Thursday, 24 March 2011
With the Libyan Rebels
What are we to make of the war in Libya? Republican hawks are sceptical, Liberal doves are enthusiastic. Some accuse the West of abandoning the Arab people, of trying to grab the oil. Noam Chomsky does both.
Seventy years ago a former pacifist was out in the Libyan desert being similarly bamboozled.
Vladamir Peniakoff was born in Belgium, of Russian intellectual emigre parents, and educated in Cambridge. He started off as a conscientious objector to the First World War before eventually signing up as a gunner in.....the French army.
An international sort of guy he toured Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Deciding that Hitler needed to be stopped but that the French had no intention of doing so, he joined the British Army.
Despite being overweight and middle aged, he threw himself into the war with gusto, divorcing his wife, sending his children to South Africa and giving his possessions away to charity. He clearly intended death or glory, but the Army was having none of it. Seeing an education and and the ability to speak Arabic they decided he was too bright to be a real soldier and posted him to the Intelligence Corps, where he was expected to find a comfortable desk for the duration.
Madman that he was he didn't stay in the office for long and, after volunteering for special duties, he found himself training Libyan rebels in the desert.
The desert tribesmen had been fighting a guerrilla war against the Italian colonisers. Having grown up on such tales as The Green Shadow Popski, as he was known, had images of tough, hard living marksmen who laughed at danger.
What he found instead was a charming group of devout and very sensitive men who couldn't hit a barn door at five paces. His rather fruity Egyptian Arabic so offended their sensitive natures that one man spent three days sulking in his tent after being called an 'ass'.
They were keen to learn though, and at the end of the day whilst they tried to sleep in their tents, the training team were often woken by the noise of tribesmen drilling themselves on the parade ground.
But if they enjoyed the square bashing, the actual fighting was less to their tastes, especially when they came up against Rommel's Africa Corps. So instead of fighters, the Libyans were used as intelligence gathers and Popski disappeared into the desert, occasionally meeting desert patrols to pass back more or less useless information on the Germans.
In the end Popski realised that if the war was to be won he'd have to do it himself, so he eventually raised an SAS-like team of marauders himself to take the fight to the enemy. Popski's Private Army, as it was called, spent as much time confusing their own high command about what they were up to as the Germans and fought a particularly idiosyncratic war through North Africa and into Italy.
Popski's Private Army, like Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service the other wild, irregular units that the war threw up, was disbanded when the war ended. Today's SAS is a much more professional outfit, as was recently illustrated by the way a team was captured by Libyan rebels whilst allegedly looking for hotel rooms.
If others are in the desert now training the anti-Gaddafi forces I hope they have more success than Popski had, and that they've finally found somewhere to stay.