COMMANDER Bill King, a highly decorated naval hero of the Second World War, died recently, aged 102. Here, Tom Peterkin recalls the day he met an extraordinary man in both war and peace
IN A world of vacuous celebrity and creature comforts – where the word “brave” conjures thoughts of an animated film – it is all too easy to forget the heroes of bygone generations. But the recent death of Commander Bill King, a highly decorated Second World War submariner, at the age of 102, brought back memories of a memorable encounter with a great man.
Cmdr King, DSO DSC, was the only naval officer to command a submarine from the first day of the war to the last – an extraordinary record of service that saw him account for many enemy vessels and witness the loss of many of his own comrades.
Almost as remarkable were his postwar adventures, which saw him sail single-handed around the world on his third attempt – a voyage that was only successful because he survived a shark attack.
It was in the hope of hearing tales of derring-do that I ventured to his home – a 15th-century Norman keep on the west coast of Ireland – some six years ago.
For some reason or other, the notes that I made of our interview have languished unseen in my notebook since then. But last week as I read the obituaries that marked his passing, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to revisit those notes and recount the recollections of a distinguished member of a dwindling band to whom we owe so much.
As the transcript of my shorthand scrawl reminds me, I was met by a very lively 96-year-old outside the imposing walls of Oranmore Castle, Co Galway. After he invited me inside, we paused by a rather fine portrait of him as a young man in uniform.
“That was most unfortunate,” said King as we glanced up at the picture. “I’d been on the tiles for a week. I went to sleep then someone came in said, ‘There’s someone here to paint your picture.’”
Speaking of nights on the tiles, my arrival at Oranmore came the day after a boozy party thrown in honour of King, who had just learned he was to receive the Arctic Emblem – awarded 60 years after the end of the war to all those, mainly convoy veterans, who served in the frozen north.
“They have nicknamed this place Hangover Hall,” said King, even though he showed no signs of the after effects of the “singing and the carry-on” the night before. “God has been very good to me, I never get a hangover,” he said.
With a great deal of modesty, the nonagenarian interviewee played down the time he spent beneath the icy wastes of the Arctic Ocean. “The funny thing about this was that to get the Arctic Emblem you didn’t have to do anything brave or clever. You just had to be inside the Arctic Circle. My submarine was sent there to hunt for German submarines, but we didn’t get any.
“But what we did get, and which was much more important – we had a complete display of the Northern Lights – aurora borealis. I have never seen a more beautiful sight in the whole of my life. The look-outs, who were supposed to be looking out for the enemy, were gazing with jaws dropped at the spectacle overhead.”
He may not have sunk any enemy ships in the Arctic, but his submarine, Snapper, destroyed six ships during the Norwegian campaign. He then fought in the Mediterranean and the Far East, where he survived bombings and sank the long-range Japanese submarine I-166.
Another vessel to perish at his hands was the enormous transport ship Toyohashi Maru, which went down after it was hit by one round from a four-inch gun. “She went ‘puff’, she was carrying petrol,” was his description of the demise of the 7,000-tonne ship.
“Then we damaged a gunboat in night action. And we shot down a lot of aircraft in the Easter Day raid on Colombo [Ceylon, now Sri Lanka]. I got no gongs, praises or raises of pay – just a reprimand. They thought I should have used a torpedo. I didn’t bother telling them that nearest spare torpedo was in Alexandria.”
King’s resilience and bravery did see him get a few gongs, but he seemed more interested in talking about others’ exploits. A great friend was the “Cockleshell hero”, Lt Col HG “Blondie” Hasler DSO OBE, who led the team who blew up German cargo vessels after paddling 50 miles in tiny canoes in one of the war’s most celebrated acts of valour.
“They don’t come any better,” King said. “Blondie Hasler blew up the ship carrying radar to the Japanese.”
According to King, the success of Hasler’s mission – in Bordeaux Harbour during December 1942 – was the only reason that he was still around in 2006 to tell his war stories. “The operation was of vital importance in that it stopped the Japanese getting radar, and that’s why I’m still alive. It was incredibly heroic. I have tried to get him awarded a posthumous VC by Her Majesty the Queen”
Like King, Hasler became a famous yachtsman. In fact, he helped King design his boat, the Galway Blazer II, in which he circumnavigated the globe – becoming the first sailor to do so underneath both Capes.
The yacht was named after the local hunt with which King rode to the hounds. “My wife and I had 20 years of the best fox-hunting in the world. I rode with the Galway Blazers for two days a week,” King said. “Do you know why they are called the Blazers? They had the hunt ball in Dooley’s Hotel and they got so drunk they burnt the place down.”
Fortunately his yacht proved more resistant to over-excited nuisances than the Dooley Hotel when he sailed it on his voyage in the early 1970s, aged 58. Over 30-years later, he recalled vividly when the Galway Blazer II was holed by a shark 400 miles south-west of Fremantle, Australia. “I was looking through the bottom of the boat and I saw its nose. I thought ‘Now is the time to ring God.’ But what I did was change to another tack and spent about three days putting 13 ropes around the ship. I clamped the spare sails and macintoshes around it and shored up the thing and limped into Australia.”
So what were the character traits that forged this remarkable character, who packed so much into a long life that had seen him climb the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc?
“I didn’t have the desirable qualities of courage, dash and leadership,” he said modestly. “But I think I inherited some of nous of the old professor.”
The “old professor” was his grandfather William King, Professor Natural History at Queen’s College, Galway. (He never knew his father, Col WT King, who was killed in the First World War.)
His forebears were distinguished, and so was his late wife, Anita Leslie, an acclaimed biographer of aristocratic Anglo-Irish stock. It was a wartime romance. “We met in the Lebanon. We didn’t have a physical affair. We had an intellectual one. We walked down the Adonis Valley – the most beautiful in the world – together. It took us two days. After that there was no-one else for me.”
There was some serious competition for her hand, however. “At the time she was married to Paul Rodzianko. She lived with a man Peter Wilson, who was the world’s tallest and most handsome man, and she was in love with an Australian colonel. So I was fourth on the list.”
Nevertheless, they married after the war by which time King, as he freely admitted, had been diagnosed with a mild dose of insanity: “I got the head shrink in England to certify me as 0.125 per cent mad, which meant I could leave the Navy but didn’t have to go into a nuthouse.”
The couple got married at her family seat, Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan, the venue for the more recent and less enduring union of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. She died in 1984, and when I met him, he still felt her loss keenly.
“The first time I went to her grave at Castle Leslie, I fell weeping to the ground. Now I can stand up and say a prayer. The thing about bereavement is that time, like an ever rolling stream, is a great healer.”
Looked after by his daughter, Leonie, during his later years, the old man was still brimming with vim and vigour. Quite recently, he had met with Akira Tsurukame, the son of Tsuruichi Tsurukame, a Japanese submariner who died when the I-166 was blown up. What could have been a difficult encounter had been a great success. “He’s a very nice chap ,” remarked King. “I killed his father.”
Still up for a scrap, he confessed to sleeping with a sword under his bed in case the IRA sneaked up on him during the night.
“I was told I was legitimate target of the IRA, so I slept with a gun under my bed. But when you have children you can’t really have guns around. So I now sleep with a Samurai sword – so don’t ever come into my room at night,” he warned, before adding: “My wife’s godfather was De Valera, Churchill was her cousin. Michael Collins was a friend of my wife’s father. Whichever crowd came to murder me, I could say I was on their side.”
During a compelling couple of hours, one of the few signs of frailty was his wrestling with a troublesome hearing aid and perhaps there was the slightest sign of memory failure.
“Aged 78, I hang-glided off the top of a mountain in the French Alps. I think I also did it in New Zealand, but I can’t really remember,” he said. By then, it was time for me to call it a day and reflect that they simply don’t make them like that any more.
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