- The Popski Story
- PPA Memorial Fund
- The LRDG Story
- The LCP Story
- Desert Exploration by Car
The Wixoe Memorial to Popski and Pamela
In a way some of this is just the tale of two old buildings in Italy and England. One was built on the flat coastal plain of the Adriatic littoral, surrounded by dense pine forests, and the other in the midst of the wide rolling agricultural spaces of rural Suffolk. They are separated and connected by location, time and events: from the 6th Century Byzantine Empire to the High Middle Ages of Henry I's 12th Century Norman England, and then to the 20th Century upheavals of World War Two.
This is the story of how Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff DSO MC and his "Private Army" have been commemorated (or not), from 1952 to 2014. It includes several images that have never previously been released from Popski's and other Collections in the foPPA Archives.
|6th Century Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe||St Leonard's 12th Century Grade II* church at Wixoe|
Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe
The Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe was erected at the beginning of the 6th century by order of Bishop Ursicinus, using money from the Greek banker Iulianus Argentarius, then consecrated in 549 by Bishop Maximian and dedicated to Saint Apollinaris, first bishop of Ravenna and Classe. When UNESCO added eight sites around Ravenna to its World Heritage List, it cited this basilica as...
"an outstanding example of the early Christian basilica in its purity and simplicity
of its design and use of space and in the sumptuous nature of its decoration"
|Mosaic panel of Constantine IV granting privilege to the Ravennate church|
During the bitter winter fighting of the Italian Campaign in November 1944 though, this architectural gem and its exquisite mosaics, having survived intact for 1,400 years, was in danger of being bombed to rubble in a matter of minutes. Eighth Army was slogging its way up the Adriatic side of Italy, constantly delayed by German demolition of canal banks flooding the countryside. As "Operation Olive" broke through the "Gothic Line" of defences and they got nearer to Ravenna, it was thought that Field Marshal "Smiling Albert" Kesselring's Tenth Army were using the basilica's bell-tower as an artillery observation post and there was a proposal to bring up heavy guns to demolish it.
|"'Gothic Line', June to December 1944|
Eighth Army was effectively fighting with one hand tied behind its back, as many of its divisions had been withdrawn to bolster the forces of the Normandy landings, so there wasn't a lot of room for operational finesse. Part of the Allied-controlled eastern coastal area of Northern Italy was being held only weakly by a mixture of small units called "Porterforce", built around Lt-Col Andrew Horsbrugh-Porter's 27th Lancers Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and their 13-ton Staghounds.
|Staghound Armoured Car|
Porterforce not only included the organised and efficient Partisans of Arrigo "Bulow" Boldrini's 28th Garibaldi Brigade but also a Special Forces unit called "No 1 Demolition Squadron", better known as "Popski's Private Army".
|Eighth Army||27th Lancers||28th Garibaldi Brigade||No 1 Demolition Squadron|
Popski's small force of about 100 men was supposed to be deployed behind the German lines, gathering intelligence, harassing their retreat and preventing bridges from being blown up, but at this time were being used as regular front-line troops; a desperate and literal stop-gap.
They were based in the Pineta di Classe along with Porterforce and the Partisans, and this lush pine forest, typical of the Adriatic coastline, concealed from the Germans how few of them there were, how weak the Allied front line was. PPA overcame this minor difficulty by cleverly using their three 6-jeep fighting patrols to move around the narrow forest tracks rapidly, firing off 3" mortars and their heavy .50" and .30" Browning machine guns, two to a jeep, giving the impression of a much bigger force. This was the only period when PPA's patrols operated together as a whole unit, and they were continuously in action for 6 months.
|PPA Patrol in San Gregorio, 1944|
Backing them up at Eighth Army HQ in the magnificent Palace at Caserta was Intelligence Officer Lt-Col John Willett, at 27 years old possibly the youngest Lt-Col in the army at that time. After Winchester, Christ Church Oxford and a Grand Tour of Europe "travelling and living in a clapped out van" before the war, it was Willett who tipped off Popski that this historically significant basilica was facing imminent destruction. Willett and various Intelligence colleagues, all classically educated, had been making great efforts during the Italian Campaign to minimise the damage to Italy's irreplaceable cultural landscape. He later wrote a comprehensive biography of the extraordinary man he worked with in Italy.
Popski persuaded the gunners to postpone their shelling for 24 hours and offered to sneak in at night with some Partisans to check on the extent of German occupation of the building. When they got there they found only locals, so the Royal Artillery were not needed and Porterforce, with Canadian armour, took over Ravenna shortly after. Popski described this as his...
"first act of virtue in a long career of destruction"
It was for Popski's personal courage and his leadership of the Partisans during these battles that he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, and to this day Popski is revered in Ravenna for saving the Basilica, having been made an Honorary Citizen all those years ago.
Popski's and Pamela's Belsky Busts
|Popski and Pamela in their flat off Sloane Square, Kensington (Chris Ware, Keystone Press Agency Ltd)|
After the war MI6 Officer Popski toured Italy and Austria in research for his book, visiting Italian nobility and communists alike, renewing friendships and acquaintances and revisiting his battle scenes, constantly writing home to his new wife Pamela, busy at her own MI6 job in London. He set up the PPA Association (forerunner of Friends of PPA), and his two successive Secretaries, Sergeant Eric Brooks and Captain Bob Yunnie, administered the membership and organised reunions in London and Birmingham for the veterans.
|PPA Association Card||PPA Association Stamp|
|PPA Association reunion at The Dorchester in 1947. Sergeant Eric Brooks is on Popski's right.|
At some point after the war Popski and Pamela became friends with a young Czech sculptor called Franta Belsky who had originally come to Britain as a refugee where he "...volunteered for the Czech army. During wartime service as a gunner in France, he was twice mentioned in despatches, once for repairing a manual telephone line under heavy fire". After the fall of France and before the Normandy landings he studied for two terms at the Royal College of Art and then returned to Prague.
When the Russians took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 Belsky came back to Britain and, on resuming his studies and as part of his Diploma Show, created two clay studies of Popski and Pamela. The bronze cast portrait of Popski was presented to the City of Ravenna in 1950, where it is displayed in the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall). The two maquettes meanwhile sat for many years on sideboards in Cavendish Hall, and Pamela's is still there. in 2011, Popski's maquette was offered by Pamela's Trustees to the Imperial War Museum along with all of Popski's papers and photographs, but they didn't want it. By a happy coincidence, just after this web article went live (March 2014), Pamela's Trustees kindly offered it to foPPA, and we shall be contacting the Peniakoff family for further discussion about its eventual home.
|Franta Belsky's maquette for his bronze portrait of Popski (foPPA Archives)||Franta Belsky's bronze portrait of Popski
(by kind permission of Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd)
|Franta Belsky's maquette for Pamela
Belsky went on to "...portray four generations of the Royal Family", as well as the memorial to Lord Mountbatten in Horse Guards Parade, and died in 2000.
Popski's Death and the First Memorial Plaque
Popski enjoyed great popularity in his adopted country, with radio broadcasts and newspaper articles about his exploits, and then published his book in 1950, delighted to see it become a best-seller. Only a year later though Popski was dead from a brain tumour, and in the days following 15 May 1951 his death was noted in the world's press, and the BBC Light Service cancelled its Family Favourites programme to broadcast a tribute to him.
Popski's funeral service in the Anglican Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair on 23 May 1951 was very well attended, not least by many of his men. Sadly though, neither of his daughters, Olga and Anne, were able to be there.
|Popski's Funeral Service, 23 May 1951|
Shortly after that Sergeant Eric Brooks, Senior Signaller and one of the only two men who were members of all three main Desert Raiding units - the LRDG, the SAS and PPA - announced in the Evening Standard that he was planning to establish a Memorial Plaque to Popski, and promptly set about raising the necessary funds from PPA veterans.
Forty-two members of the PPA Association contributed, including foPPA Chairman Major John Campbell (in a handwritten note to the side of the list above), although Popski's widow Pamela had to get written permission from the Bank of England to transfer the funds to Italy.
The proposed location for the plaque was the Basilica di Sant'Apollinari in Classe, and it looks like (from papers originally in the foPPA Archives, now at IWM) it took many months of subsequent discussions by Eric and Pamela to make it possible, even with the keen encouragement of Arrigo Boldrini and other Italians.
While all this was going on Popski was quietly buried in the churchyard of St Leonard's in the charming Suffolk village of Wixoe. This was where Pamela had grown up, and where they often visited her parents at Wixoe Mill, away from their busy London social life. His gravestone was carved by his friend, eminent Czech sculptor Franta Belsky.
|Popski's headstone at St Leonard's, Wixoe, designed by Franta Belsky
On the first anniversary of Popski's death a magnificent Memorial Plaque, carved in marble, was unveiled in the Narthex of the Basilica, a fitting tribute to the man who had saved it. Pamela was accompanied by Major Archie Colquhoun, another Eighth Army Intelligence Officer.
|Original 1952 Memorial Plaque to Popski|
Operation Diamond, the New Memorial Plaque and Pamela's Death
It appears that the PPA Association folded with Popski's death - foPPA research has been unable to locate any PPAA papers after that date - but Corporal Ben Owen, Captain Bob Yunnie's gunner, kept the flame burning. A prolific letter-writer, Ben became the custodian of PPA's memory, keeping many of the veterans, and especially their families, in touch with each other. Only two further reunions were organised: one in 1979 by film-makers and Popski fans Mike Sarne and Ron Terrill, and then another in 1995 by Mark Seaman, under Director-General Robert Crawford, at the Imperial War Museum in London, for the launch of the "Secret War" Gallery.
|PPA Reunion at the Imperial War Museum in 1995.|
Then in 2003 the Friends of PPA was founded, with Major John Campbell as Chairman, after the realisation that the veterans were slowly fading away and that there was no memorial to the unit. Treasurer Guy Harris and Secretary Roy Paterson didn't even know about the Basilica Memorial Plaque until a while later. Like Sergeant Eric Brooks before us, we set about raising funds for some kind of memorial, and building up our contacts list for veterans, relatives and friends.
In 2004 we held our inaugural PPA Remembrance Event and reunion at the opening ceremony of the Royal British Legion's Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey. This was followed by a buffet lunch at the Special Forces Club.
|HM The Queen and Major John Campbell CVO CBE MC*
at the inaugural PPA Remembrance Event in November 2004
With the announcement of the creation of the National Lottery's "Heroes Return Fund", we decided to apply for funding to arrange a veterans and relatives remembrance trip back to Italy, to mark the 60th anniversary of the disbandment of PPA in September 1945. This was called, unsurprisingly, "Operation Diamond".
When we got to Ravenna in 2005 and were taken by Mayor Vidmer Mercatali to Classe though, we found that the Memorial Plaque to Popski had meanwhile been replaced. It turned out that the Partisans had decided to have, in 2004, their own remembrance event for the 60th anniversary of the Liberation of Ravenna and, not unreasonably, had wanted a Memorial Plaque that included their part in that struggle. They had apparently lost contact with any PPA veterans, and with Pamela, and didn't know that Friends of PPA had just been set up, so went ahead with replacing the original plaque, which went into storage.
|New 2004 Plaque to Popski and The Partisans|
Pamela had been too frail to join us in Ravenna and Venice, and died three months later, at the end of her very happy 88th birthday party in Cavendish, near Wixoe. Poignantly, Sergeant Eric Brooks died three days after Pamela, and they were buried on the same day. Although Pamela had subsequently married American author and editor of Time magazine Tom Matthews, she chose to be buried next to Popski, her first love. Pamela was herself commemorated with a small brass plaque in Wixoe Church...
"PAMELA MATTHEWS 1917 - 2005
BENEFACTOR TO THIS CHURCH
Wartime ATS Officer, in service with MI6, Interior Designer, Countrywoman
International Traveller, Gardener, Motorist and Cavendish Resident"
|Pamela's grave at St Leonard's, Wixoe.|
We were very surprised and saddened to realise that Popski's daughters, Olga and Anne, had not known, until Pamela's funeral, where their father was buried. In the following years though, Pamela's executors and trustees set up the Pamela Matthews Charitable Trust (PMCT), for "Arts, Culture, Heritage, Environment and Conservation", and they have been kind and generous supporters of the Friends of PPA ever since.
The PPA Memorial
After Operation Diamond foPPA's next major remembrance project was the PPA Memorial. This time there was no particular anniversary year as a target - we recognised that it could take a long time to raise the necessary funds and initially we had no idea what it should look like nor where it would be located. Then a chance meeting at a Royal British Legion event in Hereford in 2007 pointed foPPA to the Allied Special Forces Association and their Special Forces Memorial Grove within the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA), and we were invited to establish our memorial there.
We went up to the Arboretum in Staffordshire to look around and get a feel for how other units had designed their memorials, and eventually decided on something pyramid-shaped, to give us four ample surfaces for commemorative plaques (er, any resemblance to a tank-trap is unintended).
|A 2007 sketch of the proposed PPA Memorial (R. Paterson)||A 2007 sketch of the proposed PPA Memorial hedging (R. Paterson)|
|The PPA Memorial, showing the Astrolabe-shaped hedge (See Image Credits)|
One of foPPA's original design concepts was to bring the original Popski Plaque back from Ravenna and incorporate it into the front face of the PPA Memorial, rather than have it languish in storage. Unfortunately, negotiations with the relevant Italian authorities were rather slow at that time, and reservations were also expressed about its exposure to the elements, so that idea had to be dropped and four NMA-standard weather-proof zinc-alloy plaques were installed instead. The PPA Memorial was unveiled and dedicated on 30 March 2008, Popski's birthday.
Blue Plaque to Popski
|Proposed Blue Plaque to Popski|
In January 2010 foPPA made an application to English Heritage for a Blue Plaque to commemorate Popski, to be installed on the house near Sloane Square in Central London where he wrote his book. This project was one of our original aims when we set up foPPA. Unfortunately they turned us down...
"The Panel was very interested in the brave exploits of Popski's 'Private Army', but many nominations are received in the subject area of military history, and it was felt that his current historical profile was not quite of the order to commend him for commemoration with a blue plaque."
The PPA Desert Memorial
We never cease to be amazed at how many Popski fans there are, tucked away all over the world. In 2012 we were contacted by a chap who was teaching in Cairo. Ex-King's Regiment Sam Watson and his pals spend their leisure time exploring the Western Desert, just as Popski had done before the war. Sam had noted that the 70th Anniversary of the official formation of PPA - 10th December 1942 - was coming up, but was unable to get back to the UK to join us for our 2012 PPA Memorial Remembrance Event. Undeterred and ever-resourceful, he decided to get out into the desert (West of the Fayoum) and build his own memorial to PPA. How brilliant is that?
|PPA Desert Memorial|
"The memorial is halfway up a hillside with a south eastern aspect...[it's] fairly hard to get to - it needs a decent 4x4 carefully driven to get there...and its about ten miles from the only road in the area - this is to minimise the possibility of bedouin or locals seeing the memorial and interfering with it."
One of foPPA's long-term remembrance aims is to locate the graves of all departed PPA veterans and lay for them a wreath at least once. This, Operation Poppy, is part of the wider, ongoing search for any remaining veterans and close family. Of the 250 members of PPA only 6 are known to be still going strong in 2014, and we are in touch with the families of 92 of them - 244 relatives in our database so far. It was only in July 2012, for instance, that we finally located the grave of Major 'Jan' Caneri MC and were able to lay a wreath for him. It is a great pleasure though that every year one or more families find us and share their memories and photos.
|Major Jean Caneri MC
|Captain Robert Yunnie MC
We have said elsewhere that the Wixoe Memorial to Popski and Pamela will be the last major foPPA Remembrance Project, and this is true, but really there is one more important memorial to be considered. Captain 'Capitano Bob' Yunnie MC died in the Congo in 1961, in circumstances that are still somewhat murky. He has no known grave and we think that it would be fitting to add a Plaque to his memory to the PPA Memorial. More new material about the events in South Kasai leading up to his death coincidentally surfaced from several sources in 2013 and we hope to be able to do more on Bob next year, time and funds permitting.
Related to Operation Poppy above is Operation Argenta, named for the Argenta Gap War Cemetery where Lieutenant Ian McCallum and Sapper Richard MacDowall are buried together. This operation is being run jointly by the Friends of PPA and our close colleague of the PPA Preservation Society, respectively foPPA's Anne French, Head of Memorials, and Kurt van Looke, Secretary of PPAps.
|Argenta Gap War Cemetery|
This project, properly launched in 2014 after many years of rather sporadic dabbling, is about conducting in-depth research into the biographies of the 12 men on the PPA Roll of Honour. We have been aware for some time that the personnel details that we have in the foPPA Archives don't always match the details that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) have recorded for them, and that some of their gravestones don't acknowledge their membership of PPA. We shall be working with the CWGC to make any necessary corrections, and eventually bring all the headstones into line with each other - another long-term effort.
Since the original Ravenna commemorative plaque to Popski couldn't be a part of the PPA Memorial, and we were unhappy with the idea that it remained out of view in Italy, we started to think what else could be done with it. It had after all been paid for by PPA veterans and we believe that the Friends of PPA, as the official continuation of the PPA Association, is effectively the "owner" of it. It seemed then that the only logical place for it would be where Popski was buried. By this time, in 2011, we felt that foPPA was sufficiently well funded to consider running an additional Remembrance Event at St Leonard's Church in Wixoe, specifically for Popski, at a different time of the year and in a different part of the country from the PPA Memorial Events, to enable different veterans, relatives and friends to attend and pay their respects.
A complex dance ("Operation Wixoe") of simultaneous negotiations was started with Italian authorities in Ravenna, Diocese authorities in Suffolk and others: "Where is the plaque now?"; "Which institution is actually responsible for it?"; "Do you accept our rightful ownership of it?"; "If so, could we have it back?"; "If we can get this plaque, can we put it in one of your churches?"; "Can we hold Popski Remembrance Events every year at Wixoe, starting with an unveiling event?" and (to Mike Blake, son of Major John Campbell's gunner Trooper Pat Blake, who set up a transport company after the war) "Can you get the plaque from Ravenna to London for us?"
|Logo for abandoned Operation Wixoe|
Of course, this all took a great deal of time and, in the end, mostly came to naught. At least we clarified that the plaque is being conserved by the Classe Public Library (Biblioteca Classense) and we now know that the Department of Fine Arts in Ravenna, the Classe City Administration and the Head of the Library are open to the idea of repatriation. However, Popski's original plaque is currently regarded as a "bound cultural good" (bene culturale vincolato) so there remain many formalities to be negotiated before anything further can happen, even if we can find a home for it.
Then the Diocese were not entirely convinced of the plaque's relevance to Wixoe anyway, but the whole project ultimately foundered on the marble plaque's sheer size and weight (about 6ft wide by 3ft tall). St Leonard's is not a big church and an architectural investigation concluded that the walls might not be strong enough to take it, even if a large enough space could be identified.
For a short while we explored the idea of installing it in Pamela's charming Grade II listed early Regency home, Cavendish Hall, not far from Wixoe, and we are grateful to The Landmark Trust (who took it over as a holiday let on Pamela's death) for their patience but, once again, the plaque's size and weight were against us.
We were much cheered, though, by the enthusiastic response from members of the Wixoe community to the whole idea of foPPA Remembrance Events at St Leonard's, and held our inaugural event there in 2012.
The Wixoe Memorial to Popski and Pamela
After the success of our first PPA Wixoe Remembrance Event various members of Wixoe Parochial Church Council (WPCC), who had been immensely helpful, suggested that the Diocese, having been alerted to the initial project, might well agree to having a smaller plaque that was more specifically related to Popski, Pamela and St Leonard's - a sort of "Operation Wixoe II". This is the origin of the Wixoe Memorial to Popski and Pamela.
A rough design was drawn up by foPPA and the wording adjusted in consultation with the WPCC, for a formal application to the Diocese for a "Faculty" (this is permission to do something to a church). With the backing of the WPCC the Faculty was eventually granted, and Suffolk-based architect and specialist in the conservation of historic and listed buildings, Tony Redman FRICS, of The Whitworth Co-Partnership LLP, was engaged again to advise on the revised project, and a stonemason was commissioned for the carving. Mark Bury FRSA is no stranger to Special Forces commemoration - he carved the Jedburgh Memorial in Peterborough Cathedral "...a master craftsman, with carved work in London's Westminster Abbey (Poets' Corner memorial to Edward Lear) and St Paul's Cathedral (Memorial to John Wycliffe), as well as memorial plaques for the Cambridge colleges", and we are very pleased to have such a strong team on board. The plaque has been carved in Nabrasina limestone from Italy, allowing very fine detail for Popski's astrolabe cap badge, taken from the frontispiece of his book.
|Rough design guide for the Wixoe Memorial||A detail sketch||Mark Bury working on the plaque in February 2014|
|The Wixoe Memorial to Popski and Pamela
unveiled and dedicated on Saturday 17 May 2014
at St Leonard's Church in Wixoe, Suffolk
The unveiling and dedication event page shows more detail about how it all went.
Obviously all this memorial activity could not have happened without the generous assistance of many people and organisations, and we take this opportunity to express our gratitude to them, especially any whose names we have missed.
The Landmark Trust.
Sam Watson, Anne and Peter Watson, Dan Nuth, Sebastian Wallace, Richard Wain-Hobson, Derek Robins and Stella the Land Rover (PPA Desert Memorial).
Professor Ivano Artioli (ANPI, Ravenna), Anna Missiroli (our guide for Operation Diamond), Mrs Marinella Bertuzzi (Head of the Mayor's Office in Ravenna), Mrs Ranaldi (Superintendant of the Department of Fine Arts in Ravenna).
Penny Chapman, Ian McCulloch and Hamish Frost (Pamela Matthews Charitable Trust - Trustees and Administrator). David Hawkins at Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd (Franta Belsky's Monograph).
The National Memorial Arboretum and The Allied Special Forces Association (PPA Memorial).
The Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Reverend Stuart Mitchell (Vicar of St Leonard's), Churchwarden Julian Watson, Secretary David Smith and Treasurer Bill Richardson (Wixoe Parochial Church Council). Tony Redman (Architect for the Wixoe Memorial) and Mark Bury (Stonemason for the Wixoe Memorial).