By Tim Montgomerie
Cabinet ministers, MPs, journalists and military heroes attended the official opening yesterday evening of the new Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum. The guest of honour was the Princess Royal.
The Gallery houses the collection of Victoria Crosses (164) and George Crosses that Lord Ashcroft has been assembling over many years. Thanks to a £5m donation from the former Tory Treasurer to the IWM, as well as the unknown cost of purchasing the medals, the collection will now be kept in Britain and enjoyed by the public.
Speaking at the launch event Lord Ashcroft explained how his interest in extraordinary heroism had developed as young boy, listening to his father talk about his own terrifying experiences during the D-Day landings:
"As a small boy, I sat wide-eyed as he painted a vivid picture of his small landing craft crashing through the waves towards Sword Beach and as he conjured up the sense of fear as he and his men approached the inevitable hail of machine-gun fire that would 'welcome' them as they raced towards French soil. I felt a surge of pride that my father - Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft - had played such a courageous part in the war effort.
Gradually my interest in bravery grew and grew. Courage is a truly wonderful quality yet it is so difficult to understand. You can't accurately measure it, you can't bottle it and you can't buy it, yet those who display it are, quite rightly, looked up to by others and are admired by society."
"In 1935, 15-year-old James 'Mick' Magennis left his home town of Belfast to join the Royal Navy. He served in many ships, including battleships, cruisers and the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. During the war Magennis moved first to destroyers and later, in 1942, to submarines, then volunteered to serve in midget submarines. Trained as a diver, his main duties included attaching magnetic mines to ships. On 31 July 1945, his midget submarine, XE.3, attacked the Japanese cruiser Takao off the coast of Singapore in a covert operation.
Midget sub in place, Magennis tried to get out to attach his six mines. But he found the sub had jammed under the cruiser's hull. The hatch wouldn't open properly so his only option was to strip off his equipment to make it possible to squeeze out. The hull was too dirty for the mines to stick. He had to painstakingly scrape it clean with his knife. Knowing there was a constant risk of discovery, Magennis spent 30 nerve-wracking minutes completing the task.
Once Magennis had returned to XE.3, the sub's commander Lieutenant Ian Fraser struggled to free it from under the hull of the Takao. Their final task was to drop two large explosive charges under the ship. But one failed to fall away. It would have to be released by hand. Although exhausted from his first dive, Magennis insisted on going back out to free the charge. It took him seven long minutes using a heavy spanner before the midget sub could finally escape. James Magennis received a VC for his bravery during the attack on the Takao, making him the only Second World War VC recipient from Northern Ireland. After returning home, the Mayor of Belfast presented him with a cheque for over £3000 from the people of the city.
Magennis continued to serve in the Navy until 1949 when he returned home to Belfast with his family. Unfortunately, in 1952, he lost his job so was forced to sell his VC for £75. The medal was later returned to him by an anonymous benefactor, on the condition that he did not sell it again.
Magennis spent the remainder of his life in Yorkshire working as an electrician. He died in 1986, after which his VC was sold for a second time, this time at auction. The highest bidder was Lord Ashcroft. Magennis' medal was the first Victoria Cross he ever purchased and it remains in the Lord Ashcroft Collection today."
Reading the stories presented in the Gallery is a moving experience. I strongly recommend a visit.