Obituary: Bill Speakman VC, gentle giant awarded VC for courage and leadership in the Korean War

William Speakman VC, soldier, merchant seaman and pilot. Born: 21 September 1927 in Altrincham, Cheshire. Died: 20 June 2018 in Chelsea, aged 90.
Sgt Bill Speakman VCSgt Bill Speakman VC
Sgt Bill Speakman VC

On 4 Novemaber 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 with the award of the Victoria Cross. His was one of only four awarded for the Korean War and the first VC to be invested by Queen Elizabeth II. By nature a proud but reserved man, a gentle giant at 6ft 6in, Bill Speakman never professed to be more than a simple soldier who had only done what he was supposed to do.

Born in Altrincham, Cheshire, Speakman was brought up by his mother, Hannah, a domestic servant, on her own for eight years, before she married Herbert Houghton, a storekeeper and First World War veteran. From an early age, Speakman learnt responsibility, self-reliance and concern for others; values 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.

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Eager to get away from home, he joined the Army under age, as the war was ending, and was 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 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 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 ten 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, if 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 over several 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, including a Distinguished Service Order for Major Harrison. For those other five “grenadiers” who had charged with Speakman, CSM “Busty“ Murdoch received a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his consistent leadership throughout the campaign; Corporal Eric Wood and Private “Paddy” Buchanan were given Military Medals; sadly, neither Sergeant “Jock” Duncan nor Corporal “Tug” Wilson received any formal honours.

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

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In 1953 he joined the Special Air Service during the Malayan Emergency, where again he displayed 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 Ann York Snitch, in Singapore and together they had six children. Frequent moves between postings were often a logistical nightmare; a subaltern once found a child left behind on a railway platform.

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 and was extremely popular with passengers and staff alike.

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 relationships ended in divorce.

Deciding to make a clean break from his past, Speakman moved to South Africa, a country which he had grown to love for its people, climate and the sense of freedom. Liberated by his new life, he took up flying microlights over game reserves and enjoyed teaching paraplegics how to fly. He worked for the government as a security and maintenance manager, later meeting Nelson Mandela, whom he much admired. 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; this confirmed his own view that 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.

On Remembrance Day, it was a touching spectacle to see him in his distinctive Chelsea Pensioners’ uniform being pushed in a wheelchair past The Cenotaph by a younger VC winner from a more recent conflict, Sgt Johnson Beharry, who became a firm friend.

Bill Speakman died peacefully at the Royal Hospital Chelsea on the 20 June 2018, surrounded by family members.

Martin Linaker