NO Scotsman in the 20th century more earned the title of loveable rogue than Johnny Ramensky, the greatest exponent of the trade of safeblowing that Europe, and maybe even the world, has ever seen.

A genuine folk hero known as Gentle Johnny because he shunned violence, Ramensky was a career criminal who spent more than two thirds of his life in prison, yet became a popular figure because of his numerous escapes and his wartime heroics that saw him become a decorated commando in a unit set up by none other than Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.

Born Jonas Ramanauckas or Ramanauskas, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, in 1905 in Glenboig in North Lanarkshire, Johnny was destined for a life in the pits where his father Wincas worked, using explosives to free up valuable clay that was then mined to provide the raw material for the famed Glenboig bricks.

It was a dangerous trade — four men were killed in the Glenboig Union Fireclay company mine in 1909 when too much gelignite brought down 20 tons of clay upon the miners.

Most Scots at that time detested the Lithuanian immigrants who were bracketed with the Poles and barely tolerated, not least because numbers of them had been imported by mine bosses to break strikes. Perhaps it was the many official expressions of hatred against the Lithuanian community that gave Johnny his dislike of authority.

His father died when Johnny was just eight and he moved to the Gorbals with his mother Mare (Marie), who herself lost an arm in a mill accident, and his two sisters Agnes and Margaret.

Taking the name Ramsay or Ramsey, perhaps due to the lack of a patriarchal presence Johnny became a tearaway and a street criminal in that massive melting pot which had seen the outbreak of bubonic plague as recently as 1900.

Collared by the law, he was sent to the borstal at Polmont – big mistake by the authorities, for in his three years there, this literate teenager blessed with uncommon physical agility became an exceptionally fit young man who determined on a career as a burglar with the specialisation of blowing open safes with gelignite.

In 1925, Johnny received his first adult jail sentence. He was given 18 months for an amazing 16 housebreaking charges, all of them carried out within a matter of months after his release from Polmont.

Released again, he married his first wife, Margaret “Daisy” McManus with whom he had a daughter, Marie. She knew of his career, but as a perjinks wee man standing around five feet five inches and with good looks and bright blue eyes, she probably thought she could reform him and he would become a good catch. No chance. Johnny was soon back blowing safes, but this time he concentrated on businesses rather than homes. He would often walk across roofs and let himself in by skylights to blow a safe or two. He wasn’t perfect at the job just then – he once blew open a fridge.

Caught again, he went to Saughton prison in Edinburgh but kicked up such a fuss about being so far from his family that he was transferred to Barlinnie. It was there in 1931 that he first gained notoriety, staging a rooftop protest after scaling a 70-foot drainpipe. It was reported that 4,000 people came to see his slate-throwing antics which ended with the Governor personally talking him down and sending him back to Saughton as Johnny desired – the inmates were nice to him there, he explained.

On being released, in March 1934 Johnny blew the safe in the Aberdeen bakers Ledingham’s but was stupidly caught with £500 in cash. This time he was given three years penal servitude, while his accomplice, his brother-in-law Mario de Marco, received 18 months.

Johnny was taken to the already infamous Peterhead prison, and promptly became the first man to escape from it in November that year. He didn’t get far, and was caught just over a day later.

The prison governor had Johnny shackled which led to his case being raised in Parliament. No Scottish prisoner has ever been shackled since.

WHILE in prison, Johnny’s wife died – he was not allowed to attend the funeral - and he later remarried, this time to Lily.

In October 1938, he was sentenced to five years penal servitude for safeblowing and attempted safeblowing.

The National Archives of Scotland contains the extraordinary letter he wrote to his prison governor: “I want you to inform the proper authorities to remove a charge of gelignite which is inside the lock of the small safe. The police think that explosive was used up but it was not. I am writing because I want precautions taken so that no one may be seriously injured if it did go off.”

On leaving prison in 1943, he joined the Royal Fusiliers, but he was recruited for the Commandos’ secret Assault Unit 30, where one of his colleagues was the famous journalist Sir Charles Wheeler, and performed a series of safecracking raids behind enemy lines.

Rommel, Goering, maybe even Hitler himself were all targets of Johnny, and when the Allies took Rome he was given the task of liberating documents from a dozen embassies as British Intelligence sought information on plans and links to the Nazis. He blew 12 safes in one day, a feat for which he was awarded the Military Medal.

Dennis Whitcombe, now in his 90s and living at Cwmbran recalled his Scottish commando colleague: “Johnny Ramensky was one of our number, a pleasant bloke you never would have guessed was one of the most notorious safebreakers in British history.

“From time to time he would disappear for several days. Even we didn’t know precisely what he had been asked to do although it wasn’t hard to catch the general drift of things.”

Yet the old trade called him back when he was demobbed with a free pardon. Perhaps he just could not live without the adrenalin surge of a successful safeblowing, and whenever one occurred the police simply sent for Ramensky who would often confirm his crimes as a matter of pride.

He escaped from Peterhead in 1952, and three times in 1958, feats that really did elevate him to the status of living legend.

Para Handy actor Roddy McMillan even wrote a song for him, called Let Ramensky Go:

But when the war was raging the brass-hats had a plan

Tae purloin some information, but they couldnae find a man

So they nobbled John in prison, asked if he would take a chance

Then they dropped him in a parachute beyond the coast of France

Then Johnny was a hero, they shook him by the hand

For stealing secret documents frae the German High Command

So Johnny was rewarded for the job he did sae well

They granted him a pardon frae the prison and the cell.

Norman Buchan MP, who is a leading figure on the folk music scene, also wrote the Ballad of Johnny Ramensky. After his last escape a newspaper recorded that “last night people living in the Peterhead area spoke of him without fear. For he is known as “Gentle John” and those beside the prison take bets on how long he will stay free. His escape in February this year lasted 24 hours, before he was caught in Peterhead’s main street wearing a warder’s cap and a long black coat.

“One question was being asked: Why does he keep on doing it, at his age and in his state of health? A police officer who knows him well said last night: ‘Johnny never expects to get far when he breaks out now ... he’s just got to do it to prove that he still can.’”

If anybody bet on him being out for nine days, then they won, as he was caught at Persley, on the north bank of the River Don about three miles from Aberdeen. The newspapers recorded that “a police spokesman said after the capture that Ramensky was looking wonderfully well, apart from being footsore, and considering the long period he had been on the run. His fifth escape has evoked widespread sympathy among the public as during the war Ramensky was an instructor to Allied agents in blowing safes”.

ANOTHER journalist wrote: “Probably no figure is better known in Scotland today than Johnny Ramensky. And it is undoubtedly true that almost all people, regardless of the rights or wrongs of his case, felt some sympathy for the man who detested prison so strongly that he broke out of Scotland’s strongest jail five times.”

One of his defence lawyers described his client having “a lifelong compulsion to break into whatever he was out of, and out of whatever he was inside”.

Johnny had tried to become a bookmaker but was too much of a gambler to be successful at the trade. Approached by a journalist wanting to ghost write his life, Johnny replied in writing: “The financial reward from the book means very little to me because I know from experience that money, even big money, makes no difference to my mode of life…

“Each man has an ambition and I fulfilled mine years ago. I cherish my career as a safeblower. In childhood days, my feet were planted on the crooked path and took firm root.

“To each one of us is allotted a niche and I have found mine. Strangely enough I am happy. For me the die is cast and there is no turning back.”

Indeed there was no way back for Johnny. He was caught on the roof of a shop in Ayr at the age of 64 and sent to Perth Prison for a year. While there he had a massive stroke and died the following day in Perth Infirmary on November 4, 1972. His remains lie in St Kentigern’s Cemetery in Lambhill, Glasgow.

Books have been written about him, and films are planned, but it would take a Spielberg or Hitchcock to tell the full story of the great Gentle Johnny Ramensky.