British Admiral of the Fleet Sir Philip Louis Vian was one of history’s great fighting commanders. During World War II he was thrice awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Royal Navy’s equivalent of the U.S. Navy Cross. A 1911 graduate of the Royal Naval College, Vian served primarily on destroyers and cruisers during World War I. He was aboard the M-class destroyer HMS Morning Star during the 1916 Battle of Jutland, though his ship was not actively involved in the fight.
During the interwar years Vian worked his way up through progressively more responsible assignments both afloat and ashore. On New Year’s Day 1940, four months after Britain declared war, Capt. Vian took command of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, leading from the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Cossack.
A month later Vian’s flotilla tracked down the German oil tanker and supply ship Altmark, which British intelligence believed was holding 299 British merchant seamen whose ships had been sunk by the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Although Altmark was in neutral Norwegian waters, Vian pursued it into Jossingfjord, boarded it on February 16 and freed the captives. Though the action was a clear violation of neutrality laws, Vian’s grateful nation awarded him his first DSO.
After Germany invaded Norway on April 9, Vian’s flotilla continued to operate in Norwegian waters. He won a bar (second award) to his DSO after attacking a German convoy on the night of October 13–14. On May 25 Vian’s five destroyers were escorting a troop convoy when ordered to join the search for the German battleship Bismarck. His flotilla harried the enemy ship overnight on May 26, reporting its location. The British main fleet engaged the warship the next morning, forcing Bismarck to scuttle with the loss of all but 114 of its 2,200-man crew. Six weeks later 47-year-old Vian was promoted to rear admiral.
That fall Vian took command of the 15th Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean. On March 20, 1942, an emergency supply convoy of four merchant ships left Alexandria for Malta. Vian led the escort of four light cruisers, an anti-aircraft cruiser and 17 destroyers. On the morning of the 22nd in the Gulf of Sirte off Libya two Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers attacked the British convoy.
Though outgunned, Vian turned to attack. The Italians initially withdrew, but two hours later they returned with the battleship Littorio, an additional light cruiser and a screen of 10 destroyers. Though massively overmatched, Vian fought on for more than two hours and ultimately drove off the Italian force, with three of his cruisers and five of his destroyers having sustained damage. Unfortunately, the merchant ships became separated from their escort, and all were later sunk by enemy air attacks. Regardless, Prime Minister Winston Churchill deemed the battle “a naval episode of the highest distinction.”
Vian commanded a carrier force covering the September 1943 landings at Salerno, Italy, and the Eastern Task Force supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944. That November he assumed control of air operations for the British Pacific Fleet and in April 1945 directed support of the American landings on Okinawa. A month later he was promoted to vice admiral. In 1942 Vian was appointed a knight commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1952 a knight grand cross of the Order of the Bath.
In addition to his British decorations, Vian received the French Légion d’honneur and the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Medal. His last assignment was commander in chief of the British Home Fleet, retiring with the rank of admiral of the fleet in 1952. Vian died at age 73 on May 27, 1968. MH
This article appeared in the July 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.