Popski at St John's College, Cambridge

In November 2010 foPPA's chairman John Campbell was sent a copy of an article that appeared in Volume 92 of The Eagle (er no, not the comic), the annual report for members of St John's College, University of Cambridge, where Popski was a student at the start of the Great War. We are grateful to the Development Office of St John's College for allowing us to reproduce it here in full, as it helps to illuminate a murky area of Popski's early life.

Popski at St John’s

The late Dr John Alexander was a Fellow of St John’s for over 30 years, having read for his undergraduate degree at Pembroke College. He conducted extensive archaeological research in Africa and Europe.

Members of the College may not be aware that Vladimir Peniakoff, famous during the Second World War under the nickname Popski for both the audacity of his units’ activities far behind enemy lines in North Africa and Italy, and for adding PPA (Popski’s Private Army) to his units’ shoulder badges, was an undergraduate at St John’s from 1915 to 1916. His autobiography Private Army (1950) was republished as late as 2004 and has been translated into nine languages. That 17 month period has been widely used, although not in his autobiography, to describe him as ‘educated at St John’s College, Cambridge’. While his time here marked a turning point in his life, the description does not fully reflect what we know of his experience in Cambridge.

Vladimir Peniakoff’s Russian parents emigrated to Belgium in 1894, probably because of increased government persecution of the radically-inclined intelligentsia to which they belonged; they were wealthy and his father a distinguished scientist. Peniakoff was born at Huy, Belgium, in 1897 and given Belgian nationality. He was privately educated in Brussels until 1912, followed by two years as an undergraduate at the Université Libre in Brussels where he was awarded the Diplôme de humanité classique (Latin et Grec) and the Diplôme de candidat ingénieur which would have permitted him, at the age of seventeen, to proceed to a full engineering degree. The German invasion of Belgium in 1914 interrupted his plans and the family emigrated to France except for Peniakoff who was brought to England by his father who had visited here in 1893–94 as part of a research programme; it was Peniakoff’s first visit to England.

They came to London and stayed with the Erichsens, an engineering family whom they had met in 1913 and had to stay with them in Brussels. His father’s plans must have been for Peniakoff to continue his education. Through the family connections of the Erichsens with the Rootham family in Cambridge, Peniakoff was introduced to Dr Cyril Bradley Rootham (1894), Fellow and College organist until his death in 1938, described in the College archives as ‘a prominent member in the musical life of the University’. Dr Rootham agreed to sponsor Peniakoff, for this is written on the application for admission which Peniakoff’s father submitted to the College. The application was signed by the Master, Dean and Tutor and shows that Peniakoff was accepted on 19 January 1915 for an unspecified course of study in Physics (which then included electricity) and Mathematics. His birth certificate never arrived, and his mother’s maiden name was given incorrectly; it was not Brown but Rosenthal, a family which had distant Gollancz cousins in England.

Reasons for Peniakoff’s acceptance are not far to seek: he had already been a very successful undergraduate in Belgium, was the son of a wealthy and distinguished scientist, was a personable polymath with fluent English (he claimed to have been taught English as his first language[1]), and was a war-refugee from an allied country for whom much sympathy was felt. In 1914–15 the College had only 106 undergraduates in residence, compared to pre-war average of 200, his number in the College Register being 2707. He joined the College for the Lent term and remained until June 1916.

Few details of Peniakoff’s life in College are recorded in the archives. They include his examination results, College rooms and bills paid from Lent 1915 to Easter 1916.[2] He took a Mathematics examination in March 1915 three months after his arrival and was graded Class 3. A note in the Tutor’s hand dated 18 March 1915 says ‘Bromwich [the College Lecturer in Mathematics] says should coach with Wren’; this must have been for the Easter term 1915. Evidence of other College activity was recorded briefly by John Willett in his biography of Peniakoff, published in 1954.[3] In the Easter Vacation 1915 Peniakoff went down and stayed at the Lady Margaret Mission in Walworth, London, supported by the College.

Willett’s records are much more informative about extra-collegiate activities from interviews he had in the early 1950s with Edward Richardson Brown (1914) Peniakoff’s closest friend in College. Brown was a second year undergraduate and a mathematician, but in the extracts from the interviews that Willett published Brown commented only on Peniakoff’s character and non- mathematical interests, perhaps because these particularly interested Willett. Brown recalled that Peniakoff was ‘rather an aesthete, with a keen interest in modern art and a tendency to pick his friends from people on the left-wing of both art and politics’.[4] Both men were atheists and it was Brown who introduced Peniakoff into The Heretics, a University society which discussed problems of religion, philosophy and art in the rooms of C K Ogden, already a distinguished linguist and editor of the Cambridge Magazine. Since it included men of the calibre of Bertrand Russell, G M Trevelyan and G E Moore with papers from visitors like P Wyndham Lewis and C B Fry, Peniakoff was fortunate to become a member. He must have been welcomed, for in his first term Ogden asked him to give a paper on the Aesthetics of Clive Bell. Peniakoff, on the other hand, dealt with his friends rather less kindly. In 1924, in a letter quoted by Willett, he wrote: ‘of almost all those who then made up my world I have lost every trace: Cambridge friends, London friends, journalists, and conspirators, infantile and passionate reformers ...’[5]

In June 1916 Peniakoff took the Mathematics Part I examination and was again graded Class 3. Although a poor result it qualified him to continue to Part II of the Honours Tripos and presumably the College expected him back in October 1916, to read for the Tripos examination in 1918, but he did not return. In the vacation he went back to Paris and then to the south of France for two months to assist his father who had taken up war research on a new process for making potassium cyanide at St Jean de Maurienne in Savoy; Peniakoff himself wrote ‘for poison gas, I am sorry to say’.[6] For the next year he remained in France. Opinions vary on what he was doing except that it was working in or for the French Army. He claimed that he ‘couldn’t face the months of training I would have had to go through had I applied for a commission in the British Army’ and that he had ‘turn[ed his] back on a donnish career’.[7]

There is nothing in the College archives or in Willett’s quotations from interviews with Brown to explain Peniakoff’s reasons for leaving Cambridge. Factors may have included his poor examination results or the way Mathematics was taught at Cambridge. Peniakoff himself merely wrote in 1924 ‘I decided to go practical ... plain duty showed me at every moment what course to pursue.’ The ‘duty’ he mentions may have been to take up war-work like his father, for his sister wrote that he ‘was mobilised as a chemist’.[8] In 1919 he qualified as an electrical engineer in the University of Grenoble. Peniakoff’s departure from Cambridge appears to have coincided with an abrupt change in attitude. During his time in Cambridge, Peniakoff was a pacifist and both he and Willett mention the danger he felt if his letters published in England were to bring him before British war tribunals examining conscientious objectors to military service: ‘I realise that the documents which I brought from England into France in 1916 and my newspaper correspondence might easily have brought me before a war tribunal.’[9] None of this correspondence has survived. He continued, ‘I realise that in many fields I was ignorant, intolerant and sectarian and that my enjoyment was always ardent but changeable.’ Peniakoff’s decision to leave Cambridge included breaking off relationships with many relations and earlier friends in France and Belgium.’ That break foreshadows a similar abrupt break in relationships which he made when he joined the British Army in Egypt in 1941.

Before moving to England in 1946 the 16 months in Cambridge was the longest period he had lived here and seems to have left him with affection for Britain which was noted by many of his friends and lasted for the rest of his life. It was enhanced by his success in the British army, for he emerged from the Second World War as Lieutenant Colonel Peniakoff DSO, MC and already famous. In 1947 he took British nationality, marrying his second wife Pamela Firth, a British colleague from his war service in Vienna, in 1948 and publishing his autobiography, which he had undertaken as an official historian of his unit, in 1950.

The book was an instant success and assured that he would always be remembered by those who enjoy well-written and genuine adventure stories.

After his death Peniakoff’s long-time friend, Lieutenant Colonel John Willett, published a biography of him which, while the author was denied access to War Office archives, added so much to his non-army life that it and the autobiography could well be bound together as a single volume. The biography soon went out of print but the College Library has a copy of it given in 1956 by a former Fellow and Librarian, Francis Puryer White (1912). In various ways the biography is rather a strange book; Willett was the chief foreign-leader writer of The Guardian for many years, a post he gave up in 1951, apparently to research for Peniakoff’s biography. That such a man should resign his Guardian post to investigate Peniakoff’s life is surprising, as is the five page list of sources and acknowledgements for help. He corresponded with or visited and interviewed Peniakoff’s friends and relatives all over Europe. He had the full support of Mrs Pamela Peniakoff, but it is clear that he never discussed the matter with Peniakoff himself and it is doubtful that it would have been welcomed. Peniakoff divided his life into separate sections and evidence from much of the early parts was lost, destroyed or ignored in the autobiography and was not available when the biography was written.

We have, in the College Library, the two books, the autobiography and the biography which were published within four years of each other. They both need to be read with care for they were written selectively with different ends in view. Their approaches to the events of the First World War years are very different. Peniakoff gave the version of them he wished to present to posterity whereas Willett applied to them the techniques he had learnt in the Intelligence Sections of the Eighth Army HQ. While information from the College archives, together with the two books, sheds some light on Peniakoff’s time at St John’s and provides an interesting background to the part of his life for which he is better known, the sources do not fill in the whole picture and some uncertainty remains about this part of the war hero’s life.

The late Dr John Alexander


I am grateful for the assistance of Dr Mark Nicholls, the President, Fiona Colbert, the College Biographical Librarian, and Malcolm Underwood, the College Archivist, with the research for this article.

Copyright © 2010 St John's College, University of Cambridge
Reproduced by kind permission
30 Nov 2010

Further information
  1. ^ Vladimir Peniakoff, Private Army (1950), p 9.
  2. ^ Lent 1915 in B1 First Court. Michaelmas 1915 to Easter 1916 in C4 Third Court.
  3. ^ John Willett, Popski, A Life of Vladimir Peniakoff DSO MC (1954).
  4. ^ John Willett, Popski (1954), p 27.
  5. ^ John Willett, Popski (1954), p 32.
  6. ^ John Willett, Popski (1954), p 29.
  7. ^ Vladimir Peniakoff, Private Army (1950), pp 9-10.
  8. ^ John Willett, Popski (1954), p 30.
  9. ^ John Willett, Popski (1954), p 32 quoting a letter written by Peniakoff in 1924.