“The Epic of Dunkirk” was the editorial leader headline in the June 8th 1944 edition of the Kentish Gazette & Canterbury Press. The article reads:-
“This is how Mr. J. B. Priestley has described the culminating episode in the story of the Battle of Flanders. As the Prime Minister said in his brilliant and frank review in Parliament on Tuesday on the recent war operations, we must not blind ourselves to the fact “that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” We recognise this and realise that the serious setback which we have suffered calls for a great acceleration and intensification of effort on the part of every one of us if the war is to be won.”
“But having said this, we are entitled to derive very real consolation for the magnificent way in which the allied forces extricated themselves from a position which, rendered dangerous after the initial German thrust, became almost hopeless after the treacherous defection of King Leopold. The retreat of the armies to the coast has formed the theme for many glowing and vivid narratives, but no words can describe adequately the magnitude of an achievement which far exceeds anything ever accomplished in the annals of military history. Beset, as the allied troops were, on three sides by an overwhelming superiority in numbers, the German High Command confidently proclaimed their approaching annihilation. At the best, it was optimistically hoped on our side that about 20,000 or 30,000 of our men might be saved from the struggle. Still, the miracle was performed. Displaying a bravery and discipline which never, surely, has been equalled, and a courage and a courage undismayed, the B.E.F. and their French comrades fought their way back to Dunkirk – and instead of the 30,000 hopefully anticipated, the number of allied troops brought to this country, including the flower of the British Expeditionary Force, amounted to over 335,000. Despite all their tribulations, and the discomforts which they suffered on the beaches of Dunkirk before embarkation, there was no semblance of an inferiority complex about these warriors on their return to England. The prevailing sentiment was, “We can whip Jerry every time given equal equipment and assistance from the air.”
To describe as epic the large-scale evacuation of those 335,000 troops, with hundreds of enemy bombers soaring overhead and German opposition both from land and water, seems almost too prosaic a term. Here, again, the apparently impossible was achieved, thanks to the superb efforts of the British and French Naval units and the magnificent service rendered by a vast assortment of all manner of craft. According to one week-end helper in the work of rescue, the scene outside Dunkirk provided a sea parallel to crowded Piccadilly Circus. The sailors, professional and amateur, did their job amazingly well, and showed conclusively once again what a vitally important factor in war is the Allies’ supremacy at sea.”
“And now having paid tribute to the glorious valour of out soldiers and seafaring men, we can employ every superlative and yet fall very far short of the appraisal which is due to the R.A.F. for their brilliant and daring work. Never was a finer opportunity provided for the German airmen to show their prowess than was presented on the occasion of the evacuation from Dunkirk. Both on the beaches and on the water, their bombers were given over a thousand targets, but so fiercely were they opposed by our British fighters that the losses which they inflicted were negligible, and they were unable to prevent the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men. In the trial of strength the great superiority of our airmen and of all our types of aircraft was clearly established. The German casualties, at a low estimate, were in the ration of 4 to 1, and on numerous occasions the enemy pilots turned and fled when approached by a quarter of their number of the R.A.F. If only we can appreciably accelerate our purchase and output of ‘planes, we have the assurance, when parity in numbers with the Germans has been secured, of an overwhelming supremacy in aerial warfare.”
“There is in this thrilling story of the B.E.F. retreat and the epic of the Dunkirk evacuation, a moral for all of us on the Home Front. We have to show the same determination and courage in applying ourselves to our war tasks – for we are all in it – as was so glowingly displayed by our heroic forces in retrieving the disaster in Belgium.”
“We may take two R’s as our motto at this time – Resolution and Restraint. Resolution to put every ounce of our energy and strength into the supreme task of saving the nation in its hour of grave peril; Restraint in refraining from senseless gossip, harmful criticism, and defeatist sentiments which may cost the lives of our gallant fighting men.”
The first 1945 edition of the Kentish Gazette, dated January 5th, reported the death of Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who had devised Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, in May 1940. The article reads:-
“The death, in an aeroplane accident in France, of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, K.C.B., K.B.E., M.V.O., is a matter of sincere regret to East Kent, with which he was closely associated in the early years of the war. He was then Admiral-in-Command at Dover, and it was largely through his superb organisation that the large British Expeditionary Force (numbering over 300,000) was successfully evacuated from Dunkirk.”
“The citizens of Canterbury will recall that the Admiral attended the opening ceremonies of the Canterbury Bridge-Blean Warship Savings Week and delivered an important speech at the inaugural luncheon in the Parry Hall. No one could have imagined from his modest, unassuming demeanour that he was so exceptionally gifted. His planning of the greatest amphibious operations of the landings in North Africa in November 1942, in Sicily and Italy in 1943, and of the still greater operation of the landings in France in June 1944, were masterly in their conception and execution.”
“At the time of his death, he was naval C-in-C of Allied Expeditionary Force. His record of achievement will long remain an epic in the annals of the Royal Navy.”
Bertram Home Ramsay was born on January 20th 1883 in Hampton Court Palace, into the Ramsays of Balmain, a naval service family with ancestry from the Scottish Highlands. He was the third son of army Captain William Alexander Ramsay and his wife Susan, daughter of William Minchiner, of Clontarf, county Dublin. Two older brothers followed the family tradition of joining the army.
Winston Churchill and Bertram Ramsay met during the time the former served under Captain William Ramsay as a young army subaltern.
Educated at Colchester Royal Grammar School, Bertram Ramsay joined the Royal Navy in 1898 as a cadet at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, passing out in May 1899 and commissioned in September, choosing to specialise in signals and the bigger and broader naval problems, including the need for modern methods of organisation and command.
Mentioned in dispatches for his active service in combined operations with the army during the 1903-04 Somaliland expedition, he was promoted lieutenant with varied service over the next five years, including on the first commissioned Dreadnought battleship. He then studied at the Royal Naval War College at Portsmouth, passing out as a war staff officer in 1914 and promoted to the newly established rank of lieutenant-commander.
In 1919 First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Lord Jellicoe launched Bertram Ramsay’s career path by selecting him to be his flag commander for a tour of the dominions to consider measures for future imperial defence. Two Mediterranean ship commands later, he was promoted Captain in 1923 before attending senior officers war and tactical courses, command of the cruiser Danae and becoming a war college instructor.
In addition to marrying Helen Margaret Menzies in 1929, Bertram Ramsay commanded the cruiser Kent, as China station flag captain; two years later, becoming an instructor at the Imperial Defence College where he met army instructor Alan Brooke; followed by three years commanding super battleship Royal Sovereign, during which he was promoted to Rear Admiral and soon invited by the new Commander-In-Chief, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse to become his chief of staff.
Rear Admiral Ramsay was retired by the Royal Navy in 1938 and later bought their family country property named Bughtrig in Berwickshire.
When Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse became First Sea Lord in early September 1938, at the time of the Munich crisis, now retired Rear Admiral Ramsay was asked to investigate what would be required to reactivate the Dover command if war came.
Still officially retired and now promoted, Bertram Ramsay was appointed Vice Admiral, Dover, from August 24th 1939, responsible for warding off German invasion and stopping enemy submarines and ships from passing through the English Channel. Headquarters were expanded tunnels under Dover Castle which had begun to be excavated during the Napoleonic Wars.
Vice Admiral Ramsay commanded the naval aspects of Operation Dynamo, which successfully evacuated 338,226 allied soldiers in nine days from Dunkirk in 1940, almost one third of whom were conveyed from the shallow water by around eight hundred small ships to larger vessels waiting offshore in deeper water. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had originally envisaged only twenty to thirty thousand evacuees as likely to be rescued from the beach, however, Admiral Ramsay’s skill, bad weather and strong rearguard resistance far exceeded the 45,000 over two days expectations.
In 1942 Vice Admiral Ramsay was appointed Deputy to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Naval Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, becoming responsible for the amphibious landings part of Operation Torch, the Mediterranean campaign’s allied invasion of French North Africa.
Success in North Africa resulted in Vice Admiral Ramsay’s appointment as eastern task force commander of the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Operation Husky. He returned to London the same month to rejoin the team preparing for the invasion of Europe and on October 25th 1943 was appointed allied naval commander, expeditionary force, followed the next day by promotion to acting admiral, responsible for planning Operation Neptune, the naval part of the Normandy landing.
In March 1944 Prime Minister Winston Churchill compelled the Admiralty to reinstate Sir Bertram Ramsay to the active list as a full admiral. The May 5th London Gazette Admiralty List dated May 1st confirmed his reinstatement date as April 26th and promotion the following day.
The aircraft carrying sixty-one year old Admiral Ramsay to a conference with General Sir Bernard Montgomery crashed on take-off from Toussus-le-Noble Airport on January 2nd 1945. He was buried at St. Germain-en-Laye.
In November 2000 a statue of Sir Bertram Ramsay was erected in the grounds of Dover Castle, near the tunnel which had been his headquarters. His personal archive is housed in the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.
In 2012 the Apprentices Building at the Royal Navy training centre at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Hampshire, was named the Ramsay building.