The Wexford Man Who Helped Plan D-Day


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By Niall McArdle

Today, June 6th, is the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. The success of Operation Overlord owed more than a little to a man from Ballymore, Co. Wexford.

Commander Rickard Charlie Donovan, RN, CBE (1898-1952), a son of the Irish Ascendancy, was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges in Osborne and Dartmouth. In 1914, at sixteen, he was promoted to Midhsipman and served on the HMS Ocean. Family lore has it that he was the last man off the ship before it sank in the Dardanelles in 1915, having been sent back to the sinking ship to recover the Captain’s Log.

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HMS Ocean

He served on three other battleships in the Mediterannean Theatre, before training for submarine warfare. Many of these WWI subs had poor air-circulation : as a result Donovan contracted TB. In spite of this, he was promoted to Commander and at the end of the war his NavalService Record included the following assessment: Promising, very keen and zealous, cheerful temperament, good example, good leadership, judgement and firm decision, smart. By 1927, however, his career looked to be over as his health worsened. He was invalided out of the Navy as a Lieutenant-Commander.

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Donovan (far right) and shipmates

He worked as an engineer in a shipyard in Clyde, but during the Depression was reduced to selling china door-to-door to provide for his family. Desperate to return to Ireland, he found work with the London & Thames Haven Oil Company, which tried to set up the Irish National Refineries. This was a plan to build a major oil refinery in Dublin Bay. Unfortunately the oil majors got wind of this and fearing for their position, bought out the fledgling company and closed it down.

At the beginning of WWII he rejoined the Armed Forces and was assigned to Combined Operations. After Dunkirk, Louis Mountabatten assumed command of Combined Operations, and for the next three years he, Donovan and others planned the re-invasion of Europe. Donovan rose quickly within the ranks, eventually becoming its Senior Deputy Director. He was noted for being “an exceptional staff officer in every way”.

The June 6th operation was an enormous operation that involved almost 250,000 troops, but it was planned and directed by a very small group of people, including Donovan. His immediate commanding officer, Captain Robert Ellis, Assistant Chief of Combined Operations, wrote ‘It is my opinion that the successful expansion of our naval amphibious resources owes much more to his [Rickard Donovan’s] brilliant work than to any other single factor.

Throughout his time at Combined Operations Donovan was often incapaciated by his TB, and was hospitalised and advised to avoid stress and long hours. He ignored this advice.

After D-Day, Donovan`s experience was put to use in the planning of Operations in South-East Asia. He retired in 1946. He was awarded a CBE and the U.S. Legion of Merit.

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Donovan never thought of himself as anything other than Irish, and always regarded Ballymore as home. His Wexford neighbours remembered him simply as `the Captain`. At the height of the war, when Churchill was attempting to bring Ireland into the war – “to save these people from themselves”  Donovan sympathised with De Valera`s neutral stance.

Donovan is buried at the family farm in Ballymore.

For more information about Rickard Donovan, click here.

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