Lieutenant Colonel Mark Tennant, CM, SStJ, ED, CD
“The Green Hornet”
Mark Tennant was perhaps one of the most memorable personalities to serve in the Calgary Highlanders during the Second World War, whose service to his country extended well past the end of the War. He has been fondly remembered by all who served with him.
Henry Tennant served with distinction as a Colour Sergeant in the Manchester Regiment of the British Army, seeing action at Balaclava and later during the Maori Wars in New Zealand, opting to discharge in Canada. His son gave birth to a grandson, Mark, in 1913, before himself going off to serve in the First World War.
Mark Tennant thus entered the world into a family with a long military tradition. Born in Winnipeg on June 13th, 1913, he enrolled in Army Cadets in Lethbridge, and later joined the Militia as a private in the South Alberta Regiment, eventually reaching the rank of sergeant. When war came in September 1939, Tennant enlisted in the Canadian Active Service Force. Each unit received its own block of service numbers; the unit he joined, an artillery battery in Lethbridge, assigned him the service number M9 – the lowest number in the province of Alberta. He transferred himself to the Calgary Highlanders, and when it was found he had been an NCO in the Militia, the RSM appointed him Orderly Sergeant at Mewata Camp that very night.
By the time the battalion was ready to leave for Shilo in 1940, Tennant had been promoted to Warrant Officer Class III and appointed Platoon Sergeant Major.
Many of the PSMs were commissioned as officers after the battalion arrived in England in 1940; such was the case with Tennant, who did not go to England until December 1940. He was promoted to Captain in June 1942.
Tennant served in many roles during the long period of training in England, and went ashore in Normandy with the battalion in July 1944, having reached the rank of Captain. He had also earned his nickname of “The Green Hornet” in England. His namesake had been a character in a 1930s radio serial; the Green Hornet was the main character of this crime show who always knew what the “bad guys” were up to. As Orderly Officer, Tennant displayed great efficiency; part of his job was attending to minor breaches of discipline – or in other words, knowing what the “bad guys” of the Calgary Highlanders were doing.
The first fatal casualties in Normandy were members of Support Company, whom Tennant commanded. In a 1992 interview, he said “I got hit myself. I checked one of the fellows and I knew he was dead but I picked him up in my arms and carried him over to the field dressing station….I never had any illusions that we were all going back alive. It was either today or tomorrow. I had no trouble coping with that, I just knew it was going to happen.”
In action, Tennant scouted sites for the weapons of his company (especially the 6 pounder anti-tank guns), and ensured that his men were providing support for the rifle companies. He was also responsible for getting necessities to the troops. During the attack on Tilly at the end of July, he organized a relay of Universal Carriers, to provide PIAT and Bren ammunition to the forward rifle companies. The regimental history tells us that it
…was a day-in day-out struggle to get rations, water and ammunition up to the rifle companies. Tennant ensured that every vehicle that went to the front had a water tank tied to it but “the big thing was to get ammunition up to them,” he later remembered. “We used to tell them, ‘don’t be machine gun happy,’ but they would hear a bit of noise at night and fire off all their ammunition. So we had to get ammunition up to them all the time.” Tennant always had several cases of land mines, grenades, and machine gun ammunition in his carrier and visited the rifle companies as often as he could to keep them supplied.
On 22 August, he was called on to do a reconnaissance for the entire battalion; it was not the first time, according to Regimental historian David Bercuson. Tennant himself boasted that he was the only Calgary Highlander who “really knew how to read a map.” That same month, Tennant was promoted to Major.
Life in Support Company was no less dangerous than life with the rifle companies. Tennant later recounted an incident from the night of 25 August in an interview:
Someone had fired a flare right over our area and then the Stukas came in, their sirens screaming. You could have struck a match on their noses they came so close to the ground. As they pulled up, down came their bombs, not the ordinary kind but containers with five to six hundred bomblets a little smaller than a grenade – grass-cutters. One container landed near me and didn’t explode, Thank God.
There’s always been an argument about how many Stukas there were. I think maybe three, others say half a dozen, others more. But they only made the one pass. No one had dug in except for Bob Morgan-Deane who was killed the next day. He made his platoon dig in and one of those clusters landed right beside them. Not one of them got a scratch. But counting a little skirmish we had next day, (the battalion) lost five officers and 115 men to those damn Stukas.
Normally, digging in was the first thing a battalion did when it arrived anywhere; here the Highlanders had been ordered to make a night move and were waiting for the order to get going.
Other duties in Support Company included evacuating the wounded. On the 22nd of September, he found himself ferrying wounded soldiers across the Albert Canal on makeshift rafts. Tennant also found himself acting as a forward observer for the 5th Field Regiment, RCA. On one occasion, Tennant was directing artillery and mortar fire from the bow-gunner’s position of a tank. In an interview with Jeffrey Williams, he remembered:
Ahead of us, a German was running away and I decided to let him go. I didn’t want to shoot the poor devil but then he turned back and picked something up. I thought that it must be pretty valuable and that if he was that serious about it, we probably needed it more than he did. I gave him the works and told the tank commander to stop. In the German’s hand was a tin can with a swastika on it, used to collect coins for the war effort. And that had cost him his life!
Tennant continued to scout for billeting locations, finding a first class “hotel-like” lodge for battalion headquarters at the end of September. Other scouting missions were recce patrols into enemy territory; one such mission found Tennant involved in a firefight on the night of 7 October; it hadn’t been the first time he ran into enemy soldiers while patrolling.
The next day, when communications were cut between battalion HQ and the forward companies, Tennant drove his carrier to a church, hoping to survey the ground ahead from the steeple. He was hit by 20 mm gunfire on the steps of the church, and evacuated. It was his second wound; he had also been hit on July 27th.
The Army wanted to send Tennant home; his wounds required months of hospitalization. Tennant wanted none of that. “I talked to the colonel and got him to agree to let me stay as a training officer. Later, I talked myself back into the war. I volunteered to fight a war, not a portion of a war. They were my men and I figured I could probably look after my men better than anybody else. I loved my men.”
At the start of April, Tennant was back, now in command of D Company. He led his company into vicious street fighting in the Dutch town of Doetinchem, and later led his company in the capture of Groningen. When his company went to ground under fire during the Groningen battle,
…Tennant was determined to get them moving. “The men went to ground…they would have been massacred if they had stayed there…I went to one platoon and said, ‘Get going, you sons of bitches, or I will gun gut you myself.’ The padre looked around and he said to me, ‘Very crude, but very effective, Mark.’ The men went in.”
On VE Day, Mark Tennant could think of only one thing. “I wanted…to get a hold of my mother and tell her that I had survived the war. That meant everything to me….None of us knew what we were going back to, we didn’t know what we were going to do. But we did know that we had survived the damn thing.” Tennant had been wounded three times in total, and had also been Mentioned in Despatches three times.
Tennant went on to serve in the Militia after the Second World War , commanding the Calgary Highlanders from 1953 to 1956. Afterwards, he was elected as an Alderman of the City of Calgary and served from 1958 to 1969. He was made an Honourary Lieutenant Colonel for life in 1977, and served as the Calgary Highlanders’ Honourary Lieutenant Colonel until 1981. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1981 as well.
In 1995, a park in Doetinchem, The Netherlands, was named in his honour, becoming “Mark Tennant Plantsoen – A Canadian Liberator”. Tennant spent the last years of his life at the Colonel Belcher Hospital in Calgary, but even in his last years he could be seen on recce missions downtown, in his motorized wheelchair. He passed away on the 29th of December 1997, and was buried with full military honours by his Regiment. His casket, by request, was draped with the Union Jack flag that his father and grandfather had fought for.