“Before going to bed, Admiral Ramsay made a final entry in his handwritten diary:
‘Monday, June 5, 1944. Thus has been made the vital and crucial decision to stage the great enterprise which [shall?], I hope, be the immediate means of bringing about the downfall of Germany’s fighting power & Nazi oppression & an early cessation of hostilities.
‘I am not under [any] delusions as to the risks involved in this most difficult of all operations . . . Success will be in the balance. We must trust in our invisible assets to tip the balance in our favor.
‘We shall require all the help that God can give us & I cannot believe that this will not be forthcoming.’
“Tired as he must have been, Ramsay caught the spirit and soul of the great undertaking perfectly, especially in his hope for what the results would be for occupied Europe and the world, his recognition that the enterprise was fraught with peril, and his confidence that God was blessing this cause.”
– Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, p. 195.
Top Image: Detail of Admiral Bertram Ramsay in The D-Day Invasion of Normandy exhibit at The National WWII Museum. Credit: Keith Huxen.
The above passage prominently features a quote from the handwritten diary of British Admiral Bertram Ramsay on the eve of the Normandy invasion, followed by a brief assessment in his own words of what was at stake by the late historian Dr. Stephen Ambrose. It is altogether fitting that we should reflect on Ramsay’s thoughts on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, not only because of what was at stake at that moment, but because within Admiral Ramsay, events were coming full circle.
After 40 years of service in the Royal Navy, Ramsay had retired in 1938, no doubt intending to enjoy the company of his wife and two young sons. However, recognizing the threat of Nazi Germany, Ramsay was persuaded by Winston Churchill to return to service. He was promoted to Vice Admiral within a little more than a week before Churchill himself became Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. It was Ramsay who commanded Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of over 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk from May 26-June 4, 1940. The Luftwaffe’s failure to gain control of the airways over the English Channel meant that Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain, could not be launched.
Over four years later, Admiral Ramsay was the Naval Commander in Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and was now attempting to move across the same body of water that had blocked Hitler’s invasion, an operation to involve the greatest amphibious invasion force in history. Operation Neptune was unparalleled in its size and complexity, with over 6,000 naval vessels maneuvering to land over 150,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy. Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower’s decision at 4:15 a.m. on June 5, 1944, to make the attempt had put the vast war machine in motion.
As Stephen Ambrose wrote, Ramsay’s reflections on the eve of the great battle succinctly captured all that was at stake. After months of intense planning and with thousands of lives in the balance, the Allies had done all that they could to prepare. The great risks and unpredictability of war still remained to be overcome, but Ramsay knew that an opportunity to ultimately end the Nazi empire in Europe required confrontation with tremendous hazards, and that the Allied cause was just. Like so many others waiting to face a rendezvous with destiny that next day, the favor of the Divine was in his thoughts.
Today, as we reflect on the moment before the “great enterprise” was launched 75 years ago, most of us cannot imagine what it was like to be there. However, as a man who put service to his country and a higher cause above his own personal desires and comforts, and who despite his vast responsibilities was humble enough to wish for Divine aid, it is through Ramsay’s spirit and example that we can begin to understand the common humanity of all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen—from the highest to the lowest ranks—who, as Ramsay wrote in his diary, were in motion towards their own destinies.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.