The following extract details the moment Tim Clark arrives on the beach at the mouths of the Chienti and Tenna rivers, 60 km south of Ancona. This had been the scene of a mission in which ‘Pop’ – Tim’s father - and his colleague Eddie Cauvain had carried out a beach reconnaissance for an ill-fated attempt by ‘Popski’s Private Army’ to land behind German lines in June 1944. ‘Mop’ refers to Tim’s mother, Marjorie …
It wasn’t raining, at least, but the wind was blowing hard, driving the slate-grey clouds inland. The only other person on the beach was a woman sifting the shoreline for driftwood. In contrast to the previous night, I struggled to see Pop here – this, despite the fact that I had followed the railway line most of the way from Civitanova; the railway line where Robin and his team of demolition experts had planted their charges, while Pop and Roy Taylor had guarded the Doreys they’d pulled up on to the beach. The line was exactly where the archive accounts had said it was: set back between 50 and 200 metres from the beach and running parallel to it; a highly exposed target.
Porto San Giorgio, this part of it, at any rate, had changed beyond all recognition since the war. This wasn’t the case, however, with the place I drove to next. From an account I’d read in the definitive story of Popski’s Private Army – the autobiography of the man himself, Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff – I had managed to pinpoint what I felt confident was the exact location of the beach landing, ‘a point on the coast one thousand yards south of the Tenna River’. Choosing a spot overlooking another shingle beach, distinguished by a set of posts on which several cormorants were drying their wings, I parked the car, pulled out my laptop and opened up my notes.
‘No.1 Demolition Squadron PPA’ – as Popski’s Private Army was more formally known - was an 80-strong group of British special forces that had distinguished itself during the North African campaign in a series of operations behind the lines, its primary task being the destruction of General Rommel’s fuel supplies. It was led by the colourful Major – later Lieutenant Colonel - Vladimir Peniakoff DSO, MC, who had been born in Belgium to Russian-Jewish parents in 1897. After studying at Cambridge and becoming an ardent Anglophile, Peniakoff served with the French Army in World War One. He then joined the British Army in World War Two, taking on the role of an Arabic translator in a unit called the Libyan Arab Force Commando. Learning tactics from the legendary Long Range Desert Group, he developed an aptitude for special operations and transformed the LAFC into a highly effective fighting force. When the LAFC was disbanded, Peniakoff formed No.1 Demolition Squadron. It earned the nickname ‘Popski’s Private Army’ due to a British inability, or perhaps a bloody-minded refusal, to pronounce ‘Peniakoff’.
The PPA was amongst the first British military units to arrive in Italy. Soon after landing at Taranto, it was given the job of intelligence-gathering and partisan support. It consisted of three fighting patrols, each comprised of eighteen men in six heavily armed jeeps and a mobile tactical HQ. The PPA quickly added parachute missions, mountain warfare and amphibious operations to its roles and capabilities – and it was in the latter capacity that it was to cross paths with Pop. Sometime in late April or early May, Pop was briefed on a mission codenamed ‘Anon’ that required him and Robin to pilot a pair of two-man canoes to a spot close to the mouth of the Tenna. The mission differed from earlier ones in that it was designed to pave the way for an amphibious landing by the PPA. A beach reconnaissance was altogether different from the agent drops and sabotage ops Pop had undertaken before.
As before, it had started with a departure in an MS/MAS boat from a forward operations harbour – Termoli, I learned, this time – with the boat approaching the target area as close as its crew dared before deploying the canoes. These were two-man canoes that would allow Pop and Cauvain in one, and Robin and Taylor in the other, to take shore samples and depth soundings that would feed into Popski’s plans for the beach landing itself.
As with most of the missions handed to No.1 Special Force, it all happened very quickly. Pop had written to Mop the night before departure to say that he had ‘done all the things he ought to have done’ and that the only thing he had forgotten – and this was meant as a joke - was his ‘last will and testament’. He also loaned her his watch for safekeeping, ostensibly because hers was being repaired, but the jollity, I could see, hid a deep anxiety on his part. At one point, he apologized that his writing in bed was worse than usual, blaming his nerves. The next night, he set sail in the Eduardo for Termoli, arriving there on the 13th May. There, he wrote to Mop again. ‘Roy (Taylor) is opposite me, writing on deck. Robin arrived at Termoli an hour before us.’
At Termoli, two nights later, they picked up MS64, the boat that would take them north. MS64, as far as I could tell, was skippered for the mission by Dick Laming – just the guy you’d want for an operation like this; a safe pair of hands. According to a report on ‘Anon’ in SOE files at Kew, the canoes were put over the side around half a mile from shore. Mk1 canoes were assigned, the kind that had been employed so effectively by Commandos in Operation Frankton, the raid on German shipping in Bordeaux in December 1942 made famous by the post-war film, ‘Cockleshell Heroes’. Chequered dipsticks were used for depth sounding. Plotting the location of the sandbars was laborious work – every reading had to be jotted down in a heaving and rolling sea. The use of torches so close to the shore was out of the question, so the party was equipped with a simple but ingenious invention: luminous hemispheres the size of golf balls that were held up to the pads so they could see what they were writing. The balls could also be used to signal the mother craft when they paddled back out to sea. A No.38 Mk3 portable radio set was used for communication between the canoes and MS64. The radio, in its canvas carrying-bag, was fixed between the two canoeists. The operator whispered into a microphone; instructions from MS64 were received over headphones.
Paddling to within a few hundred metres of the shore, the two canoe parties split up. Robin went to the north end of the beach to collect a sample of the shingle, while Pop moved a short way to the south to take his depth soundings. These details were all contained in the mission report. Around a kilometer from where the Tenna met the sea, the river – little more than a stream when it wasn’t swollen by winter rains – opened out into a muddy flat around 150 metres wide. Here, the slow-moving water divided into rivulets, each dropping its silt on to a series of sandbars that ran parallel to the shore. Only the sandbars nearest the beach were visible. The others, at varying depths, needed to be plotted meticulously to allow Popski’s landing craft to make it safely to shore. I looked up and could see some of the sandbanks – the first of them marked by the posts on which the cormorants sat. The combination of being here with information supplied by the wartime post-action reports was extraordinary. With very little imagination I could begin to see exactly what had happened on this beach seventy-two years earlier.
Either side of the river mouth, I could tell, Robin would be able to see the silhouettes of a number of houses. There would have been no lights. The area, like everywhere else they had landed clandestinely, was on high alert for incursions such as this. He and Taylor would have paddled slowly towards the shore, a point where the last visible sandbar, the nearest to the beach, met the gently rolling waves. Riding the canoe onto the shingle, Robin would have hauled himself out of the craft and quickly collected his samples.
When he had finished, he and Taylor would have then paddled back to MS64, taking depth soundings as they went. Pop, meanwhile, had closed in on his section of shoreline a few hundred metres to the south. On this particular night, the report said, the sea was calm and the waves lapped gently along the shoreline. Everything was going to plan until, suddenly, Pop and Cauvain spotted figures on the beach. They stopped paddling and turned the canoe nose-on to the movement to minimize their silhouette against the horizon. Seconds passed. They scarcely dared to breathe. What had they seen? Squinting through the gloom, Pop was able to resolve what looked like an anti-aircraft gun. As they held the canoe steady, both he and Cauvain were agreed: the men on the beach were a flak crew. The emplacement was a few hundred metres from where they were supposed to take their soundings. Thirty seconds passed. Then a minute. They had half-expected to hear a barked command, rifles being cocked or, at any moment, to be blinded by a searchlight. But, as their nerves settled, they knew that if they had been spotted, something would have happened by now. With slow strokes, they began once again to paddle towards the beach. With one of them keeping close watch on the gun emplacement and the soldiers, the other took the soundings. Pop had once told me that the Germans’ capacity to do everything by rote had been an advantage when working behind the lines. He knew, effectively, that if a patrol passed, it would be back exactly thirty minutes later – on the dot. The report stated that the first sounding was taken fifteen metres from the shore and the last approximately 800 metres from it. By then, they were almost back at MS64. As soon as they had been picked up by Laming, they stowed the canoes and MS64 was reversed slowly towards the beach under the power of its stealthy propulsion system, taking one last depth sounding 650 metres out from the shore, while the entire crew kept a steady watch on the gun emplacement. They were on a hair-trigger to give it everything they’d got if the alarm went up. When they had finished taking the final reading, Laming inched the throttles forward and they headed back to Termoli, where they lost no time in reporting the size, depth and position of the sandbars and the composition of the beach’s gradient: one in seven.
I closed the laptop and looked back out to sea, my eyes following the path MS64 had taken back to Termoli. Being here had allowed me to draw one important conclusion. If Pop had had to kill a guard, it had not been on this beach – and it hadn’t been at Civitanova either. Both were shingle beaches. The rubbish-strewn beach at Porto San Giorgio was an altogether quieter stretch of shore – the only location of the three where you’d have had some forewarning of a guard’s presence. And the accounts had been quite clear. At Civitanova, Pop had landed agents and taken POWs off the beach back to the waiting MS boat. There had been no hint in the post-action report of an incident. At the Popski beach, he and Cauvain had remained in their canoe throughout the mission; that much was evident, too. That left Porto San Giorgio, the mission in which he and Taylor had guarded the Doreys on the beach while Robin’s demolition party had planted explosives on the track. Call it my imagination, but there had been something about the place; somewhere I could picture Pop’s war having changed in a heartbeat - from operations in which ‘mucking around in boats’ had been the kind of adventure he’d always craved, to something that had left a shadow, one best never to speak about.