Soldier awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery and leadership during the Korean war
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
Speakman in 1952. He found it hard to settle into civilian life and had to sell his medals to raise money