Daily Archives: 5 November, 2009

Victoria Cross Heroes – Ian Fraser VC and James Magennis VC

Magennis and Fraser (first and second left)

Magennis and Fraser (first and second left)

One of the things that most seems to spring up, time and time again, with VC winners is how modest they are. They have nothing to boast about, what else is there to prove? In the case of these two gentleman, I remember watching a documentary where one of them said ‘the Navy trained me to do a job, I went and did it, and they gave me a VC’. Incredible. This is not surprising, however – when you look at the ice cool presence of mind Ian Fraser displayed in the most testing circumstances imaginable, it seems completely in character. Combine that with James Magennis’s courage and devotion to duty, and you have one of the most daring naval operations of the war.

Towards the end of world war two, on 31st July 1945 Royal Navy midget submarine XE-3 was tasked with placing mines on a Japanese Heavy Cruiser near Singapore. This extremely hazardous operation. Towed part of the way to her target, she was released 40 miles from the Takao. The crew faced unbelievable hazards, in severely cramped conditions and under incredible pressure. At one point the submarine was suck underneath the large warship, until Lieutenant Fraser, the commanding officer, had the presence of mind to rock the midget sub back and forth to scrape out a channel in the seabed, giving her enough room to escape. To panic would have been all too easy. Leading Seamen James Magennis, the subs diver, spent a considerable amount of time in the water, and had to scrape barnacles off the hull of the ship before he could place the charges, reducing his hands to a bleeding mess. He placed every single mine, when others might have jettisoned some. On their escape from the target, Magennis entered the water again to release one of the limpet mine carriers, which was stuck. Despite being seriously exhausted he immediately volunteered.

During the long approach up the Singapore Straits XE-3 deliberately left the believed safe channel and entered mined waters to avoid suspected hydrophone posts. The target was aground, or nearly aground, both fore and aft, and only under the midship portion was there just sufficient water for XE-3 to place herself under the cruiser. For forty minutes XE-3 pushed her way along the seabed until finally Lieutenant Fraser managed to force her right under the centre of the cruiser. Here he placed the limpets and dropped his main side charge. Great difficulty was experienced in extricating the craft after the attack had been completed, but finally XE-3 was clear, and commenced her long return journey out to sea. The courage and determination of Lieutenant Fraser are beyond all praise. Any man not possessed of his relentless determination to achieve his object in full, regardless of all consequences, would have dropped his side charge alongside the target instead of persisting until he had forced his submarine right under the cruiser. The approach and withdrawal entailed a passage of 80 miles through water which had been mined by both the enemy and ourselves, past hydrophone positions, over loops and controlled minefields, and through an anti-submarine boom.

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 to 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.

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Bay Class Landing ships

It was a busy day in Portsmouth Harbour earlier today, as RFA Mounts Bay and RFA Largs Bay left and arrived in the Naval Base respectively.

Largs Bay and Mounts Bay are two ships from the Bay Class of LSL (Landing Ship Logistics) vessels, manned by the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. The Bay class ships were ordered to replace the ageing Round Table class Landing ships, all of which saw service in the Falklands War, with Sir Galahad being sunk and Sir Tristram being seriously damaged. They are considerably larger, weighing in at 16,000 tons.

The Bay class have a similar role to their predecessors – to support amphibious landings, and provide amphibious capability alongside HMS Albion, Bulwark and Ocean. Between them, the Navy’s seven amphibious ships are capable of lifting the entire 3 Commando Brigade.

In any amphibious task group, the key vessels are the LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) and LPD (Landing Platform Dock) ships. These provide the landing craft and helicopters to allow the first wave to secure the beachead. The LSL’s can then offload their heavy vehicles. To do this the ships have two 30 ton cranes on deck.

The Bay class ships have a large vehicle deck, which opens out at the back of the ship to a stern door and internal dock. Landing Craft, carried by Ocean, Bulwark of Albion, can drive right up to the vehicle deck. The vehicle deck can accomodate 24 Challenger Tanks, or more than 150 light jeep type vehicles. This is almost three times the capacity of their predecessors. They can also carry 350 troops for long periods, or up to 700 in the short term. The large helicopter dock has two landing spots, capable of operating two medium sized helicopters such as the Merlin. There is no permanent Hangar, but some of the ships have a retro-fitted aircraft shelter.

They have no weapons of their own – presuming that escort vessels would provide air defence – but have emplacement for 30mm guns and Phalanx systems should the need arise.

I’ve been onboard Mounts Bay and the vessel is designed very much like a roll on roll off ferry, everything is designed to allow for ease of getting on and off as quick as possible.

They are very light on crew, carrying only 60 officers and men of the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. This is somewhat cheaper than them being manned by the Royal Navy. Also, when not in use for amphibious operations the ships have a secondary role of transporting vehicles around the globe.

That the Royal Navy insists on having such a powerful amphibious force is strange. We have stronger assault capability than we had during the Falklands War, but we have only a tiny fraction of the escort vessels and submarines needed to defend such an operation, and our potential to provide air cover via aircraft carriers is also hanging in the balance. It is no doubt impressive to see so many capable ships in the Navy’s listings, but curious given how imbalanced it makes Fleet. Perhaps the Navy sees itself in the role of deploying forces by sea into troublespots around the world, which is very sensible but troubling given that we lack the Frigates and Destroyers and also the supply vessels to make this possible.

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