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105-Year-Old Veteran of WWII Convoys Receives Long-Delayed Recognition

Bismarck sinking with HMS Rodney at right
Bismark burns on the horizon (left) as battleship HMS Rodney engages (right) (Royal Navy)

Published Jun 30, 2024 9:21 PM by Royal Navy News

 

One of the last men to see Hitler’s flagship Bismarck in action – and possibly Britain’s oldest sailor – was belatedly rewarded for his wartime service from today’s Navy.

On his 105th birthday, James Donovan was joined by friends, family, naval veterans in Londonderry as they raised a glass to a remarkable man – and a remarkable life.

Originally from West Cork, Mr Donovan was encouraged to join the Royal Navy by a friend. He cycled 16 miles a day to attend college in preparation for his entrance exam to the Navy in 1938.

Having passed, he joined the supply branch and went on to serve in Atlantic convoys – including delivering gold bullion to the USA in 1941, visits to Washington and enjoying St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In May 1941, serving aboard the new battleship HMS King George V, James witnessed the demise of the Bismarck.

Hitler’s flagship had struck out into the Atlantic on its maiden operation, intent on causing havoc by sinking Allied shipping. Instead, Bismarck ran into HMS Hood – the pride of the inter-war Royal Navy - and new battleship Prince of Wales.

Hood was sunk in a matter of minutes to the shock of the nation and HMS Prince of Wales was damaged and forced to break off the action.

In response, the Royal Navy concentrated its efforts on sinking the Bismarck. On the morning of May 27 1941, having been crippled by a torpedo strike from Swordfish bombers of HMS Ark Royal, Hitler’s mighty flagship faced a showdown with the big guns of the Royal Navy.

Mr Donovan produced a small photograph taken from the upper deck of his battleship with Bismarck in its death throes in the distance, burning and giving off dense smoke (top).

In the presence of his family, plus the Lord Lieutenant of County Tyrone Robert Scott, four members of the Londonderry Branch of the Royal Naval Association and Commander Rob Milligan, the Royal Navy’s Senior Officer in Northern Ireland, Mr. Donovan was presented with the Arctic Star – recognition of the terrible conditions sailors faced delivering aid to the USSR between 1941 and 1945 – a veteran’s badge, and a personal letter of gratitude from the head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key.

Courtesy Royal Navy

Mr Donovan told all present that his years in naval service were “the greatest years of my life”.

“One of the best parts of my job is to facilitate an event such as this, and to meet veterans and their families," said Commander Milligan. "I was absolutely honored to present a personal letter from the First Sea Lord to Mr. Donovan – he must be one of the oldest naval veterans still alive. It’s getting less common these days to find a World War 2 veteran, let alone one who served in the Royal Navy, and extremely rare finding one who served a full career, not just war service." 

Post-war, Mr Donovan remained in the Royal Navy – ultimately rising to the rank chief petty officer – with drafts on cruiser HMS Glasgow under Lord Mountbatten in the early 1950s (he recalls serving Lady Edwina a tot of rum which she apparently enjoyed). His final ship was Glasgow’s sister ship Birmingham in 1959, shortly before she paid off.

Upon leaving the Royal Navy, Mr. Donovan settled in Northern Ireland – where he continues to live independently today – working as a customs officer before retiring.

This article appears courtesy of the Royal Navy and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.