As submariners and ex submariners, we, along with the general public, steer towards the Submarine Museum at Gosport Hampshire UK, sited close to our erstwhile alma mater, the former HMS Dolphin, for all matters concerning submarine life whether it be actual submarines, artefact or anecdotal.  Moreover, this museum is the national cenotaph to all submariners who lost their precious lives so that we might live.  Fitting therefore that we continue to do so and to encourage others to pay a visit and to pay their respects and homage to our fallen hero's.

In addition to exhibits at the Submarine Museum, there are one or two other cities one should visit to view and board real submarines.  Chatham, Plymouth [Devonport] and Liverpool are the main attractions for ex British submarines.

The submarine service has always formed a small part of the Royal Navy, but the stories of its hero's and the submarines they served in are legend, producing a disproportionately high output of books vis-à-vis the surface fleet.  

However, there are relatively few books about the ultimate hero's, the holders of The Victoria Cross, and even fewer that tell us about the holders life story from boyhood to death.  Were there to be, none would be as sad as the story of MAGENNIS VC written by George Fleming, himself a former submariner and  HMS Ganges boy on entry.   I highly recommend you read this book.  It will not only tell you the life story of one of our national hero's, but it will help you to understand the poison,  manifest when society polarises its views and attitudes to social structures, and by so doing, destroys the awe and respect due in large measures to a man like Mick Magennis Victoria Cross.

Finally, the aftermath!  If you, like me, often wonder what happened to the medals and awards won by these men, you might like to know that in addition to visiting various naval/military museums, there is a 'wealth' of such medals/awards in the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth in London where there is a dedicated VC and GC gallery.  To stand [preferably alone] in front of the naval VC's and particularly the submariners VC's,  never fails to trigger my emotions and pride in belonging to my Service and to being a submariner.

Just a few paces from these icons, is the  VC awarded to Boy Seaman John Cornwell {blue ribbon}.  



John Travers,


Boy, First Class


Royal Navy *

VC won

Battle of Jutland, North Sea,
31 May 1916

London Gaz

15 September 1916


8 January 1900


2 June 1916,
Grimsby District Hospital Lincolnshire


1) Grimsby Cemetery (Common grave)
2) Manor Park Cemetery (29 July 1916)

of VC

Imperial War Museum, Kennington


* HMS Chester

Name James Joseph,
Rank Acting Leading Seaman
Force Royal Navy *
VC won Jahore Straights, Singapore,
31 July 1945
London Gaz 13 November 1945
Born Belfast,
27 October 1919
Died 11 February 1986,
Grave Nab Wood Crematorium, Shipley
of VC
Not publicly held.  

The following note is taken from the Irish Times of Saturday 9th October 1999.

The VC awarded to James MAGENNIS is no longer in the family's possession. On their fathers death his three surviving sons sold the medal because they could not afford to insure it.  The anonymous buyer is rumoured to be a Canadian millionaire with over 100 Victoria Crosses in his collection

Remarks * HM Midget Submarine XE.3

 On the 13th October 2003 I celebrate my golden jubilee of joining the navy at HMS Ganges in 1953.  Just the thought of this medal takes me back to those days, but being there actually looking at the medal itself, is to say the least, humbling.  John Cornwell and Mick Magennis are names to be revered and cherished by all for posterity.  Wouldn't it have been magnificent if James's medal had been there too?

All necessary details  to get this fascinating book are as follows .  On behalf of humanity, please read it!

"Magennis VC"
by George Fleming (Paperback 224 pages 60 photographs)

James Magennis VC was born in West Belfast and served in the Royal Navy in World War II.
He was the only person from Northern Ireland to win the Victoria Cross, the only naval rating with a VC to survive the war and the only person in naval history to exit a submarine in a diving suit, perform a military operation and return to the same submarine.

Yet while honoured in his adopted town of Bradford England, he was made to feel unwelcome and virtually forgotten in his home town of Belfast. The author rescues Magennis from obscurity in a book that begins with Magennis's life in West Belfast in the 1920s and 1930s. Magennis escaped Belfast's poverty by joining the Royal Navy in 1935.

The middle part of the book is packed with adventure and history of war at sea, and finishes with Magennis winning the Victoria Cross in 1945. The closing chapters bring the reader back to the reality of his return to Belfast where the political and religious problems had not changed. He was an embarrassment to the Unionist establishment and unwanted by his fellow Catholics. Forced to leave the city, Magennis went to England where he was simply accepted as a war hero.

Always a quiet man who never sought glory, he died in obscurity in 1986.

Send £11.95 P&P included (with enclosed address) to:

George Fleming
545a Lisburn Road
BT9 7GQ.

For further enquiries contact George Fleming mailto: or Telephone 02890 664629.

P.S. This article was published on the Northern Ireland Submariners Association Website.

Subject: Campaign for memorial to MAGENNIS VC.

Uploaded 12/12/04
To all members of the Submarine Association (NI branch)

Dear Chairman Secretary & members,

Most in the Submarine Association (NI branch) members know I wrote a book on Magennis VC but few are aware of my involvement behind the scenes with both Castlereagh and Belfast councils, in campaigning to have a WW2 submarine VC hero remembered OFFICIALLY, as I only explained it briefly in my book, so I wish to explain my involvement in more detail.

In 1996 no councillor from Castlereagh Council  knew Magennis VC  lived at Clonduff estate from 1950 to 55 until I wrote to all of them requesting they erect a plaque on his former home and within the council buildings. Some years earlier Castlereagh council had remembered WW1 hero William McFadzean VC by erecting a plaque on his former home on the Cregagh Rd.  For those interested McFadzean VC was born in Lurgan, his name is remembered on the Lurgan war memorial and on a plaque recently erected by the Lurgan British legion on the wall of the old Lurgan town. I attended the unveiling myself in 1997.  Prior to my first contact with Castlereagh council in 1996  (Battle of the Somme   36 Ulster Division WW1 hero) McFadzean  VC had some *SIX*memorial plaques to him in Northern Ireland whereas (Belfast's only WW2 hero) Magennis VC had *NONE*

Today I give credit to Castlereagh council for honouring both Magennis and McFadzean.  Both these VC's were not born in Castlereagh but lived in the area sometime in their lives. Castlereagh was part of the greater Belfast corporation in 1945.  I also give credit to Castlereagh Council for flying Paul Magennis (son of Magennis VC) and his wife over from Bradford to the reception and the excellent lunch they laid on at the La Mon hotel.  A number of WW2 ex servicemen, ex submariners, ex HMS Ganges Boys and myself attended the reception including representatives from both the RNA and the British Legion.

Now WW2 Magennis VC was remembered in Castlereagh in 1997, but he had still not been officially remembered in Belfast.  So while researching for a biography on the Belfast hero I wrote a short letter to the Belfast Telegraph informing the public he had been forgotten. I received a reply letter from City Hall which as an ex submariner, inspired me to campaign with a tenacity and determination I never had before for a memorial to Magennis VC in Belfast.

The letter reads as follows:

Chief Executive's Department
Mr ********
Ext 2211
Date 23 rd September 1996.

To: Mr george Fleming
545a lisburn Road
Belfast BT97GQ

Dear Mr Fleming

You wrote recently to the Belfast Telegraph on the subject of a plaque being erected to commemorate leading Seaman Magennis.

The Ulster History Circle, with financial support from the Belfast City Council, has recently erected in Belfast plaques to commemorate Lord Kelvin and Robert MacAdam and will shortly be unveiling a further plaque to James Young.  It is the Ulster History Circle's policy, however, not to erect a plaque until a person has been dead for twenty years and as Leading Seaman Magennis only died in 1986 the Circle would not be able to erect a plaque to him at this stage.

I am sure Belfast City Council would support the erection of a plaque to Leading Seaman Magennis after the appropriate period of time so that this courageous citizen is suitably commemorated.

In the meantime there is a photograph of Leading Seaman Magennis on display outside the Council Chamber in the City with an inscription which records his heroic deeds. I would be pleased to show the photograph to you at a time suitable to you and to discuss your suggestion further. My telephone number is 320202 (extension 2211)

Your sincerely

Members Services Manager

It was obvious this letter was not normal protocol. It smelled of deception and in my opinion was sent to me on behalf of a few councillors who didn't wish to draw attention to themselves. They used  the Chief Executive's Department to write the letter for them so as to  stop me in my tracks from campaigning any further. Little did they know my determination.

When Magennis VC died in 1986 there had been a few who raised voices regards a memorial to the local Royal Naval VC hero . Gerry Haigh (member of the Submarine Association & Belfast RNA ) was the only ex-serviceman from Belfast who attended Magennis's funeral service in Bradford of that year. He told Eddie McLlwaine of the Belfast Telegraph 'It would be good and proper that James's home City should honour his name. I'd say Belfast should have paid their respects before anyone else thought of it'  (Belfast Telegraph 17 October 1986)

The Irish Times (10 December 1986) under the heading 'Belfast War Hero Ignored, Remembered in Bradford' noted ' James Magennis who left his home in Belfast thirty years ago to live in Yorkshire was commemorated at a service in the Anglican Cathedral in Bradford on Sunday without any official recognition from his native City.'

Nothing came out of these raised voices, except, that two Unionist councillors hung a small photograph with an attached tiny brass inscription measuring three inches by one inch in the robing room of the City Hall.  It was hidden from public view and could only be viewed by tourists.  As the letter from the Chief Executive's Department stated individual Belfast citizens had to make a request to the City Hall to see it. The bluff worked in 1986, but this recent attempt to bluff me, only increased my determination to campaign further.

I decided it was time for more action.  So I sent copies of material I uncovered in the newspaper library while researching for Magennis VC's biography to all 51 City Hall councillors.  I also sent copies to 18 MP's and a few members of the House of Lords, including ex WW2 naval officers Lord Lewin 'The First Sea lord', former prime Minister Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and also Commander Ian Fraser VC  DSC (Magennis's CO Operation Struggle 1945).

The records of the 6th December 1945 News Letter & Northern Whig covering the City Corporation November meeting of that year read as follows:

"Councillor Clark Scott proposed:  
'The City has conferred the freedom of the City on many notable personages and now you have the  opportunity of honouring one of the common people. Leading Seaman Magennis has preformed a great feat and his heroism should be recognised by the citizens. I move that the General purposes Committee should consider the question of conferring the Freedom'

The Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh replied to Councillor Scott:
' The General Purposes committee will consider it. They will do it without your asking'

Scott replied:
'But I am not a member of that committee and I am entitled to move the motion'

The Lord Mayor:
'That is not how the Freedom of the City is conferred.'

Councillor Clark Scott:
'But this is Mr Magennis, not Alexander or Montgomery.'

The matter was dropped."

(end of newspaper article)

This was substantial evidence that unknown to todayıs general public a proposal had been made for freedom of the City for Magennis but was rejected by the corporation back in November1945.  What was well known and had been widely publicised even to this very day was that the Lord Mayor had set up a 'shilling fund' shortly afterwards.  The generous Belfast citizens collected £3000 for Magennis.  However this fund was the Lord Mayor's own contrivance and not the Corporation. What did it say for the Corporation who refused their only returning WW2 VC hero Freedom of his native Belfast and instead left it to the common people to collect money for him? The shame lay with the 1945 Corporation. I therefore informed the 51 councillors surely all would agree that one way of eradicating that shame would be for the present City Council to erect a memorial to their forgotten WW2  VC hero.

I also emphasised that in the present circumstances not one penny need come from the citizens rates to pay for this memorial, as art, lottery and community relations grants are all available for such  projects, and what an excellent community relations project it would make.

Over a period of two years I wrote and received many private letters of support from Politicians, MP's, Lords and ex officer & servicemen for a memorial to Magennis VC.  Here is a short list of names of only a few I received:

1  Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin
2  Rear Admiral R P Stevens (Flag officer Submarines)
2  Commander Ian Fraser VC  (Magennis VC's C/0 in operational struggle)
3  Rt Hon Lord Callaghan of Cardiff  KC  (House of Lords)
4  Rt Hon Rev Martin Smyth MP   UUP
5  Rt Hon  John Taylor, MP   UUP
6  Rt Hon Lord Alderdice  (leader of the Alliance party)
7  Rt Hon Cecil Walker   MP UUP
8  Rt Hon Ken Maginnis  MP UUP
9  Rt Hon Mayor of Belfast Councillor Ian Adamson
10 Councillor Michael  Mc Gimpsey  UUP
11 Councillor Jim Rodgers    UUP
12 Councillor Sammy Wilson  DUP

As a rate paying Belfast citizen I used the official right to make a written proposal  on 10 December 1996 to the 'policies and resources committee' in the City Hall. Although I received private letters from some councillors I could not find one councillor in the 'policies and resources committee'  to make a proposal for me. Eventually an SDLP councillor made my  proposal which was seconded by a UUP councillor. Finally the majority of SDLP, Alliance, DUP & UUP councillors responded to my original proposal and voted in favour of a Memorial to Magennis VC.  Sinn Fein abstained.  I have copies of my original letter and of the minutes of the 'policies and resources committee' meeting for perusal to those interested.

Having passed one hurdle the next was to get the whole council to approve, and in 1997 the majority of the 51 councillors approved at the main council meeting. There were some abstentions but no opposition. All that was to be decided was what and how was the memorial to be sculpted and where the memorial was to be sited.  Finally, sculptor Elizabeth Mc Loughlin's proposed design was chosen as winner of an art competition, and on October 1999 the Lord Mayor Robert Stoker unveiled a 6ft memorial of bronze and Portland stone  to Magennis VC in the City hall grounds.  This today stands proudly  beside the statue to Queen Victoria in front of the main building.  I therefore give credit to the Belfast City Council for at last commemorating their only WW2 VC hero.

The Times: 9th October 1999  

I have deleted the name of the person who wrote the Chief Executive's Department letter on 23 rd September 1996 because that same person has been most helpful to the Northern Ireland branch of the Submariners Association, formed in 2000 after the memorial to Magennis was erected. He has helped the association organise a memorial dinner to Magennis VC to be held in City Hall in 2006. His good name has been exonerated.  However, had I believed his letter back in 1996, there would be no Memorial to Magennis today in the grounds of the City Hall. Instead of having a memorial dinner in the City Hall in 2006 we would still be waiting for the Ulster History circle to erect a small blue plaque to his memory.

In conclusion, I would like to say, writing the Magennis VC  biography was one of the toughest tasks I ever attempted.  An even harder task was the campaign for the Belfast memorial to Magennis VC.  Its with deep appreciation I say a thank you to Journalist John McGurk who remembered the work I put into the campaign behind the scenes when he wrote: : 'But, thanks to the efforts of people such as ex-sailor, George Fleming, Belfast belatedly honoured their courageous sailor son, with a memorial in the grounds of the City Hall, in the late Nineties. "  Sunday Life (10 october 2004).

Many Thanks
George  Fleming.


Historic feats unite rather than divide us by Roy Garland

George Fleming, former submariner and author of ³Magennis VC², welcomed the stated intention of east Belfast loyalists to build a replica submarine in honour of Falls Road man James Magennis VC. The replica is to be placed in Clonduff, a Protestant estate in East Belfast where Magennis lived before departing to England. George applauds these efforts to highlight the bravery of a Catholic submariner and Victoria Cross winner during the Second World War. He suggests a similar memorial be sited at James Magennisıs old St Finnianıs School near Falls Road Swimming baths were Magennis learnt skills that made his daring feat possible.

From his Midget four-man submarine XE3, Magennis swam to place limpet mines on the Japanese 10,000 ton cruiser "Takao" and became the only Northern Ireland Second World War VC. He was also the only naval rating VC to survive the war and the only person in naval history to leave a submarine under water, complete a military operation and return to his submarine. Yet despite decoration with Britain's highest award for valour, Magennis was refused freedom of Belfast by the City Council while a lack of enthusiasm was evident in west Belfast.

After a two-year campaign by George Fleming Castlereagh Council agreed to place a plaque on Magennisıs former home in Clonduff while Belfast City Council sited a memorial in front of the City Hall. The latter was on 8th October 1999, 13 years after James Magennis died in obscurity in England.

George points to curious links between another Irishman, British submarines, and indirectly, with James Magennis. The first Royal Navy submarine, ³Holland 1², was launched at Barrow-in-Furness in 1901. The name ³Holland² harks back to John P Holland a member of the Fenian Movement who was born at Liscannor, Co Clare in 1841. Holland had been rejected by the Merchant Marines before he joined the Christian Brothers to teach in Limerick while engaging in scientific experiments.

Due to ill health he left the Christian Brothers, followed his mother and brothers to Boston and worked for a US engineering firm before he returned to teaching. By 1859 Holland drafted his first submarine design - one that was never radically altered. He was convinced that submarines would prove essential in naval warfare and persisted with his dream of a viable metal submarine. He duly submitted his design to the US Naval authorities but they rejected it as ³fantastic².

Meanwhile, Johnıs brother Michael introduced him to the Fenian Movement and with their help he continued working on a submarine for use against the British Navy. It would carry three men and be small enough to be accommodated on a merchant ship and released under water against British ships.

Because of Fenian help Holland could devote more time to developing his midget submarine, which was called "Fenian Ram". However the Fenians stopped backing his efforts and he severed his links with them. In 1896 he won a US naval authorities competition for a submarine design and established ³The John Holland Torpedo Boat Company². But, because of frustrating interference from US Naval professionals, who insisted on changes that undermined the submarines potential, the project was temporarily wound up.

John Hollandıs sixth and best design was also rejected by the US authorities and he was left virtually bankrupt. In desperation he accepted a buy-out of his company, which became the ³Electric Boat Company². The US Government bought ³Holland No 6² for $150,000 in 1900 and soon designs and submarines were sold to Japan and Britain. The Royal Navyıs first five submarines were ³Holland² boats built at Barrow-in-Furness. Despite this there was still scant recognition of Hollandıs contribution even though by 1951 submarine design returned to the shape of his prototype and could now exceed the underwater speed of his ³Fenian Ram² half a century earlier.

Loyalists in East Belfast hope former Belfast shipyard workers will build a replica submarine in memory of Magennis for Clonduff estate. Michael Copeland UUP MLA and Clonduff Community activist Jamie Leitch are applying to Barrow-in-Furness where the first British ³Holland Boats² were built for the design, and also to British and Irish Governments for funding.

Both Holland and Magennis died in poor circumstances. To make amends, perhaps two replica submarines should be built in their joint memory one for east and one for west Belfast tributes to men whose achievements have been undervalued. Surely enough goodwill can be found to use this to mark an end to some of the futile squabbling over a heritage that is intermingled if not entirely shared. Presbyterians gave birth to the United Irishmen and only our mutual enmity hides the fact that - underneath the surface - we have more in common than most people dream of.



Sunday Life Home > News

Ulster sub hero to be honored By John McGurk

10 October 2004

A huge wave of support has greeted plans to honour the heroism of a Victoria Cross-winning Catholic sailor - in the heart of Protestant east Belfast.

For Ulster Unionist Assemblyman, Michael Copeland's dream of marking World War II seaman, James Magennis's bravery with a memorial in the Clonduff estate is getting closer to reality.

Magennis - Belfast's Boy's Own-styled hero - became the only Ulsterman to be awarded Britain's highest military honour, during the Second World War.

In an extraordinary act of courage, Magennis helped steer a tiny XE-1 submarine under a Japanese battle cruiser, and attach limpet mines to the enemy boat, anchored in Singapore harbour in July 1945.

But the man, originally from the Grosvenor Road area of west Belfast, showed even more backbone when he swam back, to clear snagged containers holding the mines.

Magennis was greeted back home with a civic reception and £3,000 from a public appeal - but, controversially, was not given the Freedom Of The City by the Unionist-controlled council.

Magennis became Ulster's forgotten hero - dying in Bradford in 1986.

But, thanks to the efforts of people such as ex-sailor, George Fleming, Belfast belatedly honoured their courageous sailor son, with a memorial in the grounds of the City Hall, in the late Nineties.

And now the area where he lived in the early Fifties - Clonduff - may become another poignant 'port of call', in memory of Magennis.

Mr Copeland told Sunday Life that he had received numerous phone calls of support for the plan, to erect a replica midget submarine memorial for the Catholic sailor, in the middle of the Castlereagh Road estate.

He said: "My phone hasn't stopped ringing with people who are keen on doing this - both from Northern Ireland and England.

"I looked at an estate on the fringes of east Belfast that, basically, does not enjoy any great standing.

"But, then I thought that it has something unique - a man who was the only VC winner from the island of Ireland during the Second World War having lived there.

"The fact that he was a Roman Catholic is, to me and to most people, an irrelevance. James Magennis's exploits should be a source of pride to everyone in the maritime history of this city."

The Castlereagh councillor revealed that he had organised meetings with potential funding sources to help cover the estimated £3,000 cost of the memorial.

Subsequent to the above article[s] <taken from NI Submariners website> George Fleming told me about some of the mail he had received from high profile naval officers. The following two letters come from such a source. The first {two frames}, from an Admiral of the Fleet has been edited and his address and telephone number have been removed.  Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin died shortly after he wrote this letter. 

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

Little Snippet: In the 1950's, several submariners, holders of the Victorian Cross, were still alive and high profile figures in the submarine community.  This made Remembrance Day that little bit special! HMS Dolphin, like all other naval ships and establishments, held a service of Remembrance on Armistice Day proper, namely the 11th day of November at the eleventh hour. The 11th was a Tuesday, an ordinary working day with a stop over for a two minutes silence. However, the previous Sunday, the 9th November [and the nearest to the 11th], the traditional central London Whitehall Cenotaph Service took place in the presence of HM The Queen and all was well. The HMS Dolphin Remembrance service went ahead in the Fort's Chapel high up in the bastion wall of Fort Blockhouse, and externally, all in the Fort stopped at 1100 for the silence. On that day also, it just so happened that the German submarine Hecht arrived to undergo British submarine escape training. The RN saw it as another day albeit a special one but the local press, and from it, the national press, were not all in favour and considered it to be ill-timed [RN fault if anybody's and not the German's] and their coverage generated 'adverse press' which upset and embarrassed the navy.