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Somerville, James Fownes (1882-1949)


Photograph of James Somerville

Wikimedia Commons

James Somerville graduated from the British Naval Academy in 1897 and became one of the Navy's first radio experts. He served as a wireless officer throughout the First World War, primarily in the Mediterranean. He rose through the ranks between the wars and retired just before the outbreak of the Second World War due to tuberculosis.

Restored to health and recalled to service after war broke out in Europe, Somerville participated in BBC propaganda broadcasts and worked on radar before being transferred to Ramsay's staff for the Dunkirk evacuation, in which he distinguished himself. He was then given command of Force H at Gibraltar. He was knighted twice, in 1939 and 1941, which prompted some teasing from Cunningham, the Mediterranean Fleet commander: "Congratulations, but isn't twice a knight at your age rather overdoing it?"

On 27 March 1942, he assumed command of Far Eastern Fleet, just in time to meet Nagumo's raid into the Indian Ocean. During the Japanese attacks on Ceylon, he played a cat-and-mouse game with the superior Japanese fleet, making maximum use of Ultra intercepts and other forms of radio intelligence. Though he was unsuccessful in forcing a night engagement, he was successful in avoiding a daylight engagement with the Japanese carriers, which eventually withdrew to the Pacific to face the greater threat of the U.S. carrier forces.

In August 1944 Somerville was appointed head of the British Naval Mission in the United States, where he established good relations with top U.S. naval commanders such as Ernest King. He was promoted to admiral of the fleet during his Washington tour, and retired in early 1946.

Somerville was known for his keen sense of humor and reputation as a storyteller and for his devotion to physical fitness. He was also was a dedicated and hardworking officer with the ability to state his positions frankly and forcefully without giving offense.

Service record

1882-7-17     

Born at Weybridge, Surrey
1897
Cadet     
Graduates from Naval Academy
1904
Lieutenant     

1933
Rear admiral     

1936

Commander, Destroyer Flotilla, Mediterranean Fleet
1938-4

Discharged with tuberculosis
1939

Recalled to light duty
1940
Vice admiral
Commander, Force H
1942-3-27     

Commander, Eastern Fleet
1942-4-6
Admiral

1944-10

Head, British Naval Delegation, Washington
1945-5
Admiral of the fleet     

1946

Retires
1949-3-19

Dies at Dinder House, Wells

References

Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et al. (1992)



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