Trained diver James Magennis made two exhausting dives to attach magnetic mines to a Japanese cruiser during the Second World War. He received the Victoria Cross (VC) for his bravery.

Magennis joined the Royal Navy when he was 15 years old. During the Second World War he moved from serving in destroyers to submarines. He then volunteered to serve in midget submarines (any submarine under 150 tons, used to enter harbours where full size submarines couldn’t go). As he was trained as a diver, one of Magennis' duties was attaching magnetic mines to ships. 


Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis and Lieutenant Ian Edwards Fraser

Two naval VC's; Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis (L) and Lieutenant Ian Edwards Fraser, DSC, RNR. Fraser was commanding officer and Leading Seaman Magennis was a diver in a midget submarine (XE3) which destroyed a Japanese cruiser in August 1945, in the Jahore Straits, Singapore.
© IWM (A 26940A)

Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis (left) with Lieutenant Ian Edwards Fraser, DSC, RNR. Both were recipients of the Victoria Cross.

On 31 July 1945, his midget submarine XE.3 attacked the Japanese cruiser Takao in Singapore harbour, during a covert operation. When the sub was in place, Magennis tried to get out to attach his six mines to the ship. But he found it had jammed under the cruiser's hull and that the hatch wouldn't open properly. His only option was to strip off his equipment  and squeeze out. 

Once outside the sub he found the hull was too dirty for the mines to stick, so he had to carefully scrape it clean with his knife. Magennis spent 30 nerve-wracking minutes completing the task, with the constant risk of discovery. 

Magennis then rejoined  the crew of XE.3. Their final task was to drop two large explosive charges under the ship, but one failed and had to be released by hand. Although exhausted from his first dive, Magennis insisted on going back out to free the charge. It took him seven minutes using a heavy spanner, before the charge could be released and the midget sub could escape.

Magennis received a VC for his bravery during the attack on the Takao. He continued to serve in the Navy until 1949 when he returned home to Belfast with his family. Unfortunately in 1952, he lost his job and was forced to sell his VC. The medal was later returned to him by an anonymous benefactor, on the condition that he did not sell it again.

Magennis spent the remainder of his life in Yorkshire working as an electrician. He died in 1986.

You can see James Magennis’ VC in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at IWM London.

This article was edited by Gemma Lawrence. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.

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