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.