Popski's Astrolabe

Roberto Chiarvetto is a software developer and well-established researcher of Special Forces units and their actions in the North African Campaign of WWII, specialising in Italian forces. In this great article he illuminates for us the origins of the PPA cap badge. It's curious that Popski didn't credit his friend Paolo with the design, let alone even mention him in his book.

Meanwhile, our research has discovered that in 1391 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote "A treatise on the Astrolabe", which was apparently "the first technical manual in the English Language" according to Laura Jamieson and Maria Montero in their comprehensive web article "Stereo Projection, Chaucer and the Astrolabe" for the maths department of the University of British Columbia. For those who are as keen on finding out more about PPA as we are, of course. There's even a whole website devoted to Astrolabes.

Strictly speaking, Popski’s astrolabe (normally a flat plate) is actually a spherical astrolabe, also known as an armillary sphere, of which many were built all over Europe during the Renaissance.

Armillary sphere by Girolamo Volpaia, Florence 1564
Armillary sphere by Girolamo Volpaia, Florence 1564
(Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence)

We should also point out that astrolabes were not actually used for Special Forces desert navigation in WWII. This was done with theodolites (to observe the stars), radios (to get an accurate GMT time signal), the Bagnold Sun Compass (because conventional compasses were badly affected by all the metal in the trucks), and careful noting of bearings and distances travelled. Sometimes just knowledgeable "dead-reckoning" by experienced navigators could get a patrol to within a mile of their destinations.

Bagnold Sun Compass Middle East Training Pamphlet No. 9
Bagnold Sun Compass
K. Gross (2011)
Middle East Training Pamphlet No. 9
Field Navigation Part IV. Astro-Fix

Popski's Astrolabe

by Roberto Chiarvetto

Vladimir Peniakoff had always been fascinated by astrolabes – his boat on the Nile was christened "Astrolabe" and, of course, his unit badge for PPA portrayed one. In his book "Popski's Private Army", he wrote

"I had used as a book-plate for several years a design of an astrolabe, several of my boats had been called by that name, and it seemed now a fitting symbol for a unit which would have to navigate its way by the stars, so I took my book-plate to a Jewish silversmith[1] off the Shareh el Manakh and got him to cut in brass a reduced and simplified design of this astrolabe, which we would use as a hat badge (Astrolabe is a name given to several astronomical instruments formerly used to measure the altitude of stars, before the adoption of the sextant at sea and the theodolite on land. My design was taken from a sixteenth-century Italian instrument.) The first badges were cut and engraved by hand; they turned out rather too exquisite for the roughness of our manners; later we had a die cut and made the badges of silver, which takes the stamp better than brass."

The ex libris drawn by Paolo Caccia Dominioni for Popski in 1927 Popski's Astrolabe cap badge design Popski holding his silver cap badge
The ex libris drawn by Paolo Caccia Dominioni
for Popski in 1927 (foPPA Archives, now in IWM)
Popski's Astrolabe cap badge design [2]
(from the frontispiece of his book)
Popski holding his silver cap badge
(foPPA Archives, now in IWM)

That book-plate, or ex libris in Latin (literally "from the books [of]", meaning "this book comes from the personal library of...") has a story of its own. Peniakoff had been working in Egypt since December 1924. Paolo Caccia Dominioni di Sillavengo (Count of Sillavengo), an Italian architect and engineer from a noble family, was also working there at that time. They shared a common interest in the desert, and took trips together by camel and later by car. Dominioni was also a very good draftsman and artist, and in 1927 he drew an ex libris portraying an astrolabe in his unmistakable style for his friend's library. A postcard from Popski's private papers, now in the Imperial War Museum (IWM)[3], depicting a drawing by Dominioni of his own house at Nerviano, near Milan, bears the date of 23 September 1927, which might well be the date of a visit by Popski to his Italian friend Paolo, when he was presented with the astrolabe book-plate.

Dominioni’s postcard of his own house at Nerviano The back of the postcard, bearing the date of 23 September 1927
Dominioni’s postcard of his own house at Nerviano
(foPPA Archives, now in IWM)
The back of the postcard, bearing the date of 23 September 1927
(foPPA Archives, now in IWM)

In May 1933, Paolo and Vladimir, along with several other European friends in Egypt, left Cairo for a trip to Siwa Oasis via Marsa Matruh, aboard four Ford cars. The picture below of Popski and Paolo was probably taken during this trip, as well as two others published in one of Paolo's books. During WW2, then-Major Paolo Caccia Dominioni was to return to El Alamein, which they had gone past during that 1933 trip, as the Commanding Officer of the 31o Battaglione Guastatori (31st Combat Pioneers Battalion).

Dominioni and Peniakoff, possibly during the 1933 Egypt trip
Dominioni and Peniakoff, possibly during the 1933 Egypt trip
(foPPA Archives, now in IWM)
Peniakoff and Dominioni with a Ford during the 1933 trip
Peniakoff and Dominioni with a Ford during the 1933 trip
(from “El Alamein 1933-1966”, Longanesi, Milano, 1962)

After the end of the North African campaign in 1943, a group of Italian POWs from a camp near Alexandria volunteered to help in recovering the remains of the fallen scattered around Alamein, and an area near Quota 33 ("Hill 33", the only topographic feature nearby) was selected to hold the graves of the Italian and German casualties. In 1948 Dominioni, asked by the Italian Government to assess the situation of the Italian graves in Egypt, took upon himself instead the task of continuing the search for the remains of all those still missing around Alamein, Axis and Allied, a task that would not be completed until 1962, with the help of Renato Chiodini (another veteran of the 31o) and two Jeeps. Between 1955 and 1958, Dominioni designed and built a mausoleum for the Italian fallen, which still stands today.

Paolo's Jeep in June 1951 after it blew up on an anti-tank mine Paolo's Jeep now in the Museo della Cavalleria in Pinerolo (Turin)
Paolo's Jeep in June 1951 after it blew up on an anti-tank mine [3]
(from “El Alamein 1933-1966”, Longanesi, Milano, 1962)
Paolo's Jeep now in the Museo della Cavalleria in Pinerolo (Turin) [4]
(R. Chiarvetto)
Italian War Memorial at El Alamein Statue of Count Paolo Caccia Dominioni 1896-1992
Italian War Memorial at El Alamein
(S. Raafat)
Statue of Count Paolo Caccia Dominioni 1896-1992
in the Italian War Memorial (S. Raafat)

About his 1933 trip, his WW2 service and those postwar years in the desert he wrote a book in 1962, titled "El Alamein 1933-1962"[5]. At some point Dominioni describes the LRDG's Barce Raid in 1942 that Popski was attached to, and talks of his friend Vladimir Dimitrovich[6] Peniakoff, who had lost part of his left little finger to Italian MG fire during the raid (note that during his military career, Dominioni always used his title instead of his family name, i.e. "Maj. Sillavengo" instead of "Maj. Dominioni", and that in the book he always refers to himself in the third person):

El Alamein 1933-1962, Longanesi, Milano (1962) Alamein 1933-1962 An Italian Story, George Allen & Unwin, London (1966) Ascari K7, Longanesi, Milano (1966) Barce Raid, Ngaio Press, New Zealand (2005)
El Alamein 1933-1962
Longanesi, Milano (1962)
Alamein 1933-1962 An Italian Story
George Allen & Unwin, London (1966)
Ascari K7
Longanesi, Milano (1966)
Barce Raid
Ngaio Press, New Zealand (2005)

[...]"But a few weeks later, the one-time Russian pacifist was again in action at the head of his assault group, "Popski's Private Army". Their badge, worn on their black berets, was a silver astrolabe – none other than the ex libris which Sillavengo had designed and engraved for his friend's extensive library in Egypt in 1927."

In the summer of 1946, Peniakoff (Colonel, D.S.O., MC and Bar[7]), was once again, as in the good old times, Sillavengo's guest in Italy. It was then that they discovered their simultaneous presence in the main street of Derna[8] on August 6, 1942. "What should I have done had we seen each other?" asked the ex-Sapper, a nasty cold feeling running up his spine. "There's not much doubt about that", his friend replied grimly."

The two friends might have had to take the harshest decision of their lives, but they were spared such a fate.

Dominioni again drew an astrolabe globe in 1936 for his "Amhara – Chroniques de la patrouille astrale" book in French, with an Askari on top of it and two guns below, as the closing drawing at the end of the book. It also appeared in 1966 in "Ascari K7".

The "other" Astrolabe drawn by Dominioni
The “other” astrolabe drawn by Dominioni
(from “Ascari K7”, Longanesi, Milano, 1966)

Evolution of the PPA Astrolabe

by Roy Paterson

Since the PPA Astrolabe was introduced as a cap badge in 1942, first in brass and then in silver, it has evolved and been adapted a few times. First, in Italy Popski had to devise a simplified version as a vehicle-recognition Unit Symbol for all the PPA jeeps and trucks. It's not clear whether this happened in 1944 or 1945, but some variations looked decidedly wonky, painted directly onto bodywork, by the time all of the patrols and the heavy section were gathered together in the grounds of Padua University in May 1945. At some point though a proper stencil was made and the jeeps started to have the symbol, white on black, painted onto metal plates that were attached to the jeeps' front grills.

PPA supply truck in Padua, with wonky Unit Symbol Proper PPA Unit Symbol
PPA supply truck in Padua, with wonky Unit Symbol
(foPPA Archives, now in IWM)
Proper PPA Unit Symbol
(foPPA Archives, now in IWM)

Sometime after the war ended, Major (then-Captain) John Campbell's gunner Pat Blake set up his own transport company and took as his logo a variation of that Unit Symbol. This now much bigger company, run by his son Mike, runs large trucks all over the UK and Europe, so to this day the PPA Unit Symbol can still be seen on our roads. It was Mike's trucks that kindly brought the PPA Preservation Society's 100% authentic reproduction PPA jeeps across from Belgium to the unveiling of the PPA Memorial, as well as one of their jeeps to our "Operation Diamond" Remembrance trip to Ravenna and Venice in 2005.

P.E.Blake & Son Ltd truck Heavily armed PPA jeep in the Pineta di Classe, South of Ravenna.
P.E.Blake & Son Ltd truck
PPA Preservation Society Jeep in the Pineta di Classe, south of Ravenna

In 2003 the Friends of PPA was set up and took the PPA Unit Symbol as its logo. More recently, our colleagues at the older-established PPA Preservation Society of Belgium also adopted a variation of foPPA's logo, to bring our complementary websites into line with each other.

Logo of Friends of PPA Logo of Friends of PPA
Logo of Friends of PPA
Logo of PPA Preservation Society

Tthe design of the PPA Memorial, situated in the National Memorial Arboretum and unveiled in 2008, includes the Unit Symbol, cast in bronze and scaled up directly from Popski's original stencil. Surrounding the monument itself is hedging in the shape of that Astrolabe Unit Symbol, with the pointer indicating North, and large enough to be clearly visible on satellite images.

The PPA Memorial's Astrolabe The PPA Memorial's Hedge
The PPA Memorial's Astrolabe
The PPA Memorial's Hedge

Finally, and perhaps coming full circle, we see the last evolution of Popski's Astrolabe, in the churchyard of St Leonard's in Wixoe, Suffolk, where he is buried with Pamela. It was carved by his friend and eminent sculptor Franta Belsky on a Commonwealth War Graves headstone, as befits a soldier who served his adopted country well.

Popski's gravestone
Popski's headstone at St Leonard's, Wixoe, designed by Franta Belsky

Copyright © 2012 Roberto Chiarvetto & Roy Paterson
11 Jan 2014

Further information
  1. ^ Probably the LRDG's badge supplier Isaac Faber.
  2. ^ This design is used on foPPA Remembrance Wreaths and as the watermark for foPPA's webpages and documents.
  3. ^ Previously in the foPPA Archives.
  4. ^ One of the two Willys Jeeps that Dominioni used to reconnoitre the area around Alamein and to recover the remains of more than 11,000 fallen British, Commonwealth, German and Italian soldiers. It travelled more than 360,000 km (223,741 mi), of which 80,000 km (49,720 mi) were deep inside minefields. In June 1951 it blew up at Deir el Munassib on an anti-tank mine but was repaired and used until 1957. It was donated by Dominioni himself to the Museo della Cavalleria in Pinerolo (Turin) where it is on display.
  5. ^ Translated into English in 1966, see the Bibliography.
  6. ^ According to his death certificate and all other documentation we have seen, Vladimir didn't have a middle name. His father's name was Dimitri though, but Paolo clearly knows his friend as Dimitrovich. To his family Popski was known as "Vlad" or "Vladi".
  7. ^ Popski ended his military service as a Lieutenant-Colonel and only had one MC (see Honours and Awards).
  8. ^ This was behind the German-Italian front line, when Popski was reconnoitring how to liberate Allied POW's from the Derna cages. He famously just wandered around, in his dusty British uniform, correctly thinking that no-one would pay him any attention, with all the Axis troops also in a wide variety of dusty uniforms. He was nearly rumbled though, when some POW's ran up to their fence, having spotted what he was wearing, and got quite excited. Curiously a reverse of this happened in Cairo, possibly around the same time. Major A. W. Sansom was in charge of Field Security there and decided to test how security-minded all the many differently-uniformed Allied troops were. He arranged for two of his officers to put on ordinary German Army uniform and walk about town until they were stopped. "After tramping the main streets for two whole days they had still not been challenged once". Major Sansom later distinguished himself by capturing the two German spies who had been infiltrated by Count László Almásy in his Operations Salam and Kondor
  1. Caccia Dominioni, Paolo. El Alamein 1933-1962, Longanesi, Milano. (1962)
  2. Caccia Dominioni, Paolo, trans. Chamberlain, Dennis. Alamein 1933-1962 An Italian Story, George Allen & Unwin, London. (1966)
  3. Caccia Dominioni, Paolo. Ascari K7, Longanesi, Milano. (1966)
  4. Gross, Kuno. The Bagnold Sun Compass. Books On Demand. (2011)
  5. O'Carroll, Brendan, with contributions by Roberto Chiarvetto and others. Barce Raid. Ngaio Press, New Zealand. (2005)
  6. Peniakoff, Vladimir. Private Army. Jonathan Cape, London. (1950)
  7. Sansom, A.W. I Spied Spies. George G. Happap & Co Ltd, London. (1965)
  8. Gross, Rolke and Zboray, Operation SALAM - László Almásy’s most daring Mission in the Desert War. Belleville, Munich. (2013)
  • 24 Nov 2012: Original article.
  • 16 Dec 2012: Added information about the Bagnold Sun Compass.
  • 11 Jan 2013: Added link to Franta Belsky page on Wikipedia.
  • 11 Jan 2014: Added footnote and bibliographic information about Sansom and Almásy. Corrected Padua date from April to May 1945.