William Tennant (Royal Navy officer)

Sir William George Tennant

Vice Admiral Tennant visiting HMS Colossus, May 1945
Nickname(s) "Dunkirk Joe"[1]
Born (1890-01-02)January 2, 1890
Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire, England
Died July 26, 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 at age 15 in 1905,[2] serving onboard HMS Britannia, eventually specialising in navigation in 1913.[2] He later served in the First World War during the Gallipoli campaign and survived the sinking of his ship, the cruiser HMS Nottingham during the Action of 19 August 1916. After the war, Tennant transferred from the cruiser HMS Concord to the new battlecruiser HMS Renown and his future command, HMS Repulse, during the future King Edward VIII's royal tours in the 1920s.[2] By 1932, Tennant had achieved the rank of Captain.

World War II

Main article: Dunkirk evacuation

Dunkirk Evacuation

On 26 May 1940, Captain Tennant was dispatched on board the destroyer HMS Wolfhound to Dunkirk 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. The ordinary sailors under his command took to calling him "Dunkirk Joe".[1]

Captain of the Repulse

On 28 June 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.[3]

Loss of the Repulse

Tennant and Repulse joined Admiral Sir Tom Phillips' Force Z, sent to Singapore to counter Japanese aggression 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 sunk 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.[4]


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

In June 1944, Tennant - now an admiral - 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, and also received the United States Legion of Merit.

Post-war service

Tennant was promoted to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1945 for his war service, and made commander of the America and West Indies Station after the war ended, and remained there until he retired in 1949[2] as a full admiral. In 1950, he was named Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire, serving until his death at the Worcester Royal Infirmary in 1963.

In the TV series Dunkirk, Captain Tennant is played by Adrian Rawlins.


United Kingdom

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

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


Wikimedia Commons has media related to William Tennant (Royal Navy officer).
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
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