William Tennant (Royal Navy officer)

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Sir William Tennant
Vice Admiral Tennant 1945 IWM A 29072.jpg
Vice Admiral Tennant visiting HMS Colossus, May 1945
Birth name William George Tennant
Nickname(s) "Dunkirk Joe"[1]
Born (1890-01-02)2 January 1890
Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire, England
Died 26 July 1963(1963-07-26) (aged 73)
Worcester, Worcestershire, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 1905–1949
Rank Admiral
Unit Force Z
Commands held HMS Repulse
America and West Indies Station

First World War

Second World War

Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Member of the Royal Victorian Order
Legion of Merit (United States)
Other work Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire

Admiral Sir William George "Bill" Tennant KCB CBE MVO DL (2 January 1890 – 26 July 1963) was a British naval officer. He was lauded for overseeing the successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. Tennant subsequently served as captain of the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, when it searched for German capital ships in the Atlantic. He remained in this capacity when the Repulse was sunk by the Japanese along with HMS Prince of Wales in the South China Sea on 10 December 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He later aided in the setup of the Mulberry harbours and the Pluto pipelines, a crucial part of the success of Operation Overlord.


Born in Upton-upon-Severn and educated at nearby Hanley Castle Grammar School, Tennant joined the Royal Navy in 1905 at the age of 15, as a naval cadet at Britannia Royal Naval College.[2] He was eventually appointed an acting sub-lieutenant, being confirmed in that rank on 15 December 1909,[3] and was promoted to lieutenant on 30 June 1912,[4] eventually specialising in navigation in 1913.[2]

During the First World War, Tennant first served aboard the destroyers Lizard and Ferret as part of the Harwich Force until 1916, then aboard the cruisers Chatham and Nottingham, as part of the Grand Fleet in 1916, surviving the sinking of the latter during the Action of 19 August 1916. He then returned to the Harwich Force to serve aboard the cruiser Concord until 1919.[2]

Tennant was promoted to lieutenant-commander 30 June 1920,[5] and served as Navigating Officer aboard the battlecruiser Renown during the royal tour to India and Japan by the Prince of Wales between September 1921 and June 1922.[2][6] He then served as an instructor at HMS Dryad, the navigation school at Portsmouth, before returning to sea in late 1924 to serve as navigating officer of the Repulse for another tour by the Prince of Wales the following year, this time to Africa and South America.[2][6] For his services Tennant was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (Fourth Class) by the King in November 1925.[7]

Tennant was promoted to commander on 31 December 1925,[8] and spent the next two years posted to the Admiralty, serving in the Operations Division. He served as Executive Officer of the cruiser Sussex in the Mediterranean from March 1929, then on the staff of the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich from December 1930.[6] He was promoted to captain on 31 December 1932.[9]

From May 1935 he served as commanding officer of the cruiser Arethusa as part of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean, then from July 1937 was an instructor at the Imperial Defence College, London.[2][6] In August 1939 he was appointed Chief Staff Officer to the First Sea Lord.[6]

Second World War[edit]

Dunkirk Evacuation[edit]

On 26 May 1940 Tennant was appointed Senior Naval Officer ashore at Dunkirk, and ordered to Dover, where he took command of a naval party of eight officers and 160 men.[10] Tennant's party was dispatched on board the destroyer Wolfhound to aid in the evacuation of more than 300,000 British and French troops left stranded when France fell to the Nazis.[2] Tennant's task was to organize the men and get them onto the ships waiting to take them. Tennant stayed right up until the last ships left on 2 June, patrolling the beaches of Dunkirk with a megaphone searching for British troops.

Tennant was lauded for his efforts at Dunkirk, and was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath on 7 June 1940.[11] The ordinary sailors under his command took to calling him "Dunkirk Joe".[1]

Captain of the Repulse[edit]

On 28 June 1940 Tennant became captain of the battlecruiser Repulse,[2] taking part in battles against the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and later in the hunt for the battleship Bismarck.[12]

Loss of the Repulse[edit]

Tennant and Repulse joined Admiral Sir Tom Phillips' Force Z, sent to Singapore to counter Japanese advancement in the Pacific, in December 1941. On 8 December, the day after Pearl Harbor, Singapore came under attack by Japanese air units, and Force Z departed for Malaya to attack a Japanese convoy, an operation that was cancelled shortly thereafter. Upon returning to Singapore, they received word of Japanese landings on Malaya, and Force Z - without air cover - made for Malaya to counter them.

On 10 December, the Japanese attacked Force Z. Tennant ably managed to avoid nineteen torpedoes dropped from Japanese aircraft, but Repulse eventually succumbed to a pincer attack, taking five torpedoes; she sank within twenty minutes, taking a great deal of the crew with her. The survivors, including Captain Tennant, were rescued by HMAS Vampire, one of the destroyers in Force Z.[13]

On 6 February 1942 he was promoted to rear-admiral,[14] and in February 1943 received a mention in despatches for his part in operations on Madagascar.[15]


Rear Admiral Tennant (center) with his officers on Mulberry B, Arromanches, July 1944

In June 1944, Tennant was placed in charge of the naval side of the transport, assembly and setup of the two Mulberry harbours that provided port facilities for the coming invasion of Normandy.[2] In August, he supervised the laying of the Pluto pipelines between France and England, which provided much needed fuel supplies for the ongoing conflict. For his efforts in the success of the Normandy invasion, Tennant was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI,[16] and also received the United States Legion of Merit.

Post-war service[edit]

Tennant was promoted to vice-admiral on 27 July 1945,[6] and upgraded to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in December 1945 for his war service.[17] Appointed commander of the America and West Indies Station in 1946,[2] he was promoted to admiral on 22 October 1948,[18] and remained there until he retired in August 1949.[2] In 1950, he was named Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire, serving until his death at the Worcester Royal Infirmary in 1963.

In film and fiction[edit]

In the TV series Dunkirk, Captain Tennant is played by Adrian Rawlins. In the 2017 Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, the character of Commander Bolton, played by Kenneth Branagh, draws on the accomplishments of Captain Tennant during the evacuation of Allied troops from the eponymous French port.[19]


United Kingdom[edit]

Honour Abbreviation/Title Date Awarded
Member of the Royal Victorian Order MVO 16 October 1925
Companion of the Order of the Bath CB 7 June 1940
Commander of the Order of the British Empire CBE 28 November 1944
Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath KCB 18 December 1945

Awards from other countries[edit]

Award Country
Croix de guerre 1939-1945 France
Légion d'honneur, Officier France
Grand Cross of the Order of George I Greece
Commander of the Legion of Merit USA


  1. ^ a b "William Tennant - alias Dunkirk Joe". BBC Hereford and Worcestershire. 24 September 2014. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Tennant, Sir William George (1890–1963), Admiral". Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. Archived from the original on 31 July 2007. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  3. ^ "No. 28417". The London Gazette. 20 September 1910. p. 6689.
  4. ^ "No. 28623". The London Gazette. July 1912. p. 4748.
  5. ^ "No. 31965". The London Gazette. 6 July 1920. p. 7229.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Houterman, Hans; Koppes, Jeroen. "Royal Navy Officers 1939–1945 (Tait to Tours)". WWII Unit Histories & Officers. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  7. ^ "No. 33101". The London Gazette. 10 November 1925. p. 7350.
  8. ^ "No. 33119". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 December 1925. p. 9.
  9. ^ "No. 33899". The London Gazette. 3 January 1933. p. 48.
  10. ^ Lord, Walter (1984). The Miracle of Dunkirk. London: Penguin Books. p. 92. ISBN 014005085X.
  11. ^ "No. 34867". The London Gazette (Supplement). 7 June 1940. p. 3499.
  12. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "HMS Repulse (34) - Battlecruiser of the Renown class". Uboat.net. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  13. ^ Matthews, Alan. "The Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse". Force Z Survivors Association. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  14. ^ "No. 35463". The London Gazette. 20 February 1942. p. 840.
  15. ^ "No. 35915". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 February 1943. p. 935.
  16. ^ "No. 36815". The London Gazette (Supplement). 24 November 1944. p. 5453.
  17. ^ "No. 37394". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 December 1945. p. 6155.
  18. ^ "No. 38458". The London Gazette. 16 November 1948. p. 6020.
  19. ^ Broich, John (20 July 2017). "What's Fact and What's Fiction in 'Dunkirk'". Slate. Retrieved 25 March 2018.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Irvine Glennie
Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies Station
Succeeded by
Sir Richard Symonds-Tayler
Honorary titles
Preceded by
John Lyttelton, 9th Viscount Cobham
Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire
Succeeded by
Charles Lyttelton, 10th Viscount Cobham