LTC VLADIMIR PENIAKOFF DSO, MC—THE MAN THEY CALLED POPSKI
I made reference to POPSKI’S PRIVATE ARMY yesterday, and you probably thought I was joking. Not so. It really did exist, and it was highly effective. Popski (see above photo) wrote a truly fascinating book about the whole business after the war—and then died of a brain tumor in 1951. I have always felt he died happy. His private army was his life’s work.
I have long been of the view that the regular military would be vastly better off if they learned a few lessons from Popski’s experiences. For instance he matched a talent for fast-paced maneuver warfare with formidable firepower—he even came up with a flame-thrower jeep. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.
The following is an extract from Wiki.
PPA was unusual in that all recruits, including officers, reverted to lowest rank on joining – Private or Lieutenant. 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. It was also efficient, having an unusually small HQ.
Three fighting patrols, each of 18 men in six jeeps, and one Tactical HQ patrol of four jeeps were formed and given great autonomy. Each jeep was armed with .50in and .30in machine guns, giving the patrols immense firepower for their size. The men trained hard for amphibious, mountain and parachute operations, demolition and counter-demolition, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.
They were deployed in many roles, often clandestine, and for several months even operated as regular front line troops, holding a sector of the Allied front line that was badly depleted after the withdrawal of forces for the D-Day landings in Normandy, nipping around in their jeeps to fool the Germans into believing that they were opposed by much larger units.
Several operations used DUKWs or small landing craft called RCLs (manned by 7 Royal Engineerswho inevitably became known as “Popski’s Private Navy”) to sail up the Adriatic and get behind the German front line, chaperoned by the Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces.
Throughout the bitter winter weather and fighting of 1944 and 1945 PPA undertook their operations ahead of regular forces, in support of British, Canadian, Indian and Polish armored, infantry and Commando units. They located targets for the Allied Air Force, chased Germans out of rear-areas, saved bridges, captured many prisoners and guns, and accepted the surrender of the entire German garrison at Chioggia.
At various times PPA worked alongside other secret units such as the LRDG, SAS, No. 1 Special Force (SOE), Phantom, ‘A’ Force and Office of Strategic Services. Along the way they adopted many strays, including Russian, Italian and German POWs, Italian regulars and partisans, both royalist and communist.
Popski was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in November 1944, during joint operations (as “Porterforce”) with the 27th Lancers and Italian partisans of the 28th Garibaldi Brigade, to liberate Ravenna, but shortly afterwards lost his left hand to a German rifle-grenade.
Popski’s Private Army finished the war with a flourish: sailing some of their jeeps on RCLs to St. Mark's Square in Venice where they drove round and round just for the hell of it, the only wheeled vehicles ever to have been there. The unit was disbanded four months later on 14 September 1945, after hunting for Himmler, disarming Italian partisans and discouraging Josip Broz Tito’s partisans from encroaching on Austrian and Italian territory.