James Somerville (admiral)

James Somerville (admiral)

Infobox Military Person
name= Sir James Somerville
lived= 17 July, 1882 – 19 March, 1949

caption=Admiral Sir James Somerville c. 1942
allegiance= flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
serviceyears= 1897 - 1945
rank= Admiral of the Fleet
commands= British Eastern Fleet
HMS Benbow (1913)
battles=World War I
*Gallipoli Campaign
Spanish Civil War
World War II
*Operation Dynamo
awards= Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order

Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Fownes Somerville GCB, GBE, DSO (17 July 1882 – 19 March 1949) was one of the most famous British Admirals of World War II.

Early career

The son of Arthur Fownes Somerville (1850-1942, who appears to have spent some time farming sheep in New Zealand), James Fownes Somerville was born in Weybridge, Surrey. He joined the Royal Navy as a cadet on 15 January 1897, and achieved the rank of lieutenant on 15 March 1904. Somerville became the Navy's leading radio specialist and served at Gallipoli during World War I, where he earned the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts.

Somerville stayed in the service after the war, and on 31 December 1921 was promoted to captain and commanded HMS "Benbow". Somerville served as Director of the Admiralty's Signal Department from 1925 to 1927, and as a Naval Instructor at the Imperial Defence College from 1929 to 1931. He was promoted to commodore in 1932 and to rear admiral on 12 October 1933.

Somerville commanded the Mediterranean Fleet destroyer flotillas from 1936 to 1938, and during the Spanish Civil War helped protect Majorca from the Republicans. In 1938 and 1939 he served in the East Indies before being forced to retire in 1939 for medical reasons (it was thought, incorrectly, that he had tuberculosis).

European operations, 1939-1942

He was recalled to duty on special service to the Admiralty later in 1939 with the start of World War II, and for the next year performed important work on naval radar development. In May, 1940, Somerville served under Admiral Bertram Ramsay, helping organize the evacuation of Dunkirk.

His next major assignment was as naval commander, on HMS "Hood", of the newly-formed Force H based in Gibraltar. After Marshal Pétain signed an armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940, Winston Churchill gave Somerville the task of neutralizing the main element of the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir in North Africa, attacking and destroying it if all other options failed. Churchill wrote to him:

: "You are charged with one of the most disagreeable tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly."

Although privately he felt that his orders to attack if all other avenues failed were a mistake, Somerville executed his orders, and eventually attacked the French fleet as they rode at anchor. Somerville's forces inflicted severe damage on their erstwhile allies, most notably sinking the battleship "Bretagne" with heavy loss of life. Several other major French ships were damaged during the bombardment. The operation was judged a success, although he admitted privately to his wife that he had not been quite as aggressive in the destruction as he could have been.

At the head of Force H, on 9 February 1941 Somerville organized a bombardment raid on Genoa, and also played an important role in the pursuit and sinking of the German battleship "Bismarck" on 26 May 1941. He was also involved in the protection of a number of important convoys to Malta and Egypt. He received a KBE in 1941 for his successes with Force H.

Indian Ocean, 1942-1944

Somerville became commander of the British Eastern Fleet in March 1942, replacing Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton. The Eastern Fleet had been established at Trincomalee, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), after the surrender of Singapore, but Somerville was unhappy with the base's security and he ordered the construction of an alternative forward base at Addu Atoll in the Maldives. The Japanese advance through Burma and their capture of the Andaman Islands enforced the move of the bulk of the Eastern Fleet to Addu Atoll and to Kilindini in East Africa.

Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's powerful Indian Ocean Raid in April demonstrated the wisdom of Somerville's move from Trincomalee. After the sinking of an aircraft carrier and two cruisers, he attempted to intercept the Japanese fleet, but failed. Had he been successful, it is probable that his two remaining carriers would have been overwhelmed.

In 1944, with reinforcements, he was able to go on the offensive in a series of aggressive air strikes in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies, enabling naval air crews to gain expertise that they would later need in the Pacific.

Later career

Somerville was replaced as commander of the Eastern Fleet by Admiral Bruce Fraser in August 1944. Two months later he was placed in charge of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington D.C., from 1944 to December, 1945, where he managed - to the surprise of almost everyone — to get on very well with the notoriously abrasive and anti-British Admiral Ernest King, the United States' Chief of Naval Operations.

He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet on 8 May 1945, and retired from the service following the war. He was made Lord Lieutenant of Somerset in August 1946, and lived in the family seat of Dinder House, Somerset, where he died on 19 March 1949.

External references

* [http://www.hmshood.com/crew/biography/somerville_bio.htm A biography] of Admiral Somerville (H.M.S. Hood Association web site).
* [http://www.admirals.org.uk/admirals/fleet/somervillejf.php Transcription of official service record (admirals.org.uk)]
* [http://www.hmshood.org.uk/reference/official/adm234/adm234-317.htm British Admiralty document on Mer-el-Kebir Action]
* [http://www.admirals.org.uk/records/adm/adm199/adm199-391_7-31.htm Transcription of Force H War Diary] .

* Donald MacIntyre, "Fighting Admiral: The Life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville" (Evans Brothers, London, 1961)

* James Somerville, "The Somerville Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville, GCB, GBE, DSO" (Navy Records Society, London, 1996)

succession box | title=Lord Lieutenant of Somerset
before=The Marquess of Bath
after=The Lord Hylton

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