Sol­dier awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross for his brav­ery and lead­er­ship dur­ing the Korean war

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries -

As a rank-and-file pro­fes­sional sol­dier, Bill Speak­man, who has died aged 90, won the Vic­to­ria Cross in the Korean war with a sus­tained dis­play of in­domitable per­sonal brav­ery of a kind no writer of fic­tion would have dared to in­vent. He spent much of his later life try­ing with var­ied suc­cess to es­cape the re­sult­ing fame.

War broke out in di­vided Korea in June 1950, when the com­mu­nist north in­vaded the western-backed south by cross­ing the 38th par­al­lel of lat­i­tude, which was (and re­mains) the pro­vi­sional bor­der be­tween them. Korea, oc­cu­pied by Ja­pan dur­ing the sec­ond world war, was di­vided in 1945 be­tween the Soviet Union in the north and US forces in the south.

Long ne­go­ti­a­tions failed to re­unify the two seg­ments and the north made its bid to over­run the south. At first the north­ern troops car­ried all be­fore them and all but ex­pelled the smaller, badly pre­pared south­ern army and its US re­in­force­ments from the penin­sula.

But the Amer­i­can Gen­eral

Dou­glas MacArthur was ap­pointed com­man­der-in-chief of UN forces in Korea in July and led a dar­ing coun­ter­at­tack. A tem­po­rary boy­cott of the UN se­cu­rity coun­cil meant there could be no Soviet veto of the Amer­i­can pro­posal for UN in­ter­ven­tion. Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth units with other al­lied troops joined in. The US Marines made a bold am­phibi­ous land­ing at In­cheon, near the south­ern cap­i­tal of Seoul, and al­lied forces then ad­vanced north to the Chi­nese bor­der, where­upon the Chi­nese army en­tered the war and forced them back to the 38th par­al­lel.

It was dur­ing one of many largescale coun­ter­at­tacks by the Chi­nese dur­ing this to-and-fro phase that Pri­vate Speak­man, a Black Watch sol­dier tem­po­rar­ily at­tached to the 1st bat­tal­ion of the King’s Own Scot­tish Border­ers, was act­ing as a run­ner for B com­pany, po­si­tioned on a ridge known as Hill 217, at the be­gin­ning of Novem­ber 1951.

The bat­tal­ion came un­der fierce ar­tillery fire in its ex­posed po­si­tion. The Chi­nese then sent in 6,000 in­fantry troops, ad­vanc­ing in waves on B com­pany. At dusk the com­pany’s po­si­tion looked hope­less, but Speak­man, who was im­pos­ing and well-built at 6ft 6in tall, de­cided oth­er­wise. Fill­ing his pouches and all avail­able pock­ets with the hand grenades he had been prim­ing, he rose to his feet. Asked where he thought he was go­ing, Speak­man was re­ported as say­ing, in con­tem­po­rary speech: “I’m go­ing to shift some of them bloody Chinks.”

Stand­ing in the dark, he pelted the at­tack­ers with grenade af­ter grenade, aim­ing at their ri­fle flashes, paus­ing only to re­turn to re­fill his pock­ets. In­spired by his ac­tions, six men then joined him in a concerted drive to clear the ridge of the en­emy.

It seemed only a bullet could stop the fu­ri­ous de­fender. Yet even that was in­suf­fi­cient: he was in­deed shot – in a leg and again in the shoul­der – but, di­rectly or­dered to seek med­i­cal help, he went back to the fight when the doc­tors were not look­ing. His rage reached new heights when a medic treat­ing a com­rade was shot and killed. He and his friends were fi­nally re­duced to throw­ing stones, ra­tion tins and even, the leg­end has it, beer bot­tles (their con­tents had been used to cool gun bar­rels) be­fore a fi­nal charge cleared the ridge and the rem­nants of the com­pany could with­draw.

The ci­ta­tion for the VC said he had im­posed enor­mous losses on the en­emy and saved the lives of many of his com­rades as they with­drew. It was the first such award to be pre­sented by the Queen, shortly af­ter she came to the throne.

Bill was born in Al­trin­cham, Cheshire (now Greater Manch­ester) to Hannah Speak­man, an un­mar­ried do­mes­tic ser­vant; he never knew his fa­ther and she never named him. About seven years later she mar­ried Her­bert Houghton, a veteran of the first world war. Bill left Welling­ton Road sec­ondary school in Tim­per­ley aged 14 and held var­i­ous jobs be­fore vol­un­teer­ing for the Scot­tish Black Watch reg­i­ment at the age of 17 near the end of the sec­ond world war, see­ing ser­vice in Ger­many, Italy and Hong Kong. Re­turn­ing to Ger­many in 1950, he vol­un­teered for Korea and was de­tached to the King’s Own Scot­tish Border­ers.

A month af­ter he re­ceived his VC, Speak­man re­turned to Korea at his own re­quest, to get away from all the adu­la­tion. De­mo­bilised in 1953, the year the Korean war ended in an armistice, he could not set­tle down to civil­ian life with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tions and vol­un­teered for the army again, to fight the com­mu­nist in­sur­rec­tion in Malaya. In 1955 he served for a short pe­riod with the SAS, re­join­ing the King’s Own Scot­tish Border­ers when they ar­rived in Malaya and ris­ing to his fi­nal rank of sergeant.

He left the army af­ter 22 years in 1968, the year fol­low­ing his ar­rest in Ed­in­burgh for steal­ing £104 from a woman’s purse. He re­ceived an ab­so­lute dis­charge af­ter re­pay­ing the stolen sum in full: his dec­o­ra­tion prob­a­bly saved him from prison.

Once again un­able to set­tle down into civil­ian life, the “beer-bot­tle VC” tried var­i­ous jobs, sold his medals to raise money, and was mar­ried and di­vorced three times, fa­ther­ing seven chil­dren, all of whom sur­vive him.

He em­i­grated to South Africa, called him­self Speak­man-Pitt for a while, re­turned to Bri­tain and spent a year as a pen­sioner at the Royal Hos­pi­tal, Chelsea, be­fore go­ing back to South Africa for a sec­ond time. Even­tu­ally he re­turned to Al­trin­cham be­fore re­tir­ing per­ma­nently as a Chelsea pen­sioner in 2015.

Dan van der Vat

Wil­liam Speak­man, sol­dier, born 21 Septem­ber 1927; died 20 June 2018

The ci­ta­tion said that he had im­posed enor­mous losses on the en­emy and saved the lives of many of his com­rades

DOU­GLAS MILLER/ GETTY IM­AGES

Speak­man in 1952. He found it hard to set­tle into civil­ian life and had to sell his medals to raise money

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