b. 10/02/1897 Airdrie, Scotland. d. 16/10/1942 Hoylake, The Wirral.
John O’Neill (1897-1942) was born on 10th February 1897 in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, the son of Samuel O’Neill and Agnes Devan. Samuel was originally from Ireland and was a coal miner. On the 1901 Census they were living at 3 South Nimmo Street, New Monkland, Lanarkshire. Agnes, who was 7 years younger than Samuel, was originally from Douglas, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries. John was their third child with two older brothers called Charles and James, and a younger brother, Arthur and sister Mary.
John enlisted with the Leinster Regiment at the age of 17 on the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Within four years he had been honoured with the Military Medal, the Victoria Cross, Médaille Militaire , and the Légion d’Honneur. He had been promoted to Sergeant by the time of his VC action in October 1918.
On the 14th October 1918, the 2nd Battalion, Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment, moved out of Ypres towards the heavily contested ground around the strongly held town of Courtrai. They advanced slowly to a point between the villages of Ledegem and Moorsele, some six miles from Courtrai, where the attack ground to a halt, checked by two enemy machine guns and an artillery battery firing over open sights.
Sergeant O’Neill, leading a small group of eleven men, decided to charge the German battery. The small party successfully overcame the enemy positions and some of the captured guns were turned towards the German lines. Elevating them as high as possible, they loosened them off in the vague direction of the enemy.
Six days later, on the 20th October 1918, O’Neill was once again involved in an action which was part of his VC citation, when he charged a machine gun position single-handed, with only one man to cover him. Both of O’Neill’s actions were witnessed by Captain John Moran MC, an officer in the 2nd Leinsters, who later in life became Father Moran.
John was gazetted for the award of the VC on Boxing Day 1918, and John O’Neill was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George V in Buckingham Palace on the 2nd August 1919. John returned to Scotland after the Great War, and also served in the RAF as an Armourer Sergeant when he served alongside Lawrence of Arabia. On the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Pioneer Corps as Lieutenant O’Neill (1941) defending Liverpool’s docklands from air attack. John died suddenly of a heart attack in Hoylake, Cheshire on 16th October 1942, and was buried in Hoylake Cemetery.
In 2004, the recently raised Leinster Regiment Association believed that recognition for the regiment with which O’Neill had won his Victoria Cross should be displayed on his grave. Therefore, a ceremony was held in Holy Trinity churchyard in which O’Neill’s headstone was cleaned and a memorial plaque placed over his burial plot pointing out that he was serving with the 2nd Battalion, Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment when he earned his Victoria Cross on two dates in 1918. The memorial stone was unveiled by Mrs McCaughy and her cousin Mrs Molly Hayes, both relatives of John O’Neill.
On the 13th February 1962, John O’Neill’s Victoria Cross medal group was placed into the care of B.A. Seaby, a numismatic company, for sale in their forthcoming auction. On the same day a gang of thieves parked a van outside the motor showrooms on the ground floor of Seaby’s premises. They forced the showroom door to reach another door giving access to the coin dealer’s offices. The gang then carried oxy-acetylene apparatus hidden in rolls of linoleum into the building and spent the next ten hours burning open three safes.
Coins and medals valued at £30,000 were stolen, including the medals and decorations awarded to General Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, after whom the Queensland capital is named, and the WWI Victoria Cross medal group awarded to Sergeant John O’Neill, 2nd Bn, Leinster Regiment. They are valued at £2,750 and £535 respectively.
An immediate reward of £2,000 was offered by Tyler & Co, city assessors, and warnings were circulated by the International Association of Professional Numismatics to markets in Switzerland, Italy, Germany and France. To date, no sighting of John O’Neill’s Victoria Cross has been made.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: STOLEN IN 1962.
BURIAL PLACE: TRINITY ROAD CEMETERY, HOYLAKE, THE WIRRAL. GRAVE 8.
Thomas Stewart – Image of O’Neill VC’s name on the Hamilton VC Arch in Scotland.