The Story of... 'The most significant medal lot ever auctioned'

On July 3, 1986, Sotheby's auctioned what was probably the most significant medal lot ever sold at auction.

The sale would have lasting impact on the later collectors' markets for Victoria Crosses, the highest British and Commonwealth honour for valour in the face of the enemy.

The lot in question appeared at the very end of the sale: none other than the famous midget submarine VC group awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis of the Royal Navy.

'I'll be alright as soon as I've gotten my wind, sir...'

Magennis was in the four man crew aboard the HM Submarine XE-3 in July 1945. The craft was tiny, too small for 5ft 4in Lieutenant Commander Ian Fraser to even stand up in.

A Victoria Cross: the highest British
and Commonwealth honour for
valour in the face of the enemy

Despite its diminutive size, the XE-3 was given a mission to destroy a Japanese heavy cruiser vessel, the Takao. The large ship was moored and partially aground in the Johore Straight, Singapore.

The mission required the utmost risk. Under Fraser's command, the XE-3 deliberated ventured into mined waters near the Singapore Straights to escape detection. Hydrophone posts and through controlled minefields marked the submarine's route.

Having successfully negotiated these perils, the XE-3 was then forced to scrape along the seabed with only 10 feet of water above her. Eventually, the XE-3 crew reached the Takao to exercise the next daredevil phase of their plan...

After 40 minutes of trying, Fraser was able to force the submarine directly under the Takao's hull. Limpet mines would be stuck to the boat's underside - and it was up to Magennis to climb outside the submarine and put them there.

Here was the first problem: the submarine's hatch was pressed against the Takao's hull and wouldn't fully open. Magennis had to squeeze out of the narrow available space, damaging the air intake of his breathing apparatus in the process.

What's more, a thick layer of barnacles on the Takao stopped limpet mines from sticking to its hull. Magennis had to instead scrape the barnacles from the ship's hull and tie the mines in pairs to make them stick. It was exhausting work, and his oxygen supply was slowly leaking...

A lesser man would have placed a few limpet mines then returned to ship. But Magennis didn't stop until his full outfit had been placed on the Takao's hull.

Releasing the charges on the mines also proved problematic. Also, lowering tides had left the Takao virtually sitting atop the XE-3 - and there was a very real chance that the crew would be blown up by their own charges.

After nearly 50 minutes of trying, and nearly giving up and accepting their fate, the submarine eventually shot out astern and cleared the Takao. But the XE-3 crew's problems didn't end there...

Tons of explosives in the starboard charge were still stuck to the submarine's side. Fraser insisted on going out and removing the explosives, but Magennis argued that he should instead go as the more experienced diver: "I'll be alright as soon as I've gotten my wind, sir," he said.

After seven minutes of nerve-racking work outside the submarine, Magennis succeeded in releasing the charger. At 9.30pm that evening, the charges detonated and tour a 60 foot by 30 foot hole in the bottom of the Takao. Mission accomplished.

A mural for James Magennis in his
home city of Belfast

Both Magennis and Fraser were awarded the VC for their bravery - and the former's medal became the first Second World War Naval VC ever to be offered for sale at Sotheby's in 1986, estimated at £24,000-26,000.

The birth of Lord Ashcroft's legendary collection

And it wasn't only a landmark sale for the collectible medal markets and Sotheby's, but also for the winning bidder Michael Ashcroft (today better known as Lord Ashcroft). The sale was his opportunity to fulfil "a boyhood ambition to own... Britain's premier bravery award," said Ashcroft.

At the time, Ashcroft intended his buy as a one-off purchase. Today, the Lord's VC collection is the largest and finest in the world, and represents a concerted mission to preserve the memory of history's Victoria Cross winners.

Back in 1986, the seeds of his incredible collection had been sewn. Ashcroft bought Magennis's Cross over its estimate for £31,000 including buyer's premium.

And that's not all... Two years later, Ian Fraser decided to put his own VC group of medals up for sale. They sold at Sotheby's on November 10, 1986, for a fractionally higher price of £33,000 including buyer's premium.


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