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As Luftwaffe bombs rain down on them, British and French soldiers wait to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in Operation Dynamo.

Mastermind of Dunkirk

By Patrick J. Kiger
Autumn 2017 • MHQ Magazine

In 1940 more than 300,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the French coastline. Bertram Ramsay got them out.

 

AT 7:30 A.M. ON MAY 15, 1940, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER WINSTON CHURCHILL was awakened by an urgent telephone call from French premier Paul Reynaud. “We are beaten,” the distraught Reynaud blurted out in English. “We have lost the battle.”

Churchill, who had been in office for only a few days, was still groggy. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Surely it can’t have happened so soon?” he finally responded. He thought Reynaud might be misjudging things.

But Reynaud wasn’t. After the German army attacked the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, the Allies figured that the Ardennes, a heavily forested region whose rugged terrain was thought to be impassable to tanks, and the Maginot Line, a vast fortification stretching along the Franco-German border from Switzerland to Luxembourg, would stymie their advance. But the German armor had somehow burst through the supposedly impenetrable forest. Now, more than 1,800 tanks and a force of 325 Stuka dive-bombers were moving to trap the Allied armies on the northern coast of France and capture or annihilate them. By the time Churchill and his aides flew to Paris to meet with their French counterparts that afternoon, panic had already set in. Churchill could look out a window in the Quai d’Orsay, the French diplomatic headquarters, and see bonfires blazing, as French officials burned documents in a frenzied effort to keep them out of German hands.

Ramsay confers with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Dover Castle in 1940. (Imperial War Museum)

Over the next several days, Lord John Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, gradually pulled back his troops and tried to protect his exposed flank from the advancing Germans, who had turned north toward the English Channel in what Field Marshal  Erich von Man­stein called the “sickle cut.” But when Gort’s chief of staff, General Henry Pownall, called the War Office in London on May 19, the situation he described was dire. With the French unable to plug the massive holes in their lines that the Germans had opened, the BEF had three options, none of them good. It could stand and fight, and risk being cut off by the German advance. It could counterattack to the south, in the hope that the French might rally somehow and join in from the north. Or it could withdraw to the French coast and prepare to evacuate across the English Channel.

The last option seemed unthinkable to the British government. A full-scale evacuation was a logistical nightmare that would require hastily moving at least a quarter of a million soldiers—three times the number that had been evacuated from Anzac Cove and Cape Helles after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Churchill believed that if the British forces fell back to France’s Channel ports, the Germans would wipe them out before they could manage their escape.

Nevertheless, at a May 19 meeting at the War Office, military leaders for the first time took up the possibility of an evacuation that they still considered unlikely, just in case. They would use three French ports on the Channel coast to ship soldiers home; the priority would be nonessential base personnel, a few thousand each day, for a total of 15,000. They also decided, just in case, to consider what was deemed “the hazardous evacuation of very large forces.” But nobody wanted to spend much time on that improbable notion.

To handle the operation, they chose an officer who, at the time, was one of the lesser luminaries in the British naval establishment. Vice Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay, 57, was a slight figure with a quiet voice and unemotional manner, though beneath that he was stubbornly resolute. Just a few years before, he had been shunted aside and allowed to retire, only to be recalled when the Admiralty needed a flag officer to shape up long-neglected naval operations at the British port of Dover. The War Office decided to put some additional staff and 36 vessels, including civilian Channel ferries, at Ramsay’s disposal. That was all.

No one, not even Ramsay, could have guessed that he was about to become one of the most celebrated heroes of World War II. As the mastermind of the rescue operation, Ramsay would orchestrate the biggest, most difficult evacuation in military history, one that rescued the British Army from destruction and helped make possible the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

 

IN DOVER ON MAY 20, RAMSAY MET WITH BRITISH ARMY OFFICIALS. The situation in France had worsened, and “emergency evacuation across the Channel of very large forces” had risen to the top of the agenda. The men huddled in a manmade cave some 85 feet below Dover Castle, part of a subterranean complex of tunnels and rooms that had been carved into the cliffs by captured French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. The main space, equipped with a big wooden table to track ship movements in the waters in Ramsay’s territory, was known as the dynamo room because it had housed an electric generator during World War I. The evacuation itself was soon designated Operation Dynamo.

Ramsay’s office—which he dubbed the igloo, because of its whitewashed walls—was at the far end of the corridor. It had a balcony cut into the cliff face that provided the dank headquarters with a little sunlight. It also had a spectacular view of Dover Harbor, but it didn’t provide much enjoyment. As he worked at his desk at night, Ramsay could see the glow of flames from the French coast, where German artillery and bombs were raining hell on British and French soldiers and civilians.

Immediately after the meeting, Ramsay’s staff, along with other officials in the Admiralty and Ministry of Shipping back in London, quickly set about compiling lists of civilian ferries and other ships that they could commandeer on short notice for an evacuation. Someone mentioned that about 40 Dutch barges had been brought to England after that country fell to the Germans. Ramsay ordered them requisitioned and staffed by naval reservists. It also occurred to Ramsay that soldiers waiting to be picked up by ships might get thirsty, so he ordered 80,000 cans of water, and kept them in reserve. In a few days’ time, that prescience would save many British lives.

That was typical of Ramsay. Beneath his bland exterior and unexcitable demeanor, he was hard driven, exacting about details, and, to the consternation of his superiors, prone to grab the initiative when the decision-making process didn’t move fast enough. He could be unrelenting when he thought he was right, which was much more often that not. “It was widely held amongst his contemporaries,” noted British journalist David Divine, who once interviewed Ramsay, “that he had little human sympathy.”

Ramsay’s career in the Royal Navy had taken some odd turns. He was the third son of a British Army general who commanded the 4th Hussars, a cavalry unit in which a young Winston Churchill served, and grew up in garrison towns. His brothers went to public school and became army officers, but his parents couldn’t afford for him to go that route as well. So instead, a few days before his 15th birthday, he joined the navy as a cadet on HMS Britannia.

His first experience with amphibious operations came in the Somaliland campaign in 1904, when as a sublieutenant he was part of a naval brigade that landed on a beach in heavy surf and fought its way ashore. He also learned how easily things could go awry in the heat of battle. As Ramsay told the story, at one point in the battle he gave the order to charge and ran forward, waving his cutlass and shooting his pistol, only to notice, after a few yards, that no sailors had followed him. After that, he made sure that his men started out first.

Ramsay went on to serve on the battleship Dreadnought, and during World War I he became captain of the destroyer Broke, part of the Dover patrol that hunted U-boats and bombarded German positions in Belgium. After the war, his exceptional organizational skills and talent for getting things done led to his promotion in 1934 to chief of staff to Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, commander in chief of the Home Fleet. It was a coveted post, but it nearly sank him. Backhouse didn’t like to delegate authority, and Ramsay grew so frustrated that the two had a falling out. At the end of 1935, Ramsay stepped down and was put on half pay.

His career in tatters, Ramsay went back to Scotland, where he and his wife, Margaret—“a tall and graceful brunette,” as a columnist for the Washington Post columnist once gushed—and their two young sons lived in a mansion in the country. Still in his 50s and living a life of leisure, he rode horses, took up carpentry, and played golf, his passion. But he was frustrated being out of the action, seeing improvements that he’d advocated while in the navy going unaddressed. In May 1937, he wrote to Churchill, his father’s former officer. But Churchill was out of office and couldn’t do anything to help him. Around that time, Ramsay turned down the Admiralty’s offer of a post in China—the sort of job that he knew was a prelude to being forced into retirement. It seemed as if he were through.

But fast-escalating tensions in Europe changed everything. When it looked as if England might have to go to war against Germany in 1938, Ramsay was recalled and appointed vice admiral in charge of the port of Dover. His job was to bolster the nation’s defenses against submarines, keep enemy ships out of the English Channel, and transport and supply the British Expeditionary Force on the continent, if needed.

Two days after then-prime minister Neville Chamberlain met with German chancellor Adolf Hitler for the infamous Munich talks, Ramsay arrived in Dover, where he discovered that there wasn’t even a headquarters suitable for running a modern naval operation. The medieval castle wouldn’t do, and the labyrinthine complex beneath it had been taken over by rats. The wireless room had been converted into a lavatory. Ramsay and his aides worked out of a local hotel until the tunnel space could be made ready for them. Ramsay’s flag lieutenant, James Stopford, took a radio set from the Chatham dockyard and set it up, while trying to ignore the residual stench.

Stopford also waged a monumental battle to get a single telephone line to France, after the Admiralty’s bureaucrats balked at the £500 cost. It was fortunate that he prevailed. That line would provide the only uninterrupted communications link to BEF commander Lord Gort’s headquarters on the French coast in the desperate days to come.

 

BY MAY 21 THE WAR OFFICE HAD HAMMERED OUT A PLAN FOR A POSSIBLE EVACUATION. Ramsay was to use the French ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk. The ferries were to pick up 10,000 men from each of the ports daily, working in pairs but never with more than two in harbor at a time. It was a precise, orderly plan, the sort that paper-pushers in London would find prudent. But it never would have worked.

British and French troops wait on the beaches and dunes of Dunkirk, France, to be evacuated. (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The next day, May 22, the War Office informed Ramsay that it would delay the decision on whether to evacuate for at least two more days. As officials in London deliberated, the Germans’ 2nd Panzer Division attacked Boulogne, one of the three evacuation points, and the 1st and 10th Panzer divisions attacked Calais. The official plan was rapidly going up in smoke.

From that point, there would be no more meetings. Ramsay and his team would create their own plan, adjusting to shifting events in real time and improvising when needed. The qualities that had nearly torpedoed his navy career—the stubborn self-assurance that he was always right, the impulse to circumvent authority and take the initiative—made him almost perfectly suited for this task.

Ramsay aimed, as usual, to surround himself with like-minded men, and he assembled a core staff of 16 officers to whom he freely delegated responsibility. They worked the phones relentlessly, ignoring normal bureaucratic channels and slashing red tape. Wrens—members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service—labored alongside them. Ramsay’s operation ran around the clock, with exhausted staffers grabbing a few hours of fitful sleep in the underground before coming back on duty.

Ramsay already knew that Operation Dynamo would have to be vastly bigger than the leadership in London envisioned; it would involve hundreds of ships. Putting together an amphibious operation of that scale would have been daunting even without the extreme time pressure that he and his team faced. They had to choose the safest routes across the Channel, exposing ships to the least risk possible from German artillery, submarines, torpedo boats, and minefields. The ships that made it back to England would have to be refueled, and repaired if necessary, so that they could go back to pick up more men. After the troops arrived, they had to be put on trains home so that the ports wouldn’t become hopelessly congested. And Ramsay and his men had to coordinate with the BEF, so that soldiers were in the right spots to be picked up—all with very limited communication. Aside from using the phone line to Gort’s headquarters in La Panne, the only way to send a message to Ramsay would have been to write it down and hand it to a ship’s wireless operator for transmission.

At his headquarters on May 23, Ramsay met with a group of French admirals to work out their role in an evacuation. When they said they hoped his plan wouldn’t be needed, the ever-impatient Ramsay bluntly told them that he was putting it into effect immediately, starting with the removal of base personnel.

Throughout his stressful time in Dover, Ramsay had continually sent letters to his wife, Margaret, scribbling a few lines at a time between meetings and crises. In a letter to her that evening, he confided that the pressure was already becoming intense. “No bed for any of us last night,” he wrote. “I’m so sleepy that I can hardly keep my eyes open….The situation becomes more difficult from hour to hour.”

 

OVER THE NEXT TWO DAYS, THE GERMANS CLOSED IN ON CALAIS, taking out another evacuation port. The BEF was now only buying time to get to Dunkirk, their last hope, before the Germans did. The scenario was so dire that Lieutenant General Alan Brooke wrote in his diary: “Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now, and the end cannot be far off.”

Across the water in Dover, such a miracle was starting to materialize. From Ramsay’s window on the morning of May 26, he could see a harbor packed with ships—destroyers, minesweepers, and civilian cross-Channel ferries, plus a motley assortment of British fishing boats and Dutch and Belgian small craft. Four tugboats waited to guide the big navy ships into action.

By afternoon, the order to begin the evacuation still hadn’t come. Ramsay didn’t bother waiting for it. At 3 p.m. he quietly started sending out the ferries from Dover and the small boats from Ramsgate Harbour, about 20 miles north, so that they wouldn’t get stuck in a cluster off the coast and become sitting ducks for German dive-bombers. They already faced a big problem. Route Z, a quick 39-mile passage to Dunkirk that had been swept for mines, was no longer safe, because Germans had moved close enough to Dunkirk that their artillery would be able to menace ships. Route X, which was farther to the northeast, was 55 miles, but it was full of dangerous shoals and minefields. Instead, the ships had to take route Y, a roundabout path that was twice as long as X, heading to the east to skirt German minefields and then turning back toward Dunkirk.

Finally, just before 7 p.m., First Sea Lord Dudley Pound gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin “with the greatest vigor.” At that point, it seemed, the brass in London had pretty much accepted a catastrophic loss of most of their army. They envisioned Ramsay rescuing up to 45,000 men over two days, “at the end of which it is probable that evacuation will be terminated by enemy action.” At least one senior officer thought that Ramsay would be lucky to get even 30,000 men out.

From Dover Castle, Bertram Ramsay trains his telescope on the French coastline. (Imperial War Museum)

But Ramsay didn’t give up so easily. The initial plan was still to rely on civilian ferries, while the military ships protected them from the Germans as best they could. He staffed each ferry with a naval lieutenant commander, plus 10 navy sailors who were experienced enough to handle the ropes under enemy fire. He wanted them to load and depart at four-hour intervals to avoid delays that would leave them vulnerable to attack.

Just before midnight the first ship, Mona’s Queen, carrying 1,200 men, arrived back in Dover. A few hours later, Canterbury  pulled in with another 1,340 men. But the sense of relief was tempered by new worries. The returning ships reported that Dunkirk was a hell zone. German bombs had reduced the docks and harbor infrastructure to rubble, and the ships had been strafed by German aircraft and fired on by artillery on the coast.

Ramsay seemed to fear that all was lost. “I am directing at this moment (it is 1 a.m.) one of the most difficult and hazardous operations ever conceived,” he confided in a letter to his wife, “and unless [God] is very kind, there will be many tragedies attached to it.”

On the afternoon of May 27, the destroyer Wolfhound sped across the water, carrying Captain William Tennant, Pound’s chief staff officer, who had been sent down from London to be the senior naval officer at Dunkirk. When he came ashore, Tennant was shocked by the sight of Dunkirk in ruins—“there was not a pane of glass left anywhere,” he later recalled—and bodies lying in its streets. BEF officers were waiting for him in a candlelit office within Bastion 32, the bunker-like headquarters of Admiral Jean-Marie Charles Abrial, the French naval officer in overall command of the coast. The docks were now unusable.

Scrambling for a solution, Tennant looked to the pair of breakwaters, or moles, at the harbor’s outer edge. The eastern mole was nearly a mile long. It wasn’t designed to bear the stress of ships berthing and bumping into it, and it had just a narrow plank walkway that would allow only several men to walk abreast. But it was all they had, so they turned it into an improvised pier. There was no gangway, so the British fashioned one from repurposed mess tables. At 10:30 p.m., Tennant signaled Wolfhound to send a personnel ship to pick up 1,000 men as a test. Queen of the Channel got the assignment, and by 4:15 a.m. the following morning its decks were crammed with 950 men. On its way back across the Channel, the steamer was bombed by a German aircraft and it sank, though most of its men were rescued by another ship. But the mole itself had worked. As a result, the number of men rescued from Dunkirk would increase from 7,669 on May 27 to 11,874 on May 28.

In Dover, Ramsay had been up all night. An officer who visited him in the early morning found him pale from the hours underground but still remarkably cheerful and energetic. Later that day, Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, a well-liked officer who’d also been recalled from the retired list, checked on Ramsay at the behest of the Admiralty to see how he was holding up. Somerville called back to London and asked permission to stay and help out. For the rest of the operation, Somerville played an invaluable role as Ramsay’s nighttime stand-in, leading a team that took over for Ramsay and his aides from 2:30 a.m. until after breakfast, so that they could get a few hours of rest.

But Ramsay had plenty of worries left to keep him awake. German planes were stepping up their air attacks in an effort to make good on Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring’s promise to Hitler that he could obliterate the waiting British troops at Dunkirk without sending in tanks. With catastrophe looming, Ramsay saw that a well-paced flow of rescue vessels wouldn’t get the job done in time. He sent out all the navy craft at his disposal—a cruiser, nine destroyers, two transports, and other ships—to pick up soldiers as well. They lowered small boats to retrieve men who were queuing up outside Dunkirk, on the long, featureless stretches of sand along the coast. It was a maddeningly slow process, as each ship could pick up only about 50 men an hour by using the small boats. Ramsay asked other naval commanders to lend him additional ships and pressed naval and shipping officials back in London to find him more small boats to reach the beaches.

 

BY MAY 28, RAMSAY HAD 22 DESTROYERS AND OTHER CRAFT, and they were picking up dramatically larger numbers of men. The destroyer Sabre put on a demonstration of efficiency, picking up 800 soldiers in a single trip. That day Operation Dynamo evacuated a total of 17,804 men, well more than twice the count from the previous day. In addition, Ramsay’s minesweepers managed to clear Route X, providing a quicker way across the English Channel than the roundabout Route Y. Ramsay then ordered his ships to use Route X exclusively.

German planes were still a terrifying menace. But Operation Dynamo got a break when storm clouds hindered visibility and kept the aircraft on the ground for much of the day.

There was other dispiriting news. The Belgians had surrendered, eliminating one more obstacle to Hitler’s armies. In a short speech to the House of Commons, Churchill warned members—and the British people—to prepare themselves for “hard and heavy tidings.”

On the morning of May 29, Ramsay got some horrible news. One of his older destroyers, Wakeful, had been cut in half by a direct hit from a German torpedo boat. When the destroyer Grafton came to the rescue, it was torpedoed as well. As the clouds lifted, the Luftwaffe took to the air again. Five other destroyers were damaged as well.

At 7 that evening, Ramsay received an errant message that Dunkirk harbor was blocked with burning wreckage. Worse yet, Admiralty officials in London worried that Ramsay would lose ships that might be needed to protect the coast from a German invasion. At 8 p.m. Sea Lord Pound notified Ramsay that they were pulling six of the best modern destroyers he had at his disposal. He was left with a bunch of aging navy ships and seemingly had nowhere to dock them.

But Ramsay was determined to keep going. He ordered his ferries and his 15 older destroyers to continue the evacuation at maximum speed. And, improvising once more, he had his team dispatch all of the remaining craft, except for hospital ships, to the beaches around Dunkirk and to designated concentration points where troops would gather to be picked up.

Despite all the setbacks, Operation Dynamo had racked up an astonishing performance. In a single day, it had rescued 47,310 soldiers, more than the War Office had envisioned for the entire evacuation.

On May 30, Ramsay sent a destroyer, Vanquisher, to inspect the harbor at sunrise. The news turned out to be surprisingly good. Dunkirk was a mess, but the harbor wasn’t completely blocked, and the mole was still usable as a pier. The mass pickups there could resume.

In addition, Ramsay’s call for more civilian craft was rewarded. At the Dover headquarters, his team was managing a rescue fleet that included hundreds of different types of craft, ranging from merchant vessels and fishing trawlers to pleasure yachts, with the small boats working out of Ramsgate. Ramsay, meanwhile, juggled multiple tasks. When he wasn’t occupied with the evacuation itself, he guided efforts to repair damaged ships and send them back into the fray. Simultaneously, he also worked with shipping officials, who rounded up crews of sailors and rushed them to Dover by automobile, so they wouldn’t get lost in the crush of returning soldiers. And he made sure to send emergency supplies of water and rations to the soldiers who were queueing up for rescue.

That afternoon, Ramsay also managed to pull off a major coup. He telephoned Sea Lord Pound and insisted that he get back the modern destroyers. No one kept a transcript of the conversation, and what exactly they said to each other remains a mystery. But Ramsay must have been persuasive, because by 3:30 p.m. the six destroyers were on their way back to rejoin Operation Dynamo.

That day, 53,823 men were rescued. Ramsay met with British Army officials and made arrangements for the final evacuation of the BEF’s rear guard of 4,000 men, according to Ramsay biographer Admiral W. S. Chalmers. The plan was to scoop them up in the early morning hours of June 1. The end was in sight.

But then, one more complication arose.

 

ON THE MORNING OF MAY 31, CHURCHILL AND HIS AIDES FLEW TO PARIS to consult with their French counterparts. The French weren’t happy when they learned that 150,000 of the 220,000 British soldiers had been evacuated, but only 15,000 of France’s 200,000 troops. Premier Reynaud argued that the disparity would seem like a betrayal to the French public. Something had to be done. Churchill, seeing that he was in a bind, proclaimed that the French and the British would leave arm in arm. He worked out a deal with the French: The evacuation would be extended a few more days, and from that point on, equal numbers of British and French soldiers would be evacuated.

Operation Dynamo’s pace became even more brutal. The Luftwaffe, desperate to keep the BEF from escaping its trap, pounded the ships with bombs and unleashed torrents of machine-gun rounds from low altitude. Ramsay’s armada took heavy hits, losing three British destroyers and a French destroyer in one day. But it still came through: 68,014 men were evacuated on May 31 and another 64,429 on June 1.

At dawn on June 2, between 3,000 and 4,000 British soldiers were left on the outskirts of Dunkirk, where they’d been working with French forces to hold the line against the German advance. Ramsay and Tennant decided to pause the evacuation effort for the daylight hours. With the Germans closing in and fewer ships to work with, it was too dangerous. But that also gave them time to plan a final push. Royal Air Force fighters would patrol the harbor just before nightfall to keep German aircraft from disrupting the operation. Meanwhile, Ramsay’s 11 remaining destroyers would sail for Dunkirk that evening and arrive at 30-minute intervals, starting at 9 p.m. He plotted a more precise plan for the other craft as well. Navy motorboats would take position in the harbor and guide ships to the mole.

At 11:30 p.m. Tennant sent a two-word message to Ramsay: “BEF evacuated.” He and Major General Harold Alexander, the remaining BEF officer, then cruised along the shoreline in a torpedo boat to take one last look. “Is anyone there?” Alexander called out through a megaphone. He got no response. Then they headed back to England. That day, 26,256 soldiers—most of them French—had been rescued.

On the morning of June 3, Ramsay met with his aides at the Dover headquarters. An unknown number of French soldiers were still waiting in Dunkirk, including a force of 25,000 who had manned a rearguard action to slow the German advance. The Admiralty had ordered Ramsay to make one more effort to rescue them. At 10 a.m. he sent a message to his exhausted ship crews, sounding almost apologetic as he implored them to summon one last burst of energy. “I had hoped and believed that last night would see us through,” he said, explaining that the French had been too busy fighting to get to the pier in time to embark. “I must call on all officers and men detailed for further evacuation tonight to let the world see that we never let down our ally.”

As Ramsay’s aide, Captain M. G. S. Cull, would later recall, it was the first time that his boss—who outwardly had seemed tireless and unafraid up to that point—­appeared to be showing the strain. “The remaining ships were few, battered and scarcely fit for service,” Cull wrote. “Ought he to call on the men for more? Was it fair to them?…Was it right to risk their remaining strength and courage?” In a tensely worded message to the Admiralty at 6:50 that evening, Ramsay warned his superiors that it was the last time he could send out his exhausted men, saying it was “a test which I feel may be beyond their endurance.”

That night Ramsay’s remaining ships sailed once more for Dunkirk. They brought back 26,175 French soldiers. The last British destroyer to leave, HMS Shikari, finally departed for Dover at 3:40 a.m. on June 4, to the sound of German machine guns on the shore as the enemy closed in on the harbor.

That afternoon at 2:23, the Admiralty sent a message that Operation Dynamo had finally concluded. To celebrate, Ramsay drove to Sandwich and played a round of golf. He shot a 78—his best score ever. As he wrote to his wife that evening: “The relief is stupendous, and the results are beyond belief.”

 

RAMSAY’S RESCUE OF 338,336 SOLDIERS AT DUNKIRK MADE IT POSSIBLE for Winston Churchill to go to the House of Commons on the evening of June 4 and give a speech that was full of defiance and determination rather than sorrow and fear. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,” the prime minister proclaimed to the British public. The nation had staved off what would have been the greatest military disaster in its history, and its army had survived to fight another day. Many of those who had scurried up the improvised gangway at the eastern mole would eventually join with American forces in taking back Europe from Hitler.

Ramsay was subsequently knighted for his efforts—an honor that he modestly made light of in a telegram to his wife in Scotland. “Lady Ramsay…I am proud to congratulate you on your new title. Love, Bert.”

Dunkirk had established Ramsay as a master of military logistics—a visionary who understood how to devise and coordinate naval operations to move large numbers of troops and had the improvisational skill to alter the game plan on the fly. The officer that the Royal Navy had once pushed into retirement became one of the Allies’ most potent secret weapons. Ultimately, he was tapped to become the architect of Operation Neptune, the naval portion of the Normandy invasion, in which he supervised thousands of vessels transporting, protecting, and supplying 132,715 troops.

A bronze statue erected on the grounds of Dover Castle in 2000 depicts Bertram Ramsay looking across the English Channel to the place where he saved the Allies from defeat. (123RF)

Tragically, Ramsay would not live to see the final victory that his innovative style had helped make possible. On January 2, 1945, a few weeks before his 62nd birthday, he was on his way to Belgium when his plane ran into bad weather and crashed.

Ramsay never became as famous as Bernard Law Montgomery or Dwight D. Eisenhower, but he hasn’t been forgotten. Sixty years after Ramsay received the message that the BEF had been evacuated, Prince Philip stood atop the white cliffs of Dover and unveiled a statue of the man that First Sea Lord Sir Michael Boyce hailed as “without doubt one of the finest naval officers of the 20th century.” The bronze likeness depicts Ramsay, telescope in hand, gazing out across the water, toward the place where he saved the Allies from defeat. MHQ

 

PATRICK J. KIGER is an award-winning journalist who has written for GQ, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Urban Land, and other publications.

This article appears in the Autumn 2017 issue (Vol. 30, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Mastermind of Dunkirk

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