By Matt Chivers, Gale Ambassador at the University of Liverpool
If you hear the phrase ‘War Hero’ names such as Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower would naturally come to mind, as they were the key leaders in the Second World War that were instrumental in coordinating the Allied victory. I feel there is another leader who deserves recognition for his vital work during these significant years; Sir Bertram Ramsay.
Bertram Ramsey was made Flag Officer at the port of Dover and was put in charge of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk. The evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, despite being a result of military failure, is known to be a triumph in human survival and the British trait of never giving up. Ramsey was the man responsible for gathering the giant fleet of boats that sailed across the Channel to save the Allied forces stranded on Dunkirk beach. Much is owed to the brave civilians who used their own leisure boats to pick up the Allied soldiers, especially as the beaches of Dunkirk and the English Channel were being aerially bombarded by the Luftwaffe. I found an article in The Times Digital Archive that relives the events at Dunkirk and the significance of the role of Bertram Ramsey.
The son of Captain William Ramsey of the British Army, Ramsey attended the Royal Colchester Grammar School before he entered the navy. His two brothers joined the army. During Ramsey’s career he had been on ships such as HMS Crescent and HMS Dreadnought. In 1918, he was given high command and led the destroyer HMS Broke in to a second raid at Ostend and was commended for his performance.
The original aim of Operation Dynamo (the official name of the Dunkirk evacuation) was to save 45,000 soldiers from Dunkirk; the fleet Ramsey gathered managed to save around 338,000 soldiers. Operation Dynamo was an example of Britain’s resolve and also the strength of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The thousands of men that were brought home made up a valuable and experienced core of the British Army.
Coordinating Operation Dynamo was extremely complex. Admiral Ramsey had approximately a week to conjure a plan that could save as many soldiers as possible from the French coast. He and was constantly urging the War Office and Ministry of Shipping to gather vessels and sent demolition parties to Boulogne and Calais to prevent the Germans occupying these ports. Some argue that the poignant image of soldiers being carried home aboard a fleet of small boats is a key reason Ramsey is this ‘forgotten man’ of the second war. The idea of the plucky British people uniting presents a shield in front of the key figures who were behind the evacuation.
Just as his role in orchestrating Operation Dynamo is sometimes overlooked, it is also important to recognise Admiral Ramsey’s work with Dwight Eisenhower after the Dunkirk evacuation. As this article on the University of Cambridge’s website suggests, Admiral Ramsey is in some ways ‘D-Day’s forgotten man’. During the inter-war years, Ramsey’s career had moved into logistical studies and he was instrumental in liberating North Africa in 1942 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943. This had given him the skills necessary to plan Operation Overlord, more commonly known as the D-Day landings, in June 1944. Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, describes Ramsey as ‘the architect of Operation Neptune and a crucial part of the team that wins D-Day’. (Operation Neptune was the complex naval organisation of thousands of ships and even more soldiers, in preparation for D-Day.) As The Evening Telegraph in Scotland said on 9th August 1944, the Channel became ‘a bridge of attack and not just a moat for defence’. With Operation Overlord, the English Channel became a symbol of victory.
Below is a special piece The Daily Telegraph ran in 1989 which discussed the D-Day landings, and the build-up to the operations that took place up to June 1944:
Sir Bertram Ramsey is one of Britain’s most influential war figures and in 2000, a statue was erected of the Admiral, in Dover, the town of his most well-known triumph. I thoroughly enjoyed researching Admiral Ramsey in Gale Primary Sources. It gives me an enormous sense of pride to read about British military success, and I feel being from Dover myself increases my sense of pride as I can imagine the scenes of shattered and wounded soldiers trudging through the town – only to bravely continue fighting in subsequent months.
Blog post cover image citation: ADMIRAL RAMSEY KILLED, Dundee Courier, 3rd January 1945, British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9MFj89