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Cambridge padre to Far East POWs was small of stature but great of heart





He may have been small in stature but Padre (John) Noel Duckworth was fearless in ensuring his comrades’ survival in the notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Padre Noel Duckworth, on the left. Picture: The Cambridgeshire Regiment Collection (40084185)
Padre Noel Duckworth, on the left. Picture: The Cambridgeshire Regiment Collection (40084185)

Born in 1912, the son of a clergyman, he and two brothers were ordained and all three became canons. In 1931, the 5ft 2in Noel went to Jesus College, Cambridge and was cox in the 1934 Boat Race when the Light Blues won easily, beating the course record by 26 seconds in a time of 18min 3sec. They won again in 1935 and 1936. He coxed the British eight in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing fourth.

He was ordained and worked in Hull until he joined the 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment as its padre shortly before the Second World War and went with them to the Far East in 1941.

In the fierce fighting at Batu Pahat in Jahore in January 1942, many men from the regiment were seriously wounded. The battalion had to withdraw and head for Singapore but they came under fire at Senggarang on January 26. About 40 wounded men who could not be evacuated were left behind under the care of Padre Duckworth, two doctors and 11 orderlies.

When they were captured next day, it is said Padre Duckworth flayed the Japanese with such a harsh tongue that they thought twice about killing them instantly. They beat him for his verbal challenges but did not kill the wounded men he was protecting. They were all brought to the comparative safety of Padu Jail in Kuala Lumpur.

One of the doctors later said: “I firmly believe Noel’s fame as a rowing man saved all our lives.” The Japanese officer in charge recognised Noel Duckworth as the famous Cambridge cox - a Japanese crew from Tokyo University had participated in the Berlin Olympics, as well as Henley prior to that, and many Japanese officers had studied at Tokyo so it is likely they knew Noel.

A drawing by artist Ronald Searle, himself a Japanese POW, shows Padre Duckworth selling a Parker pen to his Japanese prison guard in Pudu Jail to buy food for his comrades.

After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, Noel was moved to Changi Jail and in 1943 was sent into Thailand and Burma on the construction of the notorious Burma Railway. There he tended hundreds of men dying from disease and starvation.

Padre Noel Duckworth, 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment, after his release in 1945 in Singapore. Picture: The Cambridgeshire Regiment Collection (40084190)
Padre Noel Duckworth, 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment, after his release in 1945 in Singapore. Picture: The Cambridgeshire Regiment Collection (40084190)

There are many stories told about Padre Duckworth. Here is one: “His men sought solace in cigarettes, which they had to make themselves. Bible pages were ideal for this purpose and the soldiers asked their chaplain for permission to use them. Duckworth assented with the proviso that they read every word on the pages first!”

After the war, he was appointed chaplain of St John's College, Cambridge. In 1948 he took a post as chaplain and dean of the University of Ghana and became a canon in Accra cathedral. He returned to England in 1959 and joined the new Churchill College in 1961, where he helped found both the college chapel and Churchill College Boat Club. He retired in 1973.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in January 1959 when, taken to the BBC television theatre by his friend, rowing commentator John Snagge, he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews. He was also the subject of Desert Island Discs on October 9, 1961.

Following his death in 1980, his obituary in The Times noted: “Padre Duckworth was one of those small men with a giant personality. The skill which he acquired in getting the best out of his oarsmen by exhorting, cajoling, and if need be, verbally castigating, he later employed during the bleak years in prisoner of war camps both to sustain his fellow prisoners, and to extract those small concessions from the Japanese guards which were so vital to survival.”

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