Page 1: Biography
Macdonald, George James
Naval officer, civil engineer, inventor
This biography, written by P. Y. Dennerly, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Jim Macdonald, known to his navy colleagues as ‘Mac’, was the most decorated New Zealand naval officer of the Second World War and went on to become a successful city engineer in Wellington. Of medium height with dark hair, a fair complexion and strong physique, he was the son of Amy Grace Anderson and her husband, John William Macdonald, a public servant and later government insurance commissioner. Christened George James, he was born in Wellington on 30 September 1921. After attending Thorndon School and Wellington College, he was apprenticed as an optician (1937–38), before joining the Bank of New Zealand as a clerk in August 1938. He built and sailed his own Tauranga-class yacht and was a member of the Lyall Bay Surf and Life-saving Club. A strong swimmer, he was the Wellington College champion and represented his club at junior level in the New Zealand championships.
Macdonald’s naval career began in 1938 when he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (New Zealand Division) as an ordinary seaman. On the outbreak of war the following year, by then an able seaman, he was mobilised and saw service as a gunner aboard the defensively equipped merchant ships Trienza and Fordsdale , trading between Australia and Nauru. In February 1941 he went to Britain to train for a commission, passing out top of his course in May that year. With the rank of temporary midshipman, Macdonald then took a course at the Coastal Forces training base at Fort William in Scotland before being posted to Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) 14, based at Felixstowe, Suffolk.
In January 1942 Macdonald became first lieutenant (second in command) of MTB 31. In March he won a DSC after a fierce engagement with German craft in the English Channel. MTB 31 had made a solo attack on a convoy, sinking one ship, before being surrounded by enemy craft and set on fire. Macdonald supervised the placement of the wounded (including his commanding officer) in the life raft, and jettisoned the boat’s depth-charges and remaining torpedo. He then dived overboard to assist the chief motor mechanic. When the fire seemed to have abated he swam back and fought the flames, enabling the boat to be saved. Soon afterwards Macdonald was given command of MTB 241, participating in many actions and earning a bar to his DSC in July 1943. The following July, MTB 241 was sunk in action off the Dutch coast; the crew were rescued and Macdonald continued the attack aboard another boat.
Although still only 21, Macdonald was appointed senior officer of the 21st MTB Flotilla in September 1943, a position he was to hold until the end of the war. Promoted to lieutenant the day after his 22nd birthday, he took part in virtually all of the flotilla’s operations. He was awarded a second bar to his DSC for his part in two actions and seven mine-laying operations, and in September 1944 his abilities were further recognised with his appointment as a DSO. This was the result of encounters with the enemy on the night of 4–5 July: having made three attempts to attack a heavily escorted convoy he broke off the action, but while returning to base encountered another convoy. Although day had now broken, it was successfully attacked under heavy fire, two of the six German ships being sunk. A further two actions shortly afterwards resulted in his twice being mentioned in dispatches.
Promoted to acting lieutenant commander in February 1945, Jim Macdonald was one of the great MTB leaders of the war. The captain of Coastal Forces at The Nore praised the ‘likeable and fearless young New Zealander’. ‘Cool and level-headed, he has the knack of making quick decisions and inspiring his flotilla mates with a fine confidence … His leadership, cool courage and unflagging keenness to get at the enemy after four and a half years of war are an inspiration, not only to his flotilla officers and men, but to us all’.
Although routinely undertaking the most hazardous operations, Macdonald found time to pursue other interests. He developed such innovations as a silencer for the MTBs’ main engines, and a torpedo sight. On the social side he met Evelyn Margaret Helen Mathieson, a third officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, whom he married in Aberdeen on 23 June 1945; they were to have four daughters and a son.
Macdonald returned to New Zealand with his wife in February 1946 and took up a position in the drainage and waterworks division of the Wellington City Council. Juggling full-time employment and family commitments, he studied civil engineering part time at Wellington Technical College and Victoria University College. He became deputy city engineer in 1971 and seven years later was appointed city engineer. He took a particular interest in roadworks, quarrying, and refuse collection and disposal, and chaired the council’s airport planning committee. He was a fellow of the New Zealand Institution of Engineers.
Macdonald maintained his interest in invention throughout his life, developing innovations such as a water-operated hedge cutter, a prefabricated concrete garage, a water control valve for the city council’s engineering department (1952), and a vehicle turntable in Woodward Street (1977). His major achievement as an engineer was the design of a stone-crushing machine, known initially as the ‘Macdonald Impactor’ and later as the ‘Barmac Crusher’, which won him and a colleague the 1979 UDC Finance Inventors’ Award. Jim Macdonald died in Wellington on 22 January 1982 after a short illness. He was survived by his wife and children.