Popski & Bagnold Lecture


POPSKI & BAGNOLD : DESERT & WAR

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
1 Kensington Gore
London, SW7 2AR



Origins of the Long Range Desert Group and Popski's Private Army can be found in 1930's desert exploration by Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. An exploration of long-hidden stories, letters, photographs and maps, about men and guns and sand, from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society and the Friends of Popski's Private Army.

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If your organisation would like to arrange for their own presentation of this one-hour, colourful, informative, entertaining, high-quality and highly-appreciated lecture, then please contact us for further information regarding technical requirements and contributions to the PPA Memorial Fund. Similar lectures about Popski himself (including a French language version), PPA, LRDG and "Special Forces in the Western Desert" are being considered.


The first foPPA lecture, by Secretary Suzi Paterson, was given at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Monday 21 May 2018. It was divided into four parts: INTRODUCTION, EARLY, DESERT and WAR, with 42 slides showing over 110 images, and included a display of rare Bagnold, Popski, LRDG, PPA and related items in the RGS Library. The lecture explored how Ralph Bagnold, founder of the LRDG, and Vladimir Peniakoff, founder of PPA, both of them Fellows of the RGS, learned how to master the Western Desert in the 1930s and then apply that knowledge to their Special Forces operations in the 1940s. The lecture was particularly well attended, setting a new RGS record for Collections Events at not less than 130 attendees, and forcing a last-minute move to the much larger Ondaatje Theatre.

All 42 of the slides are shown here, along with additional notes. Some of the images are scans of photographs and documents that were originally in the foPPA Archives, but are now at the Imperial War Museum. Various website links and the complete lecture bibliography will follow shortly, but most of the books are captioned anyway. The lecture was also filmed, so a DVD of it may eventually become available. All slides, captions, notes and lecture text © 2018 Suzi Paterson.

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SLIDE 1 – Lecture Title

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SLIDE 2 – Most editions of Popski's Book. Top left is the front page of Popski's original typescript with the title "Five Smooth Stones",
and the cover of the proof copy with the title "The Oryx and the Astrolabe", all from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 3 – A letter from George "Desert" Murray to Popski in 1950, congratulating him on his new book and Popski's 1937 Candidate Certificate
for becoming a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, proposed by George Murray and Pat Clayton, both images from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 4 – Ralph Bagnold's three books about his desert travels, his physics, and his formation of the Long Range Desert Group, from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 5 – This stunning public-domain image forms the background for all the slides and, with hindsight, should have been Slide 2.

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SLIDE 6 – Books by Royal Geographical Society lecturers Professor Andrew Goudie and Dr Barbara Bond, from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 7 – Books about military operations in the Eastern and Western Deserts by car and camel during the Great War, from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 8 – Portraits of Bagnold and Popski at the end of World War Two, from Stephen Bagnold's Collection and the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 9 – Portraits of young Popski and Bagnold during the Great War, from the foPPA Archives and Stephen Bagnold's Collection.

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SLIDE 10 – 1925 images of Popski's new house at Hawamdia, and a mid-1930's portrait
of Popski with his younger daughter Anne in the garden at Hawamdia, from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 11 – Two books about Cairo during World War Two and its lush suburb Maadi, across the Nile from Hawamdia, along with Popski's
1937 Pilot's Licence, all from the foPPA Archives. The LRDG had a base in Maadi and this is where George Murray and Pat Clayton lived,
as well as the family of Popski's first wife, Josephe Ceysens. George Murray, Director of the Egyptian Survey, entertained many desert explorers
at his house, including Freya Stark. Josephe's younger brother Jean was active in PWE (Psychological Warfare Executive) operations in Belgium,
with a pigeon-based communications network.

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SLIDE 12 – Pat Clayton's Desert Survey Ford Model TT in 1927, with two unusual Frontier Districts Administration half-tracked
6-wheel Model T Fords, and one of Ralph Bagnold's 1932 Expedition Model A Fords, from the Royal Geographical Society Archives.

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SLIDE 13 – Two images from the foPPA Archives of Popski's desert exploration Model A Ford "The Pisspot".

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SLIDE 14 – Images probably from Popski's 1933 four-car Expedition to Siwa Oasis via Mersa Matruh, along with a book by Popski's
desert exploration and mountaineering friend Count Paolo Caccia Dominioni, all from the foPPA Archives. During World War Two
they were on opposing sides and nearly bumped into each other in Italian-occupied Derna in 1942. After the war Paolo dedicated himself
to recovering Allied and Axis bodies from the El Alamein battlefields for burial, and there is a memorial to him at El Alamein.

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SLIDE 15 – Five images from the Royal Geographical Society Archives of Bagnold Expedition cars being dug out of soft sand.

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SLIDE 16 – Bagnold's map of the Libyan Desert, with the outline of India superimposed for comparison, showing how far the LRDG
had to drive just to get to their operational areas each time, from his book "Sand, Wind and War". Beside it is a 1943 Italian chart
of their maps of the Libyan Desert, giving a somewhat optimistic view of what they had actually mapped, courtesy of
Professor David Atkinson, chairman of the Society for Libyan Studies.

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SLIDE 17 – A list of Italian colonial expeditions into The Fezzan in the 1930's, courtesy of Professor David Atkinson, chairman of the
Society for Libyan Studies. Professor Andrew Goudie's book describes most of the car-based desert expeditions down the Egyptian side
of the Great and Kalansho Sand Seas, from the Great War to the Second World War. The Fliegel Jezerniczky website has information
about nearly every Western Desert expedition since 1873, and a very comprehensive bibliography about those expeditions.

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SLIDE 18 – The cover of Geoffrey Chaucer's 1391 Treatise on the Astrolabe, the earliest-known English-language reference to this
significant navigational instrument, as well as the earliest-known English-language Technical Manual, along with an image
of an ornate 1564 Armillary Sphere, an alternative name for one type of astrolabe.

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SLIDE 19 – The Town Hall of Lokeren in Belgium, near where Popski's father Dimitri had his chemical factory showing, on the roof,
the astrolabe that was almost certainly the inspiration for Popski's adoption of it as a symbol for his personal bookplate,
his Nile sailing boat, and his "Private Army". All images from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 20 – Four books about the history of navigation and mapping, from the foPPA Archives. All of this was directly relevant
to Murray, Clayton, Bagnold, Popski, and the Desert Special Forces.

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SLIDE 21 - The Radio Car and Bagnold's theodolite, during his 1929 Expedition, from the Royal Geographical Society Archives,
along with a 1942 manual about Field Navigation using Astrofixes. The radio was vital for getting an accurate GMT timesignal.

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SLIDE 22 – The history of the Bagnold Sun Compass, written by desert explorer Kuno Gross who has spent considerable time in the Western Desert,
following in the footsteps of the LRDG and PPA, filming, photographing and documenting their routes. Bagnold did not invent the sun compass:
he devised a variation that could be updated "on-the-fly" while driving long distances over difficult terrain. Book and image from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 23 – Two photographs from the Royal Geographical Society Archives showing the sheer amount of
supplies and equipment that the expeditions necessarily needed to be self-sufficient.

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SLIDE 24 – Photographs from desert expedition companies showing the different sizes of fuel and oil containers used by early expeditions.
The display in the RGS Library included two Jerrycans from Count László Almásy's "Operation Salam", recovered near the Gilf Kebir
by Peter Clayton following in his father's footsteps, courtesy of the Desert Raiders Associaion.

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SLIDE 25 – The LRDG were not the only Western Desert Special Forces unit to adopt a scorpion as their badge. The Italian Auto-Saharan Company
did it first, then the LRDG, and then the German Sonderkommando Dora.

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SLIDE 26 – And neither did the LRDG have it all their own way in the Western Desert. British and Italian units clashed at Jebel Sherif,
South of Kufra Oasis, in 1941, with the LRDG Patrol destroyed and Captain Pat Clayton captured. The limited-edition book,
from the foPPA Archives, has hundreds of contemporary photographs contrasted with recent, mirroring, colour images,
and film of the expedition to document it all is also available as a DVD called "Lost in Libya".

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SLIDE 27 – These two images are from a photo album captured at Hon by the LRDG in 1943. The album was donated to the Royal Geographical Society
by the LRDG's Intelligence Officer Bill Kennedy Shaw, a Fellow who had been on many of Bagnold's expeditions before the war.

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SLIDE 28 – The German Sonderkommando Dora wasn't strictly speaking a Special Forces unit. It was a survey unit like the LRDG,
but without a brief to conduct intelligence-gathering or offensive operations. Sk Dora clashed with a joint LRDG-PPA Patrol
in Wadi Zem Zem, South-East of Tripoli, in early 1943, with both sides suffering vehicle losses.

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SLIDE 29 – No discussion of Western Desert exploration and wartime shenanigans would be complete without mentioning the inspiration
for "The English Patient". Hungarian Count László Almásy was a well-known and accomplished desert explorer between the wars,
who helped the Germans to infiltrate two spies into Cairo, using the sames routes (in reverse) across the desert as Bagnold and the LRDG did.
This particularly comprehensive limited-edition book uses contemporary black and white and matching recent colour photos to tell
the whole story of "Operation Salam". Unfortunately for the conspirators, a very sharp young lady cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park spotted
one of their radio messages from the deep desert and understood immediately its significance – there weren't supposed to be any German units
within hundreds of miles of that location. In Cairo, Major A.W.Sansom, head of the local Field Security Service, therefore knew that the spies
were on their way, watched them to find their contacts, and then arrested them. Almásy's Ford Model A has recently been carefully
and authentically reproduced by two experienced desert explorers, and field-tested in Tunisia, where it proved to be better
at managing the terrain than modern four-wheel drive vehicles. All books from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 30 – The SAS only get a brief mention because their origins are not in Western Desert exploration,
but rather in the shortcomings of regular commando operations.

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SLIDE 31 – It was the LRDG's Intelligence Officer Bill Kennedy Shaw who gave Popski his nickname, as he reminded him in this 1950 letter,
written when Popski's book came out and rapidly became a best-seller. Lieutenant-Colonel 'Shan' Hackett then named Popski's new unit
in exasperation at his indecision at picking something. The unit's official name was "No 1 Demolition Squadron, PPA", with the cover name
of "Popski's Private Army", a sly dig at GHQ regular staff officers. "Popski" was chosen because the LRDG had trouble on the phone
getting people to understand "Peniakoff". Hackett was newly-appointed to co-ordinate desert special operations after the debacle
of "Operation Agreement", the disastrous raid on Tobruk, and later found fame at the Battle of Arnhem.

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SLIDE 32 – However, Bill Kennedy Shaw was wrong about the origin of Popski's nickname. It wasn't the mad, scruffy Russian anarchist bomber
from the Daily Mirror cartoon – he was called Professor Wtzkoffski. It was his equally mad, scruffy Russian anarchist dog that was called "Popski".
Since the LRDG knew Popski had Russian origins and a habit of blowing up Rommel's petrol dumps, this anarchist image of him seemed very apt.

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SLIDE 33 – This map is one of four in some editions of Popski's book. It shows the route taken by the LRDG for "Operation Caravan", the raid
on Barce airfield and town in Cyrenaica, as well as the evacuation flight route for the casualties. The main route shown is the journey
that Popski's Private Army took from Cairo in November 1942 to Tozeur in February 1943. Operationally, PPA did relatively little in the
North African Campaign: it was the following two years of the Italian Campaign that showed what they could really do.

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SLIDE 34 – The Barce Raid in Cyrenaica by the LRDG was one of four planned to happen simultaneously, with a major multi-force attack
on Tobruk, an SAS attack on Benghazi and a Sudan Defence Force attack on Jalo Oasis. Only the Barce Raid succeeded, as details
of the others had leaked to Axis forces. It was led by LRDG's Major Jake Easonsmith, and Popski had been included in it because
he had just spent three months in Cyrenaica, working with the local Libyan tribes. Book from the foPPA Archives, LRDG truck image
from the Royal Geographical Society Archives. Photograph colourised by Benjamin Thomas.

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SLIDE 35 – The LRDG's primary tasks were intelligence-gathering on infantry and tank movements, and terrain surveying
to clarify where Allied tanks could and could not operate. For many months they kept up a continuous road-watch far behind Axis lines.
LRDG personnel photographs colourised by Benjamin Thomas of "Colours of Yesterday".

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SLIDE 36 – The techniques and equipment for getting vehicles out of soft sand had been thoroughly worked out
and tested on many Bagnold expeditions between the wars.

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SLIDE 37 – The techniques and equipment for managing supplies, fuel and oil, and conserving water, had also been
thoroughly worked out and tested on many Bagnold expeditions between the wars.

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SLIDE 38 – After the Battles of EL Alamein the war moved rapidly Westwards, and the LRDG and PPA had to move out of their base
at Kufra Oasis, tracking the Axis forces in parallel as they withdrew. Images from the foPPA Archives.

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SLIDE 39 – This is one of the very few photographs of PPA in the Western Desert, from the foPPA Archives. Popski is known
to have kept a photo album, but this has been lost since about the late 1950's.

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SLIDE 40 – The LRDG and PPA moved to Zella Oasis at the end of 1942, in time for a combined Christmas/New Year jolly.
This menu, signed by many of the most famous names in those units, is in the foPPA Archives. Within a few short months
the North African Campaign would be over, and the LRDG and PPA would have no more deserts to fight in.

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SLIDE 41 – Woops. This is an Arabian Oryx. The North African Oryx are extinct.
So what did Bagnold and Popski see in the Western Desert that they thought were Oryx (see Slide 2)?

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SLIDE 42 – Acknowledgements


Copyright © 2018 foPPA
1 July 2018