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).

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).
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.




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.


The Sudden Death of HMS Barham

This vid clip is one minute and eleven seconds long. In these 71 seconds, the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Barham, rolls over on her beam ends, explodes, and then sinks. At the end of the vid clip, the ship is gone, disappeared beneath the sea.

Incredibly, the sinking and explosion was caught on film by a news reel cameraman from Gaumont News, which was then, and continues to be, one of the largest French film studios. The cameraman who caught the sinking and explosion, John Turner, was standing on the deck of the nearby Royal Navy battleship, HMS Valiant, which was in station close to Barham.

HMS Valiant (British battleship, 1916) – Photographed following her 1929-30 refit. US Naval Historical Center Photograph in the public domain.

In the time it takes to watch it, fifty-five officers and eight hundred six men died–men who were fighting against “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.” As the Nazis were so described in their evil by Prime Minister Churchill.

battleship, HMS Valiant, which was in station close to Barham.

HMS Valiant (British battleship, 1916) – Photographed following her 1929-30 refit. US Naval Historical Center Photograph in the public domain.

In the time it takes to watch it, fifty-five officers and eight hundred six men died–men who were fighting against “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime,” as the Nazis were so described in their evil by Prime Minister Churchill.

Admiral Philip Vian & Victory Second Battle of Sirte

Admiral Philip Vian was an ambitious man but he must have reached a point where he was entirely weary of constantly being at sea, away from his wife and two children. Several of his commands drew duties as close escort protecting convoys to Malta. In every action Vian undertook in the Mediterranean he had to fight off constant air attack from the Luftwaffe and the Italian air-force. In addition he had to engage Italian surface units and both Italian and German submarines.



Second Battle of Sirte. Royal Navy convoy from Alexandria to Malta meets and engages Italian warships in the Mediterranean. HMS Cleopatra makes smoke to shield the convoy as HMS Euryalus elevates her forward 5.25 inch guns to shell the Italian Fleet. 22 March 1942 photo by Zimmerman, E A (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. This is photograph A 8166 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-01)

While escorting convoy MW 10 from Alexandria to Malta, Vian had only six light cruisers and eighteen destroyers under his command, a pitifully small number to fight a convoy through to Malta. One of his greatest worries was the inability of his smaller escort ships, such as the Hunt Class destroyers, to carry enough anti-aircraft ammunition to last the length of the voyage. These particular ship provided the close anti-aircraft protection to the merchant ships. C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet advised the Admiralty that it was impossible to adequately protect a supply convoy to Malta.

So dire was the supply situation on Malta the population was subsisting on less than 1800 calories a day. The garrison defending the island was running short of AA ammunition since the island itself was also under air attack almost 24 hours a day. Just as worrisome was the low level of furls of every sort, aviation gasoline for the RAF Spitfires as well as fuel to run the electric plants which supplied power to the anti-aircraft batteries and everything else. Hence, the Admiralty insisted an attempt be made to send a convoy to the island in spite of the availability of only a weak escorting force.



British cruiser HMS Cleopatra anchored in the Clyde. 3 April 1945. She served as Admiral Vian’s flagship during the Second Battle of Sirte Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum.

Not one Royal Navy battleship could be assigned to protect the convoy if it were attacked by an Italian battle fleet, as indeed it was. Admiral Vian had thought through all the possibilities and issued his orders prior to sailing, his orders always short and succinct. He had experienced captains commanding his warships and he let them do their fighting within his guidelines without interference from him.

In a brilliant action, known as the Second Battle of Sirte, Vian deployed his ships so skillfully that he managed to drive off the Italian battle fleet consisting of one battleship, two heavy cruisers which outgunned and outranged all of his cruisers, one light cruiser, and ten destroyers.

Since the convoy was under constant air attack shortly after it put to sea from Alexandria gun crews were at action stations for days at a time, sleeping at their posts or at their gun mounts as best they could — existing on “bully beef” sandwiches, cups of tea, and bottles of lime juice. Chief Gunnery Officers on the RN ships worked diligently to keep their anti-aircraft fire to the bare minimum needed to drive off enemy aircraft.

No one could adequate rest in such circumstances. Vian himself would take a few hours of sleep at a time, often in a chair in the navigator’s cubby on the bridge or stretched out on an air mattress on the bridge. It was a brutal life, hard on young men, very hard on middle aged men even if they had the comforts of being an Admiral. Those comforts were of little use since Vian had to be constantly available and could rarely go to his sea cabin under the bridge. And since the navigating bridges of British ships were open to the elements, he was constantly being exposed to extremes of weather.

In spite of Vian’s brilliant defense of the merchant ships when they were closer to Malta, units of the RN from the island replaced Vian’s escort and he turned and steamed back to Alexandria — under intermittent air attack most of the time. The Germans and the Italians were determined to deny supplies to Malta and all the merchant ships and several of their escorts were subsequently sunk the morning after the handoff when they were less than three hours from Malta. Several merchant ships made it into Grand Harbor but were sunk at their moorings by JU 87 Stuka dive bombers.

By delaying the convoy, the Italian fleet caused it to be exposed to air strikes during daylight of the final day. The ships were scheduled to enter Grand Harbor at dawn. In British slang, the whole thing was a cock-up which Vian had predicted. Nonetheless his brilliant handling of his small ships in driving off the main Italian battle fleet marks one of the great defensive actions of the war. Vian was knighted for his outstanding command of his ships that critical day.

In September 1942, after being relieved of command of the cruiser squadrons in the Mediterranean, he flew home via Gambia where his aircraft landed to refuel and have an engine fixed. During this time he was bitten by a mosquito and several weeks after his return he fell ill with malignant malaria which was not properly diagnosed in the beginning and he came close to death. It took him seven months, until April of 1943, to recover his health. Another illness which plagued him but never enough to give up his command were constant problems with infections in his ear, nose, and throat. Two weeks prior to D-Day he was struck down by quinsy which is a virulent cousin of tonsillitis and can kill a person. He stayed in bed for a week but that was all the Admiralty could manage to give him.

Since he was to be such a major player on D-Day, he had to put to sea, ill or not. So concerned was the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy that he sent the Navy’s top ear, nose, and throat specialist to join Vian on his flagship and continue to treat him.

Philip Vian had the qualities found in all great captains of history; the ability to quickly size up the situation he was in and come to correct decisions quickly and boldly; the ability to discern brilliance and competence in other men, bring them to his side, and leave them alone to do their duties; the ability to inspire loyalty in his subordinates who were never afraid to suggest different courses of action to him in private; the courage and professional reputation to disregard orders from superiors if he believed they were unaware of the situation he faced; the ability and confidence to learn from his mistakes; complete dedication to the task at hand; and finally luck. Vian was lucky. During the Battle of Second Sirte, a shell from an Italian light cruiser hit the bridge of his flagship and killed fourteen men. Vian, close by, didn’t suffer a scratch and was protected from the blast effect by where he happened to be standing.

[Images courtesy of the UK Imperial War Museums and the UK Imperial War Museums.]

HMS Hunter, Sunk During First Battle of Narvik 10 April 1940, Found in One Thousand Feet of Water – Part 15

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29

USS Iowa in a floating drydock at Manus Island, Ulithi Atoll, 28 December 1944.

You can see the mammoth size of a floating dry-dock big enough to take a battleship. This happens to be an American floating dry-dock big enough to take a the largest size US battleship. The Royal Navy had several floating dry docks which could accommodate battleships and these dry-docks were prime targets.

There was a huge floating dry-dock in Alexandria, Egypt, the main base of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. This had been towed to Alexandria by the Royal Navy because at one point as many as five Royal Navy battleships were on station there. German and Italian aircraft bombed the port on a regular basis hoping to hit the floating dry-dock but never succeeded in putting it out of action.

From Sailor’s Odyssey: Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope by Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, KT, GCB, OM, DSO and two Bars (7 January 1883 – 12 June 1963):

The Italians, I may say, kept their bombing rigidly to the port. When the Luftwaffe arrived they bombed indiscriminately all over the city, particularly in the Arab quarter teeming with natives and their families.


The 15 inch guns of HMS Warspite bombarding German positions around Caen during the invasion of Normandy. In the beginning years of the war, HMS Warspite was the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet.

[Source: Sailor’s Odyssey: Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope by Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, KT, GCB, OM, DSO and two Bars (7 January 1883 – 12 June 1963). Images courtesy of Wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum.]