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VISIT | Admiring Admiral Tennant at Upton upon Severn - Hero of Dunkirk | Worcestershire

Admiral Tennant's Bust at Upton
Admiral Tennant's Bust at Upton

A Life of A Navy Man - Dunkirk Joe

A man of naval history - there are few like him

Discover the role of an Upton man - Admiral Sir William Tennant, Royal Navy

Or shall we all just call him Dunkirk Joe? His men seemed to think he earned it? Why - see the history of Dunkirk, of HMS Repulse, of Operation Overlord and more. Then ask why...

Remembrances are often placed here in front of and around the Tennant Bust
Remembrances are often placed here

"...the connection between an extra-ordinary naval man and the place from whence he came..."

Description |

He stood to attention, taking the salute – scouts, guides, the sea cadets, the men and women who had fought, the organisations that served. It was 1959 – Remembrance Sunday. In the small market town of Evesham in Worcestershire.

It was far from the original Remembrance Sunday after the First World War in 1919. And not so far from the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. Forty years since the First. Twenty years since the Second. In both wars this man, this man who stood in efficient attention and took the salute in absolute seriousness, took a central part. His name was William George Tennant.

The lads called him Dunkirk Joe. On the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. On the whispers of lips on HMS Repulse in the Far Eastern seas in 1941. On the mouths of the men that stormed the beaches at Arromanches in Normandy in 1944. And they smiled back in Worcestershire, in the town of Upton-upon-Severn where he lived and returned, proud of the man.

In the shadow of the famous ‘Pepperpot’ in this riverside town of Upton, is a proud memorial to a naval man, an officer, a Lord Lieutenant of this county. 

The head and shoulders of the man. And to give him his full title and name. Admiral Sir William George "Bill" Tennant KCB CBE MVO DL.

But this man is no simple local hero? His death in 1963 marked the end of his battles. But merely began another history of his legend. So what of this tale? What of this man?

Why does his name, his face and his legend sit in this town?

Quite simply, this man was an Upton man. Although born in Quatford in Shropshire on the 2nd January 1890, it was merely part of the family estate. His family lived just outside Upton-on-Severn at the Eades. He was the son of the late Lieutenant Colonel Tennant and the Tennant family were an Upton family. William just joined the family lineage.

William George Tennant joined the Royal Navy in 1905 aged just 15 years of age, a natural age for young aspiring naval men. And thus so began a naval career that would be both varied and impressive. For his career was fortunate (or not so fortunate) to pass through the duration of two World Wars and a particular intriguing time during the Inter War Years.

Midshipman Tennant as he began would be promoted Sub-Lieutenant within three years, and Lieutenant within another three. So by the time the First World War began, Lieutenant Tennant would be aboard ship initially as part of the Harwich Fleet covering the English Channel with HMS Lizard and HMS Ferret and then on board HMS Chatham and HMS Nottingham.

On the 31st May 1916, the Battle of Jutland began. The most famous of the First World War Sea Battles. HMS Nottingham was there with William Tennant on board. They survived the battle and fought engagements to protect others within the Grand Fleet. On the 19th August 1916, HMS Nottingham put to sea as part of the Grand Fleet but was caught in a German ambush and hit by first two and then three torpedoes – it was after the third that the ship began to sink. Tennant survived the sinking but lost 38 fellow seamen in the attack.

Tennant saw out most of the remaining war on board HMS Concord as part of the Harwich Fleet. On war’s end was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. By this time, he was beginning to show a real flair and talent in navigation. Between 1921 and 1925, Tennant worked as an Instructor at the navigational school in Portsmouth but was also appointed Navigator on board the newly re-fitted HMS Renown which in 1921 took on royal duties in taking Edward, Prince of Wales on a royal tour to India and Japan and then in 1925, to Africa and South America. Lieutenant Commander Tennant was ship’s Navigator.

Comments in his naval record from his commanding officers speak of a man well appointed for promotion and with a self-assuredness in his views. After his royal duties, Tennant was given an investiture and then was promoted once again to Commander in 1925.

His naval career in the 1920s and 1930s was interspersed with work at Admiralty Headquarters, a further promotion to Captain in 1932, becoming Commander of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron and becoming an Instructor at the Imperial Defence College just before the Second World War. This was a man who had worked hard, advanced due to natural skills and empathies and was sharing his knowledges and experiences. Such a man would be needed when the next war arrived…

When war broke out in August 1939, Captain William Tennant was appointed Chief Staff Officer to the First Sea Lord – let’s be clear here – the First Sea Lord is Head of the whole thing, the Royal Navy in its completeness and of the Naval Service. So Tennant was on the ‘big table’ where the big issues were to be discussed.

On the 27th May 1940, Captain William Tennant was on board HMS Wolfhound as it sped on to the French coast to a town that would become infamous. That place was Dunkirk. In the beginnings of the war, the British army known as the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) had advanced to France to try to hold up the German army which was attacking quickly and with vast numbers in a mass Blitzkrieg. The British troops became out-numbered and were swiftly being pushed backwards. A rear guard action led to hundreds of thousands of men being forced into the town of Dunkirk and lined up on the beaches waiting for their deaths, their imprisonment as prisoners of war or – with the luck of the gods – an evacuation by their own government.

Amongst the forces being pushed back with the British, was additional French and Belgian soldiers. Somewhere in the region of 400,000 people needed saving. Peppered by Stuka dive bomber attacks and the perpetual threat of Panzer tanks and Wehrmacht attacks, they must have known their chances were questionable.

Operation Dynamo was instigated – the plan to evacuate the men from the beaches of northern France. Bertram Ramsey was picked by Churchill to come up with a plan – stationed at Dover Castle, he began to evacuate the forces – problems stacked up – it was slow, numbers evacuated on each turn was small, numbers on the beaches were increasing, there weren’t enough boats, German U-boats and planes were attempting to sink the boats as they arrived, transported and left… The pressure increased.

Tennant had been sent to be the Senior Officer in Dunkirk – to be their eyes and ears; and to work out a way of getting the job done better, quicker and more efficiently. When Tennant arrived time was not on his side. By all accounts, he was facing a town being slowly encircled. He co-ordinated with the French and discovered his docking options for large ships was futile. Their attention moved on to the moles – long structures that stretched out from the coast as a breakwater. Thus so his plan was realised – rickety as it was with a few modifications, it would serve as a terminal that ships could dock and get the men on board. After a trial docking, it was deemed a success and suddenly those numbers began to increase with the possibility of getting the vast majority to safety.

On the 27th May nearly 8000 men were evacuated, the 28th May 12,000 men. A communal call for more boats of any size and shape led to the arrival of the now renowned ‘Little Boats’ – yachts, fishing boats, trawlers, pleasure boats which kept up pace. On the 29th May over 47,000 men were evacuated. And by the 30th May, it was 53,000 men. The 31st May 68,000 men. June 1st led to 65,000 men. There had been a cost – the Luftwaffe and the German army had been ruthless – ships had been lost, men had laid down their lives to attempt to slow their advance. All this time, Tennant had stayed in Dunkirk organising and barracking.

June 2nd led to a breather whilst discussions were had. A few thousand British and French were still holding up the Germans outside the town, and on the route to Dunkirk. Late on the 2nd, Tennant reported to Ramsey that the BEF were evacuated including on the final day over 25,000 French troops. Finally Tennant was left there on the beach with a megaphone shouting for all the world to hear – anyone left?

Operation Dynamo rescued 340,000 men from the beaches of northern France. British and French. 90,000 men had been left behind with much of the tanks, equipment and guns. France was lost for the time being but there would be another time. Tennant was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath for his role at Dunkirk right up until the bitter end. His sailors took to calling him Dunkirk Joe.

But then that should be it right – Dunkirk. But no – Tennant continued on. He became Captain of the HMS Repulse (sister ship of HMS Renown) engaging the German fleet in 1940 and after. Before being appointed as part of the Churchill-instructed Force-Z. The aim to deter and counter Japanese aggression in the Far East; to protect Singapore and to destroy Japanese troop landings. The brand new HMS Prince of Wales battleship was paired with HMS Repulse, along with two destroyers HMS Electra and HMS Vampire. The convoy was spotted by the Japanese, heading for Kuantan to intercept Japanese troop carriers. The convoy never made it. On the 10th December 1941, hit by Japanese bombers and torpedo bombers, HMS Prince of Wales was hit and sank, losing their Captain. Tennant commanded Repulse with absolute leadership – he managed to avoid nearly twenty torpedoes and the remaining bombers. But eventually became stricken by a pincer attack by the Japanese, and despite incredible efforts of their anti-aircraft defence, HMS Repulse capsized. Tennant was lauded for his efforts in this tragic and much criticised naval affair. Electra picked up survivors from the Repulse including the Captain; but they had lost 508 officers and men. Many men from the Repulse after being picked up on Electra, manned the stations so their crew could rescue more men. Such was the life at sea during the war in the East.

Tennant went back to Singapore, and went back to leading. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1942 and oversaw action off East Africa and Madagascar. Before being selected for the organisation and delivery of Operation Overlord. This was the invasion plan of northern France. He was put in charge of plan for the floating Mulberry harbours – the device which would allow the mass transport and delivery of the Allied tanks, guns, equipment and troops on the Normandy beaches of northern France.

Tennant was also responsible for the laying of PLUTO – the underwater oil line from Britain to France designed to provide fuel as part of Operation Overlord. Essentially it wasn’t needed but it was still impressive. The end to his war led to Tennant receiving a C.B.E. from King George VI and a further promotion to Vice-Admiral.

Life post-war must have seemed casual until his retirement in 1949 – spending time in the West Indies and the States, before his final promotion to Admiral. Life would bring him back to Upton, where life had begun and so life would end. He was named Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire and carried out many engagements – taking each one as seriously as his naval career.

Admiral Sir William Tennant would take the last voyage home on the 26th July 1963, he died aged 73. Upton remains resolutely proud of their man. A man whose life endured from service, who represented a character and a commitment when things seemed all but lost. For if William Tennant can instil something in all of us, it is that it is not lost until it is over. And its never over.

Go to Upton, stand to attention at the bust of a man whose actions changed the fates of many.

Directions and Map |

Find the bust of Tennant in front of the Pepperpot near the Rivern Severn and the Bridge that runs over it

Longitude: -2.217735

Latitude: 52.064334

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