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.