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Alec Dennis

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Alec Dennis (Royal Navy Officer)[edit | edit source]

John Alexander Jefferys Dennis DSC, known as Alec (18 February 1918 - 2008) was a Royal Navy officer. He saw service throughout the Second World War seeing action in Operation Ariel, the Norwegian Campaign, the Mediterranean Sea (including the Battle of Cape Matapan, the Battle of Greece and Battle of Crete), the Battle of Madagascar and the Arctic Convoys. Dennis commanded the boarding party from HMS Griffin that seized the German armed trawler Polares, in which the first codebooks and documents for a German Enigma machine were captured. He served in four destroyers, HMS Griffin, HMS Savage, HMS Valorous (L00) and HMS Tetcott. By VJ Day he was Tetcott's commanding officer. Dennis left the Royal Navy in 1957 and emigrated to Canada.[1]

Early career[edit | edit source]

Born the son of a doctor, Alec Dennis's only known naval connection was to an ancestor, John Jefferys, the midshipman of the boat taking Napoleon Bonaparte into his first exile from Saint-Raphaël[disambiguation needed] to the frigate [[HMS Undaunted]] en-route to Elba in 1815. Born in Caversham, Berkshire on 18 February 1918, Dennis spent part of his childhood with aunts in the UK while his parents were living and working in India. He entered the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth as a boy cadet in 1931, later becoming a cadet captain. On graduation, Dennis served in the battleship HMS Rodney, following which he joined the Admiralty yacht HMS Enchantress when it embarked the then First Lord, Sir Samuel Hoare on a mission to Malta, Cyprus and Greece. He later served with the battleship HMS Resolution and the heavy cruiser HMS Suffolk.[2]

He joined Griffin in January 1939 as sub-lieutenant and under her commander, John Lee-Barber[3] Dennis would eventually become her first lieutenant.

Second World War[edit | edit source]

Norwegian Campaign, 1940[edit | edit source]

Griffin landed troops in Molde and Aandalsnes as part of the overarching Operation Hammer, an ill-fated attempt to capture the Norwegian port of Trondheim by landing soldiers north and south of the city. Shortly afterwards, Griffin intercepted the German armed trawler Polares, disguised to look like a Dutch neutral. As the boarding officer, Dennis led a party of sailors to investigate a suspicious vessel. There was no resistance, probably on account of the accidental discharge of a revolver by one of his party but the crew threw overboard all their confidential books, cyphers and charts. However, the books were recovered by Gunner Florrie Foord, diving from Griffin's quarterdeck. Warned by a German crewman that a hatch was booby-trapped, Dennis had this rendered safe before setting a course for the British base at Scapa Flow. The voyage to Scapa Flow turned out to be difficult as the initial position was uncertain and the navigational equipment had been thrown overboard. Unfortunately, the seizure led to unproven accusations that he allowed the crew to loot the ship, something that Dennis always strongly denied. Ultimately, he was mentioned in despatches for his part in the operation and the material captured was sent to the code breakers of Bletchley Park (Government Code & Cypher School GC & CS). This enabled the British to break the German Naval Enigma cypher for 22-27 April 1940 and GC & CS were reading their first Enigma message on 11 May 1940.[4] Until the historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore explained the situation to him over 60 years later, Dennis had no idea of the importance of this capture.

The Mediterranean and Red Sea[edit | edit source]

A large part of Griffins time was spent convoying merchant shipping to Malta during the Siege of Malta but Dennis was her Gunnery Control Officer at the Battle of Cape Matapan, 27-29 March 1941, when in company with other warships, he bombarded an Italian cruiser. Griffin broke off the engagement to pursue some Italian destroyers that had appeared on the scene but in the early hours of 29 March, Greyhound's searchlight revealed the burning Pola lying stopped immediately in front of the British warships. Griffin helped pick up the Italian survivors who later made themselves unpopular with the ship's company by complaining about their food.[5] In April 1941, Griffin participated in the evacuation of the British, Australian and New Zealand troops from Greece. During this operation, Griffin was called to assist the damaged Dutch liner Pennland, but following further bomb damage, the decision was made to abandon ship, after which Dennis was obliged to sink her with gunfire. He later admitted that it took a lot of shells to sink the ship, even at point-blank range.[6] After towing the badly damaged Landing Ship Infantry (Large) Glenearn back to Crete and rescuing the survivors of destroyers HMS Diamond and HMS Wryneck, sunk by air attack, Griffin took part in the evacuation from Monemvasia to Crete. During the subsequent Battle of Crete, Griffin endured repeated dive bombing attacks and for 'gallantry and distinguished service in Greek waters', Dennis was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. [7] Other operations in the region included supporting the British advance from Transjordan and Palestine into Syria to seize the mandate from the Vichy French and the destroyer supply runs to the key Libyan port of Tobruk, under siege by Axis forces for most of 1941.[8] He witnessed the sinking by U-331 of the battleship HMS Barham in November 1941, but, by chance, met the U-boat captain, Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen in Vancouver after the war and became good friends.[9] Dennis remained in Griffin throughout the rest of her service with the Royal Navy, including the Battle of Madagscar and her return to the Mediterranean for the unsuccessful Operation Vigorous - an attempt to re-supply Malta in mid-1942.

Arctic convoys[edit | edit source]

As first lieutenant of the new S-class destroyer, HMS Savage (G20), Dennis helped oversee preparations for service in the Arctic, where convoys to support the Soviet Union were being renewed. The ship's interior was sprayed with asbestos to improve her insulation and it may have been this that caused him to contract asbestoses in later life. At the Battle of the North Cape that resulted in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst in 1943, he was mentioned in despatches a second time.[10] The German ship was sunk by a combination of torpedo strikes from the destroyers (three of which were claimed by Savage) and gunfire from the heavy cruiser HMS Belfast and battleship HMS Duke of York. Savage's captain, Commander Michael Meyrick gave a brief description of the action shortly afterwards in a newsreel. [11] and Dennis 'was hauled off to give a talk on the radio'.[12] In January 1944, he found himself in the water helping rescuing survivors from the torpedoed merchant ship, Penelope Barker, part of Convoy JW 56A attacked by U-boats in the Norwegian Sea.[13] Many years after the war he was awarded a medal by the Russian government which entitled him to free bus travel in Murmansk.[14]

Rosyth Escort Force[edit | edit source]

After more Arctic convoying and serving with the destroyer screen on D-Day (Operation Overlord), the beginning of 1945, found Dennis in command of the destroyer, HMS Valorous, part of the Rosyth Escort Force, escorting coastal convoys in the North Sea. This was a relatively quiet posting until renewed E-boat activity led to a fierce encounter between E-boats and a convoy between Immingham and Sheerness on 21 February 1945. During this action Valorous sustained a hit on her boiler from friendly fire but for his part in fighting off the attackers, Dennis was rewarded with a third mention in despatches. While still with the Rosyth Escort Force, he was chosen as one of the officers to take part in the local surrender of German forces at Kristiansand, Norway in May 1945. This included the surrender of 26 U-boats and 15,000 German soldiers.[15] On VJ Day, Dennis was commanding HMS Tetcott intended for the Pacific campaign. However, the outbreak of peace meant he got no further than Gibraltar.

Later life[edit | edit source]

Dennis retired from the Royal Navy in 1957 and emigrated to Canada. He joined a glazing firm in Montreal where he started out sweeping the floor. However, after a short while he was invited to become a member of the board. He declined and obtained a teaching certificate before teaching for ten years in Vancouver. He married Faith Hammond in January 1945 and had the banns read aboard Tetcott so that nobody could challenge them. Faith died in 2001 and Dennis followed her on 29 June 2008.[16] They are survived by a son and daughter.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

His papers relating to these wartime experiences are lodged at the Imperial War Museum, London and can be viewed by appointment.[17] An edited version of these were published by Pen & Sword in 2017. A memoir dealing with his time as a cadet at Dartmouth is lodged at the Britannia Royal Naval College.[18]

Sources[edit | edit source]

Cumming A (ed.) In Action with Destroyers: The Wartime Memoirs of Commander J A J Dennis DSC RN, Pen & Sword Maritime, 2017. ISBN 1526718499

Obituaries, Commander Alec Dennis, Telegraph.co.uk, <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/2437896/Commander-Alec-Dennis.html>

Sebag-Montefiorie H, Enigma: Battle for the Code, Cassell Military Histories, 2004

Entry for Admiral John Lee Barber, The Wivenhoe Encyclopedia, http://www.wivencyclopedia.org/History/Lee-Barber.htm

External links[edit | edit source]

British Pathe, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4Rmh0WzCNs

Commander J A J Dennis DSC RN The Liberation of Norway: Operation Conan, Holywell House Publishing, May1945 http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Kristiansand.html

Private Papers of Commander J A J Dennis DSC RN, Imperial War Museum, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030003179

References[edit | edit source]

This article "Alec Dennis" is from Wikipedia. The list of its authors can be seen in its historical and/or the page Edithistory:Alec Dennis. Articles copied from Draft Namespace on Wikipedia could be seen on the Draft Namespace of Wikipedia and not main one.

  1. Obituary Commander Alec Dennis, Telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/2437896/Commander-Alec-Dennis.html
  2. Family knowledge
  3. Entry for Admiral John Lee Barber, The Wivenhoe Encyclopedia
  4. Sebag Montefiore H, Enigma: Battle for the Code, (Cassell Military Histories, 2004), pp.73-77
  5. Cumming A (ed)., In Action with Destroyers: The Wartime Memoirs of Commander J A J Dennis 1939-1945, DSC, RN ( Pen & Sword Maritime, 2017) p.74-76.
  6. Cumming, p.82
  7. Obituary
  8. Cumming, pp.97-104
  9. Obituary
  10. Obituary
  11. British Pathe
  12. Cumming,p.143
  13. Cumming, pp.146-147.
  14. Obituary
  15. Obituary
  16. Obituary
  17. Private papers of Commander J A J Dennis, Imperial War Museum
  18. Personal knowledge

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