Sir Bertram Home Ramsay (1883-1945)

Sir Bertram Ramsay was a British admiral best known for his role in organising the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and for planning the naval part of the D-Day landings in 1944.

He was the third son of Captain William Ramsay (at the time of Ramsay's birth), and was part of an army family, but while his older brothers entered the army, Bertram Ramsay decided to enter the navy. After serving on the cadet ship Britannia, he attended the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (January 1898-May 1899), before joining his first ship in September 1899.

His first active service came in the Somaliland expedition of 1903-4. He is ofter said to have he earned a mention in dispatches for his work with the army and a promotion to lieutenant, but his promotion, which did come at this time, was not unusually rapid and he is not mentioned in the dispatches printed in the London Gazette. After serving in Somaliland Ramsay was given a posting on HMS Dreadnought during her first commission.

From 1909-1911 he attended the Naval Signal School at Portsmouth. He gave a number of reasons for this decision, which was unusual for an ambitious officer (at the time gunnery specialists were considered most likely to reach flag rank), amongst which was a dislike of getting his hands dirty, and an interest in moving fleets, not ships. Through his career Ramsay would be a moderniser, determined to sweep away outdated ways of working, while at the same time maintaining those naval traditions seen to be of value.

Sir Bertram Home Ramsay
Sir Bertram Home Ramsay

In the last years before the outbreak of the First World War the Royal Navy as a whole was being modernised, to make it fit for a new era of scientific and technical warfare. Amongst other things this saw the creation of a naval war staff in 1912, dedicated to planning future operations, and the opening of the Royal Naval War College at Portsmouth. In 1913 Ramsay was amongst the second cohort of students to attend the college, leaving with the rank of lieutenant-commander in the spring of 1914.

At the start of the war Ramsay was serving on the Dreadnought, part of the Grand Fleet. Early in 1915 he was offered the post of flag lieutenant to the commander of cruisers in the Grand Fleet, on the cruiser HMS Defence. This was an important role, but Ramsay was hoping for his own command. This was a lucky choice, for at the battle of Jutland the Defence exploded with the loss of 893 men. Ramsay spent a short time in the signal section of the Admiralty, before being appointed to command the monitor M.25, on the Dover patrol. By the end of the war he had risen to command the destroyer Broke, the ship chose to transport George V to France to visit the victorious army, and was created a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO).

After the war Ramsay began to rise through the ranks. In 1919 he served as Lord Jellicoe’s flag commander on his tour of the dominions. He was promoted to captain in June 1923, attended the senior officers’ war and tactical courses, commanded the cruiser Danae and then returned to the War College as an instructor.

In 1929 he was appointed flag captain on the China Station, and captain of the cruiser Kent. In July 1931 he returned to Britain to serve as the naval instructor at the Imperial Defence College. In November 1933 he was appointed to command the battleship Royal Sovereign.

Ramsay’s last inter-war promotion almost ended his naval career. In 1935 he was promoted to rear-admiral, and in August 1935 became chief of staff to the new commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, Sir Roger Backhouse. They were old friends, but disagreed fundamentally on the correct way to run the fleet. Backhouse believed in an old fashioned centralized method of command, while Ramsay wanted to modernise the fleet and encourage delegation and decentralization. After only three months their professional relationship had broken down completely, and in December Ramsay asked to be relieved.

Naval opinion blamed both men for this breakdown. Their friendship survived the experience, and Backhouse even recommended Ramsay for further service, but it would be nearly three years before Ramsay would be employed again. He rejected an offer of a command on the China station (Flag Officer Yangtse), and when in October 1938 he reached the top of the rear-admirals’ list, he was placed on the retired list. Somewhat ironically at the same time as he was being retired, he was also carrying out an investigation into the steps that would be needed to reactivate the Dover command if war broke out. This investigation was instigated by Admiral Backhouse, by now First Sea Lord.

On 24 August, with the outbreak of war imminent, the Dover command was reactivated, and Ramsay was given the post. This was the start of a revived career that would see Ramsay take part in some of the most significant events of the Second World War.

At the start of the war the Dover command was part of the wider Nore command area, but in October 1939 Ramsay convinced the Admiralty to make Dover an independent command, accountable directly to them. He became vice-admiral, Dover. This was still a small command, responsible for the straits of Dover, while the opposite shore was either friendly or neutral.

That all changed in May 1940. On 10 May the German offensive in the west began, and only ten days later they reached the coast at Abbeville. On 19 May Lord Gort, the commander-in-chief of the B.E.F. had suggested that he might be forced to retreat to the coast, and on 20 May Admiral Ramsay held the first planning meeting for what would become Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk.

British troops reach Dover, 1940
British troops reach Dover, 1940

Ramsay was almost the perfect man to be in charge of this operation. His attention to detail allowed him to keep a grip on the complex, ever changing situation, and to keep some control of the fleet of perhaps as many as 1,000 ships that would take part in the operation. His willingness to delegate and to give subordinates independent authority meant that he was not overwhelmed by the task, and allowed the men on the beaches at Dunkirk to make important decisions. First Captain W. G. Tennant, and then Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker would act as senior naval office Dunkirk, with the knowledge that Ramsay would support their decisions.

At the start of the evacuation it had been hoped to rescue 45,000 men in two days, but in the end 338,226 British and Allied soldiers were rescued over the nine days of Operation Dynamo. Ramsay was rewarded with the KCB for his part in the evacuation.

Ramsay remained at Dover for another two years. In the aftermath of the German invasion of Belgian and the collapse of France Dover was now on the front line, with German troops only a few miles away across the channel. Once again Ramsay was required to cooperate with the army and the air force, this time to prepare for a possible German invasion. Dover would have been one of the first places to be attacked during any German invasion. The threat of invasion was at its highest during the last summer and autumn of 1940. We now know that in October 1940 Hitler postponed the invasion until the spring of 1941, by which time his attention had turned east, but this was not known in Britain. Even the invasion of Russia didn’t entirely remove the danger, for during most of 1941 it looked like it was only a matter of time before Soviet resistance collapsed, freeing the German armies to move back west.

By the start of 1942 the threat of German invasion finally faded. The Germans were no closer to a final victory in Russia, while the entry of the United States into the war saw American troops begin to arrive in Britain. Attention began to turn to the Allied invasion of Europe, and in May 1942 Admiral Ramsay was appointed as flag officer, expeditionary force, with the job of planning the naval aspects of the invasion, working with General Eisenhower. He would soon win the confidence of the Americans, essential in the years that would follow.

Over the next three years Ramsay would play a major part in planning for the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. In late 1942 it was decided to launch an invasion of North Africa. While command of the fleet went to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, it was Ramsay who was responsible for most of the planning. He was then made commander of the eastern task force during the invasion of Sicily, working surprisingly smoothly with General Montgomery, who would later describe his as the only sailor to grasp the fact that the invasion was only the beginning of any combined operation.

In July 1943 Ramsay returned to Britain, and began to plan for the invasion of Europe. On 25 October 1943 he was appointed allied naval commander, expeditionary force (ANCXF), and on 26 October was promoted to acting full admiral. He was the first of the service commanders to being working on the plans for Operation Overlord.

This was his finest moment. Operation Overlord would be the most complex naval operation in history, involving 3,000 ships ranging from the smallest landing vessels up to some of the largest battleships in the British and American fleets. The planning had to look beyond D-Day itself to the crucial period when the Allied armies were being built up, and then on to the advance towards Germany.

Ramsay’s style of command was ideally suited to planning an operation on this scale. He believed that the key to success would be to put in place a detailed plan, so that every captain in the fleet knew what their role was, and then to let them get on with it. It was the ultimate vindication of his resignation in 1935 – there was no way an operation on the scale of the D-Day landings could have been centrally controlled in the way that Sir Roger Backhouse had favoured at the time.

Ramsay’s plans played a major part in the success of Operation Overlord. Despite stormy weather the Allied build up progressed fast enough to defeat any German counterattacks, and to allow the Allies to break out of the Normandy bridgehead. During September he unsuccessfully attempted to convince Eisenhower to focus on the quick capture not only of Antwerp, but of the channel that connected it to the sea, aware that there was a real chance that the advancing Allied armies would outrun their supply lines. The failure to seize Antwerp during September resulted in a long battle that only ended in November.

On 2 January 1945 Ramsay was killed in an air crash while flying to a conference at Twenty-First Army group. His funeral took place six days later, and was attended political and military leaders led by Eisenhower and Cunningham. He had been one of the most successful British military leaders of the entire war, understanding that modern naval operations needed detailed planning but not centralised control. His organisational skill and willingness to delegate played a major part in the successful evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and in the Allied return to France in 1944.

 The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill. This first volume in the British official history of the war at sea covers the period from the outbreak of the war through to the first British disasters in the Pacific in December 1941. Amongst other topics it covers the Norwegian campaign, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the first two years of the Battle of the Atlantic. The text is meticulously researched, and is rooted in a detailed study of wartime records, both British and German. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 February 2008), Sir Bertram Home Ramsay (1883–1945) ,

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