Bill Speakman VC: War hero who was felt he was only doing his job

On November 4, 1951, William Speakman, a 25-year-old Private, serving with 1st Battalion The King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), displayed one of the most outstanding examples of leadership and courage in British military history, recognised by King George VI with the award of the Victoria Cross.

Thursday, 19th July 2018, 7:24 am
Bill Speakman VC

His was one of only four awarded for the Korean War and the first VC to be invested by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Bill Speakman always felt honoured by this award and never treated it as a burden, despite his becoming public property for the rest of his life, surrounded by myth and controversy.

By nature, a proud but reserved man, a gentle giant, he never professed to be more than a simple soldier who considered he had only done what he was supposed to do.

Born on September 21, 1927, in Altrincham, Cheshire, Speakman was brought up by his mother, Hannah, for eight years, before she married Herbert Houghton, a storekeeper and First World War veteran.

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From an early age, Speakman learnt responsibility, self-reliance and concern for others; values which were reinforced by his enthusiasm for the Scouts in which, during the Second World War, he ran messages for the civil defence organisation and made cups of tea for those who had been bombed out of their houses.

Eager to get away from home, he joined the Army under age, as the war was ending, being posted throughout the UK and Europe.

Volunteering for active service to escape the boredom of peacetime soldiering with the Black Watch in Germany, Speakman arrived in Korea in 1951 as one of many individual reinforcements and was posted to the KOSB, where he became a signaller and runner for B Company Headquarters under the command of Major Philip Harrison.

The Battalion had taken over the defence of a tactically important hill, nicknamed United, which had been captured by the Australians. The KOSB quickly set about improving the defences, taking in a plentiful supply of ammunition, particularly grenades, to withstand the expected Chinese counter attack.

Following a heavy artillery barrage, a full-scale assault from a Chinese Division of 6,000 men was pressed forward with such ferocity that reports suggested many of the soldiers had been drugged.

For over four hours of intense fighting, Speakman rallied a group of five other soldiers, most senior to himself, and repeatedly charged the attacking waves of Chinese infantry.

Outnumbered by at least 10 to one, Speakman was reckoned to have thrown or rolled over 100 grenades at the enemy, which, given the hardness of the ground and the close formation of the attackers, had a devastating effect.

With total disregard for his own safety, Speakman so inspired his comrades, who allegedly shouted his name as a battle cry, that the onslaught was stemmed, but only temporarily.

Having exhausted their ammunition and taken considerable casualties, the company was ordered to retire under cover of artillery and mortar fire, whilst in a final charge Speakman threw smoke grenades; the withdrawal with as many wounded as possible was accomplished in an orderly manner.

Speakman and his Company Sergeant Major, both badly wounded, helped each other down the hill, before being evacuated by field ambulance.

No sooner had his VC been announced than scurrilous rumours circulated that Speakman had thrown beer bottles, after running out of grenades, attributing his actions to drunkenness or blind rage. Such false accusations totally discredit the extreme control he must have exercised in overcoming his own fears to sustain such a courageous performance for hours.

“He did far more than can be put on paper,” said his Company Commander. “Apart from shouting at him not to charge into Manchuria, we left him alone to run his own show.”

The KOSB that day not only earned much praise, but also 13 other awards.

Arriving home to a hero’s welcome in an austere Britain, Speakman was overwhelmed by the immense press and public attention brought on by his new celebrity status and, to escape this, he volunteered for a second tour of Korea.

In 1953, he joined the Special Air Service during the Malayan Emergency, where again he displayed selfless courage, perseverance and endurance by volunteering to find and bring back the bodies of two friends killed in a terrorist ambush in the jungle. He carried the bodies out one by one on his back in two successive patrols, even though his feet were cut to shreds because he had been issued with the wrong sized jungle boots through which his bare toes protruded.

The remainder of his military career was spent with the KOSB, with whom he felt a sense of belonging. He never regretted joining and took to the Regiment’s unofficial motto: Once a Borderer, always a Borderer. He rose to the rank of Sergeant, serving in Malaya, Aden, Borneo, Germany and the UK.

In 1955, he married a Women’s Royal Army Corps companion, Rachel Snitch, in Singapore and together they had six children. Leaving the Army after 23 years’ service in 1968, Speakman found it difficult to settle into civilian life. Wanting to do the best for his family, he felt compelled to sell his VC to pay for repairs to the house left them by his mother-in-law so that he could buy a larger house for the family in Devon.

After various false starts in ill-suited jobs, he joined the Merchant Navy where he had a successful second career as a Master at Arms with the Union Castle Line.

Sadly, a life constantly away at sea took a toll on his otherwise happy marriage and, after 16 years, he and Rachel drifted into divorce.He married twice more but both ended in divorce.

Deciding to make a clean break from his past, Speakman moved to South Africa.

Visiting South Korea for the first time since the 1950s, as part of an official commemoration in 2010, Speakman was astonished by the country’s economic transformation; confirming his view the war had been worth fighting.

Following health issues, Speakman settled back in the UK and in 2013 he was admitted to the Royal Hospital Chelsea as an in-pensioner.

He died peacefully at the Royal Hospital Chelsea on June 20, surrounded by members of his family. His funeral takes place today in Chelsea.