James Magennis VC

Winner of Northern Ireland’s only second world war Victoria Cross

James Joseph Magennis was born on October 1919 at Majorca Street, near Belfast’s Grosvenor Road. He left St Finian’s school on the Falls Road at the age of 14 and in 1935 followed his elder brother Bill into the Royal Navy. The spelling of his name seems to have originated in a Navy clerical error as originally the family spelt their name McGinnes.

Between 1939 and 1941, Magennis served on HMS Kandahar. He survived the vessel’s sinking with the loss of 67 officers and men in December 1941. Drafted to submarine service, Magennis volunteered to serve on midget submarines, or ‘X craft’ and was mentioned in dispatches for his part in ‘Operation Source’, the disabling of the German battleship Tirpitz.

In the Pacific campaign following the German surrender, leading seaman Magennis was a diver on the midget submarine XE3.

On July 31, 1945, Magennis's company attacked the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in Singapore harbour as part of ‘Operation Struggle’. Magennis worked for three quarters of an hour with damaged breathing apparatus to scrape barnacles from the Takao’s hull and to attach limpet mines. When XE3’s commander found he could not release one of the submarine’s limpet holders, an exhausted Magennis volunteered to leave the craft once more and worked with a spanner for seven minutes to release the limpet holder, allowing XE3 to make a safe return to base.

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 second world war 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 in 1986. A memorial service was held in his adopted Bradford and a plaque in his honour was erected in the cathedral there. 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.

Further reading:
Magennis VC: The Story of Northern Ireland’s only Winner of the Victoria Cross (1998) by G Fleming.