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Ruthless, Unforgiving, Unknowable: Admiral Sir Philip Vian pt 2

“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).

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Rear Admiral Sir T. Phillip Vian, R.N. – Dwight C. Shepler #139 Charcoal, May 1944
In July 1941, the British Admiralty gave Vian, then age 47,  a “pier-head jump” and promoted him to Rear Admiral.  This early promotion was ordered by the First Sea Lord , Sir Dudley Pound. After some stumbles early in his career Vian was clearly marked as a man destined for higher command.
In 1916 Vian was a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy (Ensign in the US Navy). Promoted to Lieutenant in 1917, Lt. Commander in 1924, Commander in 1929, Captain in 1934, Rear Admiral 1941, Vice Admiral 1945, Admiral 1948, Admiral of the Fleet 1952.
Vian, hero of a series of British naval actions in Norway and the Med (all of which he commanded at sea from his flagship) went on to command the British fleet supporting British and Canadian troops in their assault on D-Day. Subsequently he was posted to the British Pacific Fleet as Flag Officer Commanding 1st aircraft carrier squadron–which comprised most of the British Pacific Fleet).
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Few photographs of Vian smiling seem to exist. Probably because he didn’t smile a lot. The photo above from is from December 1944 and shows the “always well dressed” Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, KBE, DSO, RN, Commanding Officer, 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron, British Pacific Fleet. Vian was a stickler for men being properly dressed. He felt that an officer should always be well turned out when on duty and gave men hell if they weren’t. (Royal Australian Navy Historical Collection). 

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.

 

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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.

 

Admiral Vian “capable and lazy…wants driving” Pt 1

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.”

Vice Admiral Sir Philip Louis Vian, RN. Photograph taken 10 November 1944 Bassano Studio in London now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Bassano

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”.

NORMANDY BEACHES. 11 JUNE 1944, ADMIRAL SIR BERTRAM RAMSAY, ALLIED NAVAL COMMANDER, EXPEDITIONARY FORCES, FLYING HIS FLAG IN HMS KELVIN, VISITED THE ASSAULT AREA WITH AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR ARTHUR TEDDER, DEPUTY SUPREME COMMANDER EXPEDITIONARY FORCES AND MET REAR ADMIRAL SIR PHILIP VIAN AND REAR ADMIRAL A G TALBOT. (A 24019) Admiral Ramsay (centre) with Sir Arthur Tedder (left) and Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian (pointing) on board HMS KELVIN. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205156004

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.

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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.

 

 

Churchill Saved Western Civilization

 

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Marshal Josef Stalin makes a toast to Churchill on 30 November 1943, the British premier’s 69th birthday, during the Tehran Conference. Stalin was a difficult ally and relations were not always this friendly. With Russia taking the brunt of the war against Germany, Stalin had aggressively insisted on an invasion of northern France. Churchill resisted. He believed that any premature ‘Second Front’ was likely to fail. At Tehran, a date was finally set for June 1944.

 

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The ‘Big Three’ – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – at the Yalta Conference. Churchill travelled all over the world building and sustaining the ‘Grand Alliance’. This was an exhausting task. Between 1941 and 1945, he went on 19 gruelling and often dangerous journeys overseas. In December 1941, he suffered a mild heart attack at the White House and, two years later, a severe bout of pneumonia after the Tehran Conference.

 

Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), 8 May 1945. In a speech to them, he declared: 'God bless you all. This is your victory!' The crowd roared back, 'No - it is yours'. For Churchill, nothing would match his wartime triumphs. What came afterwards would be 'all anticlimax' as he later wrote in his war memoirs.

 

Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), 8 May 1945. In a speech to them, he declared: ‘God bless you all. This is your victory!’ The crowd roared back, ‘No – it is yours’. For Churchill, nothing would match his wartime triumphs. What came afterwards would be ‘all anticlimax’ as he later wrote in his war memoirs.

 

Few failed to recognise Churchill's part in Britain's survival and victory. But after six years of war, people wanted more than just a return to the old order. They wanted reform and reconstruction of Britain. On 26 July 1945, Churchill learned that he and the Unionists (Conservatives) had been rejected by the people. Labour, under Clement Attlee, would govern Britain in the immediate post-war world. Image © The rightsholder (IWM HU 55965).

Few failed to recognise Churchill’s part in Britain’s survival and victory. But after six years of war, people wanted more than just a return to the old order. They wanted reform and reconstruction of Britain. On 26 July 1945, Churchill learned that he and the Unionists (Conservatives) had been rejected by the people. Labour, under Clement Attlee, would govern Britain in the immediate post-war world.

Image © The rightsholder (IWM HU 55965).

8 People Made Honorary Citizens of the US

 

1 of the 8 is Britain’s greatest leader and the savior of Western Civilization, Sir Winston Churchill.

 

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Churchill greeting President Franklin D Roosevelt at the Quebec Conference in Canada, 11 September 1944.

photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

 

I have seen numbers ranging from 2 to 6 but according to this official page of the US Senate, there are eight honorary citizens of the United States.

One of the eight, and the most important as far as I am concerned, is Sir Winston Churchill.

http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/reference/three_column_table/HonoraryCitizens_US.htm

 

They are:

Bernardo de Gálvez
Casimir Pulaski
Marquis de Lafayette
Mother Teresa
William and Hannah Callowhill Penn
Raoul Wallenberg
Winston Churchill