Sir Patrick Duffy - military chief and former Sheffield MP - celebrates his centenary

Where to begin telling the life story of Sir Patrick Duffy, the military chief and former South Yorkshire MP who has celebrated his 100th birthday?

Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 3:48 pm
Updated Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 3:48 pm

Should it start with his illustrious naval career and the serious air crash which left him with injuries so severe, he is still receiving treatment 80 years on?

It could focus on his respected Parliamentary career as former MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, Navy Minister and shadow defence minister.

What about his knighthood from the Queen? His private audience with the Pope? Or that throughout his 80s he annually completed a pilgrimage which involved walking for 35 days?

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Sir Patrick Duffy.

Sir Pat, courteous, generous and softly spoken, is a gentleman in the truest sense and modest about his incredible life.

Following his naval service in World War Two, including as a combat flier with the Fleet Air Arm, he became a Labour MP and held some of the most distinguished positions in Parliament and international institutions.

As a young pilot, he almost died in a dreadful air crash and was given the Last Rites. Despite spending several months on his back in a military hospital, he returned to operational flying.

For many years he received a 100 per cent disability pension and spent his most recent birthday with his head in bandages as his facial scars still need treatment.

Sir Patrick Duffy.

"I had skin grafts at the time and they really patched me up," he says, from his home in Doncaster. "All this happened 80 years ago but the doctors keep an eye on me."

He managed to celebrate his centenary despite it happening in lockdown. "I live next door to my sister so we had a table in the garden and had a few drinks so it went all well.

"I received nearly 100 birthday cards so it was a great day - I can't believe I'm still here," he laughs. "All I need now is a haircut."

Born in Wigan to Irish Catholic parents, he says he was "strengthened" in the South Yorkshire coalfield of Rossington where his dad was a miner. He pays tribute to his parents who, in his words, made it all possible.

"I was inspired even as a five-year-old as I saw how the men of Rossington stood firm through seven months of incredible hardship during the General Strike of 1926.

"My dad survived Wigan's Maypole Colliery disaster, the First World War, the General Strike of 1926 and 53 years down the pit.

"He was still working underground six shifts a week in his early 70s yet had no legal right to sick pay or holidays until after World War Two.

"When I entered Parliament mam and dad had no bathroom or indoor toilet yet as a family, we always felt we had everything. Our glass was always half full."

After giving a false age so he could volunteer, his wartime service started as an ordinary seaman in 1940 and he rose to First Lieutenant.

He transferred to the Fleet Air Arm and by 1946 he was Commanding Officer at the Naval School of Air Radar - never dreaming that one day he would take the chair of the historic board of admiralty.

Following the war, Sir Pat graduated from the London School of Economics and studied his Phd at the prestigious Columbia University in New York followed by a lectureship at Leeds University.

After serving as Labour MP for Colne Valley, he was elected in Sheffield Attercliffe in 1970. He later became First Lord - the political head of the Royal Navy and senior advisor on all naval matters in James Callaghan's government.

When Labour went into opposition in 1979, he became shadow defence minister and was given Special Branch protection in Sheffield after receiving death threats. His mother was put under police surveillance after bricks were thrown through the windows of her Doncaster home.

His peacemaking skills led him to play key roles in paving the way for the end of the Cold War and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.

As President of the NATO Assembly in the 1980s he had direct contact with the White House, the Pentagon and the Kremlin.

Margaret Thatcher broke Prime Ministerial protocol to enjoy his company. "She insisted at our meetings on pouring me not one cup of tea but two - to the horror of her staff who were watching the clock."

In 1989 he was invited by Pope John Paul for a private one to one meeting in the Vatican and two years later, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth for his contribution to the Western Alliance.

He retired from Parliament in 1992 and was poised to become the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire until the Cabinet Office ruled he was above the mandatory retirement age.

Instead, he spent his retirement walking the famous El Camino Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage - a 35 day walk of 25km each day - which he completed six years running.

While he enjoys a tipple, he says his longevity is down to never having smoked, always taking exercise and reading as much as possible.

Warm hearted and humorous, the only thing he won't discuss his sport. He jokes: "Thanks to being brought up Irish in Britain and British in Ireland I would unhesitatingly serve both the Queen and the Irish President but when it comes to England playing Ireland at football, please don't ask me which team I support!"