“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.