Popski’s Private Army

I have just read Popski’s Private Army (PPA) about an extraordinary character who fought behind enemy lines in WW2. Popski – whose real name was Vladimir Peniakoff came across the NZ units in Egypt and a number of them were in his unit.

Popski didn’t like the upper class English officers but he did very much like what he saw as the New Zealand approach – which was all about getting on with the task and getting the job done.

The NZ approach fitted well with his pragmatism and freewheeling style. At least one NZ member of the LRDG – Edgar Sanders later joined the PPA.

hlbI can’t know for sure but there is a family story that Popski crossed paths with my grandfather in Egypt. Grandad was a doctor based in Egypt and was at the battles of El Alamein during WW2. Ironically he died from over exposure to X rays (radiology pioneer) in the late 50’s so I never got to meet him. He and Popski and may well have met each other in Egypt.

Popski started out as part of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) which was mostly comprised of NZ soldiers and he clearly liked the New Zealanders.

What was very interesting to me is that he wrote an amazing story of working behind the lines in Libya and Tunisia and later about more adventures in Italy. Unusually for a military history the book shows that a small group of soldiers with savvy leadership by Peniakoff could achieve extraordinary results way out of proportion to their size.

So often military history reads like what it is. Politicians playing chess with human lives at great cost to everyone. The classic military hierarchy is is top down and front line staff are discouraged from thinking. The LRDG and later the PPA changed that. They built a team that had strategic longer term goals and Popski built an internal culture that valued individual leadership and strategic thinking.

The wikipedia entry reads:

popski-bookPopski’s Private Army, officially No. 1 Demolition Squadron, PPA, was a unit of British Special Forces set up in Cairo in October 1942 by Major Vladimir Peniakoff, MC (nicknamed Popski; later promoted to lieutenant colonel and awarded the DSO). Popski’s Private Army was one of several raiding units formed in the Western Desert during the Second World War. The squadron also served in Italy, and was disbanded in September 1945.No. 1 Demolition Squadron was formed specifically to attack Field-Marshal Rommel’s fuel supplies, in support of General Montgomery’s offensive at El Alamein.,[1] at the suggestion of Lieutenant-Colonel John Hackett. The unit became operational on 10 December 1942 as an 8th Army Special Forces unit. After the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Air Service (SAS), PPA was the last and smallest of the three main irregular raiding, reconnaissance and intelligence units formed during the North African Campaign…
PPA was unusual in that all officer recruits reverted to lieutenant on joining, and other ranks reverted to private. The unit was run quite informally: there was no saluting and no drill, officers and men messed together, every man was expected to know what to do and get on with it, and there was only one punishment for failure of any kind: immediate Return To Unit….
At the end of the war Popski’s Private Army sailed some of their jeeps on RCLs to Venice, where they drove around St. Mark’s Square, the only wheeled vehicles ever to have been there.

I was surprised not to have heard about the PPA before and wondered if there may have been a film or screenplay about the story.

Despite many attempts over the last sixty years that we know of, starting with Powell and Pressburger, no-one has yet managed to bring the long overdue Popski Story to television or the cinema.

I think that the NZ influence on PPA and egalitarian operating mode of the team may have proved a social obstacle to film makers immediately after the war. The PPA got great results but they didn’t kiss the usual butts and I wonder if that affected film financing?

It turns out that a New Zealander in the LRDG did make some film of activities in the desert. The documentary clip below comes from Lost in Libya Television – 2009.

This documentary follows three amateur historians into the heart of the Libyan Sahara as they track the path of Kiwis in ‘T Patrol’, a unit of World War II’s legendary Long Range Desert Group. The LRDG braved extreme heat and desert conditions to launch surprise raids — in converted Chevrolets — deep behind enemy lines. In this excerpt the history hunters make their way to Murzuk, the scene of a raid on an Italian air base. It contains the only extant footage of the desert group in action, and surviving members of the patrol recall events and the LRDG’s ethos.”

I wonder if someone was making a film about the PPA and / or LRDG in 2015 what they would think were the key stories? Today there are still wars in the middle East and they seem more complex than ever.