Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis VC

The fourth in my collection of autographs to Irish born holders of the Victoria Cross (VC). James Magennis from Belfast in WW2.

James was a Belfast-born recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He was the only native of Northern Ireland to receive the Victoria Cross for Second World War service. Magennis was part of several operations involving X-Craft midget submarines in attacks on Axis ships. In July 1945 Magennis was serving on HMS XE3 during Operation Struggle. During an attack on the Japanese cruiser Takao in Singapore, Magennis showed extraordinary valour and bravery by leaving the submarine for a second time in order to free some explosive charges that had got caught. His commanding officer Lieutenant Ian Fraser was also awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 31 July 1945 during the Operation.


In July 1945 Acting Leading Seaman Magennis was serving as the diver on the midget submarine HMS XE3 under the command of Lieutenant Ian Fraser. They were tasked with sinking the 10,000 ton Japanese cruiser Takao, the first of the Takao Class. She was berthed in the Straits of Johor, Singapore acting as an Anti-aircraft battery. The codename for the operation was Operation Struggle.


On 30 July 1945 the XE3 was towed to the area by the submarine Stygian. She slipped her tow at 23:00 for the forty-mile journey through hazardous wrecks, minefields and listening posts to reach the Takao. After arriving at the Takao at 13:00 on 31 July 1945. Magennis slipped out of the wet-and-dry chamber and he attached limpet mines to the Japanese cruiser Takao under particularly difficult circumstances. He had to chip away at barnacles on the bottom of the cruiser for 30 minutes before being able to attach the limpets. During this time his breathing apparatus was leaking and he returned to the submarine after completion of his task very exhausted. On withdrawing, Lieutenant Ian Fraser found that one of the limpet carriers which was being jettisoned would not release itself. Magennis immediately volunteered to free it commenting: “I’ll be all right as soon as I’ve got my wind, Sir”. This he did, after seven minutes of nerve-racking work with a heavy spanner. On completion Magennis returned to XE3 for the second time, allowing the four man midget submarine to make its escape out to open sea to meet the waiting Stygian.

Photo: https://janmeecham.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/tin-fish-heroes/

Magennis was the only Victoria Cross winner of the Second World War to hail from Northern Ireland. As a result, Magennis obtained something of a “celebrity status” in his home city. The citizens of Belfast raised more than £3,000 as part of a “Shilling Fund.” The City Fathers of Belfast refused to give Magennis the freedom of the City though. Sources differ as to the reasoning behind this; some claim it was due to religious divisions, others claim it was due to the City Fathers not “…believing that such an honour could not be bestowed on a working-class Catholic from the inner-city slums.” In 1946 Magennis married Edna Skidmore, with whom he had four sons. The money from the Shilling Fund was spent quickly by Magennis and his wife; she remarked: “We are simple people… forced into the limelight. We lived beyond our means because it seemed the right thing to do.” In 1949 he left the Navy and returned to Belfast, where, at some point, he sold his Victoria Cross . In 1955 he moved to Yorkshire, where he worked as an electrician. For the last years of his life, he suffered from chronic ill health, before dying on 11 February 1986 of lung cancer hours before his heroism was honoured by the Royal Navy Philatelic Office with a first-day cover.

James Magennis VC mural, Tullycarnet, Belfast
Photo: http://www.geograph.ie/photo/3012276

Magennis has had several memorials erected in his honour. When Magennis first won the VC, he was treated rather shabbily by the Unionist-dominated Belfast City Council because he was from a working class Roman Catholic family. Although the public collected £3,600 in appreciation of his heroism, the council refused to give him the freedom of the city. The only official recognition was a small photograph tucked away in the robing room of the council chamber. The first memorial was only erected in 1999 after a long campaign by his biographer George Fleming and Major S.H. Pollock CD (Canada). The memorial, a bronze and stone statue, was officially unveiled in Belfast on 8 October 1999. The ceremony was conducted in the grounds of Belfast City Hall in the presence of Magennis’s son Paul, by the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Bob Stoker. Magennis’s former commanding officer, Ian Fraser, was reported as saying: “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. It was a privilege to know him and it’s wonderful to see Belfast honour him at last.”[citation needed] A wall mural commemorating James Magennis on the 60th anniversary of VJ day was unveiled on 16 September 2005 by Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist Party Member of Parliament representing East Belfast, including Tullycarnet.

Memorial to Leading Seaman Magennis VC
Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Joseph_Magennis

In 1986, there was some publicity in the newspapers that his VC would be up at auction. This attracted the interest of Michael Ashcroft, Baron Ashcroft who bought the VC for £29,000 (plus fees) amidst strong competition from dealers and private collectors. This was the first Victoria Cross bought by Lord Ashcroft, who, as of 2006, owned 142 medals.

James McGennis VC medals
Photo: https://www.spink.com/research-articles/the-victoria-cross-at-auction-part-2-1983-1999.aspx







Private Charles Hand

1st Battalion Connaught Rangers

Killed in Action, La Bassee,

February 10th 1915,

Aged 22, From Dublin

CharleyCharley was born in Dublin in late 1892.  A pre war regular soldier, he joined the Connaught Rangers in the summer of 1911, being based in India till the outbreak of the Great War.

Landing  in France on the 26th September 1914, the 1st Battalion arrived at the Port of Marseilles having left the port of Karachi on the Indian subcontinent a month before. Throughout 1914 & 1915 they took part in: The First Battle of Messines. October 1914. The Battle of Festubert. November 1914. Battle of Neuve Chapelle. March 1915. Second Battle of Ypres. April 1915. Battle of Loos. September 1915.

Charley was killed at La Bassee in February in 1915, whilst in forward trenches. He was buried in the Le Touret Military Cemetery, Richebourg-L’Avoue.

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He was the the son of Catherine Hand of 16 Aungier Street, Dublin, and the late John Hand.



Incidentally, Charley’s brother John, was to die a year and a half later on the 1st August 1916, whilst serving with the 1st/8th Battalion, The Kings Liverpool Regiment.




Private William Haughton

1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles,

Wounded in Action, Bois Grenier, 13th October 1915

From Dublin, aged 26


IMG_0002(7)William was born in Dublin in 1889. Coming from squalid conditions, he had spent all his life in tenements. At the outbreak of war he and his family were living in squalor at 22 Ellis Quay.

He enlisted for the Royal Irish Rifles on the 9th November 1914. He departed shortly after for France on active service, joining up with the 1st Battalion (25th Brigade in the 8th Division), after their action near Fromelles on 21st May 1915. Straight into trench life, William, was one of a draft of 5 Officers and 146 Other Ranks needed to reinforce a depleted battalion who had been suffering high casualties of late.

The battalion remainned in this quiet sector until the end of September and the it was on to Bois Grenier. The attack was conceived as an adjunct to the Battle of Loos. The aim was ‘to capture about 1200 yards of the German front line system opposite the re-entrant and link them up with our own line at the Well Farm and Le Bridoux salients, thereby both shortening and strengthening our position’.

Infantry of the Royal Irish Rifles Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org
Infantry of the Royal Irish Rifles
Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org


The following assault troops were used:- 2/Rifle Brigade, 2/Royal Berkshire and 2/Lincolnshire. 1/Royal Irish Rifles held the left of the line.

A ferocious battle for William and his pals. Under difficult conditions of heavy rain and mist, the battalion made swift progress capturing there objective together with the 2nd Lincs. However not all the Germans had succumbed here at Bridoux Fort. The second line was full of Germans and rifle fire was brisk. Eventually, under an avalanche of bombs, the Lincolns withdrew along with the Irish Rifles.

The chief reason for the failure to hold the German trench was the superiority of the enemy bombers, who threw a larger and heavier bomb than the British could throw. At 6pm, orders were received to remain in position for the night. Other casualties for the day were 2/Lt J.H.Butler (slightly wounded), 11 Other Ranks killed, 76 wounded and 15 missing. William had come through.

The battalion came out of the front line on October 1st to billets at Pont Mercier.

An Australian chaplain wearing the "Large Box Respirator" Bois Grenier Sector Courtesy en.wikipedia.org
An Australian chaplain wearing the “Large Box Respirator” Bois Grenier Sector 1915
Courtesy en.wikipedia.org












The 1st Royal Irish Rifles were back in the line on the 13th. During this night,there was a lot of trench mortaring and rifle fire opposite Bridoux & Well Farm Salients. 1 officer and 9 men of a working party were wounded. One of these men was William Haughton. William received a Gunshot Wound to the thigh. During a somewhat peaceful time of trench life & having come through serious action a couple of weeks earlier, William’s war was at an end. A serious wound to one of his legs subsequently led to its amputation.

On his return to “Blighty”, it seems William spent nearly 9 months in hospital, recovering and recuperating, before finally being discharged on the 14th July 1916, returning to his parents home at 22 Ellis Quay in Dublin.

A group of soldiers in hospital uniform. For them the war was over! Courtesy of www.worldwar1postcards.com
A group of soldiers in hospital uniform. For them the war was over!
Courtesy of http://www.worldwar1postcards.com

Stoker Hugh Byrne

Royal Naval Reserve, from Dublin

Killed In Action on board H.M.S. “Indefatigable.” 31st May 1916

At the Battle of Jutland


Around 4:00pm, on Wednesday afternoon, May 31st, Indefatigable was hit around the rear turret by two or three shells from the German battlecruiser Von Der Tann. She fell out of formation to starboard and started sinking towards the stern and listing to port. Her magazines exploded at 4:03 after more hits, one on the forecastle and another on the forward turret. Smoke and flames gushed from the forward part of the ship and large pieces were thrown 200 feet (61.0 m) into the air.

Of her crew of 1,019, only two survived. Hugh Byrne’s body was never recovered. He is remembered with honour on the PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL

Hugh left behind a widow, Isabella, of 27 Fishamble Street, Dublin

Portsmouth Naval Memorial Photo from www.rutlandremembers.org
Portsmouth Naval Memorial
Photo from http://www.rutlandremembers.org
HMS INDEFATIGABLE Photo from www.militarian.com
Photo from http://www.militarian.com

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

George S.Patton





Lance Corporal Christopher Doran

Lance Corporal Christopher Doran

2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Wounded St Julien, Loos, April 1915


“We were very surprised to seem them walking. We had never seen that before. The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim. We just fired into them.”

 German soldier in his diary, after the Battle of Loos, September 1915

Loos September 1915 Photo from http://40.media.tumblr.com
Loos September 1915
Photo from http://40.media.tumblr.com