The Korean War featured briefly in the first episode of a Channel 5 series, presented by Prince Charles, on Sunday. The series is about holders of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for military bravery.
The first Victoria Cross awarded by our current monarch was to Bill Speakman (left) of the Black Watch, attached to the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who saw service in the Korean War. This is from an online encyclopaedia on Manchester:
Altrincham born Bill Speakman was a tall man of 6 feet 6 inches who began a military career as a drummer boy in the local Army Cadet Corps. He later joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and went on to be awarded the Victoria Cross for Gallantry in 1951 during the Korean War. The award was given as a result of his repeated charges against a heavily defended enemy hill position without regard for his personal safety, and despite being wounded and out of ammunition, pelted the enemy positions with tin cans, stones and beer bottles. Speakman was the first to receive the VC from Queen Elizabeth II, and was dubbed the “Beer Bottle VC” by the press.
The programme contained some rather fun morale-boosting contemporary newsreel footage — the tone of the voiceover, in the clipped tones of the time, was that those Yanks were getting rather bogged down until us plucky Brits appeared on the scene. Needless to say, General MacArthur was not asked to comment on that particular claim.
Speakman, now 79, was interviewed for the programme, as was another soldier present on “United Hilltop”, Korea, on 4 November 1951 — who said the beer bottle thing was probably a bit of an exaggeration, but they certainly had run out of grenades and had to improvise.
Speakman is one of only 12 living holders of a VC — including 4 Gurkhas and 2 Australians. He unfortunately had to sell his VC to pay for house repairs in the late 1960s (according to the Altrincham History Society, it raised £1,500). And hopefully he still gets a small fee for the signatures that he does for commemorative postage stamp and coin issues.
If you missed it the programme, you can buy the book and DVD of the series. Details here.