Commander Bill King - a legend in his lifetime

Official war portrait of Commander William AE King RN by William Dring.

Official war portrait of Commander William AE King RN by William Dring.

Last Friday, September 21, Commander Bill King passed away surrounded by his adoring family at Oranmore Castle, aged 102 years. It is often said that a man was a legend in his life time, but no man truly deserved that accolade more than the late commander.

William Donald Aelian King was born in Hampshire in 1910. His father, a colonel of the Royal Engineers, was killed in action when Bill was seven. He learned much of the sea from a widowed grandmother who, at the age of 75, started sailing her own yawl round the west coast of Scotland.

Bill King joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13. When World War II started, he commanded the submarine Snapper, in which he won the DSO and DSC while patrolling the coast of Norway on a mission which was extremely dangerous, especially as the midnight sun gave no sheltering darkness.

Next he saw submarine duties under the Mediterranean, and later won a second DSO for sinking a large Japanese submarine off Singapore from his submarine Telemachus. Such was the appalling mortality of submarine commanders during the war, Bill King was the only man to be in command of a British submarine on the first and last days of that world conflict.

During the war, however, he was fed-up with navy rationing, he took his crew to northern Ireland where they feasted on unrationed steak, eggs and bacon. While they feasted he slipped across the border to Monaghan to continue his wooing the ‘tall, slim, and willowy’ Anita Leslie, whom he had met previously while skiing in wartime Lebanon.

They married in 1949, and bought a large farm outside Oranmore which included the 12th century castle over looking Galway Bay. Even though he farmed enthusiastically, reclaiming his land from bog and rock, Bill King was a physical wreck from his war years.

He needed to expiate the scar of confinement and conflict. He designed his own yacht, Galway Blazer, and in 1968 began his quest to sail single-handedly round the world.

It took him five years, during which he was capsized, was out of radio contact for five months, suffered ill health, and was rammed by a whale causing a hole in his boat. He only managed to stop the incoming water by tacking severely to keep the hole above the waves. For three days he battled to save his life, and finally arrived back in Plymouth in 1973, his old submarine base.

During his successful circumnavigation, under the Irish tricolour, he passed five of the great Capes: Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia; South-East Cape in Tasmania; the South-West Cape Stewart Island, New Zealand; and the Horn. He also always carried on board a bottle of water from St Brendan’s Well, Annaghdown.

Bill King wrote several books, including two autobiographies: The Stick and the Stars (1958 ), mainly about his war experiences, and Adventure in Depth (1975 ), about his sailing exploits.

Bill King was a much admired figure in Oranmore. He frequently addressed meetings urging people to seek adventure in their lives. His wife, Anita, a successful writer and a cousin of Winston Churchill, predeceased him in 1984. In his later years Bill was a much loved father and grandfather. He is survived by his son Tarka, and his daughter Leonie, and son-in-law Alec Finn, who with great kindness looked after his every need.

At his funeral service at St Nicholas’s church in Galway city on Tuesday, his grandson Cian sang beautifully Bill’s favourite song: ‘ Everyone wants a life without pain, but there is no rainbow without rain’.

He was buried that afternoon with Anita in Monaghan.

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