Victor of D-Day: Admiral Ramsay

Nick Hewitt

Bertram Ramsay was responsible for two of the great operations of WW2: Dunkirk and D-Day.
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Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay, RN, is perhaps one of the most overlooked Allied commanders of the Second World War. Commissioned as a Midshipman in the Royal Navy on 15 September 1899, he was Mentioned in Despatches for his leadership of a naval landing party in 1904, and during the First World War he commanded the monitor M25 and the destroyer HMS Broke, building a reputation as a talented officer, keen and intelligent but also outspoken and tactless, particularly with those less capable than himself.

After the war, Ramsay served as Flag Commander to the former First Sea Lord (the operational head of the Royal Navy), Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Jellicoe, on a round the world cruise, before being promoted to Captain and commanding ships in the Far East and Mediterranean, coming ashore for two years as an instructor at the Imperial War College. He married in 1929, and was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1935, becoming Chief-of-Staff to his friend Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet. Faced with a stubborn boss who insisted on doing all his own staff work, leaving little for Ramsay to do, he resigned and retired to Scotland to enjoy life with his wife and two sons.

With a new war looming Backhouse, now First Sea Lord and still a friend, recalled Ramsay to command at Dover. Promoted to Vice-Admiral although still on the retired list, Ramsay took over two weeks before the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939. Foreseeing the ultimate need for evacuation immediately German troops swept into Belgium and Holland on 10 May 1940, he urged the collection of large numbers of coasters and small craft. Turning his instincts into a coherent plan, he then oversaw the successful evacuation from Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo. At its peak Ramsay had more than 900 naval and merchant ships and craft under command, including 39 Royal Navy destroyers, over 100 minesweepers. Supported by the famous ‘Little Ships’, they evacuated 338,226 British and French troops between 26 May and 3 June. Ramsay was knighted and remained in command at Dover for another two years, a period which included the rather embarrassing Channel Dash in February 1942, when the German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinze Eugen successfully passed through the Dover Straits and returned to Germany.

On 23 April 1942, Ramsay was appointed to command the naval force for two optimistic early proposals for invading northwest Europe, operations Sledgehammer and Roundup. When these were abandoned he went to the Mediterranean as Admiral Sir Alan Cunningham’s deputy for Operation Torch, the invasion of Vichy French North Africa, deploying his formidable talent for planning. Later, as commander of the Eastern Task Force for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, he persuaded Cunningham and General Bernard Montgomery to change their ‘operationally unacceptable’ plan to land the British and American forces more than 150 miles apart.

On 19 July 1943, Ramsay was appointed Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force (ANCXF) in mid-October, and promoted to ‘Acting’ Admiral, although still technically retired. His 1944 diary, published as The Year of D-Day (University of Hull Press, 1994), reveals the extraordinary pressure he was under, particularly after Eisenhower and Montgomery expanded the size of the invasion in early 1944. Ramsay painstakingly led the development of the comprehensively detailed Naval Operational Plan, issued on 28 February, then oversaw the complex pre-invasion rehearsals, the invasion itself, and the long, largely overlooked battle to defend the assault area and bring the Allied armies the reinforcements and supplies they so desperately needed to win the battle ashore.

As the fighting moved up to the Germany Ramsay was gradually sidelined – a mistake, perhaps, as he was not invited to a conference on 10 September, where he might have questioned the choice of Montgomery’s over-ambitious plan to ‘bounce’ the Rhine in the airborne Operation Market-Garden, instead of opening up the Scheldt estuary and allowing access to the vital port of Antwerp. On New Years Eve, 1944, Ramsay cancelled his leave plans, instead deciding to fly to Brussels to meet Montgomery and discuss the threat to Antwerp posed by the German winter offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. He was  killed when his aircraft crashed on take-off on 2 January 1945.

Ramsay was a brilliant leader, who directly brought about the Allied victory by successfully evacuating one Allied army from France in 1940 and taking another one back in 1944. Sadly, his huge contribution is often overlooked, because he died without writing his own account of the campaign. Presciently, he wrote in his diary on 30 July 1944 that ‘because it all went so smoothly, it may seem to some people that it was all easy and plain sailing. Nothing could be more wrong. It was excellent planning and execution.’

Nick Hewitt is a naval historian and the author of Normandy: The Sailor’s Story, published by Yale University Press.