How a former Colchester schoolboy masterminded the Dunkirk evacuation

In the film Dunkirk, Tommy, a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead, reads the last words of Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech. However, unknown to most viewers, a former pupil at Colchester Royal Grammar School played a key role in the rescue of British troops from Nazi-occupied France, although his only appearance in the film is a single mention of the name: Ramsay.

Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, at CRGS before joining the Royal Navy in 1898 aged 16, masterminded the Dunkirk evacuation and by doing so won the Second World War. Why? In words Tommy reads out in the film, Churchill said to the Commons on June 4, 1940, the day Dunkirk ended: ‘We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations’. But the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk – against all odds – was the turning point that paved the way to Allied victory over Nazi Germany five years later.

With the British Expeditionary Force routed through France and Belgium by the scything German blitzkrieg, General Brooke, commander of II Corps – which included 2nd Battalion the Essex Regiment – lamented: ‘Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now’. Ramsay delivered it. At a meeting in his underground headquarters beneath Dover Castle, Ramsay and Churchill envisaged the rescue of 30,000 men from the beaches. Within a week, Ramsay launched Operation Dynamo and nine days later had brought more than ten times that number back across the Channel, while under attack from all sides. Ramsay rescued 338,226 battle-hardened soldiers who could be put to immediate use defending Britain. Their return made the threatened German invasion less likely. Of even greater strategic significance, Dunkirk boosted the nation’s morale, giving hope after a long succession of military and political disasters. It steeled the country for the Battle of Britain, unleashed by the Luftwaffe the following month, and shaped the character and resilience of our nation for the rest of the war.

Dunkirk kept Britain in the war, enabling all that followed, culminating in the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. Without Dunkirk, 400,000 British soldiers – five times as many as our entire regular army today – would have been killed or in prison camps in Germany. Churchill might then have found spurring the British people on to eventual victory an impossible task. That is assuming he had survived as Prime Minister.

In the film, all the action is on the beaches, at sea and in the air. We don’t see the British and French rearguard forces that held the German Army back from the evacuation zone. Without their fighting spirit and heroic sacrifice, the iron discipline and stoicism of the troops on the beach, the skill and courage of the RAF, the bravery and fighting prowess of the Royal Navy and the selfless patriotism of hundreds of civilian mariners, fisher-men and yachtsmen, Dunkirk could not have succeeded.

Men from Colchester and Essex took part in each of these great endeavours, achieved, in Churchill’s words: ‘by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity’. Among them were many former pupils of Ramsay’s old school including V A White, serving with the Royal Artillery, who was wounded at Dunkirk. Some of these Old Colcestrians may have been saved by the 57ft motor yacht Riis 1, whose home port is West Mersea. Then named White Heather, she steamed to Dunkirk on June 1, ferried troops from the beach to bigger ships offshore under enemy fire and then made three crossings, carrying soldiers to England in waters infested by U-boats and mines and ex-posed to air attack. Glorious in her 97th year, she can be seen playing herself in the film. This entire colossal effort would have achieved little without Admiral Ramsay’s guiding hand.

What made him the man for the job? Long experience at sea, including fighting commands in the First World War, plus a genius for planning and improvisation. But above all he was a moderniser and pioneer of delegated, decentralized and flexible command. It is unlikely that any practitioner of the more orthodox methods could have achieved Ramsay’s miracle. For Ramsay there was no let-up after Dunkirk. He organised the sea passage of two new British divisions into France and their subsequent withdrawal, and drew up plans to defeat Operation Sealion, the German seaborne invasion of southern England, while the Battle of Britain raged overhead.

Churchill knew exactly what he had achieved at Dunkirk and increasingly sought his counsel. He had first known the teenage Ramsay around his time at Colchester Royal Grammar School, when young Winston was serving in the 4th Hussars under the com-mand of his father, Colonel William Ramsay. Ramsay’s younger son, Major General Charles Ramsay, also became a cavalry officer. He was Army commander in Colchester in the 1980s. Having been a pupil at his father’s old school, I also served under him as a junior officer with 2nd Royal Anglians in Hyderabad Barracks. In 1942 Ramsay planned the amphibious landings in North Africa and in 1943 commanded naval forces for the invasion of Sicily.

Promoted to full Admiral, he was Eisenhower’s naval commander for D-Day, directing a fleet of almost 7,000 vessels and landing a million soldiers over the coast of France, a feat described as ‘a never surpassed masterpiece of planning’. The war had come full circle, and Ramsay with it. Ramsay was a driven man and a hard taskmaster, but first hand accounts show the affection his staff had for him. A ‘Ramsay Wren’ during Dunkirk and D-Day wrote: ‘The Admiral’s attitude to his junior staff was always impeccable... We were a truly happy ship.’

In proper CRGS style, as D-Day approached he found time to play cricket with his head-quarters staff. Ramsay did not live to see the Allied victory he played such a crucial part in bringing about. Heading from Paris to Brussels for a meeting with Montgomery, his Lockheed Hudson crashed during takeoff on January 2, 1945. One of the most senior officers to be killed in the war, he is buried at St Germain en Laye.

In tribute to Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, knighted for his command at Dunkirk, the British writer A P Herbert, himself a naval officer in the First World War, wrote these lines after his death: I ploughed a passage through the foam, Dunkirk and Deal – Dieppe and Dover, I brought the flower of Britain home And took the fruit of freedom over.


Source: Daily Gazette