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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Developer - Java

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning digital publishing solution...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: NON-CONTENTIOUS (0-2 PQE) - A rare opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Financial Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Financial Analyst is required to join...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness