Armed with Only Bottles British Soldier Awarded VC in Korea

Bottles By Steffen Papenbroock CC BY-SA 3.0

It can often be said that anything is a weapon if you are creative enough. An entrenching tool used to dig a defensive position earned Marine Hector Cafferata the Medal of Honor as he swung it like a baseball bat to return enemy grenades to their sender.

More recently, a British SAS warrior engaged in hand-to-hand combat when surrounded by ISIS fighters in Iraq. Nearly out of ammunition, he used a small puddle to drown the enemy during the fight. For Brit Bill Speakman, empty beer bottles in the hills of Korea earned him his nation’s highest military honor.

First firing his rifle into a horde of Chinese aggressors until his bullets ran out, he then switched to grenades. When the grenades were gone, Speakman opted to adapt and overcome. Grabbing beer bottles from a recent ration, he began to hurl them at the enemy, with fantastic results. Remarkably, he survived the encounter and returned home as the nation’s newest recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Hector A. Cafferata, Jr. with his Medal of Honor

An Opportunity to Fight

For many young men not quite old enough to join the epic struggle of World War Two, the Korean War provided an opportunity to replicate the gallantry they saw in their youth. Such was the case for William Speakman.

Speakman was born in Altrincham, Cheshire, on September 27th, 1927. The time of his birth would make him eligible for military service in 1945 – unfortunately for his desire to fight, it was too late to get in on the action.

Speakman served another five years, with both the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, before he had an opportunity to get into a fight.

It was when thousands of North Korean Soldiers poured into the South that Speakman entered the fray. In June of 1950, some five years after the last war ended, the Korean peninsula entered into a conflict that would rage for the next three years.

Bill Speakman.

Fearing that he might miss out on the action, Speakman volunteered for combat, and by November of 1951, he got more than he had bargained for. On a cold hill in Korea, he earned his hallowed place in military history.

Thankfully for Speakman, the British in those days were allotted beers to drink on the front lines. They were intended to be used in moderation, but Speakman managed to use them as weapons of war. The previous night’s debauchery became the next day’s tool of inexplicable gallantry.

Never Out of the Fight

On a cold November morning in 1951, Bill Speakman and his gallant Borderers stood ready to defend against the day’s onslaught. A withering barrage of artillery opened up on their positions. Seemingly without end, the barrage began to take its toll on the men. They looked out from their positions and saw it: a dreaded human wave of thousands of screaming Chinese warriors began to approach.

British Tanks and infantry of the 29th Brigade advancing to attack Hill 327, March 1951

Given the effects of the artillery and the numerical superiority of the enemy, it seemed as though Speakman’s beloved unit were over-run. He decided to take the initiative. He and a few other men decided the best option was to press forward into the attack.

With as many grenades as he could gather, he led the way. Hurling grenade after grenade into the enemy wave, the frozen ground actually caused the grenades to bounce, causing more damage to the enemy. From that point forward, it was a brutal hand-to-hand struggle.

Now out of grenades, but with plenty more Chinese soldiers who needed to feel his wrath, Speakman adapted. Grabbing the empty beer bottles on the front lines, he began to hurl them at the enemy in a spectacular fashion. Standing at six foot six, his domineering frame imposed his will upon the enemy.

Remarkably, Speakman’s refusal to quit the fight gave his unit the opportunity to retreat and reorganize. If it hadn’t been for his gallant stand, it is likely the entire unit would have been overrun.

British Army enjoying some R and R with army issue beer.

Returning Home a Hero

William Speakman left home in 1950 simply as a soldier looking for a fight. When he returned home, it was as a national hero. For his actions on that cold Korean hill, he was awarded the Victoria Cross from Queen Elizabeth II. His hometown of Altrincham gave him a parade and children were let out of school to celebrate.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. By Julian Calder CC BY-SA 4.0

Read another story from us: Battle of Busan Perimeter, The First Major Conflict In The Korean War

Rather than rest on his laurels, Speakman continued to serve and saw action in the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation, and the Aden Emergency. As he headed into retirement, he continued to be honored as a national treasure.

It was only when time had run its course that the man an entire wave of Chinese soldiers couldn’t kill passed away at the ripe old age of ninety. The man who defied an Army with an empty beer bottle would certainly hold, earn, and maintain his respected place in the halls of military history.

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