After his son made the trip down to Dover last year to mark the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, Major General Charles Ramsay has journeyed south this time to the opening of a new exhibition which pays tribute to his father, the man behind the military misson.
Opening to visitors of Dover Castle last Friday, June 10, ‘Operation Dynamo: Rescue from Dunkirk’ combines original news-reels and recordings, two years of painstaking research, testimonies from veterans of both the beaches and the tunnels, and state-of-the-art special effects to deliver a vivid account of what Sir Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance”.
It also pays tribute to a too often forgotten hero and the man who successfully marshalled the evacuation, Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay.
Understandably, much attention has been paid to the private boats – the “little ships” – that sailed to the rescue of the soldiers trapped on the French beaches. Yet the pivotal role of the Vice-Admiral in saving the core of the British Army from capture by the Germans is not widely acknowledged. This is in part due to the quiet, modest nature of Ramsay, and his death in an air-crash in 1945.
A brilliant organiser and delegator, the Admiral was brought out of retirement before the outbreak of war and charged with protecting the Straits of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel.
On May 25, 1940, Boulogne fell to German forces, followed the next day by Calais and that evening, the British government ordered the evacuation of as many of the 400,000 British Expeditionary Force and allied troops trapped within an ever diminishing perimeter centred on Dunkirk. The new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, warned the country to prepare for ‘hard and heavy tidings.’
Ramsay was put in charge of the operation and had less than a week to prepare, assembling merchant and navy vessels.
He had already, however, commandeered many transports from Holland and Belgium before the German advance overwhelmed their ports, some Norwegian vessels from the campaign in April as well as French ships and even a Polish destroyer.
Calm but round-the-clock preparation went on in the Secret Wartime Tunnels, as his staff were increased to cope with the volume of work, and at 18.57 on May 261940, Ramsay received the formal signal to commence Operation Dynamo.
At best, the Admiralty hoped that 45,000 troops might be saved. But in just ten days, Admiral Ramsay pulled off the seemingly impossible – the rescue of 338,000 exhausted troops, including most of the BEF.
The new visitor experience in the Secret Wartime Tunnels will highlight the scale of both the challenges faced by the Admiral during Operation Dynamo and his achievements. Visitors will be able to see a re-creation of the Vice-Admiral’s cabin as well as tour some of the original rooms of the adjacent Army HQs, dressed as they were throughout the Second World War, including the Gun Operations Room, the Telephone Exchange, and the Coastal Artillery Operations Room.
And the Admiral’s son was certainly impressed with what he saw.
“I was only three years old when the Dunkirk evacuation happened,” Major Ramsay told ‘The Berwickshire News’.
“And with my father being away a lot he didn’t really get the chance to to tell me what he did. All I remember is this great excitement everytime he came home and flew into Charterhall airfield.
“Unfortunately he died when I was eight so I never really found much out about Dunkirk from him, but of course I’ve learnt a lot myself over the years.
“And I found out a certain amount of new things from the exhibition. It was a wonderful experience and as well as being enormously enjoyable it was also very educative.
“There were some terrrific sound and film effects as the Castle used authentic recordings from the era.”
Despite playing such an important role in the Second World War, being at the helm of a history-shaping event, Major Ramsay said his father was a modest about the part he played and saw the Dunkirk mission as part of his job.
He continued: “My father was an incredibly modest man despite the fact that without his efforts the British army would never have been able to reconstitiute itself and invade Europe again.
“He was asked to plot the rescue mission at very short notice but rather than taking the credit itself he would be the first to applaud the skill and bravery of the hundreds of thousands of troops involved.
“He was knighted after Dunkirk and again after the North African and Sicily landings in 1942 and 1943 and although following his death he was decorated by a number of other countries including the USA, France and even Russia, he never received a posthumous accolade in Britain.”
Major Ramsay said he was sure his father would have loved the ‘Operation Dynamo’ exhibition and said travelling down to Dover always gave him a feeling of immense pride.
“I was unable to travel down to Dover last year for the 70th anniversary so my own son gave a speech in honour of his grandfather.
“It’s been an incredibly proud two years for our family as last year we were invited to Normandy as well.
“Although it’s a long way travelling down to Dover, it is always a worthwhile journey and it’s nice to be able to fill my father’s shoes from time to time. He missed out on so much dying when he did and it’s fantastic that he’s now getting this accalim thanks to the new exhibition.
“It’s a great tribute to him and all the other brave men involved in Dunkirk and I’m sure he would have thoroughly enjoyed it.”