In the Company of a True Hero- Commander Bill King

(Official War Portrait of Commander William AE King RN by William Dring)
Last Wednesday, I was privileged and humbled to be able to act as chauffeur and minder to one of the last surviving British heroes of World War Two. For I had to collect and drive the much decorated Commander William (Bill) King RN to and from the official opening of the new Marine Science school Lab at Ireland's National Aquarium (Atlantaquaria) in Salthill where he was special guest of honour.
At the ripe old age of 96 Bill is extremely gregarious, energetic, full of wit and charm, enjoys the odd tipple(!) and can keep you spellbound with his daring and oftentimes witty tales of exploits from war-time. His stories seem to be taken straight of a British public boys' school novel of the late 1940s.
Bill was the only British submarine commander that started the war in 1939 that was still alive in August 1945. The death rate in the Royal Navy submarine fleet was proportionally as high as that of the more well-known Kreigsmarine. His exploits are legendary:
  • shelling a Japanese gun-ship and troop transport ship which he was later reprimanded for by the British Admiralty ("... I was told that I should have used torpedoes!...")
  • leaving Singapore just prior to its capitulation when his crew survived for circa 40 days at sea on a few boxes of Australian lozenges that they hurriedly scavenged from the city's dockside ("...everyone remarked how thin we were...")
  • arriving at Ceylon where they soon found themselves attacked by dive-bombers from the Japanese fleet ("...I could plainly see the whites of the pilots' eyes as they wheezed past...")
  • managing to extricate his submarine from being grounded on the coast of Nazi-occupied Holland ("...I got the helmsman to turn the wheel strongly to starboard every time a wave came inshore...")
  • surfacing to replenish his air tanks off occupied Norway ("...I would surface right up against the base of the cliffs so as to avoid the view of any watching sentries...")
  • the madness that engulfed the Asian port where he was docked the night the war ended ("...60 people died on shore that night as people got extremely drunk, lost their heads with some settling years of pent-up frustrations and old feuds with guns...")
  • the egalitarian world of the submarine ("...I was born into the British upper class, but one positive thing that serving on a submarine did for me, was it eliminated any inherent snobbishness that I had...as we all lived together in cramped quarters sharing everything!...").
  • decorated by Winston Churchill ("...Winston kept offering me a shot of his fine house brandy which I kept declining...").
(Bill's first submarine posting was on the HMS Orpheus in 1931. Picture shows the submarine in Hong Kong Harbour)
Bill is connected by marriage to one of the great Anglo-Irish aristocratic families. His wife Anne's ancestral home is Castle Leslie in Monaghan where ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and Heather Mills got married. Anita (or Anne) was first cousin to Winston Churchill ("...our families shared the same baptismal clothes..."). According to Bill, his father Lt. Col William Albert de Courcy was the first man to fly an airplane in Europe at the site of what is now the world-renowned Farnborough airshow). His grandfather William was first Professor of Geology at Queens' College Galway (now NUI Galway) and is famous for coining the term ’Neanderthal man’ in 1865 after deducing that the fossil remains found at the River Neander in Germany belonged to a non-human species whom he called Homo neanderthalensis.

But Bill also has good Irish nationalist credentials!-Anita's godfather was Eamon De Valera with her father being a good friend of the Irish rebel leader Michael Collins. She in fact served as an ambulance driver with the French Army in WW2 and was awarded the coveted 'Croix de Guerre' by Charles de Gaulle ("...she was very courageous and joined the French rather than the British ambulance service because the French went closer to the front-line...!").

After the war, Bill moved to Ireland and purchased Oranmore castle located on the shores of Galway Bay for £200. It was then in an advanced state of disrepair. But within a short time frame, this fine medieval building once more echoed to the sounds of human habitation.
But his love of adventure at sea never left him. In 1969 he took part in the first 'round-the-world' yacht race on his boat 'The Galway Blazer'.
Last month, he was decorated with the newly created 'Arctic Emblem' by the British Ministry of Defence, given to those military personnel who had served in the Arctic regions during WW2.

Two years ago, I helped the pupils from a nearby primary school (Kiltartan) film a fascinating interview with Commander King as part of the 'Fionn' Galway Primary School Science project. This can be viewed at www.sci-spy.ie/fionn_films/03.aspx . Well worth a view!

"...What shall we do with the Singing Sailor....!"
Finally, as a footnote....
As I said , I acted as chaperon to Bill when he was special guest at the Atlantaquaria reception. While there, he enjoyed two glasses of white wine which seemed to make him a little merry. For on the one hour's journey back to his castle home, he gave a non-stop rendition of ditty little sexy rhymes and songs of WW2 vintage along the lines of "...There was a lusty young maid from Algiers who....". All very enjoyable and funny, except for the fact that my 6 year old son was also in the car! I kept gracefully reminding the commander that the young lad was present but to no avail! Thankfully Dáire didn't understand most of the more inappropriate words that he was reciting (or at least I don't think that he did!!!).

22 comments:

Dave said...

I just picked up commander king's book at a tag sale here in the states. Absolutely terrific account of his rounding of the Horn. This man doesn't even have a wikipedia entry?!? I would love to meet him. Dave - Connecticut

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Dave, You are so right. Bill should be in Wikipedia.
I will get a school located near Bill's abode to do a project on his life story for inclusion on Wikipedia.
By the way, I will have a film of him posted on my blog this weekend.
Cheers!

seadog said...

Was it not his wife that was one of the Leslie family of Monaghan? I don't think Bill had any Irish connection other than through marriege.

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Actually, I think that you are right 'Seadog'. I will check with Bill's family today & correct the relevant section of my article

Anonymous said...

I have just completed a brief history of Commander Bill King on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commander_Bill_King).

I wanted to link to the film you mentioned, but the link at sci-spy seems to be broken.

Is it possible to fix it, please?

Thank you,

Doc Dee

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

You are quite correct Seadog. It was his wife Anita that was from the famous Anglo-Irish Leslie family of Monaghan. However Bill's family also had Irish roots- his grandfather was Professor of Minerals & Geology at Queen's College Galway

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Greetings Doc Dee.
Thanks for telling me that the link to the film interview with Bill is not working. I will get onto the host organisation straight away. It should be operational early next week (they are on holidays this week)

Anonymous said...

Are the images of Oranmore Castle and that of the painting of Bill King in public domain?

I would like to upload them to the Wikipedia article on Bill King.

I am particularly interested in the provenance of the painting. Do you know anything about the painter, and where the painting used to be kept?

Thanks again,

Doc Dee

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Greetings Doc Dee,
You can use my photo of Oranmore Castle as long as you mention my name underneath.
I had to get the permission of Bill's family to use his WW2 portrait on my site You will also have to do the same. The painting is kept at this castle home. Alas, I do not know the name of the artist.

The video referred to in your previous comment should be up and running very soon. I reported its malfunction last week.
Finally congrats on your excellent WIKI site
Cheers!

Sandy said...

In 1948 Bill King left the Navy came to the Kingston Clinic near Edinburgh, a Nature Cure establishment, because of the state of his health 'You are as much a casuality of the war as the boys at the bottom of the Briny' according to the Navy Medical Board. He found a solution there and continued with its relatively austere dictums, particularly the emphasis on fresh and wholesome foods and emphasis on raw vegetables.

He came regularly to Kingston where I was a practitioner, until 1988, when it closed and then to the newly formed Kingston FortNights at the Boat of Garten, until the end of the Century when he transferred to a similar establishment in Malvern.

In 1948 he was in his fulll glory. Dapper, moved with feminine grace,and not just handsome but beautiful (the portrait was painted by Augustus John). He spoke with the unique and authentic Dartmouth Naval College voice, able to shatter glass at fifty yards or whisper and be heard from one end of a submarine to the other. So courteous, so reserved. I looked on him with awe.

I had sufficient experience as a pilot during the war to know what terror was. It took some time before I could ask him how he felt as a submariner. 'As we left Rossyth(the causualty rate in the North Sea was 70%) my legs were as jelly. On the three week patrol I curled up in the conning tower as the batteries recharghed, but never actually slept.' After a few more years I was able to ask what he did to recuperate once he was on dry land. Always one for pithy phrases his reply was unforgetable
'The young ladies, I'm afraid. I was like an Arab and could last all night. They loved it' 'I was a sailor who was never on dry land. I went from ship to bed and at the end of leave, back to ship.'

He had an old boy network (the Navy) that seemed always at hand when he needed it. His yearly reunion depended on the lastman still standing,turning out the lights. He claimed that his family were impoverished members of the Protestant Ascendancy.

He opted to return to submarine duty after Beirut because he couldn't stand the passive anxieties of a Staff Job.
But the other reason for never reaching Admiral rank was his bitter dispute with My Lords of the Admiralty. When the Germans overran Rotterdam they found a newly built Dutch submarine with a snorkel fitted intact. Eventually when improved radar and developments like the Leigh light, made recharging batteries at night, in late 1944 they, the Gemans, fitted their submarines with snorkel with spectacular effect.. By the time they had improved the underwater speed of their ships, they had a weapon that by the time the war ended, we had no answer.

Bill King knew that the snorkel was indispensable in the Far East, but the Admiralty treated him as an agitator. My final question to him on the subject of the war,was where did his balance lie between survival and duty. Only when he it became very clear to him that the patrols were being lenghthed in order to keep up with the much superior American submarines.

Doc said...

Thank you for agreeing to let me us your picture of Oranmore Castle on my Wikipedia article on Cmdr. Bill King.

Wikipedia requires me to ask you to formally respond to my request via e-mail after reading and agreeing to the included permission form.

Here is the permission letter:

We can only use your materials if you are willing to grant permission for this under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. This means that anyone will have the right to share and, where appropriate, to update your material. You can read this license in full at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Text_of_the_GFDL
(NB To keep things simple, we don't use Invariant Sections, Front-Cover Texts, or Back-Cover Texts)

The license expressly protects authors "from being considered responsible for modifications made by others" while ensuring that authors get credit for their work. There is more information on our copyright policy at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Copyrights

If you agree, we will credit you for your work in the resulting article's references section by stating that it was based on your work and is used with your permission, and by providing a web link back to the article on Cmdr. Bill.

Thank you for your time; I look forward to your response.

Kindly,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commander_Bill_King

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

No problem Doc. You can use my photo of Oranmore Castle. Happy to oblige!

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

To Sandy.
Many thanks for your excellent & highly informative article on Commander Bill King.
However out of respect for Bill, I will ask his family this weekend if it is ok with them if I publish it on my blog. I hope you understand!

Doc said...

Sorry, I am still searching for images that I could use. I wonder whether copyright laws allow me to use your photograph of the painting of Commander King.

Could you tell me which newspaper the photograph came from which shows the Commander with his medals?

Was it from Galway Advertiser?

You suggested that I contact Bill King's family directly. Would you mind mentioning this to them? Also, could you, off your blog, e-mail the contact details to me, please?

I really appreciate your help.

Please note that Wikipedia requires you to complete the form that I linked to before I am allowed to use your images.

In effect, you are doing the same as licensing them to Creative Commons (see their website). You have various options, such as limiting what can be done with the image, and what kind of attribution you prefer.

Again, apologies for communicating with you via your blog. If you prefer another means, please write to me.

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Greetings Doc,
1. I will sign off on the necessary Wikipedia requirements vis-a-vis tomorrow. I had problems accessing it just now & I am out in countryside away from computers for the rest of the day.
2. The newspaper in question is the 'Galway Independent'. I have a copy back in my office & will email you the actual date/edition in question tomorrow.
3. I intend to call over to Bill's house on Thursday or Friday and then forward their contact details to you. I will send you a message when I have this done
Regards, Brendan

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brendan. I appreciate your efforts on my behalf very much.

You may mention to the Kings that they are welcome to check my article for factual errors. It was quite difficult to piece together the Commander's life from sources on the Internet, and I would not be surprised if there it contains an unintended error or two.

I could find almost nothing on his life after 1969.

Doc Dee

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Greetings Doc,
I was talking to Bill's daughter regarding your requests & asked her if it was ok for me to give you her email address so that you can contact her direct. She agreed. So you should communicate with Leonie at leoniefinn@eircom.net

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Greetings Doc,
Did you get the agreement of Leonie to publish the material on your wiki?
Could you also put a link from your wiki to my blog? I will then do the same from mine!
Cheers!

Mike Patterson said...

Hi Brendan - love the article on this amazing fella!!

I am a local photographer and if you want you can have a copy of this image to add to your post - http://farm1.static.flickr.com/112/291346000_b11b70830c_o.jpg

Email me back via info(at)mikepatterson.com

Regards,

Mike

spearfish said...

Dear Speedie.I have just discovered your blog entry on Commander KIng.I have a blog myself dedicated to Commander JW Linton VC.You can find it here:http://lintonsview.blogspot.com/
I have just completed an entry on Commander King with a link to the interview.If you are still in touch with him who you please ask him if he has any memories or photographs of Linton.King was a staff officer aboard HMS Medway II in Beirutin 1943,and Linton was based there around this time as well.If you are no longer in contact I will send him a letter.

Brendan Smith aka Speedie said...

Greetings Spearfish,
I will visit Bill King's castle this weekend and pass on your query regarding his recollections of Commander Linton. I will then contact you again