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Bill Speakman, Altrincham’s great war hero and the first person to receive a Victoria Cross from Queen Elizabeth, dies aged 90

By David Prior at

Bill Speakman, Altrincham’s great war hero who was the only living Victoria Cross holder from the Korean War, has died at the age of 90.

The Victoria Cross and George Cross Association has today released a statement confirming that Bill died yesterday surrounded by his family.

It read: “It is with great sadness that we pass on the news of the death of William “Bill” Speakman VC. He died peacefully yesterday (20th June) evening at the Royal Hospital Chelsea which he was proud to call his home. Members of his family were at his bedside.”

His former regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, added that he had died around 7pm.

Its statement read: “With regret and much sadness we inform you that Sergeant Bill Speakman VC died at The Royal Hospital Chelsea at about 7pm last night.”

Altrincham-born Bill Speakman, who grew up on Moss Lane and was educated at Wellington Boys’ School in Timperley, was just 24 in 1951 when he fought off a wave of attacks from 600 Chinese and North Korean solders for more than four hours.

Speakman was the first man to receive a Victoria Cross from Queen Elizabeth II, and was one of only a handful of living holders of the award. He was given a hero’s homecoming on the streets of Altrincham by thousands of people in 1952.

He was a private in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) when his section, seriously depleted by casualties, was over-run by the enemy on November 4th 1951.

Speakman, who was 6ft 6in, collected six men and a number of grenades and led a series of charges. He broke up several enemy attacks, causing heavy casualties and despite receiving a shrapnel wound in his leg, continued to lead charge after charge. He kept the enemy at bay long enough to enable his company to withdraw safely.

Bill Speakman during his service years

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

Press reports of the time reported that Private Speakman began throwing bottles at the enemy after running out of grenades. The bottles were in fact beer bottles sent to the line for consumption by the platoon.

A father of seven, Bill served from 1945 to 1970 in The Black Watch, The Argyll and Southern Highlanders and The King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB).

During his military career he was posted to Italy, Greece, Malaya and Borneo.

It was while in Koori, Japan, that Bill was informed of being awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” to members of the British Armed Forces.

“When I got it the king was alive but he was very ill,” he said.

“He awarded me the VC and then he died. So The Queen – I was her first VC. It was a wonderful moment. I think she was nervous and I was very nervous.”

There were only a handful of living recipients of the VC. On Remembrance Sunday in 2017, he was accompanied by fellow holder of the award, 37-year-old Johnson Beharry, who won Victoria Cross for valour in Iraq in 2004.

Bill with fellow VC recipient Johnson Beharry on Remembrance Sunday last year