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Rickard Charles Donovan RN, CBE, (1898-1952)

Combined Operations Command HQ Staff (Royal Navy)

Rickard Donovan, right, receiving the Legion of Merit in 1946.As part of his duties at the Combined Operations Command HQ (COHQ) in London, Irishman Rickard Donovan was involved in planning for the D-Day landings of June 6th, 1944, which history attests was a defining, historical moment for the world. This is a short biography and appreciation of his life and times.


In WW2 he served in the COHQ during the tenure of Roger Keyes and later Mountbatten. He was involved in important aspects of naval planning including the D-Day landings when hundreds of thousands of men from the 3 services of the Allied nations were deployed together with their armaments, equipment, transport, stores, medical services, communications, intelligence services, radar, fuel and food. All were delivered to hundreds of locations at a specific time along a 50 mile front. Logistically, even in the early weeks following D Day, it was the equivalent of meeting the daily needs of the population of a city the size of Edinburgh, while on the move and fighting a determined enemy!

[Photo; Rickard Donovan, right, receiving the Legion of Merit in 1946.]

On D-Day itself, Allied Forces landed on the defended beaches of Normandy, which formed part of Hitler's 'Atlantic Wall'. Paratroops dropped behind enemy lines a few miles inland of the beaches at their most easterly and westerly extremities. The amphibious invasion force was the largest in human history, which utilised around 40 different designs of flat bottomed landing craft to reach the beaches in shallow coastal waters. In support of the troops were landing craft adapted for firing rockets, mortars, guns etc. The airborne forces were transported by planes and gliders with fighter air cover.

With the Russian forces advancing on the eastern front and the opening up of this second front in the west, the seeds of Hitler's suicide and the unconditional surrender of the German forces less than a year later, were sown. While the contributions of the Army, Navy and Air Force on D-Day are well-documented, the role of the co-ordinating service, Combined Operations, is less well understood and acknowledged, despite its pivotal role in the success of the D-Day landings.

However, there was a significant group of men who had no doubt about the invaluable work undertaken by Combined Operations. After visiting the beaches of Normandy on D-Day + 6, Churchill and his military advisers sent a signal to Mountbatten;

‘Today we visited the British and American Armies on the soil of France. We sailed through vast fleets of ships with landing-craft of many types pouring more men, vehicles and stores ashore. We saw clearly the manoeuvre in progress of rapid development. We have shared our secrets in common and helped each other all we could. We wish to tell you at this moment in your arduous campaign that we realise how much of this remarkable technique and therefore the success of the venture has its origin in developments effected by you and your staff of Combined Operations.

(Signed) Arnold, Brooke, Churchill, King, Marshall, Smut.’

Google map of Ireland and England showing location of Donovan's Irish rootes.The Formative Years

Donovan was born in 1898, the son of an ascendancy family from Ballymore near Ferns in County Wexford. At the age of 13 he attended the Royal Naval Colleges in Osborne and Dartmouth, England to qualify for a career in the Royal Navy. His parents' objective was to establish their son in a solid career to ensure the survival of their home and to secure their future in Ireland after the break up of their estate under the Land Reform Acts.

He was promoted to Midshipman at the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and assigned to the battleship HMS Ocean, on which he served until it was sunk by a mine in the Dardanelles on 18/03/15. According to family legend he was the last man off the ship since the Captain sent him back to the abandoned vessel to recover the ship’s log.

In 1916, the rapid expansion of the British submarine fleet created an urgent need for captains to command them. Being a relatively new service there was no available pool of officers with the required knowledge, skills and experience. Consequently, young naval officers of proven ability and suitable personal qualities were recruited. Perhaps this was the first time since the Napoleonic wars that young officers achieved such rapid promotion.

SRickard Donovan, extreme right, with fellow submariners.]ervice in the Submarine Corps had huge financial rewards and the rare opportunity to captain a vessel at a remarkably young age. His first command was submarine L7 and he quickly distinguished himself as a competent submarine commander. He took part in several naval battles and was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant. His superior officer, in May 1916, reported that he ‘carries out duties well and intelligently.' [National Archive (NA), [ADM 196/120, p.135.]

[Photo; Rickard Donovan, extreme right, with fellow submariners.]

By the age of 19 his submarine command comprised naval cadets, often as young as 15. Their mission was to attack Turkish vessels in the Dardanelles. The submarines leaked constantly, were very cramped and hazardous to work in and there were constant problems with the engines and air-circulation. Clearly opportunity came at a price as Donovan was to find out to his cost in the years ahead. From 1917, he undertook further submarine training, which became his main activity for the remainder of WWI. During this period, he trained at HMS Vulcan, HMS Dolphin (10/17 – 01/18) and then HMS Ambrose to the end of the war.

Between the Wars

After the WW1, Donovan was assigned to HMS Vulcan and many other submarine depot ships, as well as being given command of submarines such as the K22 and H33. He was promoted to a full Lieutenant in April 1919 and his service record of Dec 1920 opined ‘promising, very keen and zealous, cheerful temperament, good example, good leadership, judgement and firm decision, smart’. [TNA, ADM 196/120, p.135.]

This promising career belied a serious health problem acquired during his life as a submariner. He had tuberculosis for which there was no effective treatment at the time. By 1927, having reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander, the disease had progressed and he was invalided out of the Navy and granted a disability pension.

With almost 10 years submariner service behind him, he was hired by William Beardmore & Co., Engineers and Shipbuilders on the River Clyde in Scotland, where he worked on the development of cleaner and more efficient diesel engine. Ironically, his work would improve the air quality and general working conditions of future submariners; the very conditions which caused his serious illness. Although the engine was a significant technological development, between the two world wars it provided no job security after the 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent economic depression.

He tried many different jobs to provide for his family including a door-to-door china salesman in London! However, his main priority was to find work in Ireland and in the 1930s he enlisted the help of the Admiralty. In 1937, he joined the London & Thames Haven Oil Company and helped set up Irish National Refineries. They planned to build a major oil refinery in Dublin Bay but the fledgling firm was taken over by competing oil majors who feared the competition and they closed it down. His RN service records mention his ‘considerable experience in business ashore’ and his oil contacts as being important in his role with the Navy in WW2. [TNA, ADM 340/242.]

Combined Operations

Map of Normandy beaches showing disposition of land, sea  and paratroop forces.

At the outbreak of WWII, Donovan rejoined the navy and was assigned to Combined Operations in its first incarnation under Sir Roger Keyes, who was Director between July 1940 and October 1941. Combined Operations drew on the best practices and expertise available within the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force to create a new unified force. Many of the Services’ top planners and experts formed the nucleus of the COHQ. Although much was achieved during this period, including the formation of the Commandos, the relationship between the Director of Combined Operations (Keyes) and the Chiefs of Staff of the 3 Services, deteriorated to the detriment of the overall objective of working together to defeat the enemy. With a heavy heart, Churchill appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten to a newly defined post. His diplomatic skills heralded the start of a more harmonious collaboration between the COC and the Chiefs of Staff.

Mountbatten soon established himself as the Chief of Combined Operations, while gaining the confidence and respect of the Chief's of Staff. In 1942, with Churchill's support, Mountbatten attended meetings of the Chiefs of Staff on an equal footing, effectively making Combined Operations the ‘fourth armed service’ alongside the Navy, Army and Air Force, overturning long established armed services protocols. To this day, almost all histories of WWII erroneously refer to Combined Operations as a temporary creation, which held an advisory or subordinate place amongst the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although the vital and immense role of Combined Operations concluded at the end of WWII, it was not subordinate to the three traditional armed forces, a fact supported by official records.

Mountbatten introduced major changes to personnel, organisation and communications and Donovan was rapidly promoted, his service record describing him as ‘an exceptional staff officer in every way’. In 1942/43, he worked in the Plans Division and, in August of 1943, was promoted to Assistant Director of Plans with an Acting Rank of Captain . In December 1943, he was promoted to Deputy Director of Combined Operations and in 1944 to Senior Deputy Director.

Essential to the planning of the D-Day landings was the coordination of the disparate contributions of the 3 services. It was a hugely complex task involving many hundreds of people from all services; an astonishing achievement completed without modern communications and computer technology. There was an absolute need for total secrecy and very few involved in the planning process, were privy to information beyond what they needed to know to perform their individual tasks  Donovan was an exception who worked out the detailed plans for Operations Neptune and Overlord and for directing their implementation.

COHQ 13/4/42Captain 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 [sic. Rickard Donovan’s] brilliant work than to any other single factor. I have been particularly struck by his loyalty and patience in difficult and disappointing circumstances, when these have arisen.’ [TNA, ADM 196/120, ADM 196/146, quote from ADM 340/242.]

[Photo; COHQ 13/4/42: L to R, Group Captain A H Willets, Rear Admiral E H Horan, Major General J C Haydon, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Air Vice Marshall J M Robb, Brigadier G E Wildman-Lushington (Royal Marines) and Commodore R M Ellis.]

Donovan was often very ill during his time with Combined Operations. The TB he had contracted as a teenager aboard submarines was untreatable in those days and in January 1944 he was hospitalised. He was placed on enforced sick-leave, which, initially, allowed him to return to service for a month, subject to monthly review on condition that he avoided stress and long hours; an impossibility for anyone involved in D-Day planning. Despite his illness, his involvement at this critical juncture was vital. His son recalled that his father ‘did not allow his bad-health to interfere with his war-time commitments.’

Following the success of D-Day, Donovan's role in COHQ changed with his appointment in 1945 to the position of Chairman of the Eastern Landing Craft Base Committee, where his knowledge, skills and experience gained over the previous years, would be applied to the conflict in the far east. With the surrender of the Japanese all planning for offensive operations were cancelled.

Donovan was retained by the Admiralty to write a detailed narrative on the development of Combined Operations. Among the family papers in Wexford is a typescript draft copy of this history, with final revisions marked up in his own hand. These corrections are particularly interesting, as they show a refinement in his thoughts as he put the story of Combined Operations down on paper.

In May 1946, he reverted to the retired list (medically unfit) of the Royal Navy. In recognition of his contribution during WWII he was awarded a CBE in 1945 by the British and the Legion of Merit (Degree of Officer) by the USA, both in recognition of distinguished service to the Allied cause during the war.

Newspaper 1952 obituary to Captain Donovan.Postscript

Rickard Donovan was very clear about his Irish identity, be that within the British Empire or as an independent state. Among the family papers are his notes on proposals for treaty negotiations with Irish Prime Minister, de Valera, during WWII designed to bring Ireland into the war. In them he shows a remarkable clarity of the issues involved, a dislike of Churchill’s stubbornness and a respect for de Valera’s position of neutrality.

Although his career kept him in England he maintained strong connections with Ireland and he always considered his home as Ballymore in County Wexford. Even at the height of WWII he took every opportunity to visit home. His mother and sisters remained in Wexford and he worked closely with them to maintain the family farm as a viable enterprise, but also to assist his sisters’ other entrepreneurial efforts including the re-establishment of Carley's pottery in Enniscorthy.

He died in London in 1952 at the age of 54 and was interred on a hillside overlooking the sea at the family farm in Ballymore. To his neighbours he was simply known as “the Captain”.

There is a memorial to the Combined Operations Command at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, which was dedicated on July 4, 2013. Visit the 'Memorial Index' page for information on the design, construction, funding, dedication ceremony etc.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. From the website 'Books' page the following are copied here for your convenience.

Hilary St.George Saunders. Combined Operations : the official story of the Commandos. New York : Macmillan, 1943 : xiii, 155 p

Bernard Fergusson. The Watery Maze : the story of Combined Operations. London : Collins, 1961 : 445 p (Recommended).

James D. Ladd. Combined Operations. London : Dragon Grafton Books, 1986 : 48 p : ISBN 0-583-31004-4 : [Modern military techniques]

Ministry of Information. Combined Operations 1940 -1942. London, HMSO : 144 p

Other books and websites of possible interest

Stephen E. Ambrose, Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, 1994
Douglas Botting, The Second Front - World War II, 1978
John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy, 1982
The US Army and D-Day


This account of Rickard Donovan's life and times is based on research undertaken by Fiona Fitzsimons, Director of Research at Eneclann using letters, papers and photographs from family archives together with service records and documents held in the UK National Archives at Kew. The assistance of Brian Donovan, grandson of Rickard Donovan, is gratefully acknowledged in the preparation of this page. The text and presentation were approved by him before publication.

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