Remembering Donald

Today is Remembrance Day. It is a special day set aside to remember all those who sacrificed their lives in action. This year, I’d like to pay special tribute to my uncle Donald, a Royal Air Force pilot, who died in action in Brittany in June, 1944.  I’d always been aware that Donald was buried in a war cemetery in France but until about six months ago, I never knew the full story surrounding his death.

missing in action

Extract from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post dated Wednesday, July 5, 1944.

Last May, my brother was researching family history when he came across a genealogy forum searching for information on our late uncle, Donald Moffat-Wilson. We were astounded to learn that a group of French veterans, Association Bretonne du Souvenir Aérien 1939-1945*, were looking for relatives of Donald, in order to arrange a ceremony to pay tribute to him. They held the missing pieces of Donald’s story.

Donald + spitfire

Donald with his Spitfire Mark IX.

RAF Pilot Officer, Donald Moffat-Wilson, died aged 21 in an air operation over Brittany. It was six days after the Normandy invasion. The squadron had taken off in Spitfire aircraft from Cornwall, in England. The formation flew over the English Channel in search of the enemy when they observed a long German column on the move through Brittany. The column was made up of horse-drawn wagons and a large number of well-armed soldiers. The leader of the squadron gave the order to attack and the planes swooped down on the Germans. Unfortunately, Donald did not see the electric power line that lay across his path.The tail of his aeroplane caught on the electric wires and the plane became destabilized. It clipped the roof of a house, dived headlong into a little field before finally coming to rest by smashing into trees. The plane burst into flames and Donald died in the blaze in his aircraft. The Germans rushed to the spot and forbade the population to extinguish the fire.

Donald’s remains were interred on the farm by the local villagers. The priest of  the little town, Maroué organised a funeral ceremony with the participation of the locals.  The villagers placed flowers on Donald’s grave but each day the Germans came and took them away. Donald’s body lay buried there for about one year before being removed to the military cemetery in Bayeux.

In June, my brothers and cousins (all nieces and nephews of Donald) travelled to Brittany at the invitation of the association of war veterans, to meet with the Lord Mayor of Maroué. Exactly 65 years to the day after Donald’s death, his relatives gathered with villagers in the town square, to unveil a plaque to his memory. The young farm labourer who’d witnessed Donald’s plane crash all those years ago, was present at the ceremony. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend as I was in hospital in the UK at the time,  recovering from surgery. By all accounts, it was a highly moving occasion.

My mother is the last surviving sibling of Donald but sadly, she is no longer well enough to appreciate this amazing tribute to her brother. Her family suffered great loss during WW2. At 11am today, I shall observe 2 minutes of silence in memory of Donald and all those who gave their lives for our precious freedom.

* With grateful thanks to the Association Bretonne du Souvenir Aérien 1939-1945.

14 Responses to Remembering Donald

  1. Grannymar says:

    It was wonderful that so many of Donald’s relations were able to attend the unveiling of the plaque in Maroué. I know you were there is spirit.

  2. Lily says:

    Very interesting post. (I had to turn off the radio in the background as I read it.) I’m sure you will visit Maroué, some day soon.

    I notice your comment that your mum’s family suffered great loss during WW2. To listen to the radio, we think we have it hard with a mere recession. We really don’t know the meaning of the word hardship!

    I love when a ‘1’ shows up in my RSS beside ‘The biopsy report’!

  3. Annb says:

    Such a moving post Steph, I am always so grateful to your uncle and his generation, who gave their lives for my freedom. I remember them with a deep sense of gratitude at this time every year. Lilly is so right, we have no idea of hardships they endured on our behalf.

  4. Steph says:

    Grannymar – I would so love to have been there too but it was not to be. I missed something very special.

    Lily – I would love to visit Maroué sometime. One of these days I’ll have to give you a treat by posting 2 posts in one day 😉

    Did you click on the link to Donald’s Story? It has pictures of the actual crash site.

    My Mum never liked to talk about the war years as it was a very traumatic time for her. Her father died on D-Day, Donald was reported ‘missing in action’ six days later (the day after his father’s funeral) and her only other brother died six months later.

    Ann – I have to admit that although I never knew Donald, I felt enormous sadness when I read about how he died (from the research done by the French veterans). My mother was very close to Donald and she must have been devastated when she learnt of his death. I know she never visited his grave in France.

    My own father served in the Royal Navy and took part in a ‘dummy invasion’ off the coast of France, to confuse the Germans on the eve of the D-Day landings. His ship later sailed to the Far East as part of a flotilla travelling from Britain in support of the final push against Japan. Yesterday, I brought his war medals to the nursing home in preparation for a remembrance service there today. He still wears those medals with huge pride even though he no longer knows where he is or where he’s going!

    My parents generation was greatly affected by the war years. We should thank our lucky stars that our generation has been spared another world war. BTW, both of my parents are Irish born and bred.

  5. Nancy says:

    Dear Steph,

    I have just spent a long time reading your wonderful Remembrance day Post about your Uncle Donald Moffat-Wilson. I was completely captivated by the story of his bravery and unfortunate death.

    I once went on holiday to Caen and visited the American Cemetary there near Omaha Beach.Such a sad sight. Rows and rows of crosses all in a row and each and every one of them representing someone’s Husband,son,brother,uncle. There are thousands of stories to be told and you are doing your part by keeping your Uncle’s name and deeds in the hearts and minds of those who read your posts.

    BTW, my Dad’s family came to America from Ireland in the mid 1800’s and his Grandmother’s name was Brigid Wilson. Do you think we are related? Maybe you are my Irish cousin….

  6. Baino says:

    How weird, my Uncle Donald (well probably great great, died in Brittany. The only legacy, a medal and an embroidered postcard to his mum. We also observe the silence . . for one minute on the 11th Australia stands still. As it should.

  7. Steph says:

    Nancy – Hi! Glad you got to enjoy this post.

    It is an incredible story and all the more so because, it took 65 years for these details to emerge. It’s really lovely for the family to know that Donald’s life and death is still remembered by the villagers in that little town in northern France.

    Nancy, we might well be related as my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was also WILSON! As the name was on both sides of the family, my parents gave their first child the name Wilson, as a middle name.

    My maternal grandfather changed his surname from Wilson to Moffat-Wilson when he moved from N. Ireland to work in Dublin. My Godfather was Rev Cecil Wilson, a first cousin of my mother.

  8. Steph says:

    Baino – Hi! You slipped in there while I was chatting to Nancy.

    As a child, I never really understood the impact that the war had on my parent’s generation. Once I became a parent myself, I began to realise the real significance of the huge loss suffered.

    It sounds like your Uncle Donald may have died in WW1? I realise that you Aussies also commemorate WW1 on Anzac Day, on 25 April.

  9. Lily says:

    Yes I read the full piece. It is a wonderful but very sad story. I found so many aspects amazing – how lovely he was treated by the ordinary people of that French village, how after all this time they connected with your family, the damaged trees.

    Hard to thinks he was only our children’s age. Merely a child himself.

  10. Steph says:

    Lily – Thanks! Yes, indeed, I was amazed to learn that Donald was only 21 when he died but I suppose that’s in keeping with the nature of war. It’s always the youngest and fittest who get sent out to do battle and who sadly, so often get killed in action.

    My Mum very kindly gave me a present of one of her ‘treasures’ when my first child, Robin was born. It was a silver christening mug engraved with Donald’s name which I’ve carefully kept for Robin for when the time is right. That mug now has a very interesting history to go with it!

  11. Jeanie says:

    Hi Steph
    Haven’t looked at Biopsy Report for a while so very good to get your news and great to see this write up of Uncle Donald’s memorial.

    As one of the cousins lucky enough to be at the ceremony in June (all the way from NZ) we missed your presence there but knew you were there in spirit with us.

    Donald’s story is one of courage and the goodness of a community of people. You are keeping the family flag flying with your courage and strength and the building of an online community here.

  12. Steph says:

    Jeanie – What a lovely surprise to hear from you again.

    I’d secretly hoped that you might see this tribute to Donald as you went to such great lengths to make it all the way from NZ to France for that ceremony to honour him. And, of course, I got to enjoy the added bonus of having you come to stay with me afterwards on my return home from hospital. Those were very special days!

    I still think it’s fantastic that 65 years to the day after Donald died, his family finally got to pay homage to him in the place where he died. We will be forever grateful to the people of Maroué and the Association Bretonne du Souvenir Aérien, for keeping Donald’s memory alive.

  13. Zoe says:

    Hi Steph
    I was just Facebooking with Jamie and then popped in to check out your blog. Really nice that you have put the tribute to Donald. Interesting to hear about what your dad was doing at that time too. And lovely to hear that Robin has Donalds Christening cup.
    Very sorry to hear that you are having more headaches and other troubles. Good luck with next week..
    Lots of love

  14. Steph says:

    Zoe – Hiya! Great to hear from you.

    You sure made the right decision to delay your return to NZ last June! It must be about 10 years ago that Beth travelled to France to find Donald’s grave. I know that she would have loved to take part in the reunion in Maroué so it was extra special that you, Max and Jeanie got to represent her.

    At the moment, it’s hard to be sure how serious the situation is with my head so please keep your fingers crossed that this is simply a blip in my recovery. I’ll blog about the outcome of the surgery as soon as I know where I stand.

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