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Sir Alan Hollick Ramsay (1895–1973)

by S. N. Gower

This article was published:

Alan Hollick Ramsay (1895-1973), by unknown photographer, 1944

Alan Hollick Ramsay (1895-1973), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 084127

Sir Alan Hollick Ramsay (1895-1973), educationist and soldier, was born on 12 March 1895 at Windsor, Melbourne, eldest of five children of Victorian-born parents Charles Ramsay, produce dealer, and his wife Frances Sarah Laura, née Hollick. Alan attended Melbourne Continuation (High) School where he was an above-average student, quiet and unassuming, perhaps even shy. He took little interest in sport, but was enthusiastic about serving in the cadets. Joining the Victorian Education Department, he became a junior teacher (on probation) in 1912 and three years later was appointed to the primary school at Cowleys Creek, near Timboon.

On 1 October 1915 Ramsay enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Allotted to the 4th Field Artillery Brigade, he sailed for the Middle East in the following month. He served in Egypt before being sent to the Western Front in March 1916. Promoted corporal in March 1917 and sergeant in October, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 1918 for his bravery and devotion to duty. While serving with the 2nd Divisional Artillery he was commissioned on 1 January 1919 and promoted lieutenant in April. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 2 August in Melbourne.

Resuming his teaching career at Lee Street State School, Carlton, Ramsay was transferred to Essendon High School in 1922 and to Coburg High School in 1924. Meanwhile, he studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1923; Dip.Ed., 1925). At the Congregational Church, Ascot Vale, on 22 December 1924 he married with Presbyterian forms Edna Mary Watson, a chemist. In 1925 he was appointed to University High School. By 1926 he was described as a 'teacher of distinct ability . . . [who] gains the immediate interest and co-operation of his pupils'.

Ramsay retained his interest in soldiering. On 31 March 1930 he was given command of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade (Militia). When World War II began he was a temporary colonel heading the 4th Divisional Artillery. He dropped a rank to join the A.I.F. on 13 October 1939 and became commanding officer of the 2nd/2nd Field Regiment. Six months later he took over the medium artillery of I Corps as a brigadier. In October 1940 he was appointed to head the 9th Divisional Artillery.

The division embarked for the Middle East in November, trained in Palestine and moved forward into North Africa. One of the 9th's artillery units became part of the force besieged at Tobruk, Libya. For his enthusiasm and judgement there, and at Mersa Matruh, Egypt, Ramsay was appointed C.B.E. in 1942. In the battle of El Alamein (23 October-5 November) he established his name. Planning artillery support for the major attack on 30 October suited his temperament. It required meticulous attention to detail to co-ordinate the fire of the 360 guns in the fifteen regiments under his control. The result was outstanding, and the British Eighth Army's artillery commander subsequently distributed Ramsay's plan as a model. Further recognition followed, with the award of the Distinguished Service Order (1943) and a mention in dispatches. He was held in such regard that his commander, Sir Leslie Morshead, recommended him to take over the division, but the commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Blamey, demurred at the proposal because Ramsay's experience had been restricted to the artillery.

Ramsay returned to Australia in February 1943 and commanded II Corps' artillery from June. With Blamey's confidence finally obtained, he was appointed in January 1944 to lead the 5th Division as a temporary major general. In November the division was deployed to New Britain, where Ramsay used deep patrols and gradually established an ascendancy over a much larger Japanese force. He was appointed C.B. (1946) and twice mentioned in dispatches. In April 1945 he was transferred to the 11th Division on Bougainville, but reverted to his previous command in July. His A.I.F. appointment ended on 26 September and he was placed on the Reserve of Officers in the following month.

Back home, Ramsay became principal of Melbourne High School in February 1946. The appointment was a popular one, particularly as he was one of the school's own. In early remarks to parents he stressed the school's academic achievements, but emphasized the need for boys to develop a responsibility to each other and the broader community. He reinstituted the cadet unit and encouraged a wider involvement with other schools. In May 1948 he was appointed State director of education. Deeply attached to his school, he was sad to lose close contact with pupils.

The education system which Ramsay took over had been starved of funds during World War II and faced a massive increase in enrolments. He attacked the problem with characteristic enthusiasm, introducing standardized prefabricated classrooms to meet the immediate need for accommodation; permanent new buildings came much later. Conscious of the need to recruit more professionally trained staff, he introduced a two-year course for those intending to be primary schoolteachers and expected those who were to teach in secondary schools to have university qualifications. A comprehensive programme of in-service residential training was also implemented. Lindsay Thompson, a later premier of Victoria, described him as 'the acme of reliability and sound common sense'.

Ramsay retired in March 1960 and was knighted next year. He gradually became so disappointed at the militancy of teachers in state schools that he insisted his grandson should be educated at Scotch College, outside the system of which he had long been proud. Sir Alan was a trustee of the Shrine of Remembrance, and a member of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial (Returned Services) League of Australia and the Naval and Military Club. He served as an elder of the Ewing Memorial Church, East Malvern, and as its Sunday School superintendent. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and son, he died on 19 September 1973 at Armadale and was cremated. His portrait (in military uniform) by Donald Cameron is held by Melbourne High School.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • Education Dept (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • A. Inch, Honour the Work (Melb, 1977)
  • Melbourne High School, Unicorn, Dec 1944, July 1946
  • Education Gazette (Victoria), May 1960
  • A. H. Ramsay to G. Long, 11 Apr 1951, AWM 76, item B409 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

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Citation details

S. N. Gower, 'Ramsay, Sir Alan Hollick (1895–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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