I am intensely aware of the responsibility to speak of Hector, surely the most remarkable and most widely respected Manx man in living memory. To compress his life into ten minutes is indeed a challenge.
There were at least five layers to his life.
Of course the most important was his private and family life. Born in 1919 the third of five children he went to Sulby School and from the age of 12 to the Liverpool Merchant Marine Training College. His destiny to be a sailor was short-lived as he discovered on his first major voyage to Brazil that he suffered acutely from sea sickness! He returned to the Island and started farming at the age of fifteen. Then to the Manx Railway where he became Station Master at St Germans. He married Gladys in April 1940, a few days before joining the Army. Apart from the War they remained inseparable for the next sixty years until Gladys died in 1980. They gave birth to three children – Marjorie was born first, then Colin and finally Tony in 1950. It was from them that we see the family of thirty assembled here today, 5 grandchildren, 9 great grandchildren and 3 great great grandchildren. Glynis who has been such a dedicated support of Hector in recent years joined the family when she married Tony in 1977. To each of them we express our deepest sympathy and thanks, for sharing Hector with us .
But I get ahead of the sequence of events. His Army training was as an infantryman but when he reached Egypt n 1940 a friend pointed out that if he became a tankman he wouldn’t have to walk. I clearly remember making the same decision for the same reason in 1950!! He soon found himself in action in Tunisia – where he was taken from his tank crew to be the driver/operator of the scout car carrying the Commander of 22 Brigade. It looked safer than being in a tank, but it was not. His boss was Brigadier ‘Looney’ Hinde, a man so nicknamed because he was mad, suffering from a chronic absence of physical fear, constantly exposing himself and therefore Hector to acute danger in their thinly protected vehicle It was on 8 May 1942 that they were held up by a dug-in German machine gun post, Hector took the Bren Gun from its mounting, leapt from the scout car, charged the machine gun position across open ground and neutralised t enemy so that the advance could continue. This is a copy [holding it up] of the citation for an immediate award of the Military Medal to acting Corporal Duff which includes the remark that this was just one of a whole series of his courageous acts under constant fire. It bears the endorsing signature of the Commander of 7 Armd Div (the famous Desert Rats). Hector continued in this suicidally dangerous job into Italy in 1943 where he was wounded; after which 22 Brigade was brought back to the UK to prepare for the D Day Normandy Landings. Hector landed on Gold Beach on D Day on 6 June, still driving a scout car for a series of Brigade Commanders throughout the advance through France and Germany until the end of hostilities. He was then sent for by the (now promoted) Major General Hinde in Berlin, to be his driver again.
In July 1945 he came home. And had to look for a way of earning his living. He sought unsuccessfully to buy a haulage lorry but there was no money forthcoming from the Isle of Man Bank. It was then that it was suggested that he joined the Police. He was ideally suited, quickly becoming known throughout the Island as “Copper Duff”, respected for his fairness but never a soft touch. On one occasion he caught a suspicious-looking couple pushing a pram on the riverbank near the Nunnery. In fact they were using the pram to secrete their (still dripping wet) salmon which they were poaching. “What are you doing?” “Just walking the baby Mr Duff.” When Hector looked into the pram there was water everywhere. “I think your imaginary baby has just sprung a leak”. Copper Duff was never knowingly deceived!! He reached the rank of Sergeant before he retired in 1972. As they have demonstrated today The Isle of Man Constabulary are justly immensely proud of their veteran police hero.
But Hector was far from hanging up his boots; he became a remarkably successful driving instructor for the next eight years. He then threw all his energy into Remembrance activities, and caring for veterans in their ailing years. He was a founding member and Chairman of the Normandy Veterans Association on the Island, and Chairman of the Joint ex-Services Association. He also became a star feature of the Annual D Day celebrations at Arromanches. He was a tireless President of the Onchan Royal British Legion, an unrelenting advocate of the preservation of war memorials and something even more significant. For the final 20 years of his life he visited the Island’s schools to talk and answer questions about the war. Children of all ages were fascinated, and it was the school children who put Hector up for his British Empire Medal in 2012. 2014 was a bumper year for Hector’s public recognition, with the award of the Legion d’Honneur from the French, the Tynwald Honour, and the Isle of Man Newspaper Lifetime Achievement award. In 2020 he was made an Officer of the British Empire and two months ago on 15 October he was chosen in a UK-wide public vote from a final shortlist of five for the prestigious “People’s Choice” award in the “Soldiering on” Campaign. The Gold figure trophy should have been presented in London but Covid and his health have prevented that. It is due to arrive on the Island within the next two weeks and His Excellency has already kindly agreed to present it to the family in early February.
One final thing must be said. Not only was Hector’s life exceptional – so also was his death. He had always been a convinced Christian and, as if he knew the end was near, he asked to have communion on 25 November in his home. It was just five days later that he went on an outing with his fellow veterans in a minibus organised by the Lions Club. They had good lunch at the Sidings in Castletown and Hector drank a full pint of beer. After lunch he went out to the minibus and sat in the front seat for the view. When his colleagues reached him they thought he was asleep. One of them fastened his seat belt to keep him safe. He leaned forward and expaired. What a superb way to go.
Rest in peace Hector. We shall miss you terribly.