World War II: Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay

Savior of Dunkirk During World War II

Bertram Ramsay
Bertram Ramsay, second from left in the back row, with other D-day planners.

 Bettman/Getty Images

Born January 20, 1883, Bertram Home Ramsay was the son of Captain William Ramsay in the British Army. Attending the Royal Colchester Grammar School as a youth, Ramsay elected not to follow his two older brothers into the Army. Instead, he sought a career at sea and joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1898. Posted to the training ship HMS Britannia, he attended what became the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Graduating in 1899, Ramsay was elevated to midshipman and later received a posting to the cruiser HMS Crescent. In 1903, he took part in British operations in Somaliland and earned recognition for his work with British Army forces shore. Returning home, Ramsay received orders to join the revolutionary new battleship HMS Dreadnought.

World War I

A modernizer at heart, Ramsay thrived in the increasingly technical Royal Navy. After attending the Naval Signal School in 1909-1910, he received admission to the new Royal Naval War College in 1913. A member of the college's second class, Ramsay graduated a year later with the rank of lieutenant commander. Returning to the Dreadnought, he was aboard when World War I began in August 1914. Early the following year, he was offered the post of flag lieutenant for the Grand Fleet's cruiser commander. Though a prestigious posting, Ramsay declined as he was seeking a command position of his own. This proved fortuitous as it would have seen him assigned to HMS Defense, which was later lost at the Battle of Jutland. Instead, Ramsay served a brief stint in the signals section at the Admiralty before being given command of the monitor HMS M25 on the Dover Patrol.

As the war progressed, he was given command of the destroyer leader HMS Broke. On May 9, 1918, Ramsay took part in Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes' Second Ostend Raid. This saw the Royal Navy attempt to block the channels into the port of Ostend. Though the mission was only partly successful, Ramsay was mentioned in despatches for his performance during the operation. Remaining in command of Broke, he carried King George V to France to visit the troops of the British Expeditionary Force. With the conclusion of hostilities, Ramsay was transferred to the staff of Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe in 1919. Serving as his flag commander, Ramsay accompanied Jellicoe on a year-long tour of the British Dominions to assess naval strength and advise on policy.

Interwar Years

Arriving back in Britain, Ramsay was promoted to captain in 1923 and attended senior officers’ war and tactical courses. Returning to sea, he commanded the light cruiser HMS Danae between 1925 and 1927. Coming ashore, Ramsay began a two-year assignment as an instructor at the war college. Towards the end of his tenure, he married Helen Menzies with whom he would ultimately have two sons. Given command of the heavy cruiser HMS Kent, Ramsay was also made chief of staff to Admiral Sir Arthur Waistell, commander in chief of the China Squadron. Remaining abroad until 1931, he was given a teaching post at the Imperial Defense College that July. With the end of his term, Ramsay gained command of the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign in 1933.

Two years later, Ramsay became chief of staff to the commander of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse. Though the two men were friends, they differed widely on how the fleet should be administered. While Backhouse firmly believed in centralized control, Ramsay advocated for delegation and decentralization to better allow commanders to act at sea. Clashing on several occasions, Ramsay asked to be relieved after just four months. Inactive for the better part of three years, he declined an assignment to China and later began working on plans to reactivate the Dover Patrol. After reaching the top of the rear-admirals’ list in October 1938, the Royal Navy elected to move him to the Retired List. With relations with Germany deteriorating in 1939, he was coaxed from retirement by Winston Churchill in August and promoted to vice admiral commanding Royal Navy forces at Dover.

World War II

With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Ramsay worked to expand his command. In May 1940, as German forces began inflicting a series of defeats on the Allies in the Low Countries and France, he was approached by Churchill to begin planning an evacuation. Meeting at Dover Castle, the two men planned Operation Dynamo which called for a large-scale evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk. Initially hoping to evacuate 45,000 men over two days, the evacuation saw Ramsay employ a massive fleet of disparate vessels which ultimately saved 332,226 men over nine days. Employing the flexible system of command and control that he had advocated in 1935, he rescued a large force which could immediately be put to use defending Britain. For his efforts, Ramsay was knighted.

North Africa

Through the summer and fall, Ramsay worked to develop plans for opposing Operation Sea Lion (the German invasion of Britain) while the Royal Air Force fought the Battle of Britain in the skies above. With the RAF's victory, the invasion threat quieted. Remaining at Dover until 1942, Ramsay was appointed Naval Force Commander for the invasion of Europe on April 29. As it became clear that the Allies would not be in a position to conduct landings on the continent that year, he was shifted to the Mediterranean as Deputy Naval Commander for the invasion of North Africa. Though he served under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Ramsay was responsible for much of the planning and worked with Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Sicily and Normandy

As the campaign in North Africa was coming to a successful conclusion, Ramsay was tasked with planning the invasion of Sicily. Leading the eastern task force during the invasion in July 1943, Ramsay coordinated closely with General Sir Bernard Montgomery and provided support once the campaign ashore began. With operation in Sicily winding down, Ramsay was ordered back to Britain to serve as Allied Naval Commander for the invasion of Normandy. Promoted to admiral in October, he began developing plans for a fleet that would ultimately include over 5,000 ships.

Developing detailed plans, he delegated key elements to his subordinates and allowed them to act accordingly. As the date for the invasion neared, Ramsay was forced to defuse a situation between Churchill and King George VI as both desired to watch the landings from the light cruiser HMS Belfast. As the cruiser was needed for bombardment duty, he forbade either leader from embarking, stating that their presence put the ship at risk and that they would be needed ashore should key decisions need to be made. Pushing forward, the D-Day landings commenced on June 6, 1944. As Allied troops stormed ashore, Ramsay's ships provided fire support and also began aiding in the rapid build-up of men and supplies.

Final Weeks

Continuing to support operations in Normandy through the summer, Ramsay began advocating for the rapid capture of Antwerp and its sea approaches as he anticipated that ground forces might outrun their supply lines from Normandy. Unconvinced, Eisenhower failed to quickly secure the Scheldt River, which led to the city, and instead pushed forward with Operation Market-Garden in the Netherlands. As a result, a supply crisis did develop which necessitated a protracted fight for the Scheldt. On January 2, 1945, Ramsay, who was in Paris, departed for a meeting with Montgomery in Brussels. Leaving from Toussus-le-Noble, his Lockheed Hudson crashed during takeoff and Ramsay and four others were killed. Following a funeral attended by Eisenhower and Cunningham, Ramsay was buried near Paris at St.-Germain-en-Laye. In recognition of his accomplishments, a statue of Ramsay was erected at Dover Castle, near where he planned the Dunkirk Evacuation, in 2000.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).