MASTERMIND OF DUNKIRK AND D-DAY: THE VISION OF ADMIRAL SIR BERTRAM RAMSAY
Reviewed by: BRIAN TRIM
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, easy to read and informative. It reviews and – to some extent – re-examines the major amphibious operations of the Second World War through Ramsay’s correspondence with his wife and peers. With opening and closing sections covering his early life and final days, the overall effect is to tell both Ramsay’s story via the operations he directed. Unlike his contemporaries, Ramsay’s untimely death in January 1945 precluded him publishing memoirs, and I was only able to find one other biography of him, written in 1959. So, while the various amphibious operations in this book are well known, weaving them together around Ramsay yields a more rounded sense of both the events and the man than might otherwise be practical. From an historical perspective, I found this construct really effective in placing each operation in context, as part of a sequence or trajectory leading to D-Day. That said, this book is not destined to be an academic touchstone for students of amphibious operations, nor of Ramsay as a leader.
We typically remember Ramsay for Dunkirk and D-Day; his achievements both between these operations and before the war are less well known. Formally structured Staff training was still relatively new when Ramsay was selected to attend the Royal Navy War College in 1913. He was already forging his reputation for detail, which he burnished through the 1920s, before returning to instruct at Greenwich in 1927 and thereafter at the Imperial Defence College (now RCDS) in 1931. In short, Ramsay was a keen professional with a keen intellect. The sudden truncation of his career, in 1938, came as a bitter disappointment. Despite his record of successes, this resulted from his falling-out with his principal, while serving as Chief of Staff to CinC Home Fleet.
Having reached this turning point in Ramsay’s life at the end of Chapter 5, I read on in expectation of learning how Ramsay applied the lessons of this disappointment to achieve the operational successes we remember him for. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and so my major criticism of the book is that it does not explain how Ramsay delivered these successes. Despite setting the stage with discussion of his attention to detail – supported inter alia with extracts of his 1925 treatise on paintwork – the book is curiously silent on how he led his various Staffs, how he planned, how he framed his orders. Instead, I was left feeling that the book was founded on Great Man Theory, with Ramsay born possessing the gifts necessary for a great leader, and events enabling him to use them. Where I hoped to find insights on how he pulled together his Staff at Dover to deliver DYNAMO, we find instead his itemised household budget for 1941, and comments on his satisfaction at finally getting a good Chief Steward.
Ramsay was an early product of the still-developing Staff training system, an accomplished commander at sea and, until 1938, highly effective Chief of Staff. While personal details can bring the man to life, they cannot replace the details needed to bring the leader to life. There are some insights to Ramsay’s relations with his fellow commanders, but these serve to reinforce the impression that these ‘Great Men’ delivered success. Only in the final chapter do we hear from Ramsay’s Chief of Staff, through his condolences to Ramsay’s wife. Hence, while I enjoyed the book and recognise it as an overdue update to Ramsay’s story, it will not support serious academic research. A further biography expected in mid-2022 may serve that function. In the meantime, this is a ‘good read’.