Myths and Goofs

These pages list and correct errors and misconceptions about Popski and PPA that have been found in print or on the web. Many of these are quite minor and don't amount to a hill of beans in the wider scheme of things, but some create ongoing confusion about dates, places, people and events and unwarrantedly gain the aura of "fact". Some, it must be said, are originated by Popski himself. For instance, both his Historical Summary and his interview by the Daily Telegraph on his return to the UK for demobilisation include generalisations and embellishments that are unsupported by documentation.

This, foPPA believes, is not about immodest or dishonest bragging, so much as a desire simply to tell a good tale: it's a cultural perspective (European intellectual) rather than a personal defect: Popski was, after all, remarkably reticent about his very real heroism in carrying on fighting even after his left hand had been shot off and his right hand had a bullet hole clean through it. This outlook was perhaps not understood by Lt-Colonel David Lloyd Owen, the very English and modest commanding officer of the LRDG, in his personal letter to foPPA's Guy Harris, politely expressing some discomfort at Popski's narrative.

Whatever, this is where all these loose ends get put right. Myths at the top, Goofs about halfway down.


The newspaper quotes on this page, and the "Odyssey" comment, are all from the introductory Note in Lt-Col John Willett's biography of Popski, so date from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.


"Picked from every unit in the British Empire" Eighth Army News

Well, not quite true, but judge for yourself by checking Count of personnel by Country of Origin and Count of personnel by Parent Unit.

This quote originally came from an article written by a young RNVR Lieutenant ("H.A.D.") for naval publicity and then issued to Service publications in the Mediterranean and to The Times of Malta. The article is about PPA's Operation Astrolabe, and is a rollicking good tale which the author hasn't unduly disturbed with accuracy.


"...mainly commandos and guardsmen..." Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter

Not even close, so no banana, and don't be confused that there were two men from the 1st King's Dragoon Guards and three from The Queen's Bays, 2nd Dragoon Guards: these were cavalry regiments, not regiments of the Brigade of Guards, not least because of Popski's unfortunate experience of them in Libya and Italy.

Corporal Ben Owen was grateful to one Guards officer though, for helping to rescue him from a minefield near Monte Cassino, and foPPA was able to reunite him with Lieutenant John Nicholson sixty years later during the first foPPA Remembrance Reunion at the Special Forces Club in November 2004. See Count of personnel by Parent Unit, and particularly the separate analysis of Previous Special Forces Units.


"...all his men wore beards..." Sunday Pictorial

This is one very visible way that PPA would have stood out against regular army personnel, who could be put on a charge for failing to shave every morning (well, the men, at least). Initially (in North Africa) beards in PPA were unregulated but later on (in Italy) "…became the privilege of the old hands with at least five operations to their credit…"[1]

So, not true, but Signalman Hector Simpson did have a beauty that made him universally known as "JC" (as in "Jesus Christ") and was not alone in his hirsuit pursuit: Lance-Corporals Ron Jewell and George Sonley, and Sergeant Don Galloway were just a few who were strangers to a razor at one time or another.


"When Venice was liberated, he was parachuted with a jeep into the Piazza San Marco" the Leader in Radar, a French paper

Why fly when all the pleasure is in sailing across the Lido in the sun? Er, avoiding the mines of course. FoPPA tried to enact a replay of the 1945 "jeeps in Piazza San Marco" incident in 2005, but the Italian Navy wouldn't lend us a Landing Craft, and the best we could do was wander round making Brrm Brrm noises.


"He was the instigator and technician of the new form of warfare which was that of the partisans" Sunday Pictorial, again, tsk

According to the Sunday Pictorial it had never occurred to the citizens of Italy to rise up against the Germans until Popski happened to pass by. However, he did win his DSO for his work in organizing and galvanising the partisans before the liberation of Ravenna (and not, as foPPA originally believed, for the fierce fire-fight three weeks later in which he lost his hand). See Citations.


" read that Italian patriots had seized Milan and Genoa? Well, Popski's men were behind that" Illustrated London News

Blimey. PPA did get around, but not quite that far West operationally, according to the PPA War Diary. However, at least one jeep went to Milan after it was liberated and the men saw Mussolini and Clara Petacci hanging there.


"In the desert campaign his force kept two German divisions occupied in protecting their lines of communications." Manchester Evening News

Hmmm. Let's do the math (as our American cousins say): that's not less than 20,000 well-trained Germans and 15 PPA who'd only just started. FoPPA suspects that the LRDG and SAS might have had some effect though.


"Many a regular army captain found himself demoted to lance-corporal, and thoroughly enjoying the change. And a number of NCO's suddenly found themselves commanding companies" News Chronicle

Dropping rank on joining (but not that much) is a common feature of Special Forces recruitment, past and present, to discourage glory-seekers. This is nearly correct regarding NCO's though: both Lance-Corporal Sonley and SQMS Davies commanded 'B' Patrol for a while, and Sergeant Sizer commanded half of 'S' Patrol while attempting to "...establish good relations..." with Tito's partisans, who promptly shot at them, killing Private Chalky White.


"...of all the architects of victory in the Mediterranean theatre of operations Peniakoff holds no mean place." Popski's obituary in The Times

FoPPA can do no better than to reiterate the comment made by John Willett to one of Popski's Cairo friends:
"Really you know...the operations that Popski describes were a very minor affair".
Came the reply: "So was the Odyssey".


"Popski is a wealthy Hungarian Prince...and pays his Army out of his own pocket. I believe the the rates of pay are about the same as in the British Army and he also pays a bonus for every successful operation"

This was a gem that Captain Rickwood heard on joining PPA. Apparently Popski's a one-man League of Nations (Russian, Belgian, English, Polish, Hungarian, Egyptian etc etc). Methinks they've confused him with Count Laszlo Almasy, and don't get us started on the English Patient being lugged around Italy instead of going to 92 British General Hospital in Naples like everyone else.

Popski's not the only one to suffer from wild rumours of course: in News from Tartary, a classic of travel writing by Peter Fleming (brother of Ian), about his epic trip across the width of China and down into India, from Peking to Srinagar in 1935, he relates that he was assured, in 1934, that T. E. Lawrence was definitely continuing the Great Game somewhere in the Himalayas, with a force of Sikhs, about 5 years after he had returned to Blighty.


Mostly these are perpetrated by others but, to keep them company, we occasionally shoot ourselves in the foot.


Popski, A Life. Lt-Col John Willett, MacGibbon & Kee, 1954

Perhaps the most significant blooper that we have found is by Popski's otherwise excellent biographer and very good friend, who put the wrong name for Popski's first wife. Willett names Yvonne ten Bergen, a family friend, instead of Josephe Ceysens and, not being immune to errors ourselves, we faithfully repeated that (not least because it never occurred to us to ask Popski's daughters Olga and Anne) until we discovered Hans Houterman's excellent Unit Histories website. Hans has very kindly done an amazing trawl for us through his collection of reference works, digging out information about nearly all PPA officers.


Martha Gellhorn, A Life. Caroline Moorehead, Chatto & Windus, 2003

On page 395 Moorehead incorrectly refers to "General Popski" when of course Popski only attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. See Military Ranks. Martha's second husband Tom Matthews (after Hemingway) had an affair with Popski's widow Pamela and then married her after being divorced by Martha. See Pamela Matthews.

In another Hemingway connection, then 1st Airborne Intelligence Officer Major Norman Field later recalled Popski sitting in his tent planning PPA's part in the Taranto landings with nothing on his desk except a copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls, published in 1940. It was evidently popular with Special Forces as Virginia Cowles notes that Lt Carol Mather, 1SAS, was reading it too, in The Phantom Major.


British Special Forces. William Seymour, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985

Imperial War Museum Book of War Behind Enemy Lines. Julian Thompson, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1998

In a footnote on page 184 Seymour incorrectly refers to 'Wasp' flame-throwers being mounted "...on some of the jeeps". This appears again on page 362 of Thompson's book, but here there is " jeep per patrol...fitted with a Wasp flame-thrower". In fact only one flame-thrower jeep was ever built, and this because (foPPA understands) Popski, a trained engineer, had been told it couldn't be done (probably after the Flame-Throwing course that Captain Jan Caneri and some PPA men attended at Cesena in February 1945). See the PPA War Diary for 27 February 1945 and 25 April 1945. However, it was found to be more dangerous for 'R' Patrol's operator Trooper Nick Hubbard than for the enemy so we think it was not used much on operations, and was last seen in PPA disbandment parade photographs. The error has been repeated on at least one website that we know of. We weren't even sure ourselves when we wrote our first newsletter.

FoPPA believes that this was the only WWII construction of a flame-thrower jeep, and a fine reproduction of it has been built by Peter Sanders of the Desert Raiders Association.


Imperial War Museum Book of the War In Italy 1943-1945. Field Marshal Lord Carver, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2001

Field Marshall Carver's gripping book with its comprehensive Order-of-Battle is notable for the complete absence of PPA and the 27th Lancers – in fact the whole of 'Porterforce'. How on earth, then, did we win in Italy? The 12th Lancers would probably also have appreciated a passing mention.


Private Army. Vladimir Peniakoff, Jonathan Cape (2nd Edition), 1951

World War II, Volume 7, Part 92 – Private Armies. Orbis Publishing, 1979

Imperial War Museum Book of The Desert War. Adrian Gilbert, Ed, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1992

Imperial War Museum Book of War Behind Enemy Lines. Julian Thompson, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1998

Shan Hackett. The Pursuit Of Exactitude. Roy Fullick, Leo Cooper, 2003

Secret Forces of World War II. Philip Warner, Pen & Sword, 2004

In Brigadier Hackett's foreword to the second edition of Popski's book he incorrectly refers to PPA's official unit name as "No 1 Long Range Demolition Squadron" (as he devised the name in the first place and it's clearly written in the book itself, we must assume a passing "senior moment"). This canard is repeated though on page 1838 of the Orbis part-work, quoting Lt-Col Eddie Bauer's 1966 "History of World War II". It reappears on page 200 of Gilbert's book, and again on page 102 of Thompson's book (quoting Hackett), and then sort-of recycled on page 60 of Fullick's biography of Hackett, where he refers to "No 1 Long Range Demolition Group" (and compounds that mistake, on the same page, by referring to "'Popski' Poliakoff"). FoPPA has also seen the Long Range embellishment in other publications. Warner meanwhile suggests "No. 1 Demolition Unit" just for variety.

No, no, no, and thrice more, no. The PPA War Diary makes it clear that this is all wrong and we have not seen those variations of PPA's unit name in any official papers in The National Archives or the Imperial War Museum. The front page of the War Diary actually says "1 Demolition Squadron, M.E.F." (Middle East Forces), but later typed pages give the correct name. Additionally, we have recently (July 2011) discovered in The National Archives some documents about Raiding Forces relating to planning during the Summer of 1943, before the invasion of Sicily, where PPA is routinely and simply referred to as "Demolition Squadron". We will 'fess up to leaving the PPA bit off the end of the unit name as shown on all four main plaques on the PPA Memorial, with the weak defence of "artistic licence" under severe construction time pressure, but have got it right again with the "Story of PPA" plaques.

In a WWII Special Forces context we believe that "Long Range" is only included in four British Army unit names: the Long Range Patrol, later renamed the Long Range Desert Group, the Indian Long Range Squadron attached to the LRDG for training for a while, and General Orde Wingate's Long Range Penetration Group – his Burma-based Chindits (but don't doubt that someone will put us right on this). Incidently, the officers who conducted their war from the terrace and bar of Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo were scathingly known as the Short Range Desert Group.

The full and correct official unit name for Popski's Private Army is "NO. 1 DEMOLITION SQUADRON, PPA". Accept no other.


FoPPA has found several articles in Wikipedia, relating directly or indirectly to Popski or PPA, with factual errors in them. We try to correct these from time to time, but the constantly changing content of Wikipedia makes it difficult to meaningfully note them here. If you want to know the facts about Popski and PPA then you have come to the right place here.


One or two particular Wikipedia articles though suggest that characters and plot in the Michael Caine film Play Dirty were based on Popski and the PPA story. However, this was denied in 2007 by Lord Melvyn Bragg (the film's screenwriter) in an email to foPPA: "From my memory the Popski story played no part whatsoever in the screen play 'Play Dirty'".

Not withstanding that, Play Dirty, Sea of Sand and Ice Cold in Alex are three of foPPA's favourite films, for their, er, gritty depiction of the harsh realities of (WWII) desert warfare.

Copyright © 2012 foPPA
31 Jan 2012

Further information
  1. Peter Fleming, News from Tartary (1936), Cardinal, p 318
  2. Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1969), Nelson, p 198
  3. Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (2004), Bloomsbury
  • 2012-01-31 Minor revision regarding the Flamethrower Jeep. We had misread a PPA War Diary entry for February 1945 about "the CO" to mean Popski, but of course it refers to Jan Caneri because Popski was still in the UK recuperating from the loss of his left hand.