The National Archives of Scotland Home
A-Z Help Site search
You are in: NAS> About us> News and features> Gentle Johnny
Thursday 23 February 2017

Feature: Gentle Johnny

A feature film is soon to be made charting the life of one of Scotland's most famous safe-crackers and gaolbreakers. The story of John Ramensky, or 'Gentle Johnny', is to be filmed over the coming year. Ramensky was an expert at blowing open safes, who won military honours for his services as a commando during the Second World War. The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) holds many records about him, in particular files about the many years he spent in Scottish prisons (NAS ref. HH16/297-309). These form part of a series of prisoners' records in the NAS, which include details about prisoners such as Oscar Slater, the Red Clydesider John Maclean, the suffragettes, and the notorious killer Peter Manuel, who was executed in 1958. The NAS plan to expand content details of these files for the online catalogue.
Detail of a letter from F Rennie, prison warder at HMP Barlinnie to the prison governor regarding the escape of Johnny Ramensky, 26 July 1931

John Ramensky was born on 6 April 1906, the son of Lithuanian immigrant parents, at Glenboig, a mining village in Lanarkshire. After working in the mines for a brief period, the family moved to Glasgow where Ramensky drifted into crime. He was sent to borstal at the age of 16 and thereafter spent much of his adult life in prison. Ramensky was a safe breaker who was an expert with explosives. In 1934, while serving a prison sentence in Peterhead prison, his wife died. When he was refused permission to go to her funeral in Glasgow, Ramensky made the first of five escapes from that prison. Following recapture he was chained for weeks to the wall of his solitary confinement cell as punishment. John McGovern, MP for Shettleston, took up his case, and the shackles were finally removed. Ramensky was the last man in Scotland to be shackled in a Scottish prison cell, as well as the first to escape from Peterhead prison.

Ramensky's prowess as a safe-cracker brought him to the attention of the army during the Second World War. He enlisted with the Royal Fusiliers in January 1943 and was employed with the Commandos on special duties, becoming an instructor in safe-blowing. On various occasions he was parachuted behind enemy lines to break open safes and steal military documents. As the Eighth Army moved across North Africa, Ramensky broke into safes ahead of the front line, including that at Rommel's headquarters, and it was Ramensky who opened the strongroom and safes at Goering's headquarters in the Schorfheide in Germany.

After the war, Ramensky, or Ramsay, reverted to his former life of gambling and safe-blowing, spending long periods incarcerated in prison. He was known as 'Gentle Johnny' because he was never violent, and his repeated prison escapes won him much public sympathy. One of the prison files in the National Archives of Scotland bears testimony to this nick-name, and his concern that no-one should be hurt by his activities. A petition (shown below) sent from prison in 1938 warned that an unexploded charge of explosive remained in the lock of one of the safes he had been attempting to open. Ramensky indicated that "I want precautions taken so that no one may be seriously injured if it did go off." (NAS ref. HH16/306). There are several letters in the files from Ramensky to prison governors complaining about his sentence; expressing concern at the treatment of other prisoners; seeking compensation for his wife for a wasted journey; and an appeal to be transferred back to Saughton from Barlinnie because of racist abuse. It is also clear from the records that the authorities considered him to be a dangerous criminal.

Petition of Johnny Ramensky asking that unexploded gelignite be removed from a safe so that no one would come to any harm, 1938, NAS ref. HH16/306 p4

Ramensky found it impossible to give up his safe-blowing activities after the war, driven by what one of his defence lawyers described as a lifelong compulsion to break into whatever he was out of, and out of whatever he was inside. He died on 4 November 1972 while serving a twelve month sentence in Perth prison. From his first incarceration in 1921 until his death, he was sentenced to almost 60 years imprisonment, spending over 45 years behind bars, most of his adult life. An entry appears for Ramensky in the Dictionary of National Biography.

You can read the files on Gentle Johnny, some of which have been digitally imaged (NAS refs. HH16/297, 306 and 307) in the search rooms of the NAS and search for material relating to him and other famouse Scots prisoners using our online catalogue.

Privacy statement | Terms of use | Using our site | Contact us | Complaints procedure | Copyright | Back to top
Page last updated: Wednesday 13 December 2006

The National Archives of Scotland, H.M. General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY; tel +44 (0) 131 535 1314; email: