- James Somerville (admiral)
Infobox Military Person
name= Sir James Somerville
17 July, 1882– 19 March, 1949
caption=Admiral Sir James Somerville c. 1942
allegiance= flagicon|United Kingdom
serviceyears= 1897 - 1945
rank= Admiral of the Fleet
British Eastern Fleet HMS Benbow (1913)
World War I
Gallipoli Campaign Spanish Civil War World War II
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.
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 Navyas a cadeton 15 January 1897, and achieved the rank of lieutenanton 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 Orderfor his efforts.
Somerville stayed in the service after the war, and on 31 December 1921 was promoted to
captainand 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 admiralon 12 October 1933.
Somerville commanded the
Mediterranean Fleetdestroyer flotillas from 1936 to 1938, and during the Spanish Civil Warhelped protect Majorcafrom the Republicans. In 1938 and 1939 he served in the East Indiesbefore 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
Admiraltylater in 1939 with the start of World War II, and for the next year performed important work on naval radardevelopment. 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 Hbased in Gibraltar. After Marshal Pétain signed an armistice with Germanyon 22 June 1940, Winston Churchillgave Somerville the task of neutralizing the main element of the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébirin 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 1941Somerville 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 Maltaand Egypt. He received a KBE in 1941 for his successes with Force H.
Indian Ocean, 1942-1944
Somerville became commander of the
British Eastern Fleetin 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 Atollin the Maldives. The Japanese advance through Burmaand their capture of the Andaman Islandsenforced the move of the bulk of the Eastern Fleet to Addu Atoll and to Kilindiniin East Africa.
Chuichi Nagumo's powerful Indian Ocean Raidin 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.
Somerville was replaced as commander of the Eastern Fleet by Admiral
Bruce Fraserin 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 Somersetin August 1946, and lived in the family seat of Dinder House, Somerset, where he died on 19 March 1949.
* [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)
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