Bill Speakman VC death: How the British soldier won the Victoria Cross during the Korean War

Harriet Agerholm
Sgt Speakman died at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, surrounded by his family (file photo): Douglas Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bill Speakman, the first soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) by Queen Elizabeth II, has died aged 90.

Sgt Speakman, who was from Altrincham in Greater Manchester, was 24 years old when he was given the award for outstanding bravery during the Korean War.

He fought off a sustained attack from Chinese forces for more than four hours, at various points fighting hand-to-hand to save fellow soldiers.

Sgt Speakman, known as “Big Bill”, owing to his 6ft 6in stature, died at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, surrounded by his family.

While still a private in 1951, Sgt Speakman’s battalion was defending a position on Maryang-san in Korea when it was besieged by 6,000 Chinese attackers.

Commonwealth forces had captured the territory in October at the beginning of an offensive against the Chinese, who were fighting alongside North Korean communists.

In the early hours of November 4, the defending battalion came under increasingly aggressive artillery and mortar fire, before a wave of Chinese troops advanced from their positions.

They attacked the Commonwealth troops’ trenches and by 5.45am the two sides were fighting hand-to-hand.

Private Speakman was preparing hand grenades when a message came over the radio saying two platoons had been overrun and the top of the ridge was in danger of falling into enemy hands.

He gathered a handful of men together, gave them grenades, and led them towards the ridge. There, he charged repeatedly at the enemy.

“It was hand-to-hand; there was no time to pull back the bolt of the rifle,” he recalled during a visit to Seoul in 2015. “It was November, the ground was hard, so grenades bounced and did damage.”

Despite being hit in the leg, he continued fighting, successfully holding back the Chinese forces and allowing the overrun platoon enough time to evacuate their wounded.

Private Speakman only stopped when he was directly ordered to seek medical attention for his leg wound.

While being treated, a nearby medic who was helping another soldier was hit in the neck by mortar. Private Speakman was angered by this and, when his medic’s back was turned, he took off again for the battlefield for what he called a few more “dabbles” at the enemy.

The announcement of the Victoria Cross award said: “Private Speakman’s heroism under intense fire throughout the operation and when painfully wounded was beyond praise and is deserving of supreme recognition.”

Speaking about his return to Manchester after receiving the award in a 2015 interview with the BBC, Sgt Speakman said: “It started to dawn on me as the days went by, stopping in the street no matter where you went in Altrincham, people trying to do things for you.

“I didn’t realise why it’s got the VC really, because I only did what the other guys did, we fought and that’s what we were trained to do.”

Sgt Speakman presented a replica of his Victoria Cross to the Korean people in 2015, saying: “I decided before I died I would do something with this VC. Because it originated in South Korea, I thought it had to come back to South Korea.”

He said he wanted his ashes to be scattered in view of his former battlefield in No Man’s Land, between the two Koreas.