Monday, 25 February 2019

James Joseph Magennis VC


James Joseph McGinnes (later spelled Magennis) was born on 27 October, 1919, at 4 Majorca Street, Belfast.

He was the only Northern Irishman to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award ‘for valour in the face of the enemy’, during the second World War.

He attended St Finian’s primary School on the Falls Road in West Belfast until 3rd June, 1935, when he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a boy seaman.

Majorca Street, Belfast. Click to Enlarge

He served on several different warships including HMS Kandahar which struck a mine off the coast of Tripoli, Libya, in December 1941 and was irreparably damaged and scuttled.

In 1942 Magennis was drafted into the Submarine service, and in March, 1943, he volunteered for “special and hazardous duties” which meant serving in midget submarines known as X-craft, about 50-feet long and weighing about 130 tons, with a crew of 4 men.

He trained as a diver and in September, 1943, took part in the first major use of X-craft during Operation Source, penetrating Kafjord, Norway, and disabling the German battleship Tirpitz.

He and the other crewmen of the two midget submarines which took part in the attack were Mentioned in Despatches “for bravery and devotion to duty.”

In July 1945, as Allied forces moved to recover Singapore from the Japanese, Acting Leading Seaman Magennis was serving as the diver on the midget submarine HMS XE3 which was tasked, under the codename Operation Struggle, with sinking the 10,000-ton Japanese cruiser Takao.

She had been damaged in the Battle of the Phillipines in 1944, had limped to Singapore and was berthed in the Straits of Johor, between Malaysia and Singapore , as an anti-aircraft battery.

On 30th July, 1945, XE3 was towed to the operational area by the submarine Stygian.

She slipped her tow at 23:00 and made a 40-mile journey through minefields, hazardous wrecks and hydrophone listening posts to reach the Takao, arriving at 1300 on 31 July.

XE3’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Ian Frazer, placed his craft directly under the keel of Takao with only one-foot of head-room.

Magennis exited from the ‘wet and dry’ chamber with great difficulty because of the restricted space and detached 6 limpet mines (so-called because their magnets were intended to make them stick to the hull of their targets like limpets to a rock) from the limpet carriers on one side of the submarine.

He then found that barnacles on Takao’s hull prevented the mines from getting a proper magnetic grip on the hull and he had to scrape off barnacles with his knife to make room for each of the mines.

He also tied the mines in pairs and placed one of the pair on each side of the keel spread along 45-feet of the cruiser’s hull.

All this time, his ‘frogman’ breathing apparatus was leaking air and sending a tell-tale stream of bubbles to the surface.

In the meantime, the Takao had slowly settled with the tide and XE3 was trapped under her bilge keel.

After much thrashing of the motor and pumping water, XE3 freed herself.

On Magennis’s return to XE3, the crew used hand wheels to drop the two side-cargoes off the midget submarine, one full of two tons of high explosive and the other the now flooded empty limpet carriers.

The explosive cargo dropped away but one of the limpet carriers was stuck to the hull.

Magennis, although exhausted, immediately volunteered to free this limpet carrier, saying “I’ll be alright as soon as I’ve got my wind, Sir.”

He put on his breathing apparatus again, exited the submarine and released the limpet-carrier by hand after seven minutes work with a heavy spanner.

On his return, XE3 started the 40-mile return journey back to HMS Stygian.

At 21:30, some, but not all, of the limpet mines exploded and blew a 23 feet by 10 feet hole in the starboard side of Takao’s hull.

Her keel buckled, the blast disabled her gun turrets and damaged her rangefinder but she did not sink.

Magennis Memorial, Belfast City Hall

On 13th November, 1945, a citation was published in the London Gazette that “the King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Victoria Cross for valour to Acting Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis”.

The detailed citation recited the difficulties he had faced and observed that “a lesser man would have been content to place a few limpets and then to return”. It concluded that “Magennis displayed very great courage and devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety”.

The Commanding Officer of XE3, Lieutenant Frazer, who was also awarded a VC for his part in the attack, was reported as saying that “Jim gave me bother from time to time. He liked his tot of rum but he was a lovely man and a fine diver. I have never met a braver man.”

James Magennis left the Royal Navy in 1949 and returned to live in Belfast.

LS Magennis presented with a Cheque by the Rt Hon Sir Crawford McCullagh Bt,
Lord Mayor of Belfast, on 19th January, 1946

A public collection was held for him called a Shilling Fund (a shilling was one-twentieth of a £, 12 old pence, 5 new pence) which raised £3,600 [about £121,000 in today's money].

He left Belfast in 1955 when he moved to Yorkshire, where he worked as an electrician.

He died on 11th February, 1986, hours before his heroism was honoured by the Royal Navy Philatelic Office with a first-day cover.

Click to Enlarge

There are memorial plaques to him in Belfast and in Bradford.

A six-foot high memorial statue, made of Portland Stone and bronze, was placed outside Belfast City Hall in October 1999.

His Victoria Cross has been on display in the Ashcroft Gallery of the Imperial War Museum, London, since 2010.

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