Royal Hospital Chelsea pays tribute to Chelsea Pensioner, Bill Speakman VC
Honoured during his lifetime for great heroism during the Korean War, Bill Speakman VC sadly passed away at the Royal Hospital Chelsea on 20th June.
Bill Speakman VC moved to the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 2015 and become a Chelsea Pensioner. During his time at the Royal Hospital he represented the veteran community with modesty, good humour and quiet dignity. He was much loved and respected by all staff and fellow Chelsea Pensioners and also by all his fellow members of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.
Below is an interview with Bill, written in 2017 by Paul Sampson:
It was in defence of Hill 217 during the Korean War in November 1951 that Bill Speakman showed extraordinary gallantry in the face of the enemy when he and a handful of colleagues, vastly outnumbered, repelled a massed advance by Chinese soldiers fighting for North Korea.
Despite being wounded, Bill launched repeated grenade attacks in order to secure the safe withdrawal of his comrades. Following a decorated military career, Bill Speakman is now a Chelsea Pensioner, residing at the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which is where Paul Sampson met him.
You grew up between the Wars – what was life like back then?
I was born in 1927 and grew up in Altringham in Cheshire. It was a lovely place; a country place, a market town. I went to school in town and really enjoyed my time growing up there.
When did you join the Army?
When I was seventeen-and-a-half I applied to sign up. But I had to give my age as 18 otherwise they wouldn’t have taken me! Anyway, I got away with it and joined the Army in 1945, just after World War II.
What was it like in the Army at that time?
I was very lucky. I kept volunteering for overseas postings and was fortunate enough to be sent to Italy. That’s where my career really started, and from there I went from country to country, all over the world.
You went on to serve in Korea, a conflict sometimes described as the Forgotten War. How did you come to be there?
I volunteered for Korea. They put me in the First Battalion, the London Scottish, a Territorial Army battalion, and off I went. I was pleased; it was soldiering, proper soldiering.
Was Korea the first place you saw active service in terms of fighting an enemy?
Yes. In Korea you took a hill, or a bit of enemy territory, and you fought to hold onto it. Then you got counter-attacked because they wanted it back again. And that’s how it went; you were defensive fighting most of the time. To get to us – we were on Hill 217 – you had to cross the Imjin River (the scene of one of the Korean War’s fiercest battles). I was there when the peace talks started. But as a soldier in the front line, you just do what you’re told to do, and we were there to make sure everything went well. And it did, really.
You say it went well, but you were involved in quite a battle…
Well, yes…one night it was pretty hectic. They’d been having a go at us, on and off, for a couple of weeks and we realised we had to reinforce the positions we were in. We did this by putting up barbed wire and by making sure we had ammunition, food and water. Then on that night they came, and we didn’t know what had hit us. But we had to hold on, as we were adamant they weren’t going to get Hill 217 back. That’s what our job was, and that’s what we did. All we did really was what we were taught to do when we joined up. Fight, hold on…and do what you have to do…
In the event for which you actually won your VC for, tell us in your own words what actually happened.
Well, we just fought and fought and that’s all there was to it.
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In fact, there was far more to the story than Bill was initially prepared to speak about. Facing overwhelming odds, he came up with a plan to repel the deadly onslaught confronting him and his comrades. Realising that rifle fire would be useless against the numbers pitched against them, he rapidly devised an alternative plan. Later in our conversation, he revealed the following:
* * * *
“When I knew what was going to happen, I could see that while rifle fire was alright it wouldn’t be enough. You see, there were so many of these guys, the Chinese. And it was cold. You had to cover your hands to work the bolt, automatic weapons were seizing up and this and that; it didn’t look good.
“So I got a couple of guys and we quickly collected a load of grenades, the Mills 36; hand-held, beautiful little thing. The ground was hard in November, and when you threw the grenades they bounced among the enemy and scattered. Then they detonated and went off. And when you’re fighting thousands of Chinese like that, it’s the only weapon you’ve got. It not only slowed them down, it also gave us a breather to get our wits back and reorganise.
“The grenades were ideal for throwing at masses of enemy as they came at you, and that’s exactly what they did on that night. In fact, it actually started in daylight, but went on into the night, about six hours in all, I believe – quite a long time!
“I found out later there had been something like 6,000 of them against us. Grenades were the only way. We did what we had to do.
“During the fight I got wounded, quite seriously actually, suffering a loss of blood through shrapnel wounds in my shoulder and right at the very top of my left leg – it was a good job I wasn’t standing six inches to the left…! When it was all over I found myself in hospital in Japan.”
Was that the end of your war?
No, when I recovered I went back to Korea. I was in a transit camp and all of a sudden I was sent for by the camp commandant. He said, ‘Are you 14471590 Private Speakman?’ I’d just come out of the hospital then and he asked, ‘How are your wounds?’ I replied
I’m OK Sir, and I want to go back to my regiment, that’s where I belong. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got something here I’m very pleased and very proud to tell you; you’ve just been awarded the Victoria Cross,’ and he gave me a little box, the size of a matchbox, and in it was the ribbon of the VC. He said, ‘When you go back, you’ll give that to General Campbell who will pin it on your chest in front of your battalion.
What was your reaction to that?
I was quite surprised, actually, because all I was doing was what I’d been trained to do. And don’t forget – ever, ever forget – there was a whole company, a whole battalion, fighting that night, not just me…I was just one of them. But I did get quite a few grenades together as I realised this was the only weapon on that hard ground that was going to be effective. And it worked. And that was it. There was no bravado, or anything like that, or being courageous, you just do what you have to. I certainly wasn’t going to become POW, and every one of us did what we had to do and fought, that was the way it went. We all mucked in and worked together.
And what did you do after that?
When I’d served my time I came home. Then I had to go and see the Queen, as I’d won this medal. The King (George VI) awarded it, but the Queen gave me it [as by then the King had died]. Then I went back to Berwick and did a bit more time there.
How would you sum up your experiences?
My attitude to life is that you’ve got to struggle a bit, then come the good things, then you have the bad things. But it’s through your own self that you decide what to do. You know, you’ve got to use your head and you’ve got to use your heart.
Returning to Korea, how do you remember your time there?
With pride. I’m very proud actually of the way we all fought together; the guys, the officers and the South Korean people. And it’s wonderful today, as I talk to you, the times I’ve been back to South Korea, it’s a beautiful place, a lovely country.