Admiral Phillips prefaces his memoirs with the observation that he had decided to put his recollections on paper because, "I know of few from those who had a part in, and shared, the common dangers, the 'men behind the men'."
Owen Phillips was born in Surrey in March 1891, the son of a marine insurance broker, and received his early education at Southsea on the Hampshire coast, where he decided that "the Navy was the life for me" (p2). He entered the Royal Naval College Osborne in January 1904 and passed from there to Dartmouth in 1906. At Dartmouth all cadets received instruction in engineering and Phillips argues that this made them versatile naval officers and not, as opponents of the Selborne scheme of naval education maintained, "jacks of all trades and masters of none" (p18). After six months in the training cruiser Cornwall, in September 1908 Phillips joined the Channel Fleet battleship London as a midshipman. As with all the ships in which he subsequently served, Phillips describes the London's technical details at length and comments on her characteristics and peculiarities. This information about the performance of his ships is an important ingredient of the memoirs. In March 1909 he was appointed to the battlecruiser Invincible, in November 1909 he joined the battleship Temeraire and he did his destroyer time in early 1910 in the Welland: all these ships were serving in Home waters. In April 1910 he joined the cruiser Isis, an old ship in the Home Fleet, but one which did a higher percentage of seatime-60% - than any of his previous ships, which had averaged 35%. His final appointment as a midshipman was to the Atlantic Fleet battleship Prince of Wales, in which he served for a year from September 1910. He was promoted to sub-Lieutenant with a second class certificate in October 1911 and in retrospect he thinks that the examinations "demanded a little too much from us" (p53) as in several of the ships the midshipmen had not been given very responsible jobs, while in a destroyer instruction was not readily available. In January 1912 Phillips joined the cruiser Suffolk on the Mediterranean Station, in which he was required to do six months on engineering duty and then in October he was appointed to the light cruiser Glasgow on the South East of America Station. In this ship he enjoyed a very full but expensive social life, and he also emphasizes the determined effort which the Glasgow made to establish good relations with the Merchant Navy (pp63-4). During 1913 Phillips decided to specialize in engineering and in October he went to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for the course, moving on in April 1914 to the Royal Naval Engineering College at Keyham for a year's practical course.
In July 1914 Phillips joined the battleship Canopus for the test mobilization and he formed the opinion at that time that her Engineering Officer was an unbalanced man, who took an unnecessarily poor view of the ship's machinery (pp88-9, 92-7, 134A-C), an important piece of evidence in the light of the later controversy about her speed. Soon after the outbreak of war Canopus was ordered to the South Atlantic and Phillips remarks that the excessive heat below decks was very hard on a ship's company with an average age of thirty five. He contends that, contrary to the arguments of some historians, the Canopus would have been valueless at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November 1914 (pp102-5, 109) - she was well to the south at the time of the action - and goes on to describe the preparations made by the ship's company for the defence of the Falkland Islands (pp101, 105) and to quote from his letter home describing the successful naval battle there on 8 December (pp106-8). In early 1915 the Canopus acted as guardship at the Abrolhas Rocks off Brazil, where the ship's company had to live on "bare Navy", but at the beginning of February she was ordered to the Eastern Mediterranean for service in the Gallipoli campaign. The Canopus took part in the series of bombardments intended to reduce the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles in February and March, and from 26 April onwards she provided supporting fire for the troops ashore. In June 1915 she was ordered to Malta for a refit and afterwards became the ship of the Senior Naval Officer Asia Minor blockade, based on Port Xero, except for a short period of service off the Suvla front in October-November 1915. Phillips remained in the Canopus at Port Xero until February 1916 when his application for transfer to the submarine service was approved. From his memoirs it is clear that he was especially sorry to leave the Canopus (p133).
Between standing by the building of HM Submarine K 4, Phillips did his submarine training at Fort Blockhouse, and it was not until February 1917 that K 4 joined the 12th Submarine Flotilla, Grand Fleet. She was mainly employed, quite without success, on anti-submarine work and was lost with all hands in January 1918, only a few days after Phillips had left her to train for command of submarines. This was an unusual distinction for an Engineer Officer, but Phillips passed the course and was appointed Commanding Officer of H 22, which from early 1919 was based on Harwich. In September 1919 a flotilla of eight H class submarines, including H 22, were ordered to the Baltic, where they carried out, in very cold weather, a series of patrols off Biorko intended to restrict the operations of Bolshevik submarines. Soon after their return to the United Kingdom Phillips decided to revert to his engineering specialization and up to late 1924 he held a series of engineering appointments in the submarine service. From November 1924 to June 1926 he served as an Engineer Officer in the Mediterranean Fleet battleship Emperor of India, from June 1926 to February 1927 in the destroyer Winchester, which was employed on instructional and test running for HMS Vernon, the torpedo school; and from April 1927 to January 1928 in the cruiser Dartmouth, the flagship of the Reserve Fleet. Phillips was promoted Commander in December 1926, and he makes some interesting comments about the status of Engineer Officers and their system of promotions at this time (pp192-3, 202-3).
In the spring of 1928 Phillips went out to the China Station to join HMS Titania, the depot ship of the 4th Submarine Flotilla (L class submarines). His two years in the Far East included a cruise to Japan, occasional involvement in China's political and piracy problems and experimental work on some of the L class boats, all of which are described in considerable detail. On his return from China Phillips was the Admiralty Engineer Overseer at Birkenhead for the building of the submarine Phoenix and then, from September 1931 to April 1934, he was the Assistant to the Engineer Manager at the Torpedo Tube Design Office in Portsmouth. This was a complex appointment, which embraced designs for minelaying, and involved extensive liaison with other experimental offices and with submarines. Their work had an important bearing on developments in submarine design in the 1930's. In May 1934 Phillips returned to sea as Commander (E) in HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Mediterranean Fleet flagship (Admiral Sir William Fisher). On joining the ship he "... was not impressed with the state of cleanliness of my department and messdecks, and sensed an atmosphere of depression among my men" (p257). Phillips set about the task of changing this state of affairs with relish, encouraging his men to participate in Fleet sports and especially in the sailing regattas. His time on the Mediterranean Station was however dominated by the Abyssinian crisis and by the Royal Navy's evacuation of refugees from Spain following the outbreak of the Civil War (pp284-7A). Phillips was sad to leave what he calls "this magnificent old ship" in September 1936, but he found much of interest in supervising the engineering trials of the new cruiser Newcastle and in his appointment from April 1937 as a Commander (E) in the Torpedoes and Mining Department at the Admiralty. From May 1938 to the end of 1940 he served at the Air Ministry as a naval liaison officer and then in the Air Material Department at the Admiralty. These appointments gave him a wide knowledge of many of the technical aspects of naval aviation, and especially of the provision of air material for the Navy, repair and maintenance facilities, and the handling of modifications to aircraft. This section of Admiral Phillips' memoirs (see in particular p297 and following) affords a valuable insight into Royal Navy - Royal Air Force relations at this crucial period.
In March 1941 Phillips arrived in Singapore to take up his appointment as Fleet Engineer Officer, China Station, where he discovered that his first important task was to select the sites for, and supervise the building of, two naval air stations and an air repair yard. Japan's sudden entry into the war in December 1941 altered these priorities, and Phillips writes in a lively way about the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse (pp337-9) and about his strenuous efforts to deny fuel installations in Malaya to the advancing Japanese. In late January 1942 he was ordered to leave Singapore for Batavia (Dutch East Indies) to sort out problems there over fuel priorities and distribution: these he resolved by the creation of a fuel priorities bureau which effected the necessary liaison. When the Japanese assault on Batavia commenced on 14 February Phillips was able to deny them most of the country's oil resources and to save some of the oil tankers then loading at Batavian ports. On 1 March 1942 Phillips embarked in the Dutch liner Zaandam, as there was little more useful work which he could do, and after a perilous passage he landed on 6 March at Fremantle from where he took passage to Colombo in HMS Cornwall later in the month. Ceylon was at this time an obvious target for the Japanese, but as in Malaya Phillips found that the British civil administration had not adjusted to a war footing and were very dilatory. Fortunately, Admirals Layton and Somerville chivied and chased (p390), although they were initially hampered by the delays in the working of the port of Colombo which followed a severe Japanese air raid on 5 April. Phillips was ordered to concentrate on the organization of Ceylon's transport system and fuel resources since it was essential that there should be the minimum disruption to the export of the country's valuable war products, such as rubber, copra and coconut oil. He became Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Board, introduced rationing, alternative fuels and tire retreading, while he pressed successfully for an increase in the import of coal. He notes that for some reason the Japanese failed to use their submarines to apply a stranglehold on the shipping carrying Ceylon's Exports. Very little of Phillips' work was purely naval and so, because there was a critical shortage of senior Engineer Officers in the United Kingdom, the Admiralty ordered him home in April 1943. Although he had enjoyed his responsibilities, Phillips welcomed the change as he had had an extremely exhausting two and a half years in Eastern waters.
In August 1943 he took up his appointment as Engineer Officer, Liverpool, in the Western Approaches Command, but two months later he was transferred in the same capacity to Belfast to assume responsibility for the maintenance of the Escort Force of thirty six Captains' class frigates based on that port. The frigates suffered some losses from acoustic torpedoes, but Phillips was gratified to find at the end of the war that the Belfast Escort Force had had the highest availability rate in the Western Approaches. In June 1944 Phillips had been passed over for promotion to Rear-Admiral (E), but in 1945 he was reemployed as Assistant Director of the Admiralty's Underwater Weapons Department at Bath. That autumn he visited Germany to see at first hand the products of their research and development in this area, while back in Bath he was much concerned with the development of Squid, the ahead throwing depth charge system. Because of post-war cuts in the defence budget, Phillips found more and more responsibility thrust upon him and he was an exhausted man when he relinquished his appointment in September 1949 and was promoted to Rear-Admiral on the retired list.
There are twenty four appendices to the memoirs, the majority being extracts from published works touching on Admiral Phillips' career. However, they also include a complete list of the ships and establishments in which he served, copies of his "flimsies" and letters of commendation, details of the careers of the other officers in his Term at Dartmouth, some notes on HMS Canopus' performance in 1914, records of the Fleet Air Arm 1938-40 and the Belfast Escort Force 1943-45, and copies of two letters from Phillips to fellow Engineer Officers about his experiences in the Far East from 1941 to 1943.