Admiral Philip Vian made his name as one of the most daring British naval commanders of the Second World War early in 1940 as the captain of the destroyer Cossack during the Altmark incident, before going on to hold high rank in the Mediterranean, during Operation Overlord and in the Far East.
Vian's naval career began in 1912 when he graduated from the Royal Naval colleges of Osborne and Dartmouth and entered the navy as a midshipman. During the First World War he served on destroyers, becoming a gunnery expert. He was promoted to captain in 1934, and at the outbreak of the Second World War was given command of the destroyer Cossack.
In the early months of the war the Cossack was engaged on convoy duty, but in February 1940 he became involved in the hunt for the Altmark. The Altmark was the supply ship for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. After her last meeting with the Graf Spee the Altmark had made her way slowly back towards Germany, passing between Scotland and Iceland with the intention of returning to Germany through the North Sea, carrying a large number of British prisoners taken by the Graf Spee.
On 14 February 1940 the Altmark was spotted by British aircraft, and forced to take shelter in Norwegian territorial waters. At this point her captain should have released his prisoners into Norwegian custody (just as Captain Langsdorff had done in Uruguay). Instead, Captain Dau of the Altmark hid the prisoners below decks in a violation of Norwegian neutrality, and attempted to make his way down the Norwegian coast. Vian, by then commander of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, was ordered to enter Norwegian waters to intercept the Altmark. When faced by Norwegian warships he withdrew and requested further orders. At this point Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, and his orders were for Vian to either make sure that the Altmark returned to Bergen with a joint British and Norwegian escort, or if that option was not possible to seize the Altmark. On 16 February Vian's men successfully boarded the Altmark, freeing 299 British prisoners. They also found two AA guns and four machine guns, suggesting that the Norwegian search of the ship had not been particularly thorough. Vian was awarded the DSO for his efforts.
During the Norwegian campaign Vian and the 4th Destroyer Flotilla took part in the evacuation of Namsos. While Admiral John Cunningham waited outside the harbour in his cruisers, Vian took the destroyers into the fjord. The transport ships were successfully escorted out of danger on 3 May, but Vian's flagship Afridi was sunk during the operation (not the last time this would happen to Vian). Vian was rewarded with the bar to his DSO.
A second bar to the DSO came after the hunt for the Bismarck. During the first part of this operation Vian and the 4th Destroyer Flotilla were on convoy escort duty, but on 2 a.m. on 26 May 1941 the squadron was detached from the convoy and ordered to to join Admiral Tovey and the Home Fleet (Tovey's own destroyers were running short of fuel). At this point the location of the Bismarck was unknown, but at 10.30am she was sighted. At 8.47pm Swordfish torpedo bombers from the Ark Royal attacked the Bismarck, damaging her steering gear and jamming the rudders. This allowed Tovey to catch up with her. Vian's destroyers were the first of his ships to reach the scene. On the night of 26-27 May Vian's flotilla launched a series of torpedo attacks on the Bismarck, probably scoring two hits. On the next morning the destroyers spread out to watch the Bismarck, and make sure she did not escape before Admiral Tovey arrived with his battle squadron. The final gun battle began at 8.47am, and at 10.36am the Bismarck finally sank.
In July 1941 Vian was promoted to Rear-Admiral, and was appointed to command a naval force which was to operate in northern waters to support the Russians. Vian made a visit to Murmansk, the proposed base for this squadron, and reported that its fighter defences were not adequate. The Admiralty then examined the possibility of using Spitzbergen as a base, and at the end of July Vian took the cruisers Nigeria and Aurora and two destroyers to investigate this possibility. His report was not encouraging - two attempts to approach the Norwegian coast from the north were both detected by German aircraft.
Partly as a result of this visit it was decided to mount an expedition to Spitzbergen to destroy the coal mines on the island. The Germans had not yet moved any troops to the island, and so Vian was easily able to achieve his objectives. Three German colliers were captured and the mine workings were demolished. On 7 September, during the return journey, Vian even managed to find a German convoy to attack, sinking the training warship Bremse.
Soon after the Spitzbergen expedition Vian was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet and posted to Alexandria, where he was given command of a taskforce of cruisers and destroyers that was used escort British convoys and to attack their Italian counterparts.
Vian's main task after arriving in the Mediterranean was to escort convoys to Malta. This often led to clashes with the Italian surface fleet. The first battle of Sirte of 17 December 1941 was the result of an unexpected clash between the two fleets when both were escorting convoys, and saw Vian's daring attack convince the Italian Admiral Iachino that a British battleship must be close. The second battle of Sirte of 22 March 1942 came during Operation "MG1", an attempt to run a four ship convoy into Malta. Although Vian was able to hold off a more powerful Italian fleet, the convoy was later destroyed by German air attack, and only 5,000 tons of supplies reached Malta. Between these two battles Vian lost another flagship when HMS Naiad was sunk by U-565 on 11 March 1942
By 1943 the situation had been transformed, and it was the Allies who were on the offensive in the Mediterranean. During Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, Vian had command of the naval forces that came out from Britain with General Simmond's 1st Canadian Division. On 10 July 1943 this force was landed in section Bark West, on the left flank of the landing area at the south eastern corner of Sicily.
During the landing at Salerno on 9 September Vian had command of Task Force 88, which contained the five aircraft carriers used to provide fighter cover over the beaches. On D-Day Vian's Seafires flew 265 sorties, maintaining 20 aircraft over the beaches. It had been hoped that the Seafires could move on land on 10 September, but slow progress meant that they had to operate from the carriers from until 12 September. Vian returned to Salerno on 16 September in command of the cruisers Euryalus, Scylla and Charybdis, carrying reinforcements from Tripoli.
Perhaps his most important task was yet to come. Admiral Bertram Ramsay, in charge of planning for Operation Neptune, the naval part of Operation Overlord, requested Vian as commander of the Eastern Task Force. This force would be responsible for landing the British 2nd Army on D-Day, and then would have the task of guarding the eastern flank of the invasion fleets against any German counterattack (including a possible but unlikely attack by the surviving German heavy ships). Vian also had command of the bombardment forces on the eastern section, an entirely British force which contained two battleships, one monitor, eleven cruisers and 40 destroyers.
At 16.30 on 5 June 1944 Vian set sail from Spithead on his flagship, HMS Scylla. He spent the next few hours watching the massive invasion convoys sail south, before joining them off the invasion beaches. On D-Day Vian visited all of the British beaches, and the Scylla took part in the bombardments of Sword and Gold beach. At the end of the day he anchored at the eastern end of the fleet to help guard against the feared intervention of the E-boats.
This period also saw Vian lose yet another flagship, when the Scylla was badly damaged by a mine. With both engine rooms out of action, she had to be towed back to Portsmouth, and Vian had to transfer his flag to the Headquarters ship HMS Hilary.
In November 1944, with the naval war against Germany almost over, Vian was sent to command the carrier force of the Eastern Fleet, based at Trincomalee, Ceylon.
Late in January 1945 Vian took his fleet to sea to take it to Australia to join the newly formed British Pacific Fleet. This fleet contained the fleet carriers Indomitable, Indefatigable, Victorious and Illustrious, the battleship King George V, three cruisers and ten destroyers, and it was decided to take advantage of its journey to launch an attack on the Japanese held oil refineries at Sumatra. On 24 January 1945 a force of 43 Avengers and 80 fighters attack the oil refineries at Palembang, reducing its production by half, and on 29 January 46 Avengers attacked the refineries at Soengei Gerong, knocking it out of service completely for six months. The two raids cost the British sixteen aircraft lost in combat and twenty five in accidents.
On 4 February Vian's fleet reached Fremantle to join Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings and the British Pacific Fleet. In March this fleet moved up to Ulithi, where it joined the US 5th Fleet as Task Force 57.
The new task force put to sea for its first sortie on 23 March. It took part in the battle for Okinawa, making up around one-fifth of the covering forces (alongside the much larger American Task Force 58 under Admiral Mitscher). The British contribution had been made for political as much as for military reasons. Vian's carriers suffered from the lack of a proper fleet train, which reduced their endurance at sea, and from the design of the British carriers, which reduced the number of aircraft they could carry, but at least by 1945 the worst of the British carrier aircraft had been replaced by American models. The one big advantage Vian's carriers did have in the Pacific was that their armoured decks made them much less vulnerable to kamikaze attack (although anything on the deck was of course still in great danger). The British Pacific Fleet operated against the Sakashima Islands from 26 March to 20 April and for three weeks from 4 May. All four of the British carriers were hit by kamikaze attacks during this period, but none took serious damage.
After the war Vian remained in the Far East, staying there until 1948. He returned to Britain to serve as Fifth Sea Lord, in charge of naval aviation, and then from 1950-1952 commanded the Home Fleet. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet on retirement. His memoirs were published in 1960 (one of several books on the war to be called Action This Day).
Like many successful British admirals Vian is often compared to Nelson, this time with some justification. Vian had a similar combination of professional ability and daring. Like Nelson he made sure that his subordinates knew what he expected of them, as demonstrated when his squadron continued to fight skillfully after Vian's radios had been knocked out during the second battle of Sirte. During the Second World War he served in just about every important naval theatre, from the frozen oceans around Spitzbergen to the heat of the Pacific.
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