General Sir John Hackett
Saturday 13 September 1997
No one else would have seen in Vladimir Peniakoff, an irritable Russian emigre who relieved the tedium of life in pre-war Alexandria by long journeys into the desert, a genius for demoralising an over-stretched enemy out of all proportion to the tiny force he led, or christened the force "Popski's Private Army" after the angry little commie in the strip cartoon. Like Denys Hamson's We Fell Among Greeks (1946), Peniakoff's Popski's Private Army (1950) was one of the first books to tell the story of the war as it really was, and it paid generous tribute to Hackett, his ability and freedom from convention.
If he was a great soldier in victory, he was still greater in defeat. He was one of the first to realise the strategic folly of Arnhem, but he made the most of his brigade, even when it was down to 500 men defending a 2,000-yard front. How he convalesced from his wounds and escaped to rejoin the British army just north of Breda four months later was told in I Was a Stranger. He wrote the story of his adventures in 1945 while it was still fresh in his mind, but he did not finish it until 1950, and even then put off publishing it until 1977.
The reasons for this are clear. It was only superficially an adventure story; it was really a spiritual odyssey, one that had deeply moved him and which he told in deeply moving terms. The real hero is not the writer, but the Dutch people who sheltered and befriended him, often at fearful risk and at a time of universal privation. He, as much as they, was sustained by a faith that is a recurring theme in the book. The absence of heroics meant that it never attained the fame of The Third World War, but it will always be remembered as something more than a piece of war history.
In peace he was at home in the university as the Army, but many other things engaged him, to all of which he brought the same energy and gusto. He enjoyed writing, for which he had a natural gift, and the success of his books, which startled his modesty. But I vividly remember his equal enthusiasm for an ultimately abortive encyclopaedia of military history in which we were involved.
He applied himself to many good causes. From February 1969 to his death he was a trustee of the Esmee Fairbairn Trust; over 28 years he took an active interest in all the different applications, social and cultural, that came to the trust, and many of them benefited, directly or indirectly, from his wisdom, as well as the trust's funds, which he saw grow substantially.
He was always the best of company; no room but lightened up when he came into it. His sense of humour was never far away; if his wit was sometimes wicked, it was always irresistibly funny, and no sensible person ever took offence at it. All in all, he did a power of good in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people.
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