapons, into a force that could stand up to the Italians, let alone the Africa Korps, was doomed. The British lost confidence in the LAF, the LAF lost confidence in the British, and the force was relegated to police and guard duty. This was not what Popski had in mind, and in March 1942 he proposed that he and a small detachment from the LAF undertake a mission behind Axis lines to contact friendly Arabs, perform sabotage and gather intelligence. Popski, by this time a major, an inexperienced but eager Arabic-speaking lieutenant named Shorten, and a dozen soldiers from the LAF were taken out from Siwa by a patrol of the LRDG. He met up with a Captain Chevalier and a Major Chapman who were already in place, and together they established a road watch that provided the Eighth Army with accurate intelligence for the next five months. He also had numerous meetings with local sheiks and Arab leaders, and partly as as result of information he gained from them, blew up at least three fuel dumps containing some 20,000 gallons of petrol.

This expedition was the making of Popski, and was obviously very important to him. In his memoirs he describes it in great detail, quoting lengthy conversations. Several things emerge. First was his sympathetic appreciation for the position of the Arabs in Libya. Occupied by a cruel oppressor, their homes the battleground of two alien armies that viewed them with open contempt, they were having a very hard time. He explicitly rejects any Lawrence role: "I had never tied to impersonate an Arab, and I couldn't have done it if I had wanted to....I can only be myself....To them I remained always a stranger--a very friendly one--and I never tried to make them forget that I belonged neither to their race nor to their religion." But he understood their problems and their limitations, and also their potential. Second was his appreciation of intelligence. It is dangerous fun to blow things up, and sabotage can be very useful. It is tangible and satisfying to see warplanes and petrol dumps go up in a cloud of fire and smoke, and the effect can go far beyond the immediate destruction. One reason that the American Air Force in Hawaii was destroyed so easily on December 7th was that the planes were parked in the center of the airfield close together so they could be guarded against the wholly illusory threat of sabotage instead of being dispersed and camouflaged. Lurking behind a clump of grass counting and classifying enemy vehicles on a road is not so glamorous, but is perhaps even more important. Every good general desperately wants to know where the enemy is, how strong he is, and what he is doing. Intelligence supplies the answers to these questions, and whether the PkW IV's and command cars are moving east or west, and in what numbers can provide vital clues to the answers to these questions. Third was the pleasure and excitement that Popski found in what he was doing. Having frittered away the first forty years of his life, he had at last found his metier, and the joy and wonder of this discovery pervades every page of "Private Army."

However, when Popski finally returned to Cairo in August of 1942 he found that his unit was disbanded and nobody had the slightest use for him. Meeting Colonel Shan Hackett Popski poured out his grievances: "'Five months on operations...back to Cairo to find my unit disbanded, myself without a posting and my pay stopped for the last four months.' Shan Hackett … sat back in his chair and burst out laughing. ‘Now Popski, for your private reasons you fade out into the desert for your private convenience, taking orders from no one and when you choose to come back you expect H.M. Government to pay you for your fun!' My surly self-righteousness dissolved, the last fumes of Jebel fever blew away, and I was ready once more to behave sensibly." It's a good story, but it does illustrate one of Popski's less lovable traits--he had a temper, and occasionally let it get away from him. As it happened, various people had heard of Popski, and he was offered several chances to go out again. He turned down an offer to attack Tobruk with John Haseldon because he thought the plan was hare-brained. Instead he decided to go on a raid on Barce with Jake Easonsmith of the LRDG. Popski also gives a detailed account to this trip in "Private Army". He starts with a lyrical paragraph about Jake Easonsmith, who was his ideal of a commander. "I served him with a devotion which I have given no other man." Popski also received a crash course from Easonsmith on how to run a trip like this--lessons he later put to excellent use. Popski's official duties were to act as liaison with the local Arabs. There was not a lot of contact with the Arabs, so Popski had plenty of time to admire Easonsmith's leadership. Jake Easonsmith later became commander of the LRDG and was killed during the fiasco on Leros in 1944. The raid on Barce was a modest success. The patrol reached Barce unobserved, shot up the town, destroyed a dozen or so aircraft on the field, and escaped. The only flaw was the inclusion of a squad of Guardsmen. First their commander impatiently turned over his jeep on the tortuous approach through the Sand Sea, then the Guardsmen got drunk during the actual attack, turned over their truck, and had to be rescued. This caused a delay which allowed the Italians to locate the expedition from the air, and bomb and strafe it thoroughly. Most of their vehicles were destroyed, Popski was wounded in the hand, and the expedition had to be rescued by other elements of the LRDG Popski was flown to Cairo and spent five weeks in a hospital for New Zealand troops.

When he got out Popski went to see Colonel Hackett, who was charged with organizing the various irregular units that had sprung up around the Eighth Army. He liked Popski, and authorized him to create a small unit dubbed "No 1 Demolition Squadron." Popski hoped to associate this with the LRDG, which he admired very much, but the commander, Colonel Prendergast, wouldn't have him. Prendergast felt the LRDG was big enough, and feared that Popski was too laid back and easygoing to command a squadron successfully. So Popski was on his own. No.1 Demolition Squadron didn't exactly trip off the tongue, so Popski looked for a name that would be "short, fanciful, easy to memorize and, for security, such as would give no indication of its nature." None came immediately to mind until Hackett said, "you had better find a name quick, or we shall call you Popski's Private Army." And so it was, officially.

By this time Popski had very strong ideas about how he wanted to run his unit, and to a large degree he was successful in implementing these ideas. He wanted no part of conventional military discipline. If members of the PPA didn't measure up, the sole disciplinary action was Returned to Unit (RTU)--in other words, they were fired. Popski was also determined to keep the PPA small, and to select the men he wanted himself. He showed great skill in finding suitable recruits. Although many of his men had not fit in well in conventional military units, hence were very available, all accounts of the PPA stress extremely high morale and esprit d'corps. In cases where unsuitable officers and men crept in, well, RTU. Popski visualized the PPA as hard-hitting and mobile. For this reason the unit was built around armed jeeps. Assembled by Willys and Ford, equipped with a reliable 60hp 4-cylinder engine, the original jeeps were rugged dependable go-anywhere vehicles. Everyone loved them, even the Russians. Although they were produced by the zillion, there were never enough, and Popski was lucky to start with four of them and two three-ton trucks. His jeeps were armed with twin Vickers .303 cal. machine guns on swivel mounts. Although Popski had no hesitation about getting into action with the enemy, he preferred to do so on his own terms. His idea was to go where the enemy did not expect him, hit hard, then leave before the enemy could hit back. He liked to dish out punishment, but not take it. "Improvisation and dash are foreign to my nature, unknown risks make me uncomfortable", he wrote. "I am never so happy as when I can spend my time making cautious preparations." These seemed strange words for the commander of a small unit sent off behind enemy lines, but he meant it, and he was right. Perhaps the greatest of Popski's gifts was his strong sense of risk versus reward. He regarded his men's lives as precious assets, to be risked, yes, but intelligently and in the hope of military gain. He consistently followed this philosophy, and as a result the PPA had an amazingly low casualty rate, considering their various adventures and misadventures. It is interesting to contrast this philosophy with the operation that almost cost Britain one of its greatest travel writers. Eric Newby describes Operation Whynot in the first chapter of his fascinating book "When the Snow Comes They Will Take You Away". "We all knew we were embarked on worst possible kind of operation, one that had been hastily conceived by someone a long way from the target, and one which we had not had the opportunity to think out for ourselves." Newby and his mates were dumped on the shore of Sicily with orders to find an airfield, blow up planes, and swim out to get picked up by a submarine. They did not blow up any planes, they missed the submarine, by the Grace of God they were picked up by an Italian fishing boat and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war. It is also relevant to note that the Tobruk operation that Popski refused to join was a complete fiasco, resulting in heavy loss of life for no discernible gain. This was not Popski's way.

Popski's first recruit was his best, a Scots captain named Bob Yunnie. Yunnie had also been in the 3rd Battalion of the LAF, and had caught Popski's discerning eye. He also wanted, and presently got a French officer named Lieutenant Jean (Jan) Caneri, also from the 3rd LAF. Both these men were solid gold, and with Popski himself formed the strong leadership that the PPA enjoyed until the end of the war. Yunnie's memoirs, "Fighting with Popski's Private Army"("Fighting"), written under the name Park Yunnie, are an indispensable counterpoint to "Private Army". Popski was also able to get Regimental Sergeant Major Waterson, another Scot, and twelve raw other ranks.

Vladimir Peniakoff
Vladimir Peniakoff

As Willett states explicitly, the PPA was born too late. Designed to operate on the desert flank of the enemy in the western desert, it took form after the Battle of El Alemain ended the long struggle there, and sent the Afrika Korps in its headlong retreat to Tunisia. To find a place where it might operate, the PPA headed for Kufra Oasis, from where Popski hoped to move to the flanks of the Mareth Line, twelve hundred miles from Cairo. The trip was something of a shakedown for the inexperienced men of the PPA, and they took eleven days to make a trip which should have been made in five. When they got to Kufra they found that the war was shifting so rapidly to the east that they need to stage first to Zebel, and then to Hom, along with the LRDG. Popski kept pushing on ahead and leaving Bob Yunnie to come up behind him, which annoyed Yunnie greatly. In January 1943, south of the Mareth line the PPA finally got into action. It was not completely auspicious. Operating with a patrol of the LRDG, Popski and his men were ambushed by German armored cars, and lost several trucks, a jeep and a couple of men. Two German armored cars were destroyed. Undeterred, Popski went out again accompanied by an LRDG patrol led by Lieutenant Ken Tinker, and several Arab scouts. An LRDG patrol under Captain Nick Wilder was just returning from a mission during which it had found a possible route for the Eighth Army south of the Mareth Line. Popski and Tinker were to go through the Wilder Gap and explore the country beyond to see of there was any way that an army could follow. They met Wilder, and he warned them that the ground they would have to traverse was very difficult. It was, and presently Popski decided to make camp with his trucks and supplies, and continue the reconnaissance with Jeeps. An annoyed Bob Yunnie was left behind in a concealed wadi while Tinker, Caneri, and Popski pushed forward. They were rewarded by the discovery of the Tegaba Gap, and observed the general weakness of Axis preparations in this area. Six weeks later the Eighth Army's New Zealand Division followed this route in carrying out the "Left Hook" that routed the Afrika Korps out of the Mareth Line. Popski and Caneri headed back to Yunnie's position in high spirits, planning to undertake a program of sabotage and harassment behind the Mareth Line while Tinker returned to Hom. But when Popski arrived at Yunnie's position he found that his rear echelon had been betrayed by local Arabs, and mercilessly strafed. The trucks and supplies were destroyed, Arabs had stolen what little petrol that Yunnie and his men had saved from the wreckage, and there were two wounded. Popski, Tinker, and their men would have to scramble to save themselves. The nearest place they could find succor was Tozeur, a French outpost a hundred and eighty miles to the northwest.

"Private Army" and Yunnie's memoirs, which we can refer to as "Fighting", are consistently in agreement. Yunnie did not publish "Fighting" until 1959, and although he was in South Africa at the time, and the book mentions no references, nor does it have an index, it is reasonable to suppose that Yunnie had read "Private Army." At this point however, the two accounts diverge sharply, not concerning what happened, but about Popski's attitude. First, Popski: "The extent of my disaster filled me with sombre joy.....I had not a flicker of regret for the strenuous preparations.....Exhilarated by the urgency and the difficulty of the task, my brain functioned with a delightful, effortless lucidity, which I had never experienced before, for I am usually a slow and muddled thinker, full of questionings and doubt." Now Yunnie: "He already knew most of the story.....they had met a party of Free French Commandos who reported having seen Messerschmitts diving on the wadi and columns of black smoke rising from it after they'd gone. Fearing the worst Popski had come post-haste to investigate--leaving Tinker and Caneri at the fort--and the worst was worse than he'd feared. Couldn't I have saved the wireless jeep, just that one little jeep out of all those trucks? I felt the sting of his sarcasm. The reconnaissance had been eminently successful, he told me, they'd found the route for the armour and been right up to the Mareth defenses. He had the very information General Montgomery was waiting for, information of the most vital importance, and through my failure to save the wireless jeep he couldn't communicate it. I was a fool, an incompetent, unfit for command, second or otherwise. Popski was livid. He lashed me unmercifully with his tongue, his eyes machine-gunned me from above his grey-black beard. I hung my head in shame. What could I say?" It is impossible to believe that Yunnie made up his version, so humiliating to himself and so discreditable to his admired commander. In "Private Army" Popski writes not one word of criticism of Yunnie over the incident. Yunnie and his men had done the only thing possible--they lay under cover while their vehicles were destroyed from the air. The wonder was that there were not more casualties. There is no doubt that Popski, writing his account after the war, could not bring himself to recall that he had acted so badly, and wrote his childish tantrum out of history, not thinking that Yunnie would some day publish his own account.

Popski's main plan was good. Tinker and Caneri would head for Tozeur with the wounded men in three jeeps, send the message to the Eighth Army, and send back help. The rest would take the other jeep as far as the petrol would last, then walk toward Tozeur. There were several dangers: they might be spotted in the open by Axis aircraft, and they might be attacked and overwhelmed by local Arabs, who were definitely hostile. Early in the march Popski put on a little charade for the Arabs, pretending to be Germans, and hinting of great strength and support. In the event the walking party was not attacked, and was picked up by Caneri and brought to Tozeur three days later. But Popski was worried about an Rhodesian LRDG patrol that was coming up behind him from Hom to Tozeur and wanted someone to stay beside the burnt-out trucks and warn the Rhodesians that the local Arabs were hostile and dangerous in case the patrol should happen to stop there. He was probably hoping that the Rhodesian patrol could provide some assistance if they were told about his plight. Anxious to redeem himself, and happy to get away from Popski's wrath for a while, Yunnie volunteered. A sergeant and two of the Arabs agreed to stay with him. "I nodded and shook hands. Popski gave me a searching look. I hardly think he expected to see me again." It was something of a suicide mission. Yunnie's party was too small to defend itself against either the Axis or the Arabs, and their walk to Tozeur would be infinitely more hazardous than for Popski's much larger group. However, Yunnie was lucky. After sitting by the wreckage for five days and seeing nothing, the four men set out on their dangerous trek toward Tozeur and spotted the LRDG patrol in the distance. Although the Rhodesians were not close enough for Yunnie and his men to flag them down, Yunnie made a good guess as to where the patrol might leager for the night, and by making a desperate twelve hour forced march they managed to catch the Rhodesians before they moved on.

There is an interesting footnote to this adventure. Alan Moorehead in his famous account "Desert War" blew into Tozeur about this time, coming from the Gafsa to the northwest and looking for traces of the Eighth Army. He met a "major in full uniform" who had "captured Tozeur for the Allies" The major directed him to a camp where he met three members of the LRDG. They told him about their adventures, which included snooping around the Mareth line, being shot up by Messerschmitts, "except one jeep" and being brought to Tozeur while the rest of the party walked. These must have been Tinker's men. The major then scared Moorehead and his friends by telling them that the Germans had blocked the road back to Gafsa and predicting that the Germans would soon retake Tozeur. Moorehead and his friends eventually found a Frenchmen to take them to Tebessa. Popski says in "Private Army: "Unknown eerie creatures appeared and went: war correspondents, the first I had ever seen, who filled some of my men with whiskey and concocted incredible fables out of their drunken ramblings....." Yunnie mentions in "Fighting" how well turned out Popski was when they arrived in Tozeur, and how patrolman Locke was filling a correspondent with exaggerated stories. It seems likely that the "major" was Popski and that he enjoyed alarming Moorehead. Nor does it seem that a lot of whiskey was need to encourage the PPA to embellish their exploits.

What Popski should have done was to return to Cairo for refit and new orders. What he did was to take the PPA to Tebessa in Tunisia, and, quite uninvited, manage to have himself attached for administrative purposes to the British First Army, which had advanced with Eisenhower's army from the east. The Americans were charmed by this ragged band of swashbucklers, vanguard of the Eighth Army. They showered them with gifts: new jeeps, clothing, food. It was like Christmas. Now all that remained was to find something to do, not easy in this tightly closed battlefield. They did their bit during Rommel's Kasserine offensive by mining a tank bypass on the Gafsa-Kasserine road, and after returning to their camp near Gafsa they found an unguarded ridge leading into the German lines. A little work made a precarious trail along the ridge jeep-worthy, and the PPA was in business. After a careful reconnaissance, six jeeps slipped over the ridge and had a delightful evening shooting up the unsuspecting Germans, then laying mines to discourage pursuit. However, the Germans could see where they had come from, blocked the track, and the PPA was reduced to sniping at the German sentries. Not until the collapse of the Axis armies in Tunisia was the PPA able to roll again across the ridge and charge into Tunis.

With the end of operations in North Africa, the PPA was definitely a unit in search of a role. There was a scheme to send the PPA to Yugoslavia, and another to drop them into Italy by glider, but the their return to the war began when they were unloaded from the American cruiser Boise in Taranto in September 1943. The situation in Italy was very fluid and uncertain. The fascist government had fallen, the Italians had surrendered, but Italy was full of Germans who had not surrendered, and their intentions were unknown. The main Allied landing had been at Salerno, but the Airborne Divison had been put ashore at Taranto to secure that important naval base, insure the surrender of the Italian naval units stationed there, and to act as a diversion. What lay beyond the town was a complete mystery, and Popski was given orders to secure the surrender of Italians in Brindisi and Francavilla, inspect landing grounds in the area with a view to use by the RAF, and to determine the strength, location, and intentions of German units in the area.

This was a perfect mission for the PPA, and Popski and his men set about it with dash and enthusiasm. After accepting the surrender of a general in Francavilla and an admiral in Brindisi, Popski discovered that he could begin getting a line on the Germans and check airfields by just making calls on the still functioning phone system. Everywhere the PPA was mobbed by Italians who were delighted to see the British. Fascists had either gone north or were lying very low. The first direct encounter with the Germans was a shoot-out with a couple of armoured cars, but a few days later as the PPA rolled down a dark Italian road they encountered a line of German 5-ton trucks. Everyone but Popski was terrified, but fortunately no one opened fire, Popski waved, and the German drivers, not expecting to encounter British soldiers, just rolled on.

Popski's greatest coup came at the end of a long afternoon interviewing Italian peasants near Gravina. One of the peasants had some dealings with the local German quartermaster officer, a Major Schultz. Popski went down to a deserted railway station and called Major Schultz. Posing as an Italian quartermaster sergeant, Popski told the German he had several cases of good cognac for sale: was Major Schultz interested? He was, and after some haggling, arrangements were made to deliver the booze that night. ‘I'll be driving a captured British vehicle, please give orders for me to pass the sentries." Orders were given, Popski and his crew drove up, went in, and knocked the major on the head. To their surprise and very great pleasure he had the entire strength returns for the German army in that area in front of him. Popski was able to report to Taranto that German strength in that area was exactly 3504 officers and men, and when headquarters questioned the exact figure, give them a detailed breakout by unit and location.

Having carried out his instructions near Taranto, Popski and his men headed north. When Jean Caneri arrived with more jeeps Popski formed patrol B, put Bob Yunnie in charge, and sent him off to scout the Gargano Peninsula--the spur of the Italian Boot. Yunnie and Popski had finally put the debacle in the wadi behind them, but Yunnie was ecstatic to be allowed to go off on his own, especially since Popski allowed him to pick his men. Yunnie's account of the next couple of weeks is full of visits to places the Germans weren't, a skirmish with German engineers mining a ford, a rather close call with a column of German tanks, and meeting lots of pretty girls. Popski and Patrol A got as far as the Alban Hills south of Rome, did not find much of anything going on, and came back. Camping one night in the hills they were dismayed to find a large group of German tanks from the 16th Panzer division settling down in front of them. There was no back door, and it looked bad for patrol A of the PPA. However, the Germans were not interested in investigating the woods behind them, and as the hours wore on Popski began to consider ways of getting out of this jam. The fact that the Germans were leaguered on both sides of the road gave him an idea. Setting out demolition charges, his men exploded them on either side of the road, then opened fire on one camp, then the other. As Popski had hoped, the Germans began shooting across the road, while the PPA sneaked around behind. Just to add to the confusion Popski set off a German flare he had been saving. Just when they thought they were safe they encountered a German tank disabled across the road with two soldiers working on it. They shot one, captured the others, and took to a stream bed. A couple of bumpy hours and they were heading south again.

It was believed by many, including Popski, that after the relatively easy conquest of southern Italy that the Allies would swiftly move up the peninsula. Adolf Hitler and his proconsul in Italy, "Smiling Al" Kesselring thought otherwise. Hitler was always allergic to giving up territory, and Kesselring had a substantial force of German veterans and saw that Italy offered ideal defensive possibilities. Establishing several defensive lines across the peninsula south of Rome, and aided by bad winter weather, the Germans stalled the Allied offensive for the better part of a year. They even succeeded in rescuing Benito Mussolini and setting him up in a puppet fascist state in the north. For the PPA this meant there was no place to fight. They probed at obscure corners of the German lines, but finally in November 1943 they gave up and established themselves at several villas in San Gregorio near Brindisi for a lengthy period of training and recruitment. Their outstanding work just after the invasion made them popular at headquarters, and Popski as authorized to expand the PPA to about a hundred, with equipment to match. He would eventually form four patrols. The naming of these patrols is a bit hard to follow; at various times they were known as A, B, P, R, S, HQ, And Blitz. Popski himself went looking for men while Bob Yunnie supervised the training. In line with PPA policy, training was strictly practical--no close order drill--but recruits who failed to measure up were quickly RTU. Among the recruits brought in was a professional soldier named Ben Owen. On orphan, he had joined the local battery of the Royal Artillery in 1938 at fifteen, transferred to the cavalry, and had spent the first part of the war in Palestine doing not much of anything. Bored and impatient he eventually received commando training, was promoted to sergeant, then saw a notice asking for volunteers for "No.1 Demolition Squad" He was interviewed by Popski, accepted the mandatory demotion and became a stalwart of Bob Yunnie's B patrol. After the war he wrote a memoir titled "With Popski's Private Army" ; "With".

Vladimir Peniakoff
Vladimir Peniakoff and his jeep

During this long hiatus there were several operations projected and canceled, including a scheme for the PPA to take part in the Anzio landing. Why this was canceled is mysterious, since the failure of that operation was due at least in part to lack of intelligence which paralyzed Allied troops for precious hours after the landing. Surely Popski's men, zooming around in their jeeps, could have told General Lucas some things he needed to know, although it is a question whether he would have had the nerve and vision to take advantage of them. The only actual operation the PPA undertook was, unfortunately, a Whynot kind of operation, planned by those far from the scene. Someone thought that a bridge in front of a Guards position needed to be blown, and asked the PPA to provide a squad to do it. Popski agreed, more or less on the principle that the PPA needed to do something, and took Yunnie and B patrol to the site. Yunnie did not like the job from the first: "Back in the leaguer I remonstrated with Popski "'It's pointless", I said......"It won't make a difference to Jerry if there's a bridge or not.' Popski looked at me sternly. ‘The bridge has to be blown, Bob'"

So Yunnie, Ben Owen, and four others went forward and got into a minefield. In "Private Army" Popski implies that it was a British minefield that the Guards had somehow not told them about, but in fact the Germans had laid it. One man, Jimmy Hunter, was killed, Owen and another were badly wounded, and the bridge was not blown. Popski's account agrees exactly with Yunnie and Owen, and he adds, "I had made a mistake in consenting to the operation, and I resolved never again to engage our men in close contact with others of our troops." Of course, this resolution was not always kept, and actually the PPA was to cooperate very effectively with other Allied units on the Adriatic coast.

Finally, in June 1944 Popski managed to arrange an operation. Patrols A, B, and R--twelve jeeps and fifty men--were to be taken to a location halfway up the coast of Italy and landed behind German lines to provide intelligence and sabotage in connection with the Allied summer offensive against the German defense lines. Popski planned the trip carefully. First Bob Yunnie, two patrolmen, and two Italian partisan guides would be landed by a launch as an advance force. They would meet the landing craft, guide it in, and tell Popski the situation. But as soon as Yunnie and his men got ashore, they realized that the situation was all wrong. The Allied offensive had succeeded, and the roads were jammed with retreating Germans. "The timing was out by a week. ‘We're too late, Gino', I breathed. ‘Si, Capitano'. But Yunnie decided to signal the landing craft in nonetheless, and leave the decision to Popski. Although the clogged roads meant that the PPA would have great risk and difficulty in reaching open space for it to operate, there was potential for shooting up the retreating enemy. But when Popski heard the situation, he firmly canceled. It was, perhaps, his finest hour. The PPA could have had a brief moment of glory blasting retreating vehicles, but those vehicles were crammed with tough Wehrmacht veterans, and those columns included armored cars and tanks. The result would certainly have been a lonely shootout somewhere which would have ended the war for Popski and his men. Popski told Yunnie to go back ashore with his men, plus a couple of others, including Ben Owen, to provide intelligence, and gave the orders for retreat. Worse was to come. The clumsy landing craft ran aground, could not be floated, and had to be abandoned. All the men were transferred safely to the accompanying motor launch, but the jeeps and all the supplies were lost.

Yunnie and his men had a fine time. At first they stayed at the farmhouse of some friendly Italian peasants, then, for greater security, they moved out into the fields. They lay up by day, then went out at night, identifying targets for Allied airstrikes. Yunnie met another pretty girl, who saved his life by frantically warning him to lie low when he almost blundered into a German detachment that was requisitioning transport. Ben Owen was one of the men who went with Yunnie, and "With" has a great deal of interesting comment on these days. Like most of the PPA he respected the Germans ("Teds"--from the Italian Tedeschi), but felt nothing but hate and contempt for Italian fascists. He found Italian partisans to be a mixed bag, some brave and dedicated, some vain and self-serving. Yunnie's detachment continued to watch the roads and call in the air force until the Fermo Valley was reached by advancing Allied forces. The Germans pulled out before the Polish Divison reached their position, so for a brief time Bob Yunnie was military governor of Fermo, where he tried to limit the excesses of partisan retribution. Turning his little fief over to the Poles he commandeered a car and met up with Popski in Sarnano.

Popski had not spent a moment sighing over the disappointment of his failed amphibious landing. He had returned to the San Gregorio, picked up the ten jeeps that had been left behind there, and headed north, east of the mountains, where he knew that the Allied advance would give him scope for operations. He had a brush with the Germans near Tolentino. There was an exchange of fire, and Jock Campbell was dead. Later, Lieutenant Rick Rickwood was shot below the stomach. Reluctantly he was placed in the care of a decrepit Italian doctor in a small village. No one expected him to live. But "as in a tale" the doctor turned out to be a professor of internal medicine from an Italian university who was in exile due to his political opinions, he performed the necessary surgery, and Rickwood lived to rejoin the PPA. The meeting between Popski and Yunnie was characteristically laconic: "'Well done, Bob'. I stood stiffly to attention and saluted in my best cadet school manner. ‘Mission accomplished, sir. No casualties.' We gripped hands and laughed like drains."

Popski had found a position that suited him. Operating in the foothills of the Apennines he had plenty of space to maneuver, and there were not a lot of Allied troops to get in his way. Nor were the Germans in any hurry to depart. Near Camerino Popski met some partisans who impressed him. The were led by a Major Antonio Ferri, and his brother, Giuseppi. They had established control of a mountain valley, and their men were serious and well disciplined. Popski suggested that they join forces to kick the Germans out of the area. It was quite an undertaking. Camerino was a walled town on high ground, with an unknown number of Germans inside. Neither Popski nor the partisans had heavy weapons, and when they approached the town they were quickly driven back by mortar fire. Popski realized that the weakness of the German position was their concern about their lines of supply and communication. He had a bridge mined, but not effectively, since he did not want the Germans to look for alternate routes. Bob Yunnie began leading the partisans "Popski Ambushing" "'Who wants to go Popski Ambushing'" I asked one night when we had eaten our fill of pasta....there was a chorus of 'Io...Io....Io' from many partisan throats." Popski also dusted off the old trick of allowing a prisoner to see a doctored map showing Allied advances enveloping Camerino, then letting him escape. Then a jeep advance on Camerino. More mortars. The retreat was enlivened by Popski calling for smoke--meaning to activate the smoke generator on his jeep to cover the retreat and being offered a smoke. The German commander had had enough, and pulled out that night, harassed by the PPA and the partisans. There was a big banquet with speeches by Popski, Ferri, and Yunnie, with lots of toasts. Then the PPA headed north, leaving the Ferri brothers in charge. There's a footnote to this story, too. Antonio Ferri was an aeronautical engineer, who had operated the most advanced wind tunnel in Europe, and whose specialty was supersonic airflow. The United States had need of such an expert, and when Ferri returned to Rome in July he was recruited by Catcher-Spy Moe Berg. Berg taught Ferri's kids to play baseball and persuaded Ferri to sign a contract and go to the United States. He liked it there, brought his family, became a citizen, joined the faculty of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and eventually started his own company, General Applied Science Labs, with support from the Rockefeller family.

Yunnie's B patrol moved up into the mountains to a village called Esanatoglia. There he had an encounter with a beautiful spy, established a headquarters in an abandoned monastery, and recruited an Italian ex-officer named Guillelmo Guardone on the spur of the moment. Yunnie was notoriously hard to please in his selection of men, but his choice was often unerring. "Gigi" served with the PPA until the end of the war. He earned his keep immediately, spotting a German armored car that he sneaked up on the patrol during a shoot-out. The next day Yunnie had a sudden premonition of danger. Rousing his patrol he headed over the mountain, leaving behind Gino, who had become very ill. A few days later the partisan rejoined: the Germans had sneaked up on the monastery and, enraged at finding it empty, shot up the town and its partisan band. Gino escaped by pretending idiocy.

In October the Allies at last pierced the Gustav Line, and again both Allied leaders and Popski were hoping that the Germans would break and flee, and that the PPA could "pursue". They did not. Instead they sullenly returned to the north, blowing bridges and resisting obstinately. But the situation as the PPA advanced toward Ravenna was extremely fluid. Groups of Germans, large and small, were posted at towns and strong points, some determined to fight to the last, others ready to surrender. Allied forces were advancing, but were not particularly strong, since the main thrust up the peninsula was west of the Apennines, and troops from the Italian campaign had been drawn off for the invasion of southern France. Italian partisans of every stripe were active, and Allied prisoners, many of whom had been on the loose for over a year, were holed up or running around everywhere. In short, it was a situation made to order for the PPA. To increase their mobility the PPA acquired DUKWs--an American made amphibious vehicle large enough to hold an armed jeep. These ungainly craft were very useful in operating in the water-logged landscape, and allowed them to approach from the sea. Both Yunnie and Popski had some scary moments navigating DUKWs in the choppy Adriatic, but fortunately, no one was drowned. There was a bad casualty, though. "Bum" Curtis, a PPA stalwart since the beginning of the Italian campaign, stepped on a German mine while crossing a river, and died before he could be gotten to a hospital. Popski was also feeling poorly--probably the beginning of the brain tumor that killed him a few years later, went to a hospital in Rome, and left Jean Caneri in command. Caneri had looked after the administrative side of the PPA for several years, and was anxious to get out in the field. He took advantage of Popski's absence to take command of HQ patrol.

Near Ravenna the PPA had another good experience with partisans, linking up with the "Brigade Garibaldi". Led by a huge partisan named Ateo ("Atheist"), this band was mostly communists, but the PPA did not care as long a they were tough fighters. The PPA supplied arms for the Brigade, and the combination of the Brigade's local knowledge and willingness to mix it up with the Germans and the PPA's mobility, firepower and professionalism made life miserable for the Germans remaining in the area. Yunnie was also impressed with the Brigade's female contingent, especially a bold-eyed warrior named Ida. He reported that Ateo was "making sure that none of his henchmen went nut-gathering with the vigorous Ida." B Patrol also experimented with some new weapons. They obtained a mortar, and having been "stonked" by German mortars far too many times they knew how annoying that could be, and enjoyed lobbing mortar bombs back at the enemy. They also got a bazooka from somewhere, and Yunnie singed his eyebrows firing phosphorus rockets. There was a shield, but it interfered with aiming.

On December ninth the PPA was in action. Here is Popski's report: [A party of the 27th Lancers] "was surprised by the enemy and surrounded in a farmhouse. They reported...that they would have to surrender if they were not relieved before the evening. A PPA patrol of five jeeps moved up the only approach.....With covering fire from a troop of tanks 600 yards away they drove up to the Germans who were well dug in [on] a canal bank and were two companies strong. In spite of heavy enemy shelling the patrol came to within 30 yards of the enemy and opened fire. The action lasted fifty minutes whilst our men in the farm were evacuated, 25,000 rounds were fired, and the Germans finally fled leaving eighty dead. By and extraordinary piece of luck the only casualty of the patrol was one man slightly wounded. No vehicle suffered serious damage." The casualty was Popski and the "slightly wounded" was a serious understatement. It was also incorrect. Yunnie's B patrol had come to the rescue, and "Gigi" and another PPA patrolman were also wounded, facts Popski included in "Private Army". Popski had taken one bullet through his right hand, and his left hand was blown off. He received a DSO and was evacuated, first to Rome, then to England.

It is a tribute to the soundness of Popski's methods that, unlike many small units built around one man's vision, the PPA continued on efficiently after the loss of their charismatic leader. As before, Jean Caneri took command, and the PPA finished up its operations around Ravenna, then went into reserve for four months. The PPA had been continuously in action for more than six months. Caneri found a camp for them in the Apennines, engaged a crew of Alpine ski instructors, and taught the PPA to ski. He also made sure they didn't have any transport available. "You know what [the men] are like", he said to Yunnie later.

Both Yunnie and Ben Owen went on home leave at this time, and with Popski also away from the PPA, there is suddenly no first-hand record of their activities for the next few months. Unfortunately, there is no record that Caneri ever wrote about the PPA. Yunnie was unhappy in Scotland. "My wife had remained the same. I had changed." He met Popski in London, told him how unhappy he was, and Popski arranged to have his leave cut short. Interestingly, Popski speaks of seeing Yunnie "with his wife and son", in England, while Yunnie strongly gives the impression that he left his family in Scotland. Yunnie returned to Italy, began learning to ski, took an exciting reconnaissance ride in a Mosquito, then received the shocking news that his young son had been killed in an accident. He accepted a home posting, and passes from our story. Owen also did not particularly enjoy going home, especially since he was ordered to Aldershot as an instructor after his month's leave was up. He was still carrying metal in his body, needed surgery on his arm, got it, and finally made enough of a fuss that he was sent back to Italy, rejoining the PPA in March. Popski had the best time: "What happened to me during my extremely happy stay in England does not concern this story." He returned to the PPA in April, just before the end of the War.

With the war almost over, the PPA was given the job of disarming some of the partisans roaming around Italy. Popski was also able to realize a long-felt dream. Unloading five PPA jeeps from landing craft in the middle of Venice, and with Popski in the lead, the PPA drove seven times around St. Mark's Square. "It was my hour of triumph.", Popski says. The PPA moved to Rosegg, a small town near the Yugoslavian border, and disbanded in September 1945.

About the Author

Allen Parfitt is a retired teacher. He has had a life-long interest in military affairs. He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his wife and four cats. He is continually adding to his library of books on military history.

  • Bibliography


    Peniakov, Vladimir "Popski's Private Army" Jonathan Cape, 1949, Reprint Society 1950. Popski's story. The 1980 Doubleday edition published in the USA is severely abridged. I don't know whether the new Cassell paperback edition is complete or abridged. The Doubleday edition also lacks the index, the "Roll of Honour", the "Honours and Awards" and Brigadier Hackett's introduction.

    Yunnie, Park "Fighting With Popski's Private Army" Greenhill Books 2002, originally published in 1959 as ‘Warriors on Wheels". Yunnie's story.

    Owen, Ben "With Popski's Private Army" Janus 1993. Owen's story.

    Willett, John, "Popski" MacGibbon and Kee 1954. Out of print but usually available at a price. This book is written as a companion to "Private Army" and does not treat Popski's military career in detail.

    Dawidoff, Nicholas ‘The Catcher Was a Spy" Random House 1994.

    Moorehead, Alan, "Desert War" Penguin 2001; previous editions under different names.

    Newby, Eric "When the Snow Comes They Will take You Away", Washington Square Press 1984, also published as "Love and War in the Apennines".

    Sanderson, James Dean, "Behind Enemy Lines" Pyramid Books 1959, Chapter 10. Mainly of interest as an example of the exaggerated accounts of the PPA's exploits.

    Trewhitt, Phillip "Armored Fighting Vehicles" Barnes and Noble 1999.