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Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay 1883-1945

Admiral Ramsey at Norfolk House in London shortly before D-Day, May 1944. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London
Admiral Ramsey at Norfolk House in London shortly before D-Day, May 1944. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London

On the retired list in 1939, Bertram Ramsay rose to prominence as the Royal Navy's foremost expert in amphibious warfare during the Second World War. A master of the complex staff work required for such undertakings, he will be best remembered as the naval commander for Operation 'Overlord', the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Ramsay had resigned in 1935 when Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse. He was frustrated that Backhouse dealt with the details of fleet signals and other administration himself rather than leaving it to his staff under Ramsay who were best qualified to do the job.

While on the retired list, Ramsay reported on the suitability of Dover as an operational base and on the outbreak of war in September 1939 was appointed as Flag Officer Commanding Dover. It was in this capacity that Ramsay was in charge of Operation 'Dynamo', the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk in May - June 1940. During the operation 338,000 soldiers were rescued instead of the 45,000 thought possible beforehand. Ramsay's staff grew to be the largest of any admiral demonstrating the complexity of the organising the withdrawal.

Ramsay was still in command at Dover in February 1942 when the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made their famous dash through the Channel. Despite the gallant efforts of motor torpedo boats and Swordfish aircraft, there was little he could do with the meagre forces at his disposal.

In August 1942 Ramsay became Deputy Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force for the invasion of North Africa. Ramsay remained in Britain to carry out the detailed planning while his chief, Admiral Andrew Cunningham established his headquarters at Gibraltar. At that time the biggest and most complicated amphibious operation ever, it saw the sailing of several convoys from the United Kingdom and the passage of 340 ships through the Straits of Gibraltar in 33 hours. In March 1943 he was entrusted with command of the Eastern Naval Task Force, one of the two fleets carrying troops for the July invasion of the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean

As Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force from October 1943, Ramsay was responsible for Operation 'Neptune', the naval contribution to invasion of Normandy, and the greatest amphibious operation in history. It was also primarily a Royal Navy effort; only 346 of the 2,468 major vessels involved on D-Day, 6 June 1944 were American. The orders for 'Neptune' ran to more than 1,000 pages and involved not only the landing craft but their escorts, minelaying, covering forces and bombardment vessels. The supply of the massive invasion force required ingenious solutions of which 'Pluto', the pipe line under the ocean, and the Mulberry harbours, assembled off the beaches, were the most important. For such a complicated enterprise, 'Neptune' was a tremendous success and when it ended on 24 June almost 715,000 men and 250,000 tons of stores had been brought ashore. As an exercise in naval planning it was a model of brilliant staff work at which Ramsay excelled.

Ramsay was also involved in planning the landings on Walcheren Island in Holland later in 1944, but did not live to see the victory in Europe which his part in 'Overlord' had done so much to ensure. On 2 January 1945 while travelling to see General Montgomery, his aircraft crashed after taking off from an airfield in France.

Further reading:

  • C. Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (London, 1991).