Johnny Ramensky MM, also known as John Ramsay, Gentleman Johnny, and Gentle Johnny (6 April 1905 – 4 November 1972) was a Scottish career criminal who used his safe-cracking abilities as a commando during World War II. A popular song about him, The Ballad Of Johnny Ramensky, was written by Labour MP Norman Buchan and recorded by singer Enoch Kent, Buchan’s brother-in-law. Though a career criminal, Ramensky received the nickname “Gentle Johnny” as he never used violence when being apprehended by the police.
Ramensky was born Jonas Ramanauckas (Jonas Ramanauskas), the son of Lithuanian immigrant parents, at Glenboig, a mining village in North Lanarkshire, near Coatbridge. He initially worked down the coal mines, similar to his father who had been a clay miner, and it was there he became familiar with the uses of dynamite. During the depression of the 1920s following the First World War Ramensky’s family moved to the Gorbals, in the south side of Glasgow, after the death of his father.
Throughout his life, Ramensky demonstrated great strength and gymnastic skill which he used to begin a career as a burglar, followed by graduating to safe-cracking, also known in the underworld as a Peterman. During his criminal career, Ramensky maintained that he never targeted individuals’ houses but only businesses and he became famous for never resorting to violence despite being arrested numerous times, resulting in the nickname “Gentleman (or Gentle) Johnny”. Detective Superintendent Robert Colquhoun, one of his old adversaries, when taken ill, was sent a message by Ramensky wishing him a speedy recovery, suggesting he had been working too hard in pursuing him.
Having been denied a licence to attend his wife’s funeral, Ramensky began another series of feats which led to part of his fame. Ramensky was the last man to be shackled in a Scottish prison cell, as well as the first to escape from Peterhead Prison, going on to escape and being ultimately recaptured a further four times. He spent more than 40 of his 67 years in prison.
Ramensky was released after serving a sentence in Peterhead Prison in 1943. During his time there he had written to various officials seeking references to join the army. Due to the intervention of a senior police officer from Aberdeen he had attracted the interest of Robert Laycock who was seeking people with skills which could be used in commando raiding forces. As a result, he was enlisted with the Royal Fusiliers in January 1943 and transferred immediately to the Commandos, where he was trained as a soldier whilst also instructing on the use of explosives. Although being officially enlisted with the Royal Fusiliers he never actually served with them, spending his entire wartime service with the 30 Commando.
Ramensky, using his safe-blowing skills, performed a number of sabotage missions, being parachuted behind enemy lines to retrieve documents from Axis headquarters, including Rommel’s headquarters in North Africa and Hermann Göring’s Carinhall in the Schorfheide. This culminated during the Italian campaign, where 14 embassy strong boxes or safes were opened in only one day.
He remained in the army after the cessation of hostilities as a translator for the allied forces who were repatriating approximately 70,000 Lithuanians from camps in the Lübeck area. Following this, he had a short spell as an officer’s batman before being demobbed in 1946.
Ramensky did not give up his safe-cracking lifestyle and spent the time after the war in and out of jail, eventually dying in Perth Royal Infirmary after suffering a stroke in Perth Prison, where he was serving a one-year sentence after being caught on a shop roof in Ayr.
Ramensky’s friend Sonny Leitch, also a career criminal who served in the armed forces, said that Ramensky told him that he had stolen a hoard of Nazi loot from the Rome area during the Allied march on Rome in 1944, and that this hoard was later kept at the Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset, and the Royal Navy supply depot at Carfin, Lanarkshire, after the war. He claimed that the hoard contained portraits of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goering, Goebbels and Himmler, and a treasure trove of jewellery and gold.
Although this was never proven, there were certain looted items of little monetary value which survived him and remain, along with personal items, in a vault in a Glasgow bank. These include banners from Goering’s Carinhall, and Ramensky’s commando beret, compass and commando knife.
During his wartime service Ramensky was also known to have sent various items looted from German and Italian targets to friends and associates in Scotland, including the governor of Peterhead Prison.