Admiral Philip Vian was an ambitious man but he must have reached a point where he was entirely weary of constantly being at sea, away from his wife and two children. Several of his commands drew duties as close escort protecting convoys to Malta. In every action Vian undertook in the Mediterranean he had to fight off constant air attack from the Luftwaffe and the Italian air-force. In addition he had to engage Italian surface units and both Italian and German submarines.

Second Battle of Sirte. Royal Navy convoy from Alexandria to Malta meets and engages Italian warships in the Mediterranean. HMS Cleopatra makes smoke to shield the convoy as HMS Euryalus elevates her forward 5.25 inch guns to shell the Italian Fleet. 22 March 1942 photo by Zimmerman, E A (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. This is photograph A 8166 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-01)

While escorting convoy MW 10 from Alexandria to Malta, Vian had only six light cruisers and eighteen destroyers under his command, a pitifully small number to fight a convoy through to Malta. One of his greatest worries was the inability of his smaller escort ships, such as the Hunt Class destroyers, to carry enough anti-aircraft ammunition to last the length of the voyage. These particular ship provided the close anti-aircraft protection to the merchant ships. C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet advised the Admiralty that it was impossible to adequately protect a supply convoy to Malta.

So dire was the supply situation on Malta the population was subsisting on less than 1800 calories a day. The garrison defending the island was running short of AA ammunition since the island itself was also under air attack almost 24 hours a day. Just as worrisome was the low level of furls of every sort, aviation gasoline for the RAF Spitfires as well as fuel to run the electric plants which supplied power to the anti-aircraft batteries and everything else. Hence, the Admiralty insisted an attempt be made to send a convoy to the island in spite of the availability of only a weak escorting force.

British cruiser HMS Cleopatra anchored in the Clyde. 3 April 1945. She served as Admiral Vian’s flagship during the Second Battle of Sirte Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum.

Not one Royal Navy battleship could be assigned to protect the convoy if it were attacked by an Italian battle fleet, as indeed it was. Admiral Vian had thought through all the possibilities and issued his orders prior to sailing, his orders always short and succinct. He had experienced captains commanding his warships and he let them do their fighting within his guidelines without interference from him.

In a brilliant action, known as the Second Battle of Sirte, Vian deployed his ships so skillfully that he managed to drive off the Italian battle fleet consisting of one battleship, two heavy cruisers which outgunned and outranged all of his cruisers, one light cruiser, and ten destroyers.

Since the convoy was under constant air attack shortly after it put to sea from Alexandria gun crews were at action stations for days at a time, sleeping at their posts or at their gun mounts as best they could — existing on “bully beef” sandwiches, cups of tea, and bottles of lime juice. Chief Gunnery Officers on the RN ships worked diligently to keep their anti-aircraft fire to the bare minimum needed to drive off enemy aircraft.

No one could adequate rest in such circumstances. Vian himself would take a few hours of sleep at a time, often in a chair in the navigator’s cubby on the bridge or stretched out on an air mattress on the bridge. It was a brutal life, hard on young men, very hard on middle aged men even if they had the comforts of being an Admiral. Those comforts were of little use since Vian had to be constantly available and could rarely go to his sea cabin under the bridge. And since the navigating bridges of British ships were open to the elements, he was constantly being exposed to extremes of weather.

In spite of Vian’s brilliant defense of the merchant ships when they were closer to Malta, units of the RN from the island replaced Vian’s escort and he turned and steamed back to Alexandria — under intermittent air attack most of the time. The Germans and the Italians were determined to deny supplies to Malta and all the merchant ships and several of their escorts were subsequently sunk the morning after the handoff when they were less than three hours from Malta. Several merchant ships made it into Grand Harbor but were sunk at their moorings by JU 87 Stuka dive bombers.

By delaying the convoy, the Italian fleet caused it to be exposed to air strikes during daylight of the final day. The ships were scheduled to enter Grand Harbor at dawn. In British slang, the whole thing was a cock-up which Vian had predicted. Nonetheless his brilliant handling of his small ships in driving off the main Italian battle fleet marks one of the great defensive actions of the war. Vian was knighted for his outstanding command of his ships that critical day.

In September 1942, after being relieved of command of the cruiser squadrons in the Mediterranean, he flew home via Gambia where his aircraft landed to refuel and have an engine fixed. During this time he was bitten by a mosquito and several weeks after his return he fell ill with malignant malaria which was not properly diagnosed in the beginning and he came close to death. It took him seven months, until April of 1943, to recover his health. Another illness which plagued him but never enough to give up his command were constant problems with infections in his ear, nose, and throat. Two weeks prior to D-Day he was struck down by quinsy which is a virulent cousin of tonsillitis and can kill a person. He stayed in bed for a week but that was all the Admiralty could manage to give him.

Since he was to be such a major player on D-Day, he had to put to sea, ill or not. So concerned was the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy that he sent the Navy’s top ear, nose, and throat specialist to join Vian on his flagship and continue to treat him.

Philip Vian had the qualities found in all great captains of history; the ability to quickly size up the situation he was in and come to correct decisions quickly and boldly; the ability to discern brilliance and competence in other men, bring them to his side, and leave them alone to do their duties; the ability to inspire loyalty in his subordinates who were never afraid to suggest different courses of action to him in private; the courage and professional reputation to disregard orders from superiors if he believed they were unaware of the situation he faced; the ability and confidence to learn from his mistakes; complete dedication to the task at hand; and finally luck. Vian was lucky. During the Battle of Second Sirte, a shell from an Italian light cruiser hit the bridge of his flagship and killed fourteen men. Vian, close by, didn’t suffer a scratch and was protected from the blast effect by where he happened to be standing.

[Images courtesy of the UK Imperial War Museums and the UK Imperial War Museums.]