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.
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.