“The Mad Admiral”
as he was referred to by one of his admiring superiors, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, C-in-C British Mediterranean Fleet (1939 to 1942).
While largely unknowable, and now almost unknown, Admiral Philip Vian commanded more Royal Navy task forces, fleets, and units at sea in World War Two than any other British admiral. He did this in spite of constant ill-health, probably brought on by the intense stress of his responsibilities and his long periods at sea under constant air and surface attack. This clearly wore him down and how could it not? Except on one occasion, his illnesses were never crippling, just nagging, but not feeling well in a stressful situation is stressful itself.
Royal Navy Tribal-class destroyer HMS Afridi (F07), as completed, 1938. Although far less famous than HMS Cossack, this ship was actually built as the Flotilla leader’s ship. She was sunk by Stukas off Norway on 3 May 1940. Vian was aboard as captain and flotilla commander. This was the first ship he had sunk out from under him.
Not well-liked outside of his small circle of intimates, whom he compliments with great generosity in his memoirs, the officers and ratings on the warships in his flotillas, fleets, and task forces were always pleased to be under his command. This wasn’t because Vian was likable. In fact, he never was and his coteries of officers whom he took with him from ship to ship more respected than liked him.
Officers and rating who fought under him respected him because they were keenly aware that Vian knew what he was doing, was thoughtfully, never foolishly aggressive, and thought through all the various probabilities and courses of action long before an engagement occurred. He never appeared rattled or shaken even when his various ships were sunk and he had to swim for it.
In spite of his prominence, no one has written a biography of Vian and while he wrote his memoirs, the book doesn’t capture much of who he was.