Although Korea was once a united country, it was divided in 1948. Before WWII, Korea was under Japanese rule, but this was overthrown at the end of the war in 1945.
The south part of the country was liberated by US forces and the North one by the Russians. As a result of the cold war between the two countries, Korea was split into two newly formed states: South and North Korea. The governments of the both countries held no sympathy for each other after they were established; this tension eventually resulted in a war between the two, known as the Korean War.
The war began when North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950. Lasting for three years, the war took around two and a half million casualties and provoked the involvement of other countries. North Korea was supported by the Soviet Union and China, while South Korea received help from the United Nations, whose task force consisted of 16 countries, led by the United States and the United Kingdom.
The UK army deployed approximately 100,000 troops to Korea. The soldiers fought bravely, and 1,087 of them lost their lives. Four soldiers were given the Victoria Cross, the highest award granted by the British Army. One of those recipients was Sergeant William Speakman-Pitt, whose story from the Korean War is quite interesting.
William “Bill” Speakman was born in Altrincham, Cheshire on 21 September 1927. He joined the cadets when he was 15, and at the age of 18, he joined the infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, called the Black Watch.
The young soldier was eager to fight the Nazis, but the Second World War officially ended five days after he joined the army. Bill was positioned in Hong Kong, where he proved to be a troublesome soldier. He was promoted several times but also was demoted due to altercations with senior officers. In 1951, Bill was sent to Korea, where he fought gallantly and proved his bravery.
The heroic deed which earned him the Victoria Cross happened on 4 November 1951. Bill was part of the force responsible for conquering the heavily defended Hill 317. The soldiers managed to capture the 1000 foot tall hill with only four casualties. Even though the epic conquering was hard due to the storm of bullets and grenades, holding the hill was even harder. When the Chinese attempted to retake the hill, they attacked with their full capacity; 6,000 men strong, the Chinese army had overrun the entire hill, held by 400 British soldiers. The casualties of the UN forces were rising, and soon the part of the army responsible for keeping the left part of the hill was severely depleted. Bill Speakman was given the task of delivering hand grenades to the forward platoons. On his initiative, he collected six more soldiers and began a grenade attack on the Chinese soldiers. They caused severe damage to the opposing side and managed to conduct several attacks. Private Speakman was wounded in the leg and the shoulder, but kept leading the attack and keeping the Chinese at a distance, while the rest of the British troops retreated to safety. After a while, the men ran out of grenades, but that didn’t stop their efforts. Empty beer bottles, given to the platoon, now served as their ammunition. The resourcefulness of Bill Speakman that day saved the lives of many soldiers, as he fought with rifle, knife, grenades and beer bottles. He managed to keep the Chinese away until reinforcements arrived. Bill Speakman was awarded the Victoria Cross, becoming the first soldier ever to receive this award from Queen Elizabeth II.
After the Korean War, Bill continued his service in the army. He was promoted to sergeant and served in Malaya, Borneo, and Radfan with the Special Air Service (SAS), the elite unit of the British Army. After 22 years of service, Bill Speakman retired in 1968 and settled down. Eventually, he was forced to sell his Victoria Cross to repair the roof of his cottage. Later he obtained a replacement which he donated to South Korea on his visit to Seoul on 21 April 2015, claiming that the award belonged there.
His original Victoria Cross is on display in the National War Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Bill continued to climb mountains and piloted a plane until he was 60 years old. Today, he is bound to a wheelchair and resides in the Royal Hospital Chelsea as a uniformed in-pensioner. Of all the four recipients of Victoria Crosses in the Korean War, Bill Speakman is the only one still alive.
The story of his amazingly exciting life is told in the book Beyond the Legend: Bill Speakman, co-written by Derek Hunt, John Mulholland and Bill Speakman himself.