Friends of Popski's Private Army


Major John Davies Campbell CVO CBE MC and Bar
1921-2015

It is with the greatest regret and personal sadness that we must announce the death of John Campbell, our great friend and foPPA chairman. John died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of Thursday 30 July, at the care home in Ludlow where he had been looked after during the last year and a half. He suffered a series of mini-strokes that he always pulled back from, to the surprise and relief of his wife Shirley and their children Lulu, Tara and Piers, having been given the Last Rites three times.

Major John Campbell CVO CBE MC and Bar<br />1921-2015
Major John "Bulldozer" Campbell CVO CBE MC and Bar
Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic
Special Forces Soldier, Colonial Officer, Diplomat, Businessman
1921-2015
Skipper of 'S' Patrol, PPA
Chairman of Friends of Leominster Priory
Chairman of Friends of Popski's Private Army

Photo shows John giving a commemorative speech in fluent Italian in front of the new Remembrance Plaque
to Popski and the Partisans in the Narthex of the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe.
This well-attended celebration was part of foPPA's 'Operation Diamond'
Remembrance and Reunion trip to Ravenna and Venice in September 2005.
(Guy Harris)

OBITUARY PART ONE - JOHN'S WAR

Gugnuncs and Spies

John, aged 93, died only a few weeks after his childhood pal and foPPA Patron Sir Christopher Lee, who was thrashed at their prep school for hiding John's football boots. It was at this school in Queensgate, Kensington, that they both became dedicated Gugnuncs, and Christopher suggested that they should also both be spies. John's death leaves only two known survivors of Popski's Private Army.

"Most daring of us all"

Popski said that John rose to become the fourth of the original 'Big Three' PPA officers, having made a name for himself with his cloak-and-dagger operations as Skipper of 'S' Patrol. He also became, to the Allied rear headquarters in Italy, "known and feared for an awesome obstinacy" in wresting PPA's supplies and equipment from reluctant Quartermasters. Having started his overseas military career in unfortunate circumstances at El Alamein in 1942, John more than made up for this during the Italian Campaign where, Popski said, "when later I put him in charge of a patrol he developed into the most daring of us all...and got himself two Military Crosses."

John Davies Campbell was born in Monasterevan, County Kildare, on Armistice Day in 1921, to an Irish mother, society beauty the Honorable Eugenie Anne Westenra Plunkett, daughter of the 14th Baron Louth, and whose 1936 photographic portraits are in the National Portrait Gallery archives, and Major William Hastings Campbell. John's first birthday party was attended by three-year-old Pamela Firth, later to become Popski's second wife, the first of many strange coincidences in his eventful life.

Failure in North Africa then success in Italy

2nd Lieutenant John Campbell, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
2nd Lieutenant John Campbell, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

After Cheltenham College he was studying Chemistry at St Andrew's when he was called up in the Summer of 1940, joining the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. John was commissioned a year later, then saw action as a platoon commander in the Battles of El Alamein in 1942. He narrowly escaped death in a shallow trench one day when his companion asked for a light. As John lit a match and leant over towards him a shell hit the back of the trench where his head had been seconds before. Later there was a minor action which didn't go at all well for him, with the unfair result that he was relegated to mundane rear-echelon duties. Eighteen months later, in April 1944, he was languishing in a Reserve Depot near Naples when he was given a strange opportunity to get back into action by volunteering for Special Forces.

The circumstances were rather odd: one day, thoroughly fed up with his lot in life, he started checking through his kit and found a small green box marked "Eating Chocolate". He had no idea how it got there but opened it and discovered that it contained an astonishing collection of German "booby-trap" devices, complete with instructions. He took it immediately to the Training Officer, a First World War veteran who proudly collected German militaria: "I've got something here which might interest you, Sir." In return the impressed and grateful chap asked John if he had any problems... "Well, I wanted to get into Special forces". He took John straight to the Depot Posting Officer and bypassed a long queue of officers senior to John. The conversation went like this..."I say, Bill, I’ve got a candidate for Special Forces here, brilliant boy, just the type. Speaks Italian like a native." "Well," said Bill. "I know the Adjutant of No 1 Demolition Squadron. It's believed to be one of the most difficult to get into. I'll send him a wire. Will that do?"

At first Popski didn't like him but was persuaded by Captain Jan Caneri to give him a chance. It was over the following months that he surprised Popski, and possibly himself, by his success, as PPA's 22 year old new Adjutant, at outwitting the notoriously parsimonious Quartermasters of Eighth Army.

Two new Jeeps for each one blown up

Popski's "Operation Astrolabe", a plan to get 12 Jeeps - two patrols - behind the German lines by an amphibious landing out of Manfredonia was literally sunk by an uncharted sandbar that grounded RNVR Lieutenant Henry Dale's Tank Landing Craft on a cold and moonless night. The sailors, men of PPA and a supporting contingent of 9 Commando, 140 in all, had to swim over to and cram onto P.402, an ex-US Air-Sea Rescue Motor Launch that was part of SOE's Adriatic Secret Flotilla. They were whisked away as dawn was breaking, while the Landing Craft, all the equipment, and the 12 lovingly prepared, heavily-armed, top condition, PPA-customized Patrol Jeeps were all blown up, barely a hundred yards from the landing beach. Not that the many German troops and convoy drivers noticed, up on the overlooking coast road: they were in a frantic full retreat in the face of Eighth Army's pressure.

PPA Patrol Jeeps in San Gregorio
PPA Patrol Jeeps in San Gregorio, 1944

Back at PPA base at San Gregorio, high and deep in the Matese mountains, Lieutenant John Campbell and Corporal Ron Jewell had sat through the night, playing rummy, talking politics, and monitoring the Operation's signals coming through on the Brigade-strength SCR-299 Mobile Radio Station manned by Eighth Army attached Signalmen Hamilton Tyler and James Helleson. By the time Popski had got back to base, despondent at the failure of the mission and the loss of half of PPA's Jeeps, John had been to two different Quartermasters, and told each of them the same tale about the loss of 12 Jeeps in a "very secret operation that he was sure they knew about" (having made up a fictitious Operation name), wink, nudge, tap nose, to flatter their egos. Popski couldn't believe it when he got home and found 24 shiny new Jeeps waiting for him.

Cloaks, Daggers, Lancers and Partisans

xxx

In September 1944 Acting Captain John Campbell took over as Skipper of 'S' Patrol, as Eighth Army pushed hard up the Adriatic Coast to try to liberate Ravenna before the winter set in. This was an intense period for PPA, fighting on the front line as part of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Horsbrugh-Porter's "Porterforce", cobbled together around his 27th Lancers and including several rag-tag units because so many regular divisions had been withdrawn to Blighty for the Normandy Landings. John won his first Immediate Military Cross that December by sneaking up on a fortified farmhouse at night, having waded his six men breast-deep across marshy land for six miles. First thing in the morning they captured the 11 sleepy inhabitants without firing a shot, then coolly waited for two subsequent relief parties, capturing them too, and killing two officers who had come out to discover why their men kept on disappearing. The farmhouse was never reoccupied by the spooked Germans. John's tough Patrol Sergeant Bill O'Leary had won an MM during a similar sneak operation that John led only a few weeks before.

Unusually for PPA, the whole unit operated together at this time, working closely with Arrigo 'Bulow' Boldrini's very effective 28th Garibaldi Brigade of Italian Partisans. For the rest of the war the Patrols rarely saw each other. John perfected his fluent Italian here in the Byronic Pineta di Classe and made many Partisan friends that he kept in touch with after the war. It's not known if he kept in touch with "tough but comely" Ida though, who stole his automatic pistol but reluctantly returned it when told that he could be court-martialled. PPA were continuously in action, alongside the 27th Lancers, for six months before withdrawing to their new base near Rimini for the winter, having helped to liberate Ravenna and its many Byzantine architectural gems. They and the Lancers (another forgotten unit of the Italian Campaign) were to fight together all the way up Italy and into Austria, playing to the firepower, strengths and agility of the 13-ton armoured Staghounds and PPA-modified 5cwt Jeeps.

PPA Officers' Reunion Invitation November 1945
PPA Officers' Reunion Invitation November 1945

It was during this period that John earned his nickname of "Bulldozer", having survived three German attempts to kill him on his 23rd birthday. He took these quite personally. The first two were anti-personnel 'S-mines', set off by his Jeep - just bulldozing his way through them - whilst the third was another example of the strange luck that seemed to follow him round. He had just driven up to a farmhouse South of Ravenna, parking his Jeep by the door on the side away from the enemy of course, and went inside. No sooner had he done this than a shell came screaming over, prompted perhaps by an arty spotter noting his arrival. The shell came in through a second-floor window, flew down the staircase, went out through the open door, and then totally destroyed the Jeep.

Panzerfausts and 88's are no Bar to a Military Cross

xxx

The following April, during the fast-moving closing stages of the war in Europe, 'B', 'P' and 'S' Patrols, along with the Tac HQ 'Blitz' Patrol, were operating widely across North-East Italy, harrying the Germans with counter-demolition operations to preserve bridges, locating bombing targets and giving the impression that stronger forces were already facing them.

John in his Irvin Jacket checking his maps during a patrol halt
John in his Irvin Jacket checking his maps during a patrol halt.

In the space of six days John charged at large dug-in German groups twice, all guns blazing. Each PPA Jeep had .30 and .50 belt-fed Browning machine guns, giving each patrol the firepower of a Battalion. The first group of about 40 Germans defending a farm had several MG's and a Panzerfaust, but the speed and ferocity with which John attacked in full daylight using only two Jeeps, overwhelmed them, resulting in 8 dead, 10 wounded and the remainder captured. Only days later he spotted a small battery of 88's firing on Padua and surprised them by coming into the village through a side road. The same all-out attack tactic as before resulted in the capture of the guns, their precious predictors, the crews, ammunition and three truck loads of petrol. For these actions John was awarded an Immediate Bar to his Military Cross.

Major disappointment

'S' Patrol didn't lose a single man throughout all their hazardous operations, except Private Albert 'Chalky' White, only days after Germany surrendered. He was shot by Tito's Partisans as PPA's Patrols were sent out "to contact them and establish good relations". In reality PPA and the 27th Lancers had been tasked by General McCreery with pushing as far into Austria as possible, as quickly as they could, to limit Stalin's and Tito's post-war political and territorial ambitions.

After PPA was disbanded in September 1945, John Campbell spent the next seven or eight months somewhat dispirited after the freedom of special operations, firstly as Assistant Town Major of Velden am Worthersee and then as Town Major of Judenberg, administering 3,000 square miles of territory on a pushbike. This period at least allowed him to visit Popski in Vienna from time to time, where he had become the British-Russian Liaison Officer, newly promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. John was finally demobbed in 1946 with the honorary rank of Major.


OBITUARY PART TWO - JOHN'S PEACE

...to follow shortly...


Welcome to the Friends of Popski's Private Army website, the online part of the PPA Memorial, made possible by the Trooper Pat Blake Memorial Grant in 2010. If you are new to the Popski Story, then start here. If you are looking for information about a PPA veteran then start here.

You can also find more day-to-day discussions about Popski and his men by joining the foPPA on Facebook Group, now with over 100 members since setting up in early 2014. Enjoy!


Major John Campbell MC* Major Jean Caneri MC Captain Robert Yunnie MC Major Vladimir Peniakoff DSO MC
Major John Campbell MC*
"Bulldozer"
1921-2015

Major Jean Caneri MC
"Jan"
1915-1988

Captain Robert Yunnie MC
"Capitano Bob"
1909-1961

Lt-Col Vladimir Peniakoff DSO MC
"Popski"
1897-1951

foPPA Patron Sir Robert Crawford CBE foPPA Patron Anne Peniakoff foPPA Patron Sir Christopher Lee CBE
Sir Robert Crawford CBE
foPPA Patron
Anne Peniakoff
foPPA Patron
Sir Christopher Lee CBE
foPPA Patron
1922-2015

This is for PPA veterans and their families, for friends and fans of the remarkable Popski story, young and old, all around the world. Out of 250 verified members of PPA, in August 2015 there are now only two of them known to be still alive.

Many people are under the impression that Popski's book is all there is to see but we tell you here about other books on PPA and where to find them, and reproduce newspaper articles and other documents that have lain hidden in The National Archives, the Imperial War Museum, and various dusty attics for decades.

There is already lots of interesting and informative reference material to see, from foPPA's extensive archives, all richly interwoven with relevant cross-links and as time goes on we'll be adding more and more articles and previously unpublished images and documents – see About this website. Further information is also available on the website of our close research colleagues at the PPA Preservation Society.

Heavily armed PPA jeep in the Pineta di Classe, South of Ravenna.
Heavily armed PPA jeep in the Pineta di Classe, South of Ravenna. (See Image Credits)

Although there is some information already available on the web about Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff DSO MC and his World War Two 8th Army Special Forces unit as they fought across Libya and Tunisa then up Italy and into Austria, we have found that much of it is inaccurate or misleading, from secondary sources or just sloppy writing. This is where to find the facts about "No 1 Demolition Squadron, PPA": collected, collated, compared and confirmed over many years from primary sources.

The purpose of this website then, an integral part of the PPA Memorial, is to :-

Every year foPPA organises three remembrance events: PPA Wixoe, where Popski is buried (May); PPA Westminster, at the opening of the Royal British Legion's Field of Remembrance (November) and PPA Memorial, at the National Memorial Arboretum (November).

Corporal Frank Dobinson of
Corporal Frank Dobinson of "Popski's Private Navy" with his daughter Velia,
representing PPA at the November 2010 Royal British Legion Cenotaph March-past.
Frank and Velia did this for five years running. Frank died, age 94, on 28 December 2014 after a happy Christmas at home. (See Image Credits)

Friends of Popski's Private Army is the continuation of the post-war PPA Association run by Sergeant Eric Brooks and Captain Bob Yunnie until Popski's death in 1951, and since then Corporal Ben Owen's guardianship of PPA history until his death in 2008. We hope that you enjoy exploring these pages and feel able to support our continuing work in the National Memorial Arboretum.


Friends of Popski's Private Army supports : –

National Memorial Arboretum Armed Forces Day Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal
National Memorial Arboretum Armed Forces Day Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

Guy Harris & Roy Paterson
Copyright © 2015 foPPA
17 August 2015