75th anniversary of the last VCs won by submariners

Singapore, the end of July 1945.

After three and a half years, the jewel of Britain’s Far East colonies was still in the grip of its Japanese occupiers who, as well as imposing a harsh regime, had imposed a new name on the island-state: Shōnan-tō, the Bright Southern Island.

With the war in Europe over and Allied forces now focusing their attention on Japan’s downfall, Britain began laying the groundwork for re-taking Malaysia and Singapore – a several-pronged attack, concluding, if all went well, with victory sometime between December 1945 and March 1946.

Gone were the conquerors of February 1942. The Japanese Navy could muster just five warships for Singapore’s defence, supported by the 70,000-strong Seventh Area Army, a rather motley assortment of troops pulled from units across Borneo, Malaysia and other islands in the region.

The Japanese had come from the north, through the jungle of the Malay Peninsula, then across the Johor Strait, when they seized Singapore. It was here they mustered their naval forces for the showdown, led by the cruiser Takao.

In her prime, Takao had been a formidable man o’war: ten 8in main guns, eight 5in guns, 60 flak to fend off air attack, and two dozen torpedoes, with three catapult-launched seaplanes to spot for her gunners.

In the summer of 1945, however, Takao was worn out by three and a half years of war, a veteran of campaigns as diverse as the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, the invasion of the Philippines, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf, the greatest naval encounter of World War 2.

Twice torpedoed, she eventually limped back to Singapore, beyond repair. Her life as a cruiser over, her formidable anti-aircraft guns were used to turn her into a floating battery, protecting the former British colony from air attack.

Little of which was known to British intelligence. They saw a powerful enemy warship in the Strait of Johor, posing a threat to any attempt to liberate Singapore and the foot of the Malay Peninsula.

With nothing of Hitler’s Navy left after Tirpitz was sunk in Norway, the Navy dispatched eight of its latest X-craft (“midget submarines”) to the Far East.

The tiny submersibles had crippled the Tirpitz, despite the battleship’s formidable defences. The improved XE-class was sent to the Asia-Pacific theatre for the showdown with the Imperial Japanese Fleet.

The craft and their mother ship, HMS Bonaventure, arrived in Labuan, off mainland Borneo, in July 1945, from where two missions were planned: one to cut undersea telegraph/communications cables linking Japanese possessions in the region; the second to strike at the Imperial Navy in Singapore, codenamed Operation Struggle.

HMS XE1 was charged with knocking out Myōkō – larger, heavier, even more battle-scarred (she lost her stern at Leyte Gulf) and, like Takao, now a floating anti-aircraft gunnery platform.

And XE3, commanded by a 24-year-old reservist from the Home Counties, Lieutenant Ian Fraser, assisted by diver Leading Seaman James Magennis, New Zealander Sub-Lieutenant William Smith at the controls of XE3, and Engine Room Artificer Charles Reed keeping an eye on XE3’s machinery.

They were crammed into a boat just 53ft long and not 6ft wide, capable of – at best about six knots on the surface, and just two submerged to prevent too much drain on the batteries. Two two-tonne explosive charges on her flanks would detach under the target, while Magennis could inflict further wounds on the Japanese cruiser using limpet mines.

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.

Lieutenant Fraser's citation

It took Fraser 11 hours to guide his small craft through the network of defences protecting the Strait of Johor, then two more to locate the heavily-camouflaged Takao.

The cruiser was mostly sitting on the seabed already, but Fraser was determined to deliver a knock-out blow and squeezed XE3 under the Takao midships, where the water was sufficiently deep and where he dropped his charges, while Magennis struggled to fix his mines to a barnacle-encrusted hull – a task made even more challenging by faulty diving apparatus.

The work was exhausting, but Magennis was forced to return to the water after attaching the limpets; one of XE3’s main charges stubbornly refused to detach properly.

It took him seven more minutes before the X-craft was able to extricate herself and eventually return to towing submarine HMS Stygian.

XE1, held up by Japanese patrols, opted not to attack the Myōkō which lay another two miles inside the harbour, and compounded the Takao’s problems by dropping its charges and heading back.

Collectively, the explosive charges blew a hole more than 60ft long and 30ft wide below the waterline, flooding numerous compartments (including two magazines) and rendering Takao all but useless (she would eventually be used for gunnery practice post-war and sunk in the Malacca Strait).

The crews of both X-craft would be showered with praise and decorations, but it was Fraser and Magennis who stood out.

“The courage and determination of Lieutenant Fraser are beyond all praise,” read Fraser’s citation for the Victoria Cross that autumn. “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.”

Throughout the mission, Magennis “displayed very great courage and devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety”. He too was deemed worthy of the VC.

And like many winners of the medal, he struggled to cope with the fame which it brought – he was the sole Northern Irelander to win it in the war, but he also had to contend with the province’s religious tensions. The family fell on hard times, Magennis sold his medal, and moved to Yorkshire where he lived and worked for the last 30 years of his life, dying in 1986.

His former CO spied an opportunity with surplus kit post-war and made a successful career of a diving business as well as maintaining his connections with the navy as a reservist. A regular attendee at commemorative events, including the dedication of memorials belatedly erected to James Magennis, Ian Fraser died in 2008 aged 87.

Both men’s Victoria Crosses can be seen in the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.

They were the last submariners to win Britain’s highest decoration in World War 2, but they were not the Navy’s final recipients in the conflict…