Personal info

  • Name: James Joseph MAGENNIS
  • D.O.B: 27th Oct, 1919
  • D.O.A: 31st Jul, 1945
  • D.O.D: 12th Feb, 1986
  • Award: Victoria Cross
  • Occupation at time of action: Temporary Acting Leading Seaman, HM Submarine XE3, Royal Navy
  • Book: The Complete History - Volume 3
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Sources & Acknowledgements

The First World War

28 July 1914 - 11 November 1918

The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the formal unification of Germany under Prussian control which it ushered in established the new German Empire as the leading military power in continental Europe. In reaction to this, by August 1914 Europe was divided by a series of alliances into two competing blocs, each fearful and suspicious of the other. The Central Powers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, faced The Triple Entente of France, Russia and Britain. With its great trading empire based on its naval supremacy, Britain traditionally stood aloof from continental involvements, hoping that the balance of power would be sufficient to preserve peace. Its one formal commitment since 1830 was to preserve Belgian neutrality. By the early 1900s, because of the relentless growth of German power, this policy was in disarray. Despite its close links with Germany, Britain increasingly feared the threat to its commercial dominance posed by the burgeoning German industrial sector as well as Prussian militarism. In 1904 this concern led it to overcome its traditional suspicion of its historic enemy and establish the Entente Cordiale with France, which recognised the new era of peaceful co-existence that had existed between the two countries since 1815. In 1907 it also allied with Russia. For its part, Germany embarked on a major armaments programme of which the most threatening feature for Britain was the expansion of the German navy.

Though the European powers had long been planning for war its outbreak was unexpected, triggered by instability in the Balkans. Here, the disintegration of the Turkish empire in Europe throughout the nineteenth century had led to the creation of fiercely independent states with competing territorial claims. In particular, many Serbs deeply resented the Austrian annexation of the former Turkish province of Bosnia-Herzogovina. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, at Sarajaevo on 28 June 1914 led to war being declared between Austria and Serbia on 28 July, which inevitably drew in the other European powers. Russia, the patron of the Balkan Slavs, mobilised her armies. This provoked Germany to declare war on Russia on 2 August and on France the following day. Britain was drawn into the conflict because the German attack on France had violated Belgian neutrality. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Turkey and Bulgaria supported the Central powers, while Italy was to side with France and Britain.

It was widely expected that the fighting would be over by the end of the year. Indeed the German war plan, named after Count von Schlieffen (Chief of the German General Staff 1891-1906) depended on the defeat of France within six weeks, to allow resources to be switched to the Russian front. In the event the plan failed. Though their initial advance brought the invading troops to within 25 miles of Paris, the French and British managed to contain the German Army. By the end of the year there was stalemate in the west, with a line of trenches stretching from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. It had become clear that contemporary armaments favoured defence above attack. This led Britain to seek advantage in subsidiary campaigns elsewhere, notably against Turkey at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia and Palestine, while both sides experimented with new armaments including airships, airplanes and chemical weapons. For the most part, however, the conflict became a war of attrition, not only on land but at sea, where German submarines tried to cut off the flow of supplies to Britain. The first power to succumb was Russia, which was overtaken in 1917 first by political and then social revolution. However, the loss of Russian support to the allied cause was more than counterbalanced by the American declaration of war against the Central Powers on 6 April 1917. In the end, after the failure of the German offensive in spring 1918, it was the Central Powers that collapsed. An armistice was declared at 11am on 11 November 1918. Germany was swept by political revolution and Austria-Hungary disintegrated. The most important of the Peace Treaties that formally ended the conflict and laid down the settlement for the Post-war world was signed at Versailles on 28 June 1919. Almost ten million men in the armed forces on both sides had been killed. Such was the scale of the conflict that 628 Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions undertaken during the four years of the Great War, amounting to almost a third of the total awarded in the century and a half since the institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856.


 Leading Seaman Magennis served as Diver in His Majesty’s Midget Submarine XE-3 for her attack on 31st July, 1945, on a Japanese cruiser of the Atago class. Owing to the fact that XE-3 was tightly jammed under the target the diver’s hatch could not be fully opened, and Magennis had to squeeze himself through the narrow space available. He experienced great difficulty in placing his limpets on the bottom of the cruiser owing both to the foul state of the bottom and to the pronounced slope upon which the limpets would not hold. Before a limpet could be placed therefore Magennis had thoroughly to scrape the area clear of barnacles, and in order to secure the limpets he had to tie them in pairs by a line passing under the cruiser keel. This was very tiring work for a diver, and he was moreover handicapped by a steady leakage of oxygen which was ascending in bubbles to the surface. A lesser man would have been content to place a few limpets and then return to the craft. Magennis, however, persisted until he had placed his full outfit before returning to the craft in an exhausted condition. Shortly after withdrawing Lieutenant Fraser endeavoured to jettison his limpet carriers, but one of these would not release itself and fall clear of the craft. Despite his exhaustion, his oxygen leak and the fact that there was every probability of his being sighted, Magennis at once volunteered to leave the craft and free the carrier rather than allow a less experienced diver to undertake the job. After seven minutes of nerve-racking work he succeeded in releasing the carrier. Magennis displayed very great courage and devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety. 

(Third Supplement to The London Gazette of 9 November 1945. 13 November 1945, Numb. 37346, pp. 5529-30)

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