Bertram Ramsay was the military dynamo behind Dunkirk
Dunkirk 1940. Ask almost any British man or woman what these words mean and they will tell you the same stories. They will speak of the lines of soldiers stranded on the beaches at the mercy of German planes. They will mention the armada of pleasure boats and fishing vessels that came to rescue them.
They will tell of a nation pulling together to snatch salvation from the jaws of defeat. But what very few will be able to tell you is name of the man who made this vast rescue operation possible.
Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay is one of the great unsung heroes of British history. Before the Second World War he had led a fairly uneventful life, working his way up through the ranks of the Royal Navy until he retired in 1938. At the outbreak of war he was brought out of retirement and appointed as the officer-in-charge of Dover. Nobody expected him to have to deal with a major emergency. The enemy was still far away.
Nine months later, things were very different. As the German blitzkrieg thundered across Belgium and northern France, British troops on the continent were forced to retreat quickly towards the Channel ports. On May 19, 1940, Ramsay was summoned to the War Office and asked to plan a “partial evacuation” — partial, because nobody could yet bring themselves to believe that a total collapse was possible.
Ramsay, perhaps more clear-eyed than some of his superiors, argued that he should really be preparing for the worst. The following day he began to draw up plans for what was to be called Operation Dynamo — the total removal of the British Expeditionary Force from Europe. Rather than bringing home just 45,000 men, as originally mooted, he would organise for the rescue of over 330,000. It would be the greatest amphibious retreat in history.
Ramsay had always been known as a good organiser, but now he was suddenly obliged to improvise under enormous pressure. One of the first things he did was to order the gathering together of hundreds of pleasure steamers, coasting vessels and other small craft capable of carrying troops off the beaches. He also realised that rowing boats would be needed to ferry the men between shore and ship.
Over the following week he constantly harried the Admiralty, the War Office, the Ministry of Shipping and the commanders of the other coastal ports, trying to impress upon them the severity of the situation. It was not just a matter of gathering a vast number of ships and boats. Crews, different types of fuel, stores, ammunition and charts had to be gathered and distributed.
Minefields had to be cleared, U-boats and German planes had to be kept at bay. Ramsay also sent demolition parties to Boulogne and Calais to deny both ports to the Germans, who were already closing in on all sides.
On May 26, less than a week after the plan was first discussed, the evacuation began. From the very beginning it threatened to be a disaster. The German air force unleashed a devastating bombardment of the port at Dunkirk, sinking several ships and seemingly blocking the entrance to the harbour. Ramsay was temporarily forced to divert all of his shipping to the beaches — but he refused to accept that the port was out of action, and sent a destroyer to investigate.
Thankfully the channel was found to be clear, and he was able to resume the embarkation of troops here as well as from the beaches. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of those rescued from Dunkirk did not come off the beaches at all, but from the port and its breakwaters.
Ramsay’s work rate was relentless. He organised defensive screens against U-boat attack. He organised deliveries of food and water to the men still waiting on the beaches, and was devastated to learn that several of them were sunk before they ever reached the men.
He battled with the RAF, begging for more fighter cover; and battled with the Admiralty, begging for more men to replace his exhausted crews. “I hardly dare think about what each day is going to bring,” he confided to his wife, Margaret, in a hastily written letter. “How I would love to cast off the mantle of responsibility which is mine, and become just peaceful and retired again.”
Ramsay was awarded a KCB for the crucial role he played in the evacuation, but it was not long before his efforts were being obscured by romantic myth. Even while the war was still being waged, government propaganda began painting Dunkirk as a victory not of military organisation but of civilian pluck. The story of the “little ships” coming to the rescue of a great army was simply more inspiring. This is the story that is still emphasised today, as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film about Dunkirk shows.
Ramsay went on to become one of the most important Allied commanders of the war. In the months after Dunkirk he organised the rescue of some 200,000 more troops from other ports along the coast of northern France. He was involved in the planning for the Allied landings in North Africa and Sicily, and in 1944 he was put in charge of the entire naval operation for D-Day.
Had he lived to write his memoirs, he might yet have achieved the fame he probably deserves. But on January 2, 1945, he boarded a plane bound for Field Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters near Brussels. Shortly after take-off the pilot lost control of the plane, which dived straight into the ground, killing all of its passengers instantly.
Admiral Bertram Ramsay is still remembered with great respect in military circles. But to a certain degree his public reputation also died with him that day.
Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay in Dover.