Military Monday: Peter Butterworth

This is the anniversary of the death in 1979 of English actor and comedian Peter Butterworth, well remembered from children programmes on the BBC during my time in England. He featured in many of the “Carry On” series of films.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Peter William Shorrocks Butterworth (4 February 1915 – 17 January 1979) ” served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War. While flying in an attack on the Dutch coast off Den Helder in 1940 his Fairey Albacore was shot down by Messerschmitt Bf 109s killing one crew member and wounding the other. After a forced landing on the island of Texel, he was captured, becoming a prisoner of war (POW). Sent to the Dulag Luft POW transit camp, at Oberursel near Frankfurt, he later escaped in June 1941 through a tunnel. He travelled 27 miles (43 km) over three days before a member of the Hitler Youth captured him. Afterwards, he joked that he could never work with children again. Two other attempts to escape were made during his time there, but he never got beyond the campgrounds. He was subsequently sent to Stalag Luft III, near Sagan, the scene of The Great Escape.

Whilst at Stalag Luft III he met Talbot Rothwell, who later went on to write many of the Carry On films in which Butterworth was to star. Having never performed in public before his imprisonment, Butterworth formed a duo with Rothwell and sang in the camp shows. They delivered a song that Rothwell called “The Letter Edged In Black”. The performance was followed by some comic repartee which, according to Butterworth’s account, provoked enough boos and hisses to have the desired effect of drowning out the sounds of an escape tunnel being dug by other prisoners‘ escape party. After the war, Butterworth kept a photo of the concert party line-up, something which offered inspiration to him when starting a career in acting.

Butterworth was one of the vaulters covering for the escapers during the escape portrayed by the book and film The Wooden Horse. Butterworth later auditioned for the film in 1949 but “didn’t look convincingly heroic or athletic enough” according to the makers of the film.

Within the same camp as Butterworth and Rothwell were the future actors Rupert Davies and John Casson, who was the son of Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike. All five remained very close friends after the war ended and they all appeared on This Is Your Life when Butterworth was a subject of the programme in 1975.”

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