At the beginning of World War II, Vian was commanding a reserve destroyer flotilla on Atlantic convoy duty. He soon distinguished himself as an aggressive and effective leader of light forces: as commodore commanding the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, composed of four modern Tribal-class destroyers and a cruiser; when he boarded the German supply ship Altmark in Norwegian territorial waters on 16 February 1940 and freed 299 British prisoners held on her; and in the 1941 Norwegian Campaign and the chase of the German battleship Bismarck, which led to his early promotion to rear admiral that July. Vian then led Force K, a squadron of light cruisers, in offensive operations along the Norwegian coast until he was transferred to command Cruiser Squadron 15 in the Mediterranean in October 1941.
In the Mediterranean, Vian further demonstrated his skill as his ships covered resupply convoys to Malta, most notably during the Second Battle of Sirte on 22 March 1942. In 1943, he commanded a squadron of five escort carriers charged with providing fighter cover and close-air support for the Salerno landings. Force V, operating in light winds and confined waters, provided over half of all air support during the operation's first four days. This success was tempered, however, by his inexperience in carrier operations, which showed in extraordinarily high operational losses.
Vian then led the Eastern Task Force covering the Normandy Invasion before taking command of the British carrier squadron destined for the Pacific. After preliminary strikes against oil refineries in Sumatra, the carriers joined the U.S. Pacific Fleet in March 1945 at Okinawa. After two months of providing important air support to U.S. land operations on that island, the British Pacific Fleet withdrew to refit, then rejoined the U.S. Third Fleet for the final attack on the Japanese home islands. Vian's adaptability to carrier warfare requirements supported the integration of U.S. practice into the Royal Navy, and his drive was manifest in the fleet's accomplishments.
Following World War II, Vian served ashore and afloat until his retirement in 1952, when he was specially promoted to Admiral of the Fleet. He died at Ashford Hill, Berkshire, England, on 27 May 1968.
Paul E. Fontenoy
Brown, J. David, ed. The British Pacific and East Indies Fleets. Liverpool, UK: Brodie Publishing, 1995.; Brown, J. David. Carrier Operations in World War II: The Royal Navy. London: Ian Allan, 1968.; Smith, Peter C. Task Force 57. London: William Kimber, 1969.; Vian, Sir Philip. Action This Day. London: Mullee, 1960.