Henri Tanguy was born on 12 June 1908 in Morlaix, Brittany to a family of a sailor. Aged 14, he moved to Paris to work as a foundryman. In 1925, he joined the Young Communists and ended up as a secretary. He did his military service in 1929 with the 8th Régiment de Zouaves in Oran, Algeria; on his return, he became an activist with the local metal workers union.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Tanguy joined the International Brigades to fight for Spanish Republic. He was political commissar of the André Marty Battalion (made up of Franco-Belgian volunteers) which was part of the XIV International Brigade. He was wounded in the Battle of the Ebro in 1938. After the war, he returned to France.
At the outbreak of World War II, Tanguy was conscripted into the French Army. After the surrender, he went underground with his wife Cécile Le Bihan. He became one of the leaders of communist resistance in Paris and organized a group that became Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP). Tanguy used a nom de guerre of "Colonel Rol", after a close friend who had died in Spain.
In June 1944, Tanguy took command of the group the French Forces of the Interior in the Île-de-France. When Allied armies begun to approach Paris, they were part of the forces that began the liberation of Paris.
After five days of fighting, German General Dietrich von Choltitz notified Colonel Rol that he was ready to negotiate. Alongside Free French general Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque, Tanguy accepted and signed the act of surrender on 25 August. Like many resistance members, Tanguy later added his wartime pseudonym to his official name and became Rol-Tanguy.
Rol-Tanguy joined the French 1st Army of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny and served during the battles in Germany. After the war, he received Croix de Guerre, the Médaille de la Résistance and the Ordre de la Libération. He remained in the French army with a permanent commission until 1962.
After his army career, Rol-Tanguy joined the central committee of the French Communist Party where he remained until 1987. He lived in the department of Loir-et-Cher. In 1994, he received Grand Croix de la Légion d'honneur and, in 1996, received an honorary citizenship from Spain for his part in the International Brigades.
Henri Rol-Tanguy died on 8 September 2002, and received a salutation in the Invalides from Jacques Chirac, the recently re-elected President of France.
In 2004 he was commemorated at Place Denfert-Rochereau, in Paris, with a plaque, and the metro station there was sub-titled Colonel Rol-Tanguy.