Articles

That time a British soldier held back 6,000 enemy troops with beer bottles

There's probably no greater argument in favor of issuing bottled beer to troops in combat than the story of William Speakman.


In 1951, the 24-year-old Speakman volunteered for service in the Korean War.

He initially joined the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment, but was attached to the 1st Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers during his time in Korea.

William Speakman in Korea, 1951.

By 1951, the war had turned on the UN troops fighting in the peninsula. After near annihilation along the Korea-China border, Communist forces were bolstered when China entered the war for North Korea.

Later that year, William Speakman and his unit were somewhere along the 38th parallel – the new front – on a freezing cold, shell-pocked hill along the Imjin River. It was known as Hill 317.

On Nov. 4, 1951, Speakman's unit was suddenly pummeled by intense Chinese artillery and a tide of overwhelming human wave attacks.

What happened next earned William Speakman the nickname "Beer Bottle VC."

Speakman's medals, which he donated to South Korea in 2015.

Speakman, a junior enlisted infantryman acting without orders, led a series of counter-charges to prevent his position from being overrun. He and six other men from the King's Own fought an estimated 6,000 oncoming Chinese infantry troops. Speakman himself began to hurl as many grenades at the Chinese waves as he could, even after suffering multiple wounds.

He ran to and from a supply tent 10 times over the course of four continuous hours to replenish his grenade supply.

"It was hand-to-hand; there was no time to pull back the bolt of the rifle," he told the Telegraph. "It was November, the ground was hard, so grenades bounced and did damage."

His cache of grenades didn't last forever, of course. When he exhausted his unit's explosives supply, he turned to any other material he could find to throw at the enemy horde, which included rocks and a steady supply of empty beer bottles. He and his six buddies were able to hold off the Communist onslaught long enough for the KOSB to withdraw safely.

"I enjoyed it, actually, it's what I joined up to do," Speakman said in an interview with the Royal British Legion. I volunteered for Korea and joined the KOSB... we did what you're trained to do as a soldier. We fought that night and did what we had to."

Speakman remembered Queen Elizabeth II presenting him with the Victoria Cross for his actions on Hill 317.

"When I got it, the king was alive," Speakman said. "But he was very ill. He awarded me the VC but he died. So I was the queen's first VC... I think she was nervous. And I was very nervous."

Only four VCs were awarded during the Korean War and Speakman is the only living Victoria Cross recipient from that war. Though Speakman went on to serve until 1967 and fought in other conflicts in places like Italy and Borneo, he wants his ashes to be scattered in the Korean DMZ.

HRH The Duke of York meets Chelsea Pensioner Bill Speakman, VC. (Duke of York photo)

"When I die, this is where I want to be. Nowhere else," he told the Wall Street Journal.

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