Vian: “I Ought to Be Shot Myself”

I received many letters from the public after this affair: a number wrote to say that, as I had failed to shoot, or hang, the Captain of the Altmark, I ought to be shot myself.” Vian in his memoirs, Action This Day


The London Gazette   (Official newspaper of the British Government)

Admiralty, Whitehall. 12th April, 1940.
“The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following Appointments to the Distinguished Service Order:—
To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order: Captain Philip Louis Vian, Royal Navy, H.M.S. Cossack;” 

“for outstanding ability, determination and resource in the preliminary dispositions which led to the rescue of 300 English prisoners from the German Armed Auxiliary Altmark, and for daring, leadership and masterly handling of his ship in narrow waters so as to bring her alongside and board the enemy, who tried to blind him with the glare of a searchlight, worked his engine full ahead and full astern, tried to ram him and drive him ashore and so threatened the grounding and loss of Cossack.”




The most famous of the Royal Navy’s Tribal Class destroyers: HMS Cossack underway at slow speed.

(Official Royal Navy photo courtesy IWM)


Captain Philip Vian, RN, commanded the 4th Destroyer Flotilla from his flotilla leader’s ship, HMS Cossack, one of the famous “Tribal Class” destroyers. In February 1940, Vian had been ordered to board the German ship Altmark, then anchored in neutral Norwegian waters. This particular ship had been a supply ship to the Admiral Graf Spee and had taken several hundred British merchant navy officers and men from the Graf Spee, who had captured these men when she sank their ships.

Vian’s men boarded the Altmark with their famous shout, “the navy’s here!” and freed more than 200 British merchant sailors being held prisoner. Captain Vian didn’t have instructions from the Admiralty on what to do with the German officers aboard the ship. Since Altmark was in international waters, Vian wisely decided to only bring off the British merchant sailors and leave the Germans on their ship.

Wrote Vian in his memoirs, Action This Day by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Philip Vian GCB, KBE, DSO & Two Bars:

“I received many letters from the public after this affair: a number wrote to say that, as I had failed to shoot, or hang, the Captain of the Altmark, I ought to be shot myself.”





Philip Vian (2nd from left) with Admiral Halsey aboard USS Missouri, c. mid-1945. At that time, Vian was Commander-in-Chief of the British Pacific Fleet. Photo courtesy of US National Archives.


Vian was a tightly wound man, to put it mildly, and had a ferocious temper. He wasn’t a likable man. If you served with him over a period of time, knew your job and followed his orders precisely, then you at least won his loyalty. Whenever he was appointed to a new ship or position, he dismissed that ship’s senior officers and brought aboard his own men. This has always been the prerogative of an Admiral but it still rankled some.

Below is a passage from the obituary of Vice-Admiral Sir David Brown, published in the London Daily Mail of 21 July 2005:

“Later, in Portsmouth, Brown was summoned onboard the flagship of the Home Fleet, the battleship Vanguard, to receive a furious blast from Admiral Sir Philip Vian, the Commander-in-Chief, for failing to salute his flag. Others quailed before Vian’s outbursts, but Brown fearlessly pointed out that the flagship herself had committed a breach of etiquette by failing to pipe him onboard.”

This must have taken a certain fortitude on Brown’s part since he was then commanding a small minesweeper.

As part of honors received at the end of World War Two, Admiral Vian received the Legion of Merit of the United States, Degree of Commander, as well as the US Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal which is awarded for “exceptionally meritorious service to the Government of the United States in a duty of great responsibility.”

Upon his retirement in 1952 from active duty the Royal Navy (Admirals of the Fleet remain on the active list so technically don’t retire), after 45 years of service, he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet to recognize his significant contributions to Allied victory in World War Two. One has to search diligently to find a British admiral who commanded as many engagements at sea as Vian did.



Admiral Philip Vian by Charles Wheeler, 1942.  National Maritime Museum, London. 

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.




+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.



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.

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.

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.]

Being Fired on by Bismarck “Disconcerting” Said Vian – Part 1

Part 1Part 2


HMS Cossack, one of the famous “Tribal Class” fleet destroyers of the Royal Navy in World War Two, will always be associated with Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Philip Vian, RN. A Royal Navy boarding party from HMS Cossack forcibly boarded the German supply ship Altmark, which had aboard as prisoners three hundred British merchant crewman originally seized by the Graf Spee.
To the shouts of, “the Navy’s here!” the boarders from HMS Cossack leapt to the Altmark and after a brief altercation with the Germans, the boarders rescued all three hundred British prisoners. Both Philip Vian and HMS Cossack became famous from this incident.
HMS Cossack commissioned on 7 June 1938 and sunk by German U-boat 563
27 October 1941. 159 of her crew were lost.
lest we forget

159 officers and ratings killed in action aboard HMS Cossack

HMS Cossack circa 1938. In this photo and one above she is still painted in the light colors used in the pre-war Mediterranean Fleet and not her wartime gray.

Fleet destroyers were built to operate with the main battle fleet so in late May of 1941, it is no surprise to find HMS Cossack and Philip Vian in the thick of another battle, this one against the Bismarck which had broken through the British patrols in the Denmark Strait, sunk the battlecruiser HMS Hood and crippled the new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales.

The threat of the Bismarck to British convoys and merchant shipping was so dire that she had to be sunk no matter what risks the Royal Navy had to take. Although leaving Great Britain substantially uncovered from a German naval attack, the Home Fleet, already stripped bare of heavy ships to cover troop convoys, put to sea. (Admiralty orders required all troop convoys to have at least one battleship in their escort.)

While chasing the Bismarck, Admiral Sir John Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, flying his flag in HMS King George V, had been obliged to order his destroyer screen back to port to refuel. A second Home Fleet battleship, HMS Rodney, had steamed full ahead and managed to catch-up with Tovey in order to reinforce him. Yet Rodney had also been compelled to order her destroyer screen back to port for refueling.

Many Royal Navy destroyers had been designed for fighting either in the North Sea or the Mediterranean or in parts of the globe where a British naval base was never far away. So they were “short-legged,” that is, they did not have the fuel capacity to stay at sea for long periods of time particularly at high speeds.

Of great concern, the task force of Royal Navy battleships contained two of only five British battleships which could go toe to toe with the Bismarck: HMS King George V and HMS Rodney.   It had to be done no matter what the risk. So the two Royal Navy battleships proceeded alone without any destroyers to screen them and protect them against U-Boats — a very rare and dangerous situation — especially in waters known to be frequented by U-Boats. It is a measure of how urgently Churchill and the Admiralty felt about sinking the Bismarck.

Only their speed, which made it difficult for German U-Boats which made half the speed of these battleships, and the weather, which made it difficult for a U-Boat on the surface to make an accurate torpedo attack, protected the two irreplaceable battleships.

HMS King George V, flagship of Admiral Sir John Tovey during the final battle when the Royal Navy sank the Bismarck.

Although crippled by the torpedo strike from Swordfish torpedo bombers flying off the carrier, the Royal Navy was unaware of the mortal damage done to the German super-battleship Bismarck by one of those torpedoes which had jammed the Bismarck’s rudder, forcing the ship to steam in a circle.

HMS Rodney – Built to limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty, both HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson were the strangest looking battleships of the entire war. Each mounted nine 16 inch guns, all forward of the bridge structure.

At the same time, Tovey did not want to close and engage the Bismarck at dusk since the since the British ships were silhouetted against the setting sun. He wanted to, and did, wait until early morning before closing to engage when the situation was reversed. Fortunately, all of these decisions turned out to be correct and the Royal Navy brought the Bismarck down.

Well aware of the danger of proceeding on his own without screening destroyers, Tovey had no choice but to take the risk of breaking radio silence and ordered the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, comprised of four of the famous “Tribal Class” destroyers and one Polish destroyer, to leave the convoy they were escorting and steam “with all dispatch” to his position to screen his two battleships from U-Boat attack.



HMS Maori, one of the famous Tribal Class destroyers which clashed with the Bismarck, proceeding at speed circa 1940.

Except for this message from Tovey, all the British ships were observing radio silence. However, this only means the ships were not transmitting but they were receiving constant messages from the Admiralty about the position of the Bismarck. Obviously, the Germans picked all these messages out of the ether as well but they had not yet broken the relatively simple enciphering system used by the Royal Navy. (They later did.) Since all of these messages had to be decoded by an officer, the ship’s doctor normally deciphered any signals which came enciphered in “Officer’s Only” code.

The navigator (‘pilot’ in British naval usage) of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, aboard HMS Cossack with Vian, had been plotting the course of the Bismarck based on these messages from the Admiralty. Observing this plot on a regular basis, both he and Vian could see that the only force capable of slowing down the Bismarck was their own 4th Destroyer Flotilla. So Vian, unaware of the damage recently inflicted on the Bismarck by the attack of the Swordfish torpedo bombers, decided on his own accord not to screen the battleships but to make a night torpedo attack on the Bismarck.

He hoped to hit her with at least one torpedo and slow her down, Bismarck being faster than the RN battleships. The reason: fear she would make too much progress toward coastal France and come under a massive air umbrella of the Luftwaffe. Vian had recently been through the British campaign in Norway in the late spring and summer of 1940. Operating without air cover, the Royal Navy suffered significant losses of ships and had the maddening experience of realizing most of their anti-aircraft guns would not elevate more than forty degrees, making them useless against all but high altitude bombers which the Germans rarely used.

Wrote Vian of his experiences under German air attack in Norway: ” …lack of any air cover…was to prove fatal to the success of the whole campaign.”

So he was more aware than most anyone of how dangerous being at the mercy of the Luftwaffe would be and also knew that the nearby carrier HMS Ark Royal did not carry nearly enough aircraft to provide effective fighter cover for the British ships.

Vian was a commanding and intimidating figure in the Royal Navy — one of the few men who would have ignored specific orders from the Admiral commanding the task force and gotten away with it. And the Admiral Commanding was none other than Sir John Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, the second highest command in the Royal Navy.

Portrait of Admiral of the Fleet Sir J C Tovey, GCB, KBE, DSO.
Admiral Tovey served as Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet from 1940-1943, he then went on to serve as Commander in Chief Nore, as well as First and Principal Naval Aide de Camp to the King from January 1945. He is pictured sitting at his desk, most likely while serving as Commander in Chief Nore, at Chatham, Kent.

Nor was Tovey commanding from a desk in the Admiralty operations center. He was at sea. Yet Vian ignored the order — which Tovey later agreed was the correct action for Vian to have taken. Still, it took a lot of cojones to ignore an order from such a man, yet Vian would do this several more time during the war to other men he was supposedly subordinated to including Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, who replaced Cunningham as C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet.

On several occasions, while trying to fight convoys through to Malta, Vian just ignored Harwood’s orders, perceiving, correctly, that Harwood was over his head and didn’t know what he was doing. Vian didn’t have much more regard for Cunningham.

[Source: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian. Images courtesy of the UK Imperial War Museums, Wikimedia, Dieselpunk, Naval History, and the UK Imperial War Museums.]

“The Navy’s here!” Captain Philip Vian and HMS Cossack Become Famous

Commander, later Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Philip Vian, in the first years of World War Two. He was one of the Royal Navy’s greatest fighting officers of the war. During his encounter with the Bismarck, Vian commanded his destroyer flotilla from the ship he had made famous during the Altmark incident, HMS Cossack.

In Feb 1940, the German auxiliary ship, Altmark, which had served as supply ship and oiler for the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, had made its way from the South Atlantic to a fjord in what were then the neutral waters of Norway. In addition to her other functions, Altmark served as a floating POW camp for almost three hundred British merchant officers and men whose ships had been captured by the Graf Spee.

Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack, under the command of Philip Vian, was sent to hunt for the Altmark. While the Germans and Norwegians denied it, the British knew from radio decrypts that a large number of British merchant sailors were being held aboard. Under orders from London, Vian was given discretion to violate Norwegian neutrality and free the British prisoners.

In a Norwegian fjord, February 1940, German auxiliary supply ship Altmark. Photo taken after she had been boarded by an armed party from HMS Cossack and almost three hundred British prisoners freed. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The biggest problem said Vian in his memoirs, Action this Day: A War Memoir, is that no one actually knew what the Altmark looked like.

Wrote Vian “The best clue we could find was in a wardroom copy of the Illustrated London News. This showed a picture of two vessels, the caption of which read: ‘German raider Altmark examining a neutral merchant ship in the Atlantic.’ Which of the two was Altmark it did not say, and we assumed it was the four-masted ship in the foreground, rather than the tanker-type further away.”
Eventually they found the correct ship. So afraid of the Germans was the Norwegian government that a Norwegian patrol boat was actually guarding the Altmark against an attempt by the Royal Navy to board the Altmark. After positioning HMS Cossack so she could not be torpedoed by the patrol boat, Vian trained his guns on her. This persuaded the Norwegian patrol boat to signal she had no choice but to yield to force majeure and exited the scene.

HMS Cossack headed into the fjord to board the Altmark and get the British prisoners. Altmark trained her searchlight onto the bridge of HMS Cossack to blind the officers then came full speed astern down the channel in the ice she had made going into the fjord intent on ramming the Royal Navy warship.

Both ships maneuvered for advantage and seizing a clear moment, Vian lay Cossack alongside the Altmark and the order, “boarders away,” rang out for one of the few times in World War Two. Lt Bradwell Turner, RN, leader of the boarding party, proceeded to leap onto the Altmark.

In his memoir Vian described the scene: “Petty Officer Atkins, who followed him, fell short, and hung by his hands until Turner heaved him on deck. The two quickly made fast a hemp hawser from Cossack’s forecastle, and the rest of the party scrambled across. Turner, his men at his back stormed onto the bridge of the Altmark and found the engine telegraphs set to full speed in an endeavor to force HMS Cossack ashore. When Turner appeared, the Captain and other officers surrendered and Turner rang the engine telegraphs to ‘stop engines’.”

Flag-draped coffins containing German dead are brought ashore for burial after the Altmark Incident in Jøssingfjord, Norway. The six Germans died during a gun battle with the British boarding party. 16 February 1940.

But the captain of the Altmark had not told the armed guards placed on his ship by the Graf Spee to surrender. As the boarding party carefully made their way through the German ship, one of the sentries opened fire and hit one of the British sailors, who fortunately was not killed. With that, the German armed guards went over the side fled across the ice toward the shore. Outlined by the white of the snow, they foolishly began firing at the Royal Navy boarders who returned fire, killing six Germans and wounding six more.

Admiral Vian continues the story in his memoirs:
“Resistance overcome, Turner was able to turn to the business of the day. The prisoners were under locked hatches in the holds; when these had been broken open Turner hailed the men below with the words, “Any British down there?” He was greeted with a tremendous yell of: “Yes! We’re all British!”

“Come on up then,” said Turner, “the Navy’s here.”
This last became one of the most famous phrases in Great Britain during the war. HMS Cossack took aboard 13 British merchant ship masters, and 286 officers and men.

HMS Cossack arrives at Leith, Scotland with her load of British Merchant Captains, Officers and crews, February 17 1940, after their dramatic rescue from the German Altmark.

It is worth noting here from my research into my novel, An Honorable German, that Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee had treated all prisoners with great courtesy and allowed them all they were due under international laws and conventions. Captain Dau of the Altmark was a vicious man, a convinced Nazi and a man who despised the British. Once the British prisoners had been transferred to him from the Graf Spee, his treatment of them was brutal and inhumane. When rescued, all of the British merchant mariners were half starved and malnourished although the Altmark had a huge amount of food in her cargo holds.

Vian had no specific orders about what to do with the German officers. He had rescued all the imprisoned British merchant mariners and since the situation seemed complicated enough as it was and HMS Cossack had violated the neutrality of Norway, he simply left the German officers aboard the Altmark.

He sums up the experience in his memoirs in classic British understatement:
I received many letters from the public after this affair: a number wrote to say that, as I had failed to shoot, or hang, the Captain of the Altmark, I ought to be shot myself.
[Source: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian. Images courtesy of the Blitzwalkers, UK Imperial War Museums, Wikipedia, and Ahoy, Mac’s Web Log.]