Jimmy Magill: The Belfast Boxer

Jimmy in the ring with an unlucky opponent. Photo provided by Paul Magill

Jimmy in the ring with an unlucky opponent [Courtesy of Paul Magill]

It is 1940. William Hutchinson, a Belfast-born Irish Guard has just stepped on a landmine on the bloodstained streets of the French port of Dunkirk. Hutchinson, one of the youngest members of the guards, has been delivered life-threatening injuries, he’s missing half a leg and blood is leaking from multiple shrapnel wounds across his body.

The young soldier fears his life is already reaching its end as he lies in the dirt, awaiting his fate. Through the dust emerges a German army captain, the executor. He stalks his way towards the wounded soldier, ready to end a life when he notices the Irish guard badge on his uniform.

“Do you know an Irish boxer called Jimmy Magill?”, he asks. The dying man nodded. Hutchinson had heard many tales of notorious Magill from his father who was also a boxer, and others around the country.

A well mended William Hutchinson in happier times. Photograph provided by Paul Magill.

A fully recovered William Hutchinson in happier times [Paul Magill]

In a previous life before the war, the German captain, Richard Vogt was an Olympic medalist boxer. In 1936, four years prior to this incident on the battlefield of Dunkirk, Vogt had stepped into the ring at Belfast’s mighty Kings Hall in front of a sell-out crowd, only to be defeated by the man from Carncastle, one of the greatest in Ireland’s boxing history, Jimmy Magill.

A beautiful moment amongst a sea of terror was about to take place.

Forgetting about sides, ranks, and battle, Vogt looks past the uniform and follows his gut feeling, he spares Hutchinson, on the proviso that he returns to Belfast to send Jimmy Magill his regards. A true mark of sportsmanship if there ever was one.

Vogt lifted Hutchinson over the British line, requesting he received immediate medical treatment of the highest standard. A young soldier’s life was saved.

This story was little-known of until 2010, when Paul Magill, Jimmy’s nephew released his bestselling book The Magills of the Meetinghouse. Paul, a retired history teacher believed it was time his family got the recognition they deserved in today’s times.

“As you can imagine, I was amazed when I first heard the story. It seemed like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Apart from the drama of the story, it was also interesting being connected in such a personal way with such an important event in the World War,” Paul told us.

The book takes you on a journey through the history of the Magill family, providing detail on the ring careers of Jimmy and Davy Magill and politics that got in the way of them achieving greatness due to the situation in Northern Ireland at the time.

Born in Carncastle, a tiny village just past the outskirts of Belfast in 1894, Jimmy was one of twelve siblings and the youngest boy in the family. Boxing was in the blood. They were by no means a well-off family, and the boys spent their nights bare-knuckle sparing in the shed to entertain themselves.

The sparing clearly paid off, as older brother Davy Magill brought home the Royal Irish Constabulary Champion title in 1921. He went on to become Irish Heavyweight and Featherweight champion in the late 1920s – at the time, a northerner winning an Irish champion title was a very controversial.

Jimmy Magill in the classic boxing stance circa 1930's. - Photograph provided by Paul Magill.

Jimmy Magill in the classic 1930s boxing stance [Paul Magill]

Northern Ireland was a conflict-stricken domain with violence erupting across the country in clashes between the British Army, the police force, Nationalists, and Unionists, following the north being separated from the south in May 1921, becoming its own country under British rule.

Nationalists, who were generally Catholic, took it upon themselves to fight in order to make Ireland united once again, while the Unionists, generally from a Protestant background, fought against the Nationalists to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Someone had to stop this violence, so thousands of British soldiers were deployed all over the country in an attempt to bring it to an end. However, things took a turn for the worse when it became evident that the British soldiers were siding with the Unionists, causing widespread attacks, protests and anger.

These attacks would continue right up until April 10, 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement, saw both sides end ‘The Troubles’ and agree to set up a power-sharing assembly to govern Northern Ireland by cross-community consent.

A number of political parties, organisations and institutions emerged from the conflict in Northern Ireland. One of these happened to be very closely linked to the story of the Magill family, and that is the RUC (The Royal Ulster Constabulary). The RUC was a police force founded in 1922 with the aim to bring peace back to the country.

Over the years of conflict, 319 members of the RUC were killed and almost 9,000 were injured in paramilitary assassinations or attacks, mainly committed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). At one point, the RUC was the world’s most dangerous police force to work for.

The force was the top target for the IRA, and if you were a Catholic working in the RUC, you were seen as a ‘traitor’, getting in the way of achieving the IRA’s goal of uniting Ireland. The Magill boys fell into this category, looking past religion and sides, seeing the bigger picture, trying to bring peace and harmony back to their community.

Jimmy built a name for himself in the boxing scene by fighting under the RUC in police boxing tournaments. He proved himself to be the pride of the pack by consecutively winning the European Police championships from 1931-1936. He was the Amateur Boxing Association of England’s Middleweight Champ in 1934 and 1935, the Light Heavyweight Champion in 1936 and won fights in Boston and New York in an Irish tour of the United States in 1935. Surely the next step was international, and the Olympics.

Jimmy with one of his many trophies. -Photograph provided by Paul Magill

Jimmy with one of his many trophies. -Photograph provided by Paul Magill

But there was trouble in Northern Ireland, and Jimmy being part of the RUC as a Catholic was risky. The RUC’s affiliation with the crown and Jimmy’s religion brought bother to even the ring.

He was selected to represent Ireland in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, but Jimmy’s selection was withdrawn by the Ulster Boxing Council, possibly under the orders of the Northern Ireland Government. He had been predicted to be Ireland’s first Olympic medal winner in boxing but it was claimed that as a serving member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, he could not box under the Irish flag, the Tricolour.

It didn’t end there. In 1936 with the Berlin Olympics coming up, as the top amateur middleweight in Ireland and Britain, if not all of Europe, he was the obvious top choice. Again Jimmy was selected to represent Ireland but as before, in 1932 the RUC withdrew his permission to participate. When the British authorities then selected him for their Olympic team the Irish side objected, resulting in him being unable to compete for either country.

“I think it was a cruel blow for Jim,” Paul told Artefact. “The RUC had not prevented him from representing Ireland on countless occasions but did so on the occasions of both Olympic Games. The disappointment could only have been driven home a few months after those Berlin Olympics, when he showed just how good he was when he outclassed Richard Vogt, the German Silver Medal winner, in an international contest in Belfast’s Kings Hall.”

This is a true story representing the dark side of Irish and Northern Irish Politics, letting something completely unrelated to the sport of boxing get in the way of a young man achieving his dreams. However, Jimmy’s legacy lives on through the story of Dunkirk.

Jimmy delivering a blow to an unlucky opponent. - Photograph provided by Paul Magill

Jimmy delivering a blow to an unlucky opponent [Paul Magill]

“One Sunday evening in 2002, I got a phone call out of the blue from a man called Andrew Jenkins, who told me that he was the nephew of William Hutchinson, the Belfast soldier who had been rescued. He said that his uncle was at that point in the Somme Nursing home in Newtownards and was about to pass on. He survived Dunkirk and managed to live a further 60 years and more. Andrew related the details of the story that his family knew of Dunkirk and I asked him to put it in writing for me.”

But the surprises didn’t end there.

The son of Richard Vogt, the German army captain from that fateful day got in touch with Paul after coming across the story while seeking out information on his father’s army life.

Artefact were unable to speak to Captain Vogt’s son, Norman Mueller, but Paul was happy to disclose snippets of a chat they exchanged:

Norman Mueller wrote:

Hi Paul,

I recently came across a quote, a story of a soldier being carried of the battlefield by Riedel (Richard) Vogt and I became intrigued.

My Grandad was Richard Vogt  (silver medal boxing 1936 Olympics) he was called Riedel by friends, I grew up on our farm in Hamburg with him.

I remember him as a funny, good man that had principles and integrity but always up for a prank.

The one thing he never did, was speak about the war and what he went through.

There are a couple of stories I remember, One being him sharing his rations with POW on the Russian front which was, in the German Wehrmacht, penalized with death.

Another one was him, being a farmer and in possession of hogs and cows – food – which was commissioned to go to the war effort, he would slaughter secretly and feed the starving neighbours.

Paul Magill replied:

I would be delighted if you could tell me what you know of the story and where you saw it. In 2016 when the film Dunkirk was on release I told the story of the rescue of a Belfast soldier by the actions of a German soldier, Richard Vogt, who had fought an uncle of mine in Belfast before the Second World War. It was a story which had been first told to me by a nephew of the man who had been rescued. I later wrote a family history in 2010 and of course mentioned the story. I don’t know whether your information comes from the book or the newspaper article.

It was such an interesting story of the humanity of a German soldier in the midst of a terrible war and some who have read it, have said it reads like a Hollywood movie. The evidence I had for the story was the rescued soldier’s account related by his nephew. It had first appeared in a Belfast newspaper shortly after the war ended in 1945. I could not think that British propaganda would have invented a story showing the heroism of a German soldier, nor did I suspect a rescued Belfast soldier would have wanted to portray his German adversary in such a good light.

I was unable to check the story any further and I know you said your grandfather like most soldiers didn’t talk about the War, but maybe this is an opportunity to check something with you. You mentioned that your grandfather had been sent to the Eastern Front but had he been stationed in France, Belgium or near Dunkirk in 1940?

Norman Mueller wrote back:

I will start digging into my grandad’s history. I know they sent him to Stalingrad just before it was taken – I heard he was sent there to boost troops moral being a boxing hero/celebrity in Germany.

I heard he was on one of the last German transport planes out of Stalingrad, I believe it was there that he shared his rations with Russian POWs.

Another story that he actually told me was about his life at the German camp in Russia. Because he was a celeb back home he was treated by troops as an outsider. Once they got to know him, the camp cook said to him: “You are a decent guy – I am going to stop spitting in your food.”

To which my grandad replied “Great, I will stop pissing in your boots.”

I believe they got on fine after that.

I know he broke his collar bone lifting a Kuebelwagen out of the ditch with his shoulder on the eastern front, if I am correct he earned the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves for that – rescuing a number of fellow soldiers.

He never greeted with the Hitler salute during the war, except once – it got him arrested – the war was over, the nearby Army compound was occupied by the British and because he always was a bit of a “dipshit” (excuse my language) he decided to walk past the guards and salute them with Heil Hiltler – that got him arrested – three days later and numerous accounts by neighbors they realized he wasn’t a Nazi.

On another occasion, he was on his farm in Hamburg, the nearest Air raid shelter was a bridge piller that had a makeshift bunker in it. As the sirens went off neighbors and farm workers ran to that shelter – the Allied bombers were on top of them starting to unload their cargo. They were not able to secure the door properly so Gran angled a spade underneath the door knob and pressed against it with his shoulder. A bomb went off close by and the blast pressure hit the door, the spade snapped into pieces Grandad was thrown to the back of the room – he broke his shoulder but no-one died that day.

I will reach out to German Archives and try and find out where he was sent during the war. If anybody brings stories to your attention regarding my Opa please share them.

A young Jimmy Magill - Photograph provided by Paul Magill.

A young Jimmy Magill [Paul Magill]

Since 2010 the story has gained a lot of attention, and Jimmy Magill has become a rekindled hero in Belfast.

The sports bar in the Police Service Northern Ireland located on Newforge Lane was renamed the ‘Jimmy Magill Sport’s Bar’ after he was the first member to be inducted on the ‘Hall of Fame’ by the Athletic Association.

You can see his many awards on display, as well as gloves and such, documenting the amazing career, and story of this fantastic boxer.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Featured image courtesy of Paul Magill