Better known as Popski, Vladimir Peniakoff was a Belgian national who, through the fortunes of war and thanks to his personal talents, formed and led Popski's Private Army during World War II.
Vladimir Peniakoff was born in Belgium to cultured and well-off Russian parents. He studied in Cambridge and became - in his words - "a precious intellectual prig".
He took part in World War I as a volunteer gunner in the French army. After the armistice he trained as an engineer and in 1924 went to live and work in Egypt.
He had a low opinion of the Levantine world and of European expats (read The Alexandria Quartet for a memorable portrait of that vanished world) and he prefered to keep his own company and explore the desert in his little Ford (called "the Pisspot").
He taught himself navigation with the stars and compass, Arabic and desert lore, and read the great British travel writers (like Captain Sir Richard Burton).
When the war arrived, and just after Belgium had been invaded, he volunteered and got a commission in the Libyan Arab Force. After the fall of Tobruk, Popski applied his considerable talents to the creation and running of Popski's Private Army, a recon and sabotage unit.
By the end of the war, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff had received the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) and the M.C. (Military Cross). Many of the men serving under him also received decorations - many posthumous: it was a dangerous way of making war, clearly.
More importantly than the medals and the rank, it seems that Vladimir Peniakoff was an amiable men that fought gallantly and cared about his men.
He remarked many times on how the enemy, once captured, turns into another human being; and even a friend, because you have shared with him the strange experience of trying to kill each other.