James Cracknell speaks to Donald Howkins, who was 23 when he helped liberate France from Nazi occupation in 1944
Nearly 80 years on from the Normandy landings in June 1944 that marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War, only a small handful of British veterans – thought to be fewer than 20 – survive.
One of them resides in an Enfield care home.
Donald Howkins moved to Elsyng House in Forty Hill last year, at the age of 102, having previously been living at his home in Green Dragon Lane, Winchmore Hill, where he had lived for decades.
As one of a dwindling number of D-Day veterans still able to talk about the events of 1944, Donald has become more open about recounting his memories in recent years and, last month, shared his story with the Dispatch.
“It was a big boat we went over the Channel in, and we didn’t disembark for two days,” he says. “For the landings I was a dispatch motorbike rider, taking messages from one unit to another.”
Donald and his unit, part of the 90th Middlesex Regiment of the Royal Artillery, had previously gathered at a camp near Weybridge in May 1944 to undergo training, including how to waterproof their guns, before transferring to London Docks where they set sail on 6th June along with thousands of others. It was only then they were told where they were going.
“When we got the order to disembark, we climbed down the netting into the [landing] barges,” says Donald. “And that was very frightening.”
The Normandy landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history, with nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft and 160,000 troops crossing the English Channel on D-Day. In total, 875,000 arrived by the end of June.
Donald remembers getting to Normandy – Gold Beach, one of the five landing sites – but not what happened afterwards, possibly because of the trauma from what he witnessed. On the first day alone, more than 10,000 Allied troops were either killed or wounded.
He says: “The next thing I remember was getting to Arromanches [a coastal settlement] and seeing all the dead cows – they were killed by the shelling.”
Donald undertook his duties carrying messages between units as the Allied effort to connect up its landing forces continued. He later arrived in Tilly-sur-Seulles, ten miles south of Arromanches, where he engaged in combat for the first time as a gunner.
“At that point Bayeux [the nearest big town] had been recaptured without any shots being fired, so our first action was in a place called Tilly.”
Tragically, Donald witnessed the “total destruction” of the town and lost friends from his unit, while others were wounded and sent home.
The Normandy campaign lasted until the end of August 1944. Troops moved from one town to the next, gradually liberating the French people from Nazi occupation. Some of the civilians Donald met stayed in touch with him for many years.
“I met some lovely French people out there,” he says. “They appreciated what we did. I made friends who later came back to visit me.”
In total, 22,442 soldiers from 30 different countries died while serving in British units during the Normandy campaign. Donald would go back to visit every year on Remembrance Day, until travel was disrupted during the pandemic and ill health – he’s now in a wheelchair – made the journey difficult.
In 2022, however, Donald was able to attend the launch event for the British Normandy Memorial near the village of Ver-sur-Mer, which has since become the focal point of commemorations. Donald is even a trustee of the memorial. He says: “I used to enjoy going to Normandy every year, we always stayed in the same hotel.
“In Cabourg [a seaside town] they really done me proud and gave me the freedom of the city – they had a special party for me.”
Donald also received the highest award possible in France, the Légion d’honneur (legion of honour) medal, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
After Normandy, the liberation of the rest of the Europe continued for several more months. Donald’s unit moved through Belgium and the Netherlands, but it was here in December that he was injured after being hit in the leg by a piece of shrapnel.
Shortly before departing London he married wife Dorothy and, while Donald was still in hospital in the Netherlands, their son Michael was born. Donald spent a couple of weeks recovering from his injuries – although to this day he still has that piece of shrapnel in his leg.
Returning to action in early 1945, Donald rejoined his unit as they prepared to enter Germany. On 8th May, he was in Münster guarding a prisoner-of-war camp. “I remember it well – we were all drinking tea, and suddenly we were told the war was over,” says Donald.
“We felt relief that it was over, but you have to remember I was only 23 years old – you don’t take things too seriously at that age.”
Donald continued serving with the army until 1946. “After we came back we had remembrance dinners [with the regiment] every year, but of course every year it got smaller and smaller and then there was no-one left.
“I think about them every year – it was quite a big regiment, about 800 men. But even during the war, I had more good times than bad times.”
Remarkably, Donald had four brothers who served in the war, and all survived. Two were evacuated at Dunkirk, another was in the RAF, and a fourth worked with British intelligence.
Donald grew up in Buckingham but it was Winchmore Hill where he and Dorothy lived after the war and had their family. Eldest son Michael now lives in Suffolk, second son Alan lives in the United States, while daughter Susan still lives locally, in Southgate. Donald also has three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Dororthy sadly died in 2004.
It was also in North London that Donald’s career in the butchery business took off. Before the war, he had been a butcher’s apprentice and, after returning, Donald worked his way up to become the managing director of a company that boasted shops all over London. “After being in the army for seven years, I had to work hard to gain the experience I needed,” he says.
Among its 14 locations, Buckingham & Partners had shops in Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Edmonton prior to its closure in 1992, when Donald decided to retire.
Reflecting on his grandfather’s incredible life, grandson Gary said: “The nicest thing is, he is very open about it. I get very emotional when I talk about him – he is my hero, an amazing man.”