Peter Duckworth: Soldier and Olympian

 

Peter Duckworth faced an agonising choice in 1951: should he lead the British modern pentathlon team to the Olympic Games in Helsinki, or should he go with his regiment, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, to Korea?

Characteristically decisive, he chose Korea. I am told there was no pressure from the regiment; on the contrary, Duckworth confirmed, when he came to lunch with me at the House of Commons in 2004, that the consensus in the "Skins" was that "We want Peter as an Olympian." But for Duckworth, duty, as he saw it, prevailed.

Duckworth had been the fourth man in the Great Britain team at the London Olympics in 1948. He became British champion the following year, and also won the Army Epee Championship, and finished ninth in the world modern pentathlete championships in Stockholm.

His sporting career was cut short by a serious shrapnel wound in Korea but he went on to become the central figure in the Modern Pentathlon Association of Great Britain, and managed the British team at the 1959 World Championships and the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

Typically, he took time to write to young pentathletes coming into this demanding sport with words of encouragement: as chairman of the Labour Party Sports Group in the Commons in the mid-1960s I met young men and women who had benefited from Duckworth's infectious encouragement. One was a young naval officer, Michael Egan, who observed, "The great thing about the modern pentathlon is that you and I can indulge our taste for competition in events that outside the framework of the sport we could not begin to, or would not dare to."

Peter Duckworth was born in Calcutta, where his father ran a business specialising in providing machinery and equipment for the tea planters of Assam. He died in 1930, and Duckworth came home with his mother, who sent him to the Masonic School at Bushey. Volunteering at the earliest opportunity as a 17-year-old in 1940, Duckworth was commissioned into the 22nd Dragoons, drawn from the 4/7th Dragoon Guards and the Skins.

Ben Tottenham first met Duckworth when they were Troop Leaders in the scorching high summer of 1944, when he came to the Reconnaissance Squadron of the Skins. He recalled of Duckworth: "A bold and courageous Troop Leader, he was at the forefront of the Recce squadron in the Desert Rats, as we fought through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, finishing at Hamburg in 1945. The Squadron's motto was 'First in, last out'. That fitted Duckworth perfectly."

Jim Boardman, then a Lance Sergeant, and later RSM of the Skins, told me of Duckworth's initiative during the Rhine crossing at Xanten, by taking turrets off the top-heavy American light tanks and installing three machine guns.

When the war ended the Skins took over a German riding school and became accustomed to those familiar commands: "Quit and cross your stirrups, ride trot, circle right and rejoin the rear of the ride." Tottenham told me that he was sure it was at the riding school that the seeds of Duckworth's sporting career were sown.

Duckworth sustained serious injuries in Korea. Thanks to Stephen Walton, Senior Curator of the Repository of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, I can quote a passage from General Sir Cecil Blacker's and Major General Woods' official history of the Skins: "The two most dangerous places were, not surprisingly, among the most prominent features in the Forward Defended Localities, Point 15A and Point 355, whence we obtained excellent observation, the latter being known to our US allies as 'High Hell', or 'Little Gibraltar' because of its shape ... On 26 May 122mm shells crashed into a small area of Squadron A Headquarters, killing Corporals Brewer and Cook, wounding second-in-command Capt Duckworth and three other men, as well as severely damaging bunkers, ammunition and petrol dumps."

In the light of his success as an instructor-captain at Mons Officer Cadet Training Unit, in 1965 Duckworth was given command of the Junior Leaders Squadron at Bovington, HQ of the Armoured Corps. One ex-Junior Leader wrote to him in 2011 when he heard of his gangrene-related affliction, which had ended his wise and productive leadership of Fleet Council in Hampshire, "Without any doubt you were the kindest, most generous and most gracious officer any young soldier could wish to train or serve under. "Above all, you were a gentleman in the true sense of the word. I had come from a broken home and you were not only an officer, a mentor and a father figure of such importance.

"When I broke my collarbone you wrote to my mother reassuring her, and arranging for her to attend my passing-out parade." As an 18-year-old National Serviceman, I had exactly the same kind of favourable impression of Peter Duckworth.

Tam Dalyell

Peter Duckworth, soldier, modern pentathlete and council leader: born Calcutta 16 July 1923; served 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards 1940-65; Chairman, Fleet Council; married 1950 Ann Ferguson (three sons, one daughter); died Fleet 26 December 2012.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Sport
footballBayern Munich vs Manchester City match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week