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).
vian-tropical-dress
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.

 

Being Fired on by the Bismarck Was “Disconcerting” Said Vian – Part 2

Part 1 Part 2  

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
One of Great Britain’s best fighting admirals in World War Two. Vice Admiral Sir Philip Louis Vian, RN. Photograph taken 10 November 1944 by Bassano Studio in London. Photograph now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Bassano.

 

 

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+Scottish trawler F/V Harvester in heavy weather in the North Atlantic.

This would have been the type of weather Vian and his destroyers were battling through. In Royal Navy warships, the navigating bridge was open to the elements, if you can imagine. The bridge crew would not only have trouble hearing anyone over the roaring of the waves but would have been completely soaked and very cold. Most likely they would have relieved the lookouts once an hour and give them an hour to get warm before relieving their relief lookout and repeat this.

The weather was atrocious on that night in May 1941 when Vian decided to steam after the Bismarck. Because of a heavy following sea, his destroyers could barely stay on course, sometimes yawing as much as 140 degrees from their base course. In a lighter ship such as a destroyer, a heavy following sea made forward progress difficult. Wind and waves would be pounding the ship from astern or hitting the sides of the ship aft, either side known as a quarter, being the site of the quarterdeck.

 

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F/V Harvester plunging into a trough in the winter North Atlantic.
This ship is built to take the pounding seas of the very rough weather of the North Atlantic and is deeper in the water than she looks. She is much easier to control than a WW Two RN destroyer would have been in a similar situation. Still, were you on the bridge of the F/V Harvester at this moment, you would have the sensation that the ship was practically standing on its bow.Scottish fishing trawler, F/V Harvester, in a heavy following sea. A bulbous bow is giving the ship more stability than an RN destroyer would have had.

 

Danish built Scottish fishing vessel F/V Harvesting in harsh North Atlantic weather.
Danish built Scottish fishing vessel F/V Harvesting in harsh North Atlantic weather. Her forefoot or bulbous bow can be seen slicing through the waves. 
While naval architects have found that this design does all sorts of good things, they disagree on all the sorts of good things it does and why. The general consensus is a bulbous bow gives the ship greater stability, reduces the bow waves the ship itself makes which is the major cause of drag on a ship, keeps the ship from yawing as it goes down the front of the wave, and keeps the stern from squatting too low in the water which can cause the ship to be “pooped”. That is, take heavy water or heavy waves over the stern which is a prime cause of a ship’s sinking. You don’t want the stern too high out of the water, or else the rudder won’t “bite” but you don’t want it too low in the water for fear that a massive wave will break onto the after deck and sink the ship. That’s the theory anyway.You can see the bulbous bow, as it is called, of the F/V Harvester in this photo.

Royal Navy destroyers were not built for sustained operations in this kind of very rough North Atlantic weather. Before the war, the Admiralty didn’t give much thought to the possibility that their destroyers would be employed as convoy escorts in the North Atlantic. They were built for speed. The famous Tribal Class destroyers, which were the ships in Vian’s Flotilla which was chasing the Bismarck, could make in excess of thirty-six knots. This class had a draught of only nine feet, which meant it wasn’t very deep in the water and the ships rolled badly. Destroyers were supposed to glide over the waves not blast through them. But in the North Atlantic they had no choice. Every memoir I have read from anyone who served on a Royal Navy destroyer in the North Atlantic in World War Two mentions the constant twisting and sagging of the hull and the amount of noise it made.

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The design of Tribal Class destroyer HMS Eskimo with a traditional bow.

Since Vian’s ships were in a following sea, they would be taking the weather on either the port or starboard quarter as well as partially astern. Large waves would lift the stern of the ships almost out of the water which would negate the action of their rudders because they could not “bite” or get traction since they were barely in the water. As the wave lifts the ships aft, and the rudder won’t “bite,” the ships would slide down the front of the wave and be pushed to port or starboard by the force of the wind and the waves. Hence in nautical parlance, the ships would “yaw,” that is, go way off the course she had been steering.

an inopportune gale was rising as we set course to intercept, accompanied by rain storms and poor visibility… Reports reached me of men being hurt, and in one case of being washed overboard, but there was nothing to be done.

Given the state of the weather and of the damage being done to his ships by that weather, it is a wonder that Vian and his other four destroyers finally came into contact with the Bismarck. But Philip Vian was a “driver.” Excuses were not something he ever wanted to hear. Once on the scene, Vian realized the atrocious weather made a coordinated attack by his flotilla impossible so the captains were told to attack as the opportunity arose.

Their primary weapon at this point were their torpedoes. In the several hours after midnight of 22 May 1941, all of Vian’s destroyers ran-in as close as they could to the Bismarck to launch their torpedoes. Each ship made two attacks. Vian believed that both HMS Cossack and HMS Maori had each hit the Bismarck with a torpedo.

Post-war records did not confirm this belief. Writes Vian:

In a German record recently published, no hits are conceded: if this was really true it is a dolorous thought…

Bismarck spotted them quickly. The huge German ship began to fire her four main batteries at the British destroyers. Her four main battery turrets mounted 15 inch guns, — Anton and Bruno forward and Caesar and Dora aft.

A disconcerting aspect of being under fire of such big guns, which we were experiencing for the first time, was that the shells could be seen on our radar screen, as they raced toward us, thus inducing some unpleasant moments until the shells plunged into the sea, exploding with a violent concussion and throwing up huge pillars of water which seemed to tower above us.

“Inducing some unpleasant moments” has to rank as one of the great understatements of the war.

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Fairey Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal returns at low level over the sea after making a torpedo attack on the German battleship Bismarck.

It certainly is one of these ungainly and ancient looking planes which hit the Bismarck’s rudder compartment and jammed the ship’s rudder hard over to port. That sealed her fate.

However, I believe the official caption under the photo to be incorrect and I am certain this photo was taken at a completely different date and place. Based on the time of the attacks, very late afternoon, this picture could only have been taken after the first strike by the torpedo bombers when they mistakenly attacked HMS Sheffield which was shadowing the Bismarck. The sun was sinking into the western horizon by the time the aircraft returned to the carrier to be re-loaded with torpedoes since each plane only carried one. They made their second strike, this time on the Bismarck just before dusk.

However, the appalling state of the weather is not discernible in the photo above which makes me think it was taken at a completely different time and place. The Swordfish torpedo bombers were operating far outside of their design limits when they attacked the Bismarck. Heavy seas pounded the carrier and the flight deck of HMS Ark Royal was dropping then rising as much as forty feet as the Swordfish took off.

[Sources: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian, Diesel Duck, and Wikipedia. Images courtesy of OceanLines, OceanLines, OceanLines, The Blueprints, and the UK Imperial War Museums.]