James Magennis (27th October 1919 to 12th December 1986)

 

There are some monuments in Ireland dedicated to this brave Irishman man but he was cremated in at a cemetery in Shipley, West Yorkshire. James was the only person from Northern Ireland to receive a Victoria Cross. Even though there isn’t a grave to visit I thought him worth a visit to the crematorium where he went up the chimney and vanished into the heavens.

 

He was born in 1919 in Ireland to a working class Roman Catholic family. Straight from school he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a boy seaman and served on many different warships between 1935 and 1942. Going underwater he joined the submarine branch and was inside the destroyer Kandahar off Tripoli (Libya) in December 1941 when it was irreparably damaged. This must have been frightening but he continued as a submariner. Within two years the 24-year-old volunteered for "special and hazardous duties" and trained as a diver. Quite quickly he was inside two submarines in Kåfjord (Norway), helping disable the German Bismark-class battleship Tirpitz. Not much is known about what James did but it was probably clamping bombs onto the side of the ship and he was mentioned in dispatches "for bravery and devotion to duty."

 

In July 1945 he was aboard the midget submarine HMS XE3 in Singapore. The 10,000 ton Japanese warship Takao which was berthed there and James was tasked with sinking it (under the title “Operation Struggle”.) On 30th July 1945 the midget submarine was towed to the area by the submarine Stygian and then had to make a forty-mile journey through hazardous wrecks, minefields and listening posts to reach the Takao. They arrived by the huge ship at 1pm the following day. The submarine was so tightly jammed under the ship the diver’s hatch couldn’t be opened properly. James had to squeeze himself through the narrow space available. He then set about attaching six limpet mines to the Japanese cruiser, swimming under the hull at points. This was not an easy task. The bottom of the ship was in a foul state and the limpet-bombs would not stick. James had to scrape and hammer off barnacles for thirty minutes before he could secure the bombs. This was exhausting work and a lesser diver would have been content to return to the craft. James persisted though, the situation worsened by his breathing apparatus which was leaking send sending bubbles to the surface. Eventually the exhausted man returned to the submarine. However he was informed that one of the limpet carriers would not release itself and they could get blown up.  James volunteered to free it commenting: "I'll be all right as soon as I've got my wind, Sir" to his superior. This took seven minutes of nerve-racking work with a heavy spanner. Once done James returned to XE3 for the second time which allowed the midget submarine to make its escape out to open sea to meet the submarine that had towed them in.

 

If only there was footage on U-Tube of the cruiser exploding and sinking and being rendered useless. It blew apart five hours after James had clamped the bombs to it.

 

Back in Northern Ireland James became something of a celebrity status and King George VI presented him with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace on the 11th December 1945. Aged 27 he married Edna Skidmore and they had four sons. Though £3,000 had been raised for the Belfast celebrity it was soon spent. Aged 30 James had left the Navy and was so poor he was forced to sell his Victoria Cross medal for £100.

 

How did he end up in Yorkshire? His six-year-old son David was killed by a trolley bus and they decided to leave Belfast. Aged 36 James and his family moved to his wife Edna's home town of Bradford to start life again. In his later years he worked as an electrician but due to chronic ill health he died of lung cancer aged 66.

 

Now memorials to James can be found on both the inner wall of Bradford Cathedral and on the wall of his former home on Carncaver Road, East Belfast. There’s also a blue memorial plaque attached to the front of the Royal Naval Association building on Great Victoria Street, Belfast.

 

The Victoria Cross medal was purchased in 1986 by Lord Ashcroft for £29,000 and can be seen in the Imperial War Museum’s Lord Ashcroft Gallery in London. This was the first one bought by Lord Ashcroft who now owns over 140 of them.

 

 

 

Pointing to the chimney where James went upward…

 

The chimney. Let’s go and have a closer look…

 

The Takao which James rendered useless…

 

Where James was born…

 

…and there’s James with wearing the Victoria Cross medal…