James Joseph Magennis VC

b. 27/10/1919 Belfast, Northern Ireland. d. 12/02/1986 Halifax, Yorkshire.

James Joseph Magennis (1919-1986) or James Joseph McGinnes as he was formerly known, was born on 27th October 1919 at Majorca Street, West Belfast, Ireland. He was from a working class Roman Catholic family and attended St Finian’s Primary School on the Falls Road, Belfast until 3rd June 1935 when enlisted in the Royal Navy as a boy seaman (adopting the surname Magennis). The spelling of his name seems to have originated in a Navy clerical error as originally the family spelt their name McGinnes.

James J Magennis VC

He served on several different warships between 1935 and 1942, when he joined the submarine branch. Before joining the submarine branch, Magennis served on the destroyer Kandahar which was mined off Tripoli, Libya, in December 1941 whilst Magennis was on board. The ship was irreparably damaged and was scuttled the following day. In December 1942, Magennis was drafted into the Submarine service and in March 1943 he volunteered for “special and Hazardous duties” — which meant Midget submarines, or X-craft. He trained as a diver, and in September 1943 took part in the first major use of the X-craft during Operation Source. Two submarines, HMS X7 and HMS X6, penetrated Kåfjord, Norway, and disabled the German battleship Tirpitz. For his part in the attack Magennis was Mentioned in Despatches “[f]or bravery and devotion to duty” in 1943.

Leading Seaman Magennis served as Diver in His Majesty’s Midget Submarine XE-3 for her attack on 31st July 1945, on a Japanese cruiser of the Atago class called Takao. The diver’s hatch could not be fully opened because XE-3 was tightly jammed under the target, and Magennis had to squeeze himself through the narrow space available. He experienced great difficulty in placing his limpets on the bottom of the cruiser owing both to the foul state of the bottom and to the pronounced slope upon which the limpets would not hold. Before a limpet could be placed therefore Magennis had thoroughly to scrape the area clear of barnacles, and in order to secure the limpets he had to tie them in pairs by a line passing under the cruiser keel. This was very tiring work for a diver, and he was moreover handicapped by a steady leakage of oxygen which was ascending in bubbles to the surface. A lesser man would have been content to place a few limpets and then to return to the craft. Magennis, however, persisted until he had placed his full outfit before returning to the craft in an exhausted condition. Shortly after withdrawing Lieutenant Fraser endeavoured to jettison his limpet carriers, but one of these would not release itself and fall clear of the craft. Despite his exhaustion, his oxygen leak and the fact that there was every probability of -his being sighted, Magennis at once volunteered to leave the craft and free the carrier rather than allow a less experienced diver to undertake the job. After seven minutes of nerve-racking work he succeeded in releasing the carrier. James Magennis and Ian Fraser were invested with their Victoria Crosses by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on the 11th December 1945.

On his return to Belfast in December 1945, Magennis was greeted as a hero. However, there was some embarrassment both on the part of the Unionist establishment, that a working class Catholic should receive Northern Ireland’s only World War Two Victoria Cross and by nationalists, who were reluctant to acknowledge the wartime service of Catholics in the British armed forces. A public collection raised £3066 in his honour, but following his discharge from the Navy in 1949, Magennis found life in Belfast difficult. Humiliated by newspaper coverage of the 1952 sale of his medal for only £75 and its return by the Belfast dealer who purchased it, Magennis moved to England in 1955.

James Magennis died from acute bronchitis in Halifax Infirmary on 12th February 1986. A memorial service was held in his adopted Bradford and a plaque in his honour was erected in the cathedral there. He was cremated at Nab Wood Cemetery and Crematorium, Shipley, West Yorkshire and his ashes scattered. Later that year at an auction at Sotheby’s, London, Magennis’ medals were sold. The purchaser was Michael Ashcroft, buying his first ever VC for £29,000, the first of his now over 200 VC medal groups collection. The medals are now displayed with Ian Fraser’s in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London. Only in 1999 did Belfast follow suit with the erection of a bronze and Portland stone memorial sculpture in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.