William Donald Aelian ‘Bill’ King died recently at the magnificent age of 102 at his home, Oranmore Castle, in County Galway, Ireland. He was a highly decorated submarine commander, a world renowned sailor, boxer, athlete, organic farmer, writer, and a family man.
In addition, he was a lifelong follower of the Galway Blazers, and Lady Molly Cusack Smith’s Bermingham & North Galway Foxhounds with his late wife, the author Anita Leslie who he met in the Lebanon during the war in 1940. She was a daughter of Sir John Randolph Leslie and Marjorie Ide a daughter of General Henry Clay Ide, a former American Ambassador to Spain, and Governor of the Philippines. Anita had been previously married to the well known Russian cavalry officer Colonel Paul Rodzianko who was appointed chief instructor of the Irish Army Equitation School in 1928. She wrote seventeen books, including Lady Randolph Churchill, The story of Jenny Jerome, the life of Sir Winston Churchill’s mother, and Sir Francis Chichester, the biography of the famous round the world yachtsman. Bill held the distinction of being the only submarine commander to command a British submarine on the first and last days of World War II, such were the perils of such a dangerous command. He was also the last surviving submarine commander of the British Navy from the last war.
Some of my memories of him are as an extremely fit man hunting across the stone walls of Galway following the Blazer’s hounds, and also seeing him driving his sports car through my home town of Loughrea, County Galway with the roof down even in the middle of winter wearing a leather pilot’s jacket, and a woollen beret pulled down over his head as protection from the elements!
His family were Irish; his great-grandfather was one of the founding Professors of Geology at University College Galway. His father Lt. Col. William de Courcy King, DSO lost his life on the Western Front in 1917 during World War I, so he was reared by his mother and grandmother who was a competent sailor. They had other interesting family connections. Sir Winston Churchill was Anita’s cousin. The former Irish President Eamonn de Valera was her godfather, and General Michael Collins who was on the opposite side of Civil War politics to de Valera was a friend of her father. Bill used to say that he felt secure in having family connections on both sides of Civil War politics should anybody come looking to shoot him!!
Anita served during the war in the Italian, African, and French Campaigns, rescuing injured troops behind enemy lines, and from Nordhausen Concentration Camp. Later General Charles de Gaulle awarded her the Croix de Guerre in 1945. Family friend Lady Anne Hemphill a former Field Master of the Galway Blazers whose father Robert also lived to 102 years described Bill and Anita both as, “Great company, full of fun, and amusing conversationalists”.
Bill’s adventures out foxhunting with the Blazers were legendary. On the 19th December in 1953 the Blazer hounds found a fox at Cregg Castle. Already hunting their fox for about four miles they reached the Clare River which they swam, and then set their sights on their quarry heading in the direction of Ballyglunin. The huntsman Lancelot Smith, father of Tara Harrier’s huntsman Henry Smith jumped into the flooded river, and got separated from his horse down stream. He managed to hold onto a branch of an overhanging tree while his horse disappeared from view.
Next on the scene was Bill King who threw off his hunting jacket and top hat, and dived gallantly into the freezing waters managing to reach the opposite bank. He rescued the huntsman, but was faced with the problem of how to get to his horse on the other side. Deciding to warm up instead, he decided to run what became known as ‘The Corofin Mile’ back to the village in hunting boots. It was no problem to him as he had won Mediterranean Fleet Marathon, and the Royal Navy Mile! But the huntsman who in the meantime first lay on his back and emptied the water from his hunting boots was far from finished as Bill had reunited him with his hunter. He eventually reached his pack after a seven mile point in total darkness!
On another evening when the Cartymore Cross hunt was finished, the followers left the last covert turning right handed back to the horse boxes. But for some reason Bill turned left and blended into the darkness in his black jacket riding a black horse, and was only found at 8 o’clock that night by his wife Anita. A comment was overheard later, that although Bill could circumnavigate the world in his yacht Galway Blazer II, and hunt German and Japaneese U-boats all over Europe and the Far East during the WWII, he had difficulty on that occasion getting back to the horse boxes just a mile up the road at Cartymore Cross!
Bill wrote a number of books that are compelling reading, including Adventures in Depth, and probably one of his most fascinating books The Stick and the Stars, published in 1958 describing his life in the Navy and commanding a submarine during wartime. It was truly frightening the conditions on fighting submarines, the short life span of serving officers and crew, and the dangers of diesel oil, and carbon dioxide poisoning.
Despite that he had a distinguished naval career, hunting U-boats and any other ships that were a danger. He was awarded the DSO*, and DSC amongst seven military medals for his courageous service. He joined the Royal Navy’s Dartmouth College at 13 years of age, graduating as a midshipman. His first ship was the Nelson, and after that Starfish during the Abyssinian uprising, followed by being appointed second in command in the Narwhal. During his naval submarine career he commanded a number of subs including Snapper, Trusty and Telemachus. But during his first mission he was amazingly nearly sunk by an RAF fighter plane off Harwich. He had the embarrassment of beaching his submarine in Holland due to navigational instrument failure, but managed to get it free again, which earned him a dinner with Sir Winston Churchill.
During the first two years of the war he sank seven ships, the Kattegat, Moonsund, Florida. Jan Behrens, Carl Janssen, the Portland, and the Cygnus. On duty in the Indian Ocean he nearly met his fate yet again when his submarine was bombed in Singapore, but he got his retaliation in sinking both the Toyobashi Maru and the Columbia Maru off Singapore in 1942. Despite many occasions when he and his crew nearly died from carbon dioxide poisoning, his suggestions to Royal Navy high command for modifications to the British submarine fleet similar to the Dutch and American vessels, fell on deaf ears.
But he was more confident in taking command of the more modern Telamachus in 1944, sinking the Japanese submarine I-166 in the One Fathom Channel with a single torpedo. He decided to retire from the Royal Navy and get married in 1949, and he and Anita spent their honeymoon sailing around the West Indies. For the rest of his life he lived with his memories of the horrors of war, and advocated pacifism. A few years ago Bill received two visitors at his home in Oranmore Castle. Akira Tsurukame whose father Tsuruichi lost his life in 1944 on the Japanese submarine I-166 that Bill’s submarine Telamachus sunk when the crew of 88 all lost their lives, and Katja Boonstra-Blom whose father lost his life amongst the 36 casualties on the Royal Dutch submarine KXV1 sunk by the very same Japanese submarine I-166. The visitors planted an apple tree in Bill’s garden to honour their fathers.
Bill made three attempts to sail single handed around the world on Galway Blazer II, a Chinese junk rigged design yacht, surviving mostly on dried fruit, almond paste for protein, and green sprouts that he grew on board. In 1968 both masts were destroyed when he capsized during the most violent storm he had ever experienced at sea, and had to be towed into Cape Town. Another time in 1970 he suffered ill health and his boat was rammed by a giant shark, and he had to make some temporary repairs to get back to Perth in Australia.
But in 1971 he finally archived his ambition of circumnavigating the world non-stop single-handed, flying the Irish tricolour, rounding the five Capes, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeumin in Western Australia, the South East Cape in Tasmania, the South West Cape, Stewart Island in New Zealand and Cape Horn. To pass the days he read most of the time, including The New Testament, the Koran, and Zen’s Light of Asia, and often said that he could comfortably give lectures of all three faiths!
It is unlikely that Bill’s adventurous and fulfilled life will ever be replicated. He is survived by his daughter Leone and son Tarka, as well as grandchildren Cian, Heather, William and Olivia. His funeral service was held in the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas in Galway, with representatives from the President and associations around the country. Music at the service was by Sean Ryan, Eleanor Shanley and his grandson Cian, whose father Alec was one of the founders of the traditional Irish music group De Danaan. His daughter Leone spoke about her father, and thanked all his family and friends, but remarkably had not to thank a hospital, as Bill never went there! His interment was private in Glaslough, County Monaghan.