Popski’s Private Army (A Legendary Commander’s Incredible True Story Of World War II Commando Combat)
by Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff, DSO, MC
Hardcover in dustjacket, 336 pages
Published by Nelson Doubleday, Book Club Edition 1980
Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
Major Vladimir Peniakoff was a Belgian national of Russian descent. Commissioned a Major in the British Army at age forty-five, he found himself attached to the Libyan Arab Force Commando, and soon found himself in the Libyan Jebel Akhdar, working with the Senussi Arabs behind Axis lines. There he enlisted their support and enjoyed Arab hospitality while setting up an intelligence network to report on enemy movements and engaged in various forms of sabotage and other mischief, “spreading alarm and despondency” in the phrase of the time. Peniakoff goes into great detail concerning his activities and his interactions with the Senussi, whose customs are fascinating and likely have been little changed in over a thousand years. One interesting tidbit, the Senussi word for “enemy” is the same as their word for “Christian”.
He became known as Popski due to the difficulty of understanding the name Peniakoff over the radio. After many adventures behind enemy lines, he was recalled to headquarters where he set about raising his own unit, roughly on the model of the S.A.S. Long Range Desert Group. This became known as Popski’s Private Army, I was surprised to learn that was the unit’s official designation. Special operations units enjoy considerable latitude.
From North Africa the PPA moved to Italy, operating mainly as a harassing force behind enemy lines and gathering intelligence. In this they were supported by Italian partisans. The mountainous terrain limited mobility, offset to a degree by the availability of landing craft to insert PPA jeeps behind the lines. In both theaters the force relied on subterfuge as much as their mobility, sometimes able to move about in plain sight mistaken for other Axis forces simply because no one could believe a British unit could be operating in the area.
This story is the sort of adventure tale which one would expect from a Hollywood movie but nobody would believe it was true. Peniakoff writes in a noticeable English style which I found very enjoyable to read. He does not shy away from admitting doubts or mistakes which only makes him more human, and which makes his successes even more enjoyable for the reader. An outstanding book which is hard to put down, highly recommended.