When He Ran Out of Grenades He Started Throwing Empty Beer Bottles and Earned the Victoria Cross

War tends to favor those with initiative and ingenuity and for Victoria Cross recipient Bill Speakman, he would evidently possess both.  Some might think when a human wave of Chinese soldiers came rushing at your position that it is a good time to dig in and fight defensively.  Private Bill Speakman thought it an opportunity to charge.

One might think when the ammunition has run out that it is a good time to retreat.  Private Bill Speakman thought it an opportunity to pick up empty beer bottles and hurl them as weapons. And for his actions in Korea in 1951, bottle throwing Private Bill Speakman would be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Volunteering for the Fight

Born William Speakman on September 27th, 1927 in Altrincham, Cheshire, Bill had longed to serve in the Army as he watched his countryman take on the Axis powers as a teenager.  He joined in the Army in 1945 having just missed out on the action from World War 2.

He served with the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment and would eventually make his way to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers with whom he would serve in Korea.

The Black Watch relax at a rest centre and wait to be transported back to the front in 1951.
The Black Watch relax at a rest centre and wait to be transported back to the front in 1951.© IWM (BF 10875)


The Korean War was a back and forth struggle before it had become the stalemate we know it as today.  It began on June 25th, 1950 and in a few months the South Korea forces seemed to be on the verge of defeat.  However, a US Marine landing at Inchon in September had relieved the beleaguered South Korean Forces, and the North Koreans were pushed back to the border with China.

It was at this point in October of 1950 that hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers poured across the border.  Seoul would change hands four times during this struggle before settling in at a stalemate along the 38th parallel.

38th Parallel in Korea via https://www.flickr.com/photos/expertinfantry/5452549218
38th Parallel in Korea. By Expert Infantry – CC BY 2.0

At 24 years old, Speakman would volunteer for action in Korea when the war was still in a back and forth conflict.  By his account, it was his desire to fight in Korea that led to his transfer to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and by any measure, they would prove lucky to have him.

This would set the scene for one of the most inexplicable acts of bravery to be seen in the war and perhaps the only Victoria Cross recipient to do so by throwing beer bottles at the enemy.

Bill Speakman in Korea.
Bill Speakman in Korea.

Attacking the Human Wave

On November 4th, 1951, the positions being held by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers came under heavy artillery attack that would be followed by a dreaded human wave of Chinese soldiers.  The artillery bombardment had taken its toll on the positions, and it appeared with the human wave pushing its way into the Borderers that Speakman’s unit might be overrun.

American halftrack firing at Chinese in Korea via commons.wikimedia.org
American half-track firing at Chinese in Korea.

This is when this Private took the initiative and led his counter-charge without orders.

Along with six other men, the domineering 6 foot 6 Speakman grabbed as many grenades as he could and launched himself into the assault hurling grenades at every opportunity.  Because it was November in Korea, the ground was hard and frozen which meant the grenades would bounce and prove quite effective.  Speakman reports that it was hand to hand combat for much of the fight as there was not even enough time to pull back the bolt of a rifle.

But the Chinese assault was massive, and he eventually ran out of grenades to throw at the incoming Chinese. Thankfully, the British were fortunate to enjoy the occasional beer sent to the front lines in conflict, and there were a good number of empty bottles around.

Private Speakman picked them up and with dominating physical frame began hurling them has hard as he could at the attackers.  And while that might seem like a losing strategy, Speakman’s assault gave his unit enough time to retreat to a better position in the line as opposed to being completely overrun by the human wave.  Speakman was wounded in the leg during this action but continued to fight until he apparently ran out of objects to throw and his unit was to safety.

Chinese forces cross the Yalu River.
Chinese forces cross the Yalu River.

The First Victoria Cross

For his actions that day, he would become the first recipient of the Victoria Cross from the Korean War.  In addition, although his Victoria Cross was put forward by King George VI, it would be given to him by Queen Elizabeth II making it her first has well.  He would return home a hero and national treasure.  A parade was given in his honor, neighbors cleaned his home in preparation for his arrival, and children were let out of school for a day in Altrincham to celebrate.

Speakman would go on to serve in the army until 1967 seeing action in the Malayan Emergency, Indonesia Confrontation, and Aden Emergency.  The hardened warrior is still alive and kicking today at the age of 88.  In 2015, he made a return trip to South Korea along with other veterans of the war.

There, he donated his Victoria Cross to South Korea.  He believed it started there, and as he nears the end of his days, he thought it sensible to leave it there for posterity to enjoy.

The man who one day in Korea defied death with nothing but empty beer bottles left knows the day he will join so many of his fallen brothers will come soon.  And while it remains to be seen whether he took out any Chinese soldiers with a beer bottle, I have a feeling any who were hit with one hurled from the 6 foot 6 man surely felt it.

It was mission accomplished for this Victoria Cross recipient, and the world gained another story that will live on forever in the logs of history.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE