Ber­tram Ram­say was the mil­i­tary dy­namo be­hind Dunkirk

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By KEITH LOWE

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.

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