Sir Philip Vian was a Royal Navy officer, who held a number of high-ranking positions throughout his career. He is best known for his actions in the Zulu War, where he was the commander of the Royal Navy squadron that defeated the Zulu impi at the Battle of Isandlwana. Vian was also the commander of the Royal Navy squadron that fought the Mahdists at the Battle of Lake Victoria during the Anglo-Sikh wars. He also fought at Trafalgar in 1805 and at the Trafalgar landing in 1806. He was knighted in 1810, and was promoted to vice admiral in 1814.

Sir Philip Louis Vian is a famous British admiral who was born in Scotland and began his naval career as a midshipman. He was trained at Trinity Royal Naval College and was commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1778, before being promoted to lieutenant in 1779. He saw active service in the War of American Independence, during which he was commended for bravery. He retired in 1814, but was subsequently re-employed during the Napoleonic Wars, where he commanded a number of ships. Vian died in 1822, and is remembered for his military career.

Sir Philip Louis Vian, British Admiral of the Fleet, was one of history’s greatest combat commanders. Distinguished Service Order, the Royal Navy’s equivalent of the US Navy Cross, was bestowed to him three times during WWII. Vian, a 1911 Royal Naval College graduate, mainly served aboard destroyers and cruisers during World War I. During the Battle of Jutland in 1916, he was aboard the M-class destroyer HMS Morning Star, but his ship was not actively engaged in the battle.

Vian worked his way up via increasingly more important tasks both afloat and onshore throughout the interwar years. Capt. Vian assumed command of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla on New Year’s Day 1940, four months after Britain declared war. The 4th Destroyer Flotilla was led by the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Cossack.

Vian’s squadron found the German oil tanker and supply ship Altmark a month later, which British intelligence thought was carrying 299 British merchant sailors whose ships had been destroyed by the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Vian followed Altmark into Jossingfjord, boarded it on February 16, and released the prisoners despite the fact that it was in neutral Norwegian seas. Vian’s thankful country gave him his first DSO, despite the fact that his actions were clearly in breach of neutrality rules.

Vian’s flotilla continued to operate in Norwegian seas after Germany invaded Norway on April 9. After bombing a German convoy on the night of October 13–14, he received a bar (second award) to his DSO. When Vian’s five destroyers were ordered to join the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck on May 25, they were escorting a troop convoy. On May 26, his flotilla pursued the enemy ship overnight and reported its position. The next morning, the British main force attacked the battleship, forcing Bismarck to sink with the loss of all but 114 of its 2,200-man crew. Vian, 47, was promoted to rear admiral six weeks later.

In the autumn of that year, Vian assumed command of the Mediterranean’s 15th Cruiser Squadron. An emergency supply convoy of four merchant ships departed Alexandria for Malta on March 20, 1942. Four light cruisers, an anti-aircraft cruiser, and 17 destroyers were part of Vian’s escort. Two Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers attacked the British convoy in the Gulf of Sirte off the coast of Libya on the morning of the 22nd.

Despite being outgunned, Vian decided to strike. The Italians retreated at first, but returned two hours later with the battleship Littorio, another light cruiser, and a screen of ten destroyers. Despite being vastly outmanned, Vian battled on for more than two hours and eventually drove the Italians away, losing three cruisers and five destroyers in the process. Unfortunately, the commercial ships were detached from their escort and were all destroyed later by German air strikes. Regardless, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, called the fight “a naval event of the greatest significance.”

Vian was in charge of a carrier force that covered the Salerno landings in September 1943 and the Eastern Task Force that supported the Normandy landings in June 1944. In November 1944, he became command of the British Pacific Fleet’s aviation operations, and in April 1945, he oversaw assistance for the American landings on Okinawa. He was promoted to vice admiral a month later. Vian was made a knight commander of the British Empire in 1942 and a knight grand cross of the Order of the Bath in 1952.

Vian also earned the French Légion d’honneur and the US Navy Distinguished Service Medal, in addition to his British medals. He served as commander in chief of the British Home Fleet until 1952, when he retired with the title of admiral of the fleet. Vian died on May 27, 1968, at the age of 73. MH

Military History magazine published this piece in their July 2023 edition. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook for additional updates:

Sir Philip Louis Vian of Britain’s Royal Navy

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