Peter Duckworth: Soldier and Olympian
Wednesday 27 March 2013
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.
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.
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