Philip Vian was one of the Royal Navy’s best fighting admirals of World War Two yet he is little remembered today.
Vian did not impress his commanders early in his career. Confidential assessment by his commanding officer, 1913:
“…capable & lazy but wants driving. Casual & inaccurate in work.”
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Philip Louis Vian RN, GCB, KBE, DSO & Two Bars (15 July 1894 – 27 May 1968).
Photo of Admiral Vian above taken 10 November 1944 at Bassano Studio in London when Vian was a Vice-Admiral. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery in London. In recognition of his outstanding record as a fighting admiral in World War Two, Vian was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet when he retired, one of the few men promoted to that position who had not served as First Sea Lord (professional head of the Royal Navy).
Hence it is unfortunate that he has slipped off the radar screen of history for he was by all accounts a fascinating man although a demanding tartar of an officer and not a very friendly person in general. Contemporaries said he was unknowable. Several referred to him as a ‘dark and brooding man.’ Interestingly, this man who went from Midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet didn’t impress his superiors as a young officer, as you will see.
Early confidential assessments of Vian by his commanding officers were not of the highest order and show an indifferent young man:
1913: “Not keen, capable & lazy but wants driving. Casual & inaccurate in work.” Captain Smith
1914: “Average. Steady & reliable. Slow & does not exert himself.” Captain Nugent
1915: “Average. Hardworking & steady good at games.” Captain Sax
Being good at one or more of popular sporting games of the era was important to an officer’s career. These games could include rugby, cricket, polo, tennis and others. In every memoir about World War Two I have read by a Royal Navy officer, every author has described those of his fellow officers whom he respected both with his naval qualities such as ‘outstanding gunnery officer’ and the phrase, “good at games”.
Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Allied naval commander for D-Day (centre) with Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (left) and Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian (pointing) on board Ramsay’s flagship, HMS Kelvin.
(Photograph courtesy of and Copyright by: © IWM)
On D-Day, 6 June 1944, Admiral Vian commanded the Eastern Task Force, an assemblage of Royal Navy ships supporting British and Canadian troops during their D-Day landings in Normandy. The Eastern Task Force included the First World War veteran battleships HMS Ramillies and HMS Warspite, although the latter had been extensively modernized and almost rebuilt between March 1934 and March 1937. Twelve cruisers were part of the task force along with thirty-seven destroyers.
Vian suffered on several occasions from quinsy, also known as a peritonsillar abscess, a rare and potentially serious complication of tonsillitis. In his confidential report there is an entry which shows he was admitted to a Royal Navy hospital 17 March 1917 for tonsillitis. This happened again in 1937 when he was hospitalized for two weeks then given one month of sick leave.
Vian’s flagship on D-Day: Dido class light cruiser, HMS Scylla, shown above as she appeared in 1942, the year she was commissioned. (photo courtesy of IWM). On 23 June 1944, two and a half weeks after the Normandy invasion, the ship hit a mine and was so badly damaged that while only two years old, the Royal Navy decided that repairing HMS Scylla would cost more than she was worth so the ship was scrapped.
By the time of the invasion of Normandy, Vian had become one of the most experienced fighting admirals in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, he continued to suffer from bouts of quinsy which flared up in May of 1944. Because of the serious nature of this ailment, he was on sick leave for two weeks before the landings and wasn’t fully recovered when he boarded his flagship, HMS Scylla, to command the Eastern Task Force. In spite of his lingering illness, he simply could not be replaced. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, was so concerned about Vian’s illness, that he sent the Royal Navy’s senior ear, nose and throat specialist to accompany Vian on board his flagship.