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Sir James Somerville
Admiral Sir James Somerville c. 1943
Born (1882-07-17)17 July 1882
Died 19 March 1949(1949-03-19) (aged 66)
Place of birth Weybridge,Surrey,England.
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.png Royal Navy
Years of service 1897–1945
Rank Admiral of the Fleet
Commands held HMS Benbow
East Indies Station
Eastern Fleet
Battles/wars World War I
- Mediterranean naval campaign
- Gallipoli Campaign
Spanish Civil War
- Battle of Mallorca
World War II
- Operation Dynamo
- Operation Catapult
- Genoa Raid
- Sinking of the Bismarck
- Indian Ocean Raid
Awards Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath;
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire;
Distinguished Service Order;
Mentioned in Despatches (1916 & 1940);
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands);
Commander of the Legion of Merit (United States)

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

Early career[edit | edit source]

Somerville served in the Royal Navy in the First World War. He 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.[1] He went on to be Flag Captain to Vice Admiral John Kelly in 1927 and served as a Naval Instructor at the Imperial Defence College from 1929 to 1931.[1] He was made commanding officer of HMS Norfolk in 1931.[1] Promoted to commodore in 1932, he became Commander of the Royal Navy Barracks at Portsmouth.[1] Promoted to rear admiral on 12 October 1933 he became Director of Personal Services at the Admiralty in 1934.[1]

Somerville commanded the Mediterranean Fleet destroyer flotillas from 1936 to 1938,[1] and during the Spanish Civil War helped protect Majorca from the Republicans. In 1938 and 1939 he served as Commander-in-Chief, East Indies,[1] before being forced to retire in 1939 for medical reasons (it was thought, incorrectly, that he had tuberculosis).

European operations, 1939–1942[edit | edit source]

He was recalled to duty on special service to the Admiralty later in 1939 with the start of World War II,[1] 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.[1] After Marshal Philippe Pétain of France 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 on 3 July 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. In the autumn of 1940 he led the British forces in the Battle of Cape Spartivento.

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[edit | edit source]

Somerville became Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet, in March 1942, replacing Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton.[1] 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[edit | edit source]

Somerville was replaced as commander of the Eastern Fleet by Admiral Bruce Fraser in August 1944. He was also advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in August 1944.[2] Two months later he was placed in charge of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington D.C., from 1944 to December, 1945,[1] 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,[1] 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. He is the grandfather of newsreader Julia Somerville.

Honours and awards[edit | edit source]

Order of the Bath UK ribbon.png Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath 22 August 1944, (KCB 8 June 1939, CB 1 January 1935)
OBE(M).png Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire 1 January 1946 (KBE 21 October 1941)
Dso-ribbon.png Distinguished Service Order 14 March 1916
NLD Order of Orange-Nassau - Knight Grand Cross BAR.png Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands) 7 August 1945
US Legion of Merit Commander ribbon.png Commander of the Legion of Merit (United States) 14 December 1945
Mentioned in Despatches 14 March 1916, 16 August 1940

References[edit | edit source]

Notes
Sources

External links[edit | edit source]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Alexander Ramsay
Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station
1938–1939
Succeeded by
Sir Ralph Leatham
Preceded by
Sir William Whitworth
Commander, Battlecruiser Squadron
1940
Succeeded by
Sir William Whitworth
Preceded by
Sir Geoffrey Layton
Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet
1942–1944
Succeeded by
Sir Bruce Fraser
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Marquess of Bath
Lord Lieutenant of Somerset
1946–1949
Succeeded by
The Lord Hylton


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