b. 21/09/1927 Altrincham, Cheshire. d. 20/06/2018 Chelsea, London.
William Speakman (1927-2018) was born at 17 Moss Lane, Altrincham, Cheshire (now Greater Manchester) to Hannah Speakman, an unmarried domestic servant on 21st September 1927; 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, who became his stepfather. Bill left Wellington Road Secondary School in Timperley aged 14 and held various ordinary 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.
War had broken 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. Protracted negotiations failed to reunify the two segments and the north made its bid to overrun the south. At first the massed northern troops carried all before them and all but expelled the smaller, ill-prepared southern army and its US reinforcements from the entire 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 large-scale 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 on 4th 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 medics 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. “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 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 Queen Elizabeth II, shortly after she came to the throne on 27th February 1952. Bill was accompanied by his mother and the Mayor of Altrincham at Buckingham Palace.
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 again 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.
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 for £1,500 to medal dealer, John Hayward, 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. The medals were eventually sold several times, until in 1986 they were purchased by the Scottish United Services Museum, and are housed in Edinburgh Castle.
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. He was a regular attendee at the biannual VC and GC Association Reunions, and at Remembrance Day parades past the Cenotaph, where he was pushed along in a wheelchair by Johnson Beharry VC. Bill had acted as a mentor to Johnson soon after his own award of the VC, and they became firm friends. In 2004 he was given the Freedom of Altrincham and was President of the Altrincham and Bowden Civic Society as well as being a staunch supporter of the Royal British Legion and the Korean Veterans’ Association. In 2015 he returned to South Korea where he was presented the Taeguk Cordon, 1st Class of the National Order of Military Merit, their highest award. Bill presented a replica set of his VC medal group to the South Korean Government on the same visit.
Bill celebrated his 90th birthday in September 2017, though sadly his health was beginning to fail. He was too unwell to attend the VC and GC Association Reunion in May 2018, and passed away at 7pm on the 20th June 2018, at the Royal Chelsea Hospital surrounded by family. The funeral service was held on 19th July 2018 at the Royal Chelsea Hospital. His wishes are to have his ashes scattered on Hill 217 in Korea but Korean law meant that his ashes were interred at the UN Memorial Cemetery at Busan.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH (LOAN).
BURIAL LOCATION: ASHES INTERRED AT UN MEMORIAL CEMETERY, BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Speakman VC Medal Group in Edinburgh Castle.
Andrew Swan – Image of a replica Speakman VC Medal Group in the KOSB Museum, Berwick.
Paul Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Image of the Speakman VC Blue Plaque in Altrincham, Cheshire.
Alastair Kennedy-Rose – Images of Bill Speakman VC and his medal group on his tunic.