Admiral Sir James Somerville, 1882-1949

Admiral Sir James Somerville (1882-1949) was one of the most able British admirals of the Second World War, serving at Dunkirk, as the commander of Force H at Gibraltar and as Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet, despite having only been declared fit for light duties at the start of the war.

Somerville came from an old naval family, related to the Hoods, and joined the navy in 1897. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1904. By the outbreak of the First World War he had become a radio specialist, and in 1916 he was appointed to the DSO for his radio services during the Dardanelles campaign.

Between the wars Somerville was promoted to rear admiral (1933) and given command of the Mediterranean destroyer flotilla (1936-1938). In his first year in this role the Spanish Civil War threatened to spread out into the Mediterranean when Republican forces threatened to bombard Palma, Majorca. As the senior naval officer in the area Somerville took command of an international force that included the German pocket battleship Deutschland and the Italian destroyer Malocello. His final post-war command , as Commander-in-Chief in the East Indies, almost ended his naval career when in April 1938 he was invalided home with what was believed to be pulmonary TB, and placed on the retired list. Despite a full recovery he was not restored to the active list (indeed despite a very active wartime career he would not be restored to the active list until August 1944!).

At the outbreak of the Second World War Somerville was declared fit for light duties. During the early months of the war he made a number of radio broadcasts as well as working on early naval radar, both for use at sea and on coastal defence. In May 1940 he volunteered for service at Dunkirk. Amongst many other duties on 24 May 1940 Somerville visited the besieged garrison of Calais, getting a first hand account of their situation from Brigadier Claude Nicholson. On his return to Britain Somerville made a radio broadcast describing his experiences at Calais.

The entry of Italy into the war changed the naval situation in the Mediterranean, preventing the Royal Navy from using its base at Malta. Churchill rejected any idea of evacuated the eastern Mediterranean, and so a new squadron was needed at Gibraltar to operate in the western Mediterranean. This new Force H came into existence on 28 June 1940, and contained the battlecruiser Hood (replaced by the Renown soon after the fighting at Oran) , the battleships Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, one cruiser and four destroyers. On 30 June 1940 Somerville hoisted his flag as commander of this new force.

Although Force H shared Gibraltar with the headquarters of Admiral Sir Dudley North, the Flag Officer, North Atlantic, Somerville was not under North's command and instead reported directly to the Admiralty in London.

On the day after taking up his new command Somerville was faced with one of the more unpleasant tasks to fall to any British naval officer during the war. A strong French naval squadron had taken refuge at Mers-el-Kebir (Oran), and it had been decided that this force must be neutralised (Operation Catapult). On 1 July Somerville received the order to carry out "Catapult" on 3 July. Although the French commander at Oran, Admiral Gensoul, was presented with four options, amongst them the removal of his ships to a French port in the West Indies, the French council of ministers was only informed of the most severe of the options, that the French ships should be scuttled. The inevitable result was a battle between the fleets of the former allies. In the resulting battles the French battleship Bretagne was destroyed, and the Dunkerque and the Provence were beached, but the Strasbourg escaped to Toulon.

Although Somerville had carried out his orders at Oran he had made it clear in signals back to London that he had not been happy with the decision to use force. At least for a short period this may have lost him Churchill's confidence, and he even came in for criticism at the Admiralty. He was quite correctly seen as being less adventurous than Andrew Cunningham, his colleague in the eastern Mediterranean. In July 1940, during a joint operation with Cunningham, Somerville had turned back rather than expose the Ark Royal to heavy air attack for what he felt had been a minor diversion. In early August Somerville had taken part in Operation "Hurry", a successful attempt to fly twelve Hurricane fighters to Malta, but in mid-November an attempt to repeat this (Operation "Coat") had ended in tragedy. Concerned about the slow speed of his fleet Somerville had consulted with the senior airmen on the carrier Argus, and had then launched another twelve Hurricanes and two Skuas from a position 400 sea miles west of Malta. Only four of the Hurricanes and one of the Skuas reached Malta, while the remaining aircraft were lost after running out of fuel.

"Coat" was followed by Operation "Collar", a complex combined operation. The operation itself was a total success - a number of merchant ships were safely escorted to Malta and Alexandria, reinforcements reached Cunningham, while three warships from Alexandria moved into the Atlantic. However on 27 November 1940 Somerville had been involved in a brief action with elements of the Italian fleet off Cape Spartivento. This action had ended when Somerville had called off an obviously pointless pursuit of the retreating Italians. Much to Somerville's surprise and irritation when he returned to Malta he discovered that the Admiralty had dispatched a board of enquiry under Admiral Lord Cork to look at Somerville's decisions in this action. The board of enquiry soon completely vindicated Somerville, and any doubts about him soon passed.

Somerville's duties often took his ships outside the Mediterranean. They had been heavily involved in Operation Menace, the failed attack on Dakar of September 1940. The Ark Royal had actually taken part in the operation, while Somerville's flagship Renown had carried out a patrol along the North African coast. More controversy had arisen when a force of French cruisers had managed to pass through the straits of Gibraltar, but this time it would be Admiral North who was blamed. Force H was also operating in the Atlantic during the sortie of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and on 20 March 1941 aircraft from the Ark Royal even sighted the two German ships, but Somerville was unable to catch them before contact was lost. After the two German ships reached Brest Somerville and Force H played a part in a naval blockade, designed to prevent them escaping back out into the Atlantic (in the end the German ships actually escaped up the English channel, in the famous "channel dash").

Somerville and Force H played a major role in the hunt for the Bismarck in May 1941. Although the Home Fleet provided most of the ships involved, Force H arrived on the scene at around noon on 25 May, taking up a position that blocked the Bismarck's route to Brest. At this point contact with the Bismarck had been lost, but at 10.30am on 26 May a Catalina of Coastal Command found her. This placed the Ark Royal in a position from where her Swordfish could attack the Bismarck. Between 8.47 and 9.25pm on 26 May aircraft from the Ark Royal carried out the attack which damaged the Bismarck's steering gear and jammed her rudders. The Bismarck could no longer escape from her British pursuers, and on 27 May was finally sunk.

HMS Prince of Wales and HMS McDougal (DD-358)
HMS Prince of Wales and
HMS McDougal (DD-358)

1941 also saw Somerville active in the Mediterranean. On 9 February Force H carried out a naval and aerial bombardment of Genoa, Leghorn and Spezia (using the Renown, Malaya, Ark Royal and Sheffield), returning to Gibraltar without suffering a single casualty. Despite this offensive move, for most of the year the reinforcement of Malta would remain the key task.

In March 1942 Somerville was moved from Force H to take command of the Eastern Fleet, replacing Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, with the rank of full Admiral (from 6 April 1942). He inherited a disastrous situation. Admiral Tom Philipps and the Prince of Wales and Repulse had been lost of Malaya, and Japanese carrier forces were raiding into the Indian Ocean. Somerville's first task was to keep his fleet intact. He achieved this by retiring to the secret British base at Addu Atoll, in the Maldive Islands. At this point Somerville had a large but somewhat elderly fleet, based around five First World War vintage battleships (Resolution, Ramillies, Revenge, Royal Sovereign and Warspite) and the two modern fleet carriers Indomitable and Formidable, but by the end of 1942 three of the battleships and one carrier had been withdrawn for Operation Torch, and early in the following year he lost the second carrier and another battleship. The Eastern Fleet would not be restored until early in 1944, after the Italian surrender had transformed the situation in the Mediterranean. Somerville found himself unable to conduct any offensive operations against the Japanese, and once again found himself the target of Churchill's displeasure.

The growth of his fleet in 1944 allowed Somerville to launch his first offensive moves since arriving in the Far East. On 19 April 1944 a large fleet (built around two carriers and three battleships and with British, French, Dutch, American, Australian and New Zealand ships included) attacked the oil storage facility on Sabang Island (off Sumatra), destroying three of the four oil tanks and destroying 27 Japanese aircraft for the loss of one Allied aircraft. This was the first of a series of such attacks that marked the return of British naval power to the area.

Somerville himself left the Far East in August 1944, the same month that saw him restored to the active list. In October 1944 he succeeded Admiral Sir Percy Noble as the head of the British Naval Delegation in Washington, where the return of the Royal Navy to the Pacific was by then the main topic of interest. He was promoted to admiral of the fleet in May 1945, and appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB). After retiring for the final time in 1946 Somerville served as Lord Lieutenant of Somerset.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 July 2008), Admiral Sir James Somerville (1882-1949),

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