Pvt. “Big Bill” Speakman from the British Army’s King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regiment received the first Victoria Cross medal handed out by Queen Elizabeth II of England, and to this day he is one of just eight living recipients of the British Army’s highest award for bravery in combat. And while this alone is worthy Badass of the Week material, what puts this gigantic bearded warrior over the top is the fact that he’s better known as the “Beer Bottle VC” – an awesome-as-hell epithet he earned in 1951 on a frozen, bullet-riddled hill along the 38th Parallel where he single-handedly took on a bum-rushing Brigade of Chinese People’s Army Infantry in four hours of close-quarters combat that saw him chucking hand grenades, beer bottles, empty ration tins, pencils, small woodland creatures, kitchen silverware, cricket bats, and his own fucking hulking meaty fists at anything that passed into his field of vision until all that remained of Hill 317 was a humongous pockmarked explosion crater filled with sorrow, misery, broken glass, shrapnel-related mutilation, and lots and lots of dead enemy soldiers.
Born in Cheshire, England, Big Bill joined the cadets at age 15 and enlisted in the Army at 18. He joined the infamous Black Watch on August 10, 1945, signing on with one of the toughest groups of whisky-swilling kilted Scots bayonet-enthusiasts to ever skewer a Nazi to death with his own dismembered manhood. Well, unfortunately for Bill, World War II ended just five days after he enlisted, which was kind of a bummer because he was pretty stoked about the idea of rabbit-punching Fascists in the dick. Instead of Berlin, he ended up getting posted in Hong Kong, where he started trouble, got into a lot of fights, and sang a lot of karaoke where he switched out the actual song lyrics for swear words and euphemisms for fucking.
After getting promoted a few times (and then immediately demoted for unlicensed barroom-brawl face-punchings of superior officers, local sailors, and/or off-duty Royal Navy personnel), Speakman eventually got the opportunity to legally demonstrate his carefully-cultivated talent for cold-cocking motherfuckers when the British Army decided to send troops to Korea in 1950. Transferring to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Speakman was sent to the 38th Parallel in the Summer of 1951, where he dug in an entrenched position along the Imjin River that separated North and South Korea.
At this point in the War, UN forces that had been reeling under an attack by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army were finally starting to make a stand against the Communist onslaught. Speakman and the Borderers were ordered to cross the Imjin and attack a 1,000-foot-tall mound of heavily-defended dirt known as Hill 317. With no cover, charging at dawn uphill against a heavily-entrenched enemy, Speakman and the Borderers advanced heroically under a curtain of covering fire from 120 tanks, machine guns, and artillery pieces. With a rain of explosive death keeping the Chinese troops’ heads down, the psychotic Scotsmen stormed Hill 317 through a curtain of bullets, leaping into the enemy trenches and pummeling everyone they could find into a meaty paste with the sort of ferocity you typically don’t see outside of an Edinburgh tavern parking lot fifteen minutes after closing time on a Thursday. The battle drove the Chinese from the hill at the cost of just seven dead for the KOSB.
Of course, making an epic charge face-first into machine guns was the easy part. The hard part was going to be to hold the position against an enemy that outnumbered the British by a wide margin and was commanded by a General Staff that took most of their tactical cues from Zapp Brannigan’s Big Book of War.
The British dug huge, 20-foot-deep trenches, checked their gear, and prepared to gut out another excruciating North Korean winter where it gets so bone-chillingly frigid that it can probably flash-freeze urine mid-stream. Unbeknownst to them, however, the Chinese were massing for an unstoppable horde mode human wave attack head-on up Hill 317 – a force of 6,000 guys supported by heavy mortars, hundreds of artillery pieces, and nine tanks.
The murderous barrage began around 4pm on November 3, 1951. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the entire slope of Hill 317 erupted like a 4th Grade Science Fair baking soda volcano that had been packed to the brim with nitroglycerine and strike-anywhere matches. Guys were diving for cover into their trenches, but the Chinese gunners were chillingly accurate and lobbing so many high-explosive shells that you couldn’t stick your hand out of the trench without grabbing a handful of shrapnel. Six thousand (!) shells landed in a little more than an hour, many of them penetrating the bunkers and ripping them apart. UN aircraft and artillery was called in to help, but by dusk there were just 400 British soldiers on the Hill, staring down at a screaming onslaught of thousands of enemy soldiers racing forward with submachine guns and explosives, hurling grenades, bullets, shrapnel and insults up at the shell-shocked defenders. The Chinese used nets, Bangalore mines, and grenades to blast through the barbed wire, and were charging so enthusiastically and fearlessly that in some cases they were actually getting hit by their own artillery
Private Big Bill Speakman was in the headquarters tent working as a runner for the Sergeant-Major of Company B when reports started coming in on the radio of contact with Chinese infantry. The screams of dying men echoed through the tent, as front-line infantry battled for their lives against an enemy that seemed to be swarming them from every direction.
Speakman’s job was to prep grenades and deliver them to the forward platoons. As you can probably imagine, the Army isn’t in the habit of shipping live grenades around, so Speakman’s job was to grab a crate of Type 35 Grenades, crack the crate open with a crowbar, and then single-handedly prime every grenade in the box – a process that requires you to pop the base off with a special tool, screw in a fuse, seal the grenade back up, wipe off all the excess packing grease, and then (carefully!) put the grenade back into the crate. Once a crate was fully primed, he’d run it up to the forward platoon so they could start chucking away.
It took just an hour and a half for the Chinese to completely overrun all forward British positions on Hill 317. As the sounds of battle became louder and louder outside Speakman’s tent, the radio reports became less and less frequent. Speakman worked furiously to prime the grenades, his hands shaking as the rumble of artillery and gunfire echoed all around him – but when reports came in that the Command Post of 5 Platoon – a tent that was just 20 meters from Speakman’s – was under attack from three sides, Big Bill had heard enough.
He grabbed a shitload of grenades, stuffed them into every pocket he could, and ran for the door.
When his Company Sergeant-Major demanded “where the hell do you think you’re going?”, Big Bill said he was going to go “shift” some of them. I don’t know what that really means, but I get the jist.
When Speakman raced out of the tent, the sky was pitch black, lit only by the creepy red parachute flares the Chinese had fired to illuminate the British positions with a light that kind of resembles a Red Alert on the Starship Enterprise. Running through explosions, with bullets ripping and whizzing past him from every direction, Speakman jumped feet-first into a trench with a Platoon Sergeant who had dropped his rifle and was just fucking firing a goddamn bazooka at zero-elevation head-on into the enemy positions.
Now, Bill Speakman was six feet, six inches tall, and he had the awesome ability to chuck a hand grenade about twice as far as anyone else in his Regiment. And once he got to his trench, he started chucking bombs like it was Super Mario Bros 2 on the 38th Parallel. Any time he saw a muzzle flash, heard a battle cry, or saw a group of dudes, he fucking whizzed a frag in there like he was Juan Marichal bean-balling the fuck out of an opposing batter.
At one point a nearby British machine gun team was taken out by an enemy attack, so Speakman, out of bombs, just ran over with his rifle and single-handedly started swinging his rifle and fists like he was goddamn Wun-Wun at Hardhome, swinging wildly until he’d retaken the position. Then he went back for more grenades. He did this ten goddamn times over the course of four hours of non-stop combat. Asked later about how much balls you need to run head-first into a squad of enemy soldiers, Speakman gave an awesomely-British response – he simply said, “You have to mix it with them. There were so many of them, you just had to get on with it.”
But still the enemy came on, undeterred in their ferocious attack. Speakman, already wounded by a mortar shell in the leg and a bullet in the shoulder (when ordered by a superior officer to fall back and get medical attention for his multiple shrapnel wounds, Speak simply yelled “stuff it” and kept fighting), was in the shit so hard that at one point the British started calling in mortar fire on their own position. The New Zealand mortar crews started putting so many rounds on the hill that they had to pour beer down the barrels of their mortars to keep the rounds from cooking off and blowing up in the tube.
Even this wasn’t enough – the battle was lost, and no 400 men on earth were going to be able to hold that hill against 6,000 Chinese soldiers. The hours passed, Speakman ran out of grenades and ammo and was chucking rocks, beer bottles, and anything else he could at the enemy. When they closed for hand to hand combat, Speakman mentioned that they were “so close you didn’t have time to pull back the bolt”. Yet still he fought on, knife to knife with an enemy that outnumbered him like something out of a martial arts flick.
When the order came to retreat, Big Bill Speakman personally led an attack that drove the Chinese back just enough for the British to retreat out of there. He came away from the battle with multiple grievous wounds, exhausted, and limping, but his actions had saved the lives of many of the men on the hill that day.
Bill Speakman received his Victoria Cross in December, on a day so cold that the bagpipers had to heat their pipes over the fire the night before so they would be warm enough to actually produce a noise. He was the first hero of the Korean War to receive his VC – the other three who earned it before him were all either dead or captured. He became a hero overnight in his hometown, although he later said that all he wanted to do was get back to front-line service because he fucking hated dealing with reporters and political functions. He would be sent back to Korea, promoted to Lance Corporal, and then immediately busted back to Private because he got into yet another bar fight. A few months after that he was sent to Singapore, and was thrown in the brig for partying too hard while on shore leave, which is awesome considering that this guy was a friggin’ decorated national war hero at the time of his incarceration.
Speakman eventually settled down, became an armorer for the SAS, married a Women’s Royal Army Corps soldier, retired as a Sergeant in 1968 after 22 years of service, and was still climbing mountains and working as a pilot well into his 60s. Last year, at the age of 82, he donated his Victoria Cross and all of his medals to the people of South Korea to thank them for all of the support they’ve shown him.
Wall Street Journal
Adkin, Mark. The Last Eleven: Winners of the Victoria Cross since the Second World War. London: Cooper, 1991.
Cawthorne, Nigel. VC Heroes – True Stories Behind Every VC Winner Since World War Two. London: John Blake Publishing, 2012.
Hunt, Derek and John Mulholland. Beyond the Legend: Bill Speakman, VC. Stroud: The History Press, 2013.