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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Adventures of WIlliam Becke

 In September 1916 Brigadier John Becke was commanding the 1st Wing of the Royal Flying Corp. Brig Becke was a rare pilot, he had been one of the pre-war aviators in a squadron since 1912, and so could be one of the pioneers of the RFC. That September as the Somme Battles ground on Brig Becke got news that his wife had delivered a healthy baby boy, who was named William Hugh Adamson Becke. William would go on to have a very interesting life full of adventure. 

Lieutenant Colonel Becke

William had a very unremarkable childhood; the only point of note was when riding a motorcycle, he had a bad crash that cost him the ring and small finger on his right hand. Despite this injury he would join the Sherwood Foresters in January 1937 as a young officer.  He was part of the Regiment’s deployment to Palestine until 1939, when the world changed with the outbreak of the Second World War. He added Cyprus, Egypt and Tobruk to the theatres he fought in. Then he took command of a battalion for the battles to secure the rear of the 8th Army in Iraq and Syria. He fought in North Africa and then all the way up Italy. 

Panzer IV knocked out at San Savino

At San Savino he received a DSO. During the bitter night attack to clear the village he was leading from the front armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. As Major Becke approached the church from the direction of the cemetery his force came under heavy fire. Dashing from tombstone to tombstone and using what cover they could, they approached the building. Maj Becke ordered a section to flank the church, and then led some men in an attempt to storm the front door. As they neared the door a grenade was thrown and injured Maj Becke in the head. The infantry carried on the assault through the doors and found the enemy numbering about platoon size inside. After a short firefight Maj Becke then had to fall back out of the church to reload. With a new magazine fitted he stormed back inside and, in an instant, had killed four enemy, but had been hit himself twice in the shoulder and arm. As the British fell back Maj Becke saw a section pinned in a house nearby. There was a machine gun hammering away at their location. He dashed to the rear of the church, stuck his gun into the window and hosed down the machine gunner pinning the section. With the enemy fire gone the section stormed the front door again, loosing several men to the defenders, however, it appears they carried the position. In the meantime, Maj Becke had been hit again, this time in the leg. After being shot three times, and taking a shrapnel wound to the head, Maj Becke collapsed briefly. He was soon awake, and although he did not fire another shot that night, he still coordinated the capture of the Germans inside the church, and their evacuation.  

German POW's at the rear of the knocked out Panzer IV.


Maj Becke would later fight at Anzio leading his men on a tank hunting expedition, where he was wounded twice again (arm and leg). I suspect from here he was evacuated back to the UK, as he would get married to an Australian nurse in 1945 and served in the War Office until 1949.

Becke stayed in the army after the Second World War, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. In the early 1960’s he was sent to Jakarta as part of the British Military Attaché for the Embassy there. The other part of the mission was Major Roderick Muir Bamford Walker. If you want something further to read, there is a biography that might pass some time. Major Walker was part of the SAS deployment in the Oman campaign. 

Major Walker

On Sept 16th 1963 the country of Malaysia was formed from several colonies on the island of Indonesia. There were a large number of people unhappy with this, and so a large mob formed and attacked the British Embassy. Around 10,000 people formed a mob outside the building, overturned the Ambassador’s car and set it on fire. They began to pelt the building with stones, smashing all its windows. The only defence was Lt-Col Becke standing defiantly in the face of the barrage, occasionally side stepping the heftier rock. Meanwhile Maj Walker marched up and down defying the crowd with a constant deluge of music from his bagpipes, which drowned out the cries of ‘Crush Malaysia!’ and ‘Kill the British!’. 

The events of Becke and Walker's stand were shown in a cartoon in the UK newspapers.

The following day rioters and mobs targeted British households, looting and burning. On the 18th the baying mob returned to the embassy. First the fence was torn down, and the rioters entered the compound and stormed the building. Most of the British nationals found were herded into a corner of the courtyard where they were pelted by stones, bricks and bottles for two hours. Just twelve Indonesian soldiers bravely stood between the mob and the 23 women and men. Luckily the soldiers managed to keep the rioters back, until they were evacuated by the police. A pregnant woman and three others were injured by the hail of missiles. 

The mob at the Embassy. The Ambassador's burning car can be seen on the right.

The exceptions were the Ambassador, Mr. Andrew Gilchrist, who was standing guard at the Embassy’s strong room. On hearing of this, Lt-Col Becke and Maj Walker wrestled their way through the hostile crowd swamping the building. They reached Mr Gilchrist and together they fought off the attackers. Mr Gilchrist suffered a number of cuts from projectiles hurled at him in this last stand.  This was all for nought as the embassy was eventually burnt down by the mob. British nationals were evacuated to Singapore that day as well, and the country was well on its way to the Malaysian Emergency. For his actions Lt-Col Becke was awarded the Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George the following year.

In 1966 Becke retired from the army, moving to Australia. He then became the private secretary to the governor of Victoria, Australia. After that he became the personnel officer for the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria. William Becke would die, aged 92, in Australia on 3rd April 2009. 


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Credits & Sources:

Daily Telegraph, military obituaries.