British Col John Hackett was a light cavalryman born a hundred and fifty years too late. The open spaces of the Western Desert were prime territory for the raiding, reconnaissance and derring-do of the hussar of old. While at the Middle East GHQ recovering from wounds suffered at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, Hackett was instrumental in forming the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service to operate deep behind German and Italian lines in Egypt and Libya.
Hackett knew talent when he saw it, and approached Major Vladimir Peniakoff to form his own group. Peniakoff was a Russian Jew who was also a Belgian citizen that enlisted in the British Army, after being turned down by the RAF and Royal Navy as too old. He was assigned to the recently disbanded Libyan Arab Desert Force. The Libyan ADF was a polyglot organization of native Arabs and Bedouins with British officers, who fought the Italians. However, the LADF was disbanded because the LRDG refused to work with them anymore as they were to ill-disciplined. Hackett found Peniakoff drunk in Cairo after coming back from a difficult LRDG mission, only to find his unit disbanded, his pay stopped, and himself unemployed. He gladly accepted Hackett’s request to start his own group.
Taking the best of the former members of the LADF and scouring the replacement depots, barracks, brothels, and bars of Cairo for men of “special qualifications”; Peniakoff formed the No. 1 Demolition Squadron and trained them to conduct reconnaissance, espionage, and raiding behind German lines. The No. 1 Demolition Squadron consisted of Englishmen, Scots, Arabs, Bedouins, Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, and Turks. His Arab signalmen couldn’t pronounce “Peniakoff” but they could pronounce “Popski” which was a buffoonish cartoon character in the army’s daily paper. “Popski” soon became Peniakoff’s nom de guerre.
To keep his motley crew in line, Popski had only one punishment for a disciplinary infraction or not performing a duty to standard: dismissal from the unit. This gave the unit an uncommonly high level of competence and espirit d’ corps, attributes that were much needed when operating alone in the unforgiving Libyan desert. Popski’s squadron used heavily armed but reliable jeeps and trucks which they treated like “ships on the sea” i.e. they carried everything they would need with them and required no support from anyone. The unit was self-contained and self-supporting: if a truck broke down and couldn’t be fixed or towed, it was left, along with the crew if there was no room on the other trucks.
On 9 December 1942, Col Hackett approached Popski and demanded he change his call sign because No1 Demolition Squadron was causing too many problems on the radio. Popski couldn’t think of anything. Hackett, exasperated, told him if he didn’t come up with a suitable name right away, he was going to call his unit “Popski’s Private Army”. “I’ll take it” and the PPA was born. For the next two years, Popski’s Private Army consistently raised havoc behind German and Italian lines, appearing where they were least expected and dashing off before the Germans could do anything about it. They were arguably one of the most effective (and daring) small units in the Mediterranean theater and their exploits read like a dime store adventure serial.