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”.


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.



Admiral Dudley Pound Wouldn’t Take His Own Advice



iwn pound and SC

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and the Prime Minister on the deck of the SS Queen Mary. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)


Early in his tenure as First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound wrote to a close friend in the navy and said, “why have Commanders-in-Chiefs and do their work for them? If they are not capable of doing it they must make way for someone who can.” 1

Unique amongst the respective British service commands, the Admiralty had command, organizational and administrative responsibilities of a standard service ministry but also had operational control over the fleets.

Unfortunately, Dudley Pound didn’t take his own advice during the war since he often went over the heads of his C-in-Cs and gave orders to formations under their command.

During the disastrous campaign in Norway beginning in early April 1940, Pound went over the head of both the senior Royal Navy officer on the scene (Admiral Jock Whitworth) as well over the head Whitworth’s C.O., the Commander in Chief, Home Fleet. Pound even sent orders to individual ships. This caused immense confusion as you might imagine.

While many of the orders sent to RN ships fighting in the Norwegian campaign by Dudley Pound were thought to have originated with then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, many other times during the war Pound needed no prodding from Churchill to interfere in fleet dispositions during action with the enemy.

This could cause serious problems and occasionally disaster such as the infamous scattering order issue to convoy PQ17.

As an aside, the Chief of Naval Operations in the US, has no operational authority over US naval ships. He, or she, is responsible for everything concerning the navy but he doesn’t exercise command over fleets or ships. This has always been the case in the modern history of the US Navy.

In World War Two, Franklin Roosevelt picked Admiral Ernest King out of  a dead-end post which Admirals took a few years before retirement and made him Chief of Naval Operations. However, this gave King little power over the dispositions of the actual naval ships themselves since those were in fleets or other units under the authority of Commander in Chief US Fleet. This title had the unfortunate acronym of CINCUS.

After a spell, this did not suit Roosevelt who wanted one person in charge so he elevated King to the position of Commander in Chief US Fleet while allowing him to also keep the office of Chief of Naval Operations. This gave King immense authority over the entire US Navy. (And he sometimes went over the heads of his commanders such as Nimitz, not to change any of their fleet dispositions but to fire some of their subordinates).

Upon assuming the position of Commander in Chief, US Fleet, Admiral King immediately changed the acronym to COMINCH. King is the only man ever to have held the position of Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief US Fleet simultaneously.

1 Roskill, Stephen “The War at Sea”




9,000 Men Killed, 250 Warships Clash, 25 Sent to the Bottom, Part Two

The Battle of Jutland

31 May 1916


Damage to Q turret on battlecruiser HMS Lion, Admiral Beatty’s Flagship at the Battle of Jutland (Photo courtesy of IWM)

Since every source gives slightly different figures, I have taken the following figures verbatim from the after action summary prepared by Lion’s Captain during the Battle of Jutland,  A.E.M. Chatfield. (Later Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord or Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy)

In the Royal Navy this is formally known as “Report of Proceedings.” The report was made to Vice-Admiral Beatty, Commanding the Battle Cruiser Fleet. As mentioned, HMS Lion was Beatty’s flagship during the battle hence he was aboard the entire time.


HMS Lion surrounded by waterspouts from enemy gunfire as HMS Queen Mary explodes at right. (photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

 “The damage to the ship is not serious, except that “Q” turret is wrecked, but is reparable. The ship was hit altogether twelve times by enemy heavy shell, but the damage, which I have already reported to you separately, does not seriously affect our seaworthiness or fighting efficiency……”

“…the heavy casualties, which amounted to 95 killed and 49 wounded, mostly in the first two hours of the action, were a tremendous strain on the strongest discipline, yet there was never the least sign of wavering in the least degree from their duty.”


HMS Lion hit by German shellfire at Jutland Downloaded from [1] who scanned it from The Literary Digest History of the World War, 10 volumes, Halsey, Francis Whiting, ed; Funk & Wagnalls Co, New York and London, 1920

The complete Report of Proceedings can be found on the following website:


For some reason, naval historians and enthusiasts continue to debate who the actual victor was in this battle. True, the battle was confusing, to put it mildly. Huge formations of ships on the same side were often out of sight of each other.

Wireless communications were in their infancy so Admirals used a complex system of long strings of signal flags to try and maneuver their fleets. With low cloud cover, visibility was a limited so reading the flag signals was difficult.

All warships on the scene were powered by coal and produced huge clouds of smoke especially when they were steaming at speed. When ships fired on other ships, this generated clouds of powder smoke. To sum it up: many captains couldn’t see a damn thing much less distant flag signals from their Fleet or Squadron commanders.

Because of this, there is still debate over where different formations were at different times. The most fascinating question in military history is:  “what facts did commanders know, when did they learn those facts and how much weight did they give various facts over others?”

Jutland is a battle where the debate over these issues has continued to this very day and will continue for decades to come so I well understand why naval enthusiasts continue to debate the details.  However, many historians and amateur historians, suggest Jutland was a “strategic victory” for the British and a “tactical victory” for the Germans. Reason: Germans sank a larger number of Royal Navy ships  than the British sank German ships. This is both by number and tonnage.

This is historical hair-splitting which I say with due respect to those who like to engage in this debate.


Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe (1859-1935)

oil on canvass by Walter Thomas Monnington

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

At Jutland Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet was slow to come up and missed the opportunity to get between the German Fleet and their path of escape back their base.

As I wrote previously, the British Grand Fleet won the battle hands down because the German fleet never again sortied in fleet strength from their main base although smaller squadrons dashed out from time to time. But the High Seas Fleet mainly spent the rest of the war anchored behind heavy torpedo netting and other barriers to British attack.

Admiral Scheer, Fleet commander, was going to stage a last Wagnerian suicide mission by taking the fleet to sea in the last few weeks of the war. This precipitated mutiny aboard the ships of the High Seas Fleet and most German ships and bases were seized by mutinous sailors.