:“The most gentle and kind man,” is how Conor Harkin describes his late father.

Delvin RAF pilot’s role in D-Day followed by 10 months as PoW

The 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings took place on June 6 last – and the reminiscences that went with the occasion prompted a Dublin man to share the remarkable story of his Delvin-born father’s role in the historic event.

“Eighty years ago, this very night, my late father had quite the adventure,” Conor Harkin wrote on X (Twitter), as he started his account of his father Don’s war experiences.

Not alone was RAF pilot Don involved in the D-Day invasion of France, but just weeks later, he had to bail from a plane over Germany and wound up spending 10 months in a prisoner of war camp.

“Dad, who was from Delvin, Westmeath had moved to the UK in 1940 aged 18. Wanting to join the war effort and having been obsessed with aircraft, he set about joining the RAF,” Conor wrote on X.

Don Harkin looking dapper as a young man in his RAF uniform.

“Though [he was] lacking formal qualifications, the RAF saw his potential and he trained to be a Bomber Command Pilot. He became a captain of an Avro Lancaster.

“Eighty years ago this very night, he took off to bomb targets in support of the landings. However, he was not told that this mission was any more important than others he had previously flown, but ‘they did hint that this was a special night… but they never said it openly’,” Conor told readers who followed his thread.

He went on to reveal that not long into the engagement, it became clear to his father that something was up: as he flew over the English Channel, one of Don’s crew turned to him and exclaimed, ‘Look down! Look, out in front!’. Below them was the massive flotilla of ships: “Dad then knew that he was playing a part in one of the most significant days of WWII,” wrote Don.

The RAF target was heavy coastal gun emplacements: “He subsequently did bomb raids in Normandy, where records show he and his crew did ‘very accurate bombing’, destroying roads Panzer tanks might use. Later in June, his crew bombed a V1 flying bomb site in Siracourt, France.”

Ultimately, in connection with the D-Day Landings, he flew on June 5, June 6 and June 9.

Just seven weeks later, Don ran into bother. It was July 24, while on his 19th mission a raid to Stuttgart, that he had to ditch his plane and bail out after it came under attack from a German Messerschmitt.

Don and his crewmate, wireless operator Sgt Savid Berrie, from Stirling, Scotland, landed near Ochenbach, north of Stuttgart, and managed to hide out for four days, but they were then captured by the German army.

They were shot down by a nightfighter which attacked from underneath, and took out both port engines. The plane was piloted by Uffz Heinrich Buhlman, who was awarded two Iron Crosses.

Word soon reached Don’s father – Conor’s grandfather – Charlie, and on July 27, 1944 he shared with family the devastating message: ‘Just learned Don missing, hoping for better news’.

Eventually, that ‘better news’ did arrive: a message from Don, setting his father’s mind at ease: ‘I am safe and fit – not a scratch, thank God. All the lads also’.

Still ahead of him, however, was a long stint as a prisoner of war at the Stalag Luft I PoW camp in northern Germany, and it was to be 10 months before he again saw freedom.

After returning from the war, Don came back to Ireland in 1946 and with his flying experience, had little difficulty in securing himself a position with Aer Lingus, which had had its activities severely curtailed during the war years.

Don spent his entire working career from then on as a pilot with Aer Lingus, which transferred him on secondment to work in Zambia and Eswatini for periods.

Before those posts, however, he met Conor’s “amazing Mum”, and seven children, and 11 grandchildren were to follow.

“The most gentle and kind man, it is 10 years since he passed away,” Conor’s thread concluded, adding: “Tonight, I am thinking of him and the brave men and women who secured our freedom 80 years ago.”

Captain Harkin’s identity document from his time as a prisoner of war in Germany at Stalag Luft 1.

Captain Don went on to fly with Aer Lingus and in Africa

Few of us are privileged enough to receive a first-hand account of major events from world history.

Conor Harkin, however, remembers sitting at home one day with his dad watching the famous film ‘The Longest Day’ on TV, a dramatisation of the events of D-Day.

“Dad kind of jokingly said, ‘Oh, well, I was having a pint when that was happening’, because the movie is actually about the soldiers arriving on the beach.

“So I was saying: ‘What do you mean Dad?’ And what he was saying was that he had flown over the night before basically to try and bomb some of the guns outside the beaches. And when he got back to the base – I think they were having a beer or two – but they knew, after flying back, that this was unusual, that this was the big push to go to the continent and win the war.”

It was all happening a long way from quiet rural Delvin, where Don and his sister Gertie had grown up, the cherished children of Roscommon-born Charlie Harkin and his wife Ellen (Ennis), who was a native of Delvin.

Sadly, after only 15 years of marriage, Ellen died and the family received much support from Charlie’s brother Joseph Harkin and his wife Mary (Gaynor), who also lived in Delvin.

By that time, the war was on, and Charlie – a mechanic who also had a bike repair shop – made the decision to move to the UK, a decision prompted through economic necessity. He went first, and then brought Don and Gertie over.

In the UK, Charlie’s skills as a mechanic secured him a job with the aircraft manufacturer Shorts, and after a time Don got a job there also.

Don, however had bigger dreams: he thought, ‘you know, I’d love to be a pilot’,” says Conor, explaining that his father then applied to the RAF, who obviously saw that he was ambitious and had what it would take to make a good pilot.

“The war was absolutely horrendous, but at the end of the day, it did give him a profession as well, and that’s the honest truth,” he says.

His father shared with Conor his memories of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, an experience he endured when he was just 22 years of age, being captured after his plane was shot down in July 1944 and released approximately 10 months later.

“I do know that when he got back to the UK, he had to spend around two weeks in rehabilitation. Not because he was tortured or that, it was just because the food had been lacking. So that was one abiding thing. I think it was because they were coming towards the end of the war and the Germans were losing, and they knew they were losing, and I think food became an issue,” says Conor.

Oddly, because they were RAF members and the prisoner of war camp was run by members of the Luftwaffe, there was what Conor describes as a bizarre respect extended by the Germans towards their British, Irish and Canadian prisoners.

After the war ended, Don was kept on by the RAF as a flight instructor, but he decided to move back to Ireland, and so in 1946 he returned home, and to his delight, as he genuinely loved flying, he secured a position with Aer Lingus.

He predominantly flew on continental routes to the likes of Rome and Paris and Amsterdam, which he greatly enjoyed. And later, Aer Lingus sent him to fly for a Zambian airline for three years, and he spent a further three years in what was then Swaziland, now Eswatini. He was based there when he ended his career in 1982.

In the early ‘50s, Don met his wife, who was a native of Cork, and the couple went on to raise a family of seven at their home in Howth, and of course, partially in Africa. Bar one daughter, who lives in Australia, the rest of the family all still live in Ireland.

Don died 10 years ago, but five years before his death, he and his wife and some of Conor’s siblings visited Normandy and Don was touched at the reaction of French people who discovered he had been part of the D-Day effort.

The log certifying the flights made by Captain Harkin on the week of the D-Day landings.

What was D-Day?

D-Day, June 6, 1944, was a pivotal World War II military operation where Allied forces launched a massive invasion on the beaches of Normandy, France.

Codenamed Operation Overlord, it involved American, British, and Canadian troops, among others, aiming to liberate Western Europe from Nazi control.

In what was the largest amphibious assault in history, more than 156,000 soldiers stormed five beachheads:

Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

Despite heavy casualties, D-Day marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, leading to the liberation of Paris and ultimately contributing to the Allied victory in Europe.