Like Admiral Ramsay, Somerville was on the retired list but was not recalled until September 1939. He helped Ramsay organize the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, before being given command of Force H, based on Gibraltar.
Although he was born in Weybridge, Surrey, on 17 July 1882, James Somerville could easily have been born in New Zealand as his father had spent some time there farming. He joined the Royal Navy as a Dartmouth cadet on 15 January 1897, and by 15 March 1904 was already a lieutenant. During the First World War, Somerville became the Navy’s leading radio specialist and served at Gallipoli, where he was awarded the DSO.
As a career officer, Somerville stayed in the service after the war, and on 31 December 1921 was promoted to captain and commanded HMS Benbow. With his radio experience, 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 British Mediterranean Fleet destroyer flotillas from 1936 to 1938, and during the Spanish Civil War his ships were often in Spanish waters protecting British subjects. From 1938 to 1939, he served in the East Indies Station, but in 1939 it was thought that he had tuberculosis and he was forced to retire on medical grounds, although it later turned out to be a false diagnosis.
Somerville was recalled for special duties by the Admiralty later in September 1939 with the start of the First World War. For the first winter of war, he did important work on naval radar development and in May 1940 was sent to Dover where he served under Admiral Ramsay, helping to organize the evacuation of Dunkirk.
He gained his own command when he was appointed as a vice admiral to command the newly formed Force H, based at Gibraltar, flying his flag on the battlecruiser HMS Hood. Force H was unusual inasmuch as its Gibraltar base meant that it could operate in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, where it often helped provide a strong escort for convoys as far east as Malta, as the Mediterranean became increasingly divided, with Force H confined to the western half and the British Mediterranean Fleet to the eastern. Somerville was given this exacting command, which was officially a powerful naval squadron, but in reality a small fleet, when Force H was formed on 28 June 1940. The idea was to fill the vacuum left by the fall of France and the loss of the French fleet, with its initial role being to stop this strategic asset falling into Axis hands.
After Henri-Philippe 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.’
He felt privately that his orders to attack if all other avenues failed were a mistake, and that tackling the French fleet was an unwelcome task, as he and his men were all too aware that until recently France had been an ally. He was therefore anxious to avoid a battle with the French. On 3 July, he presented his opposite number at Oran, Admiral Gensoul, with an ultimatum, demanding that the French warships be handed over or neutralized, by which he meant that they should be non-operational. Force H included the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, commanded by Captain Holland, who was sent to meet Gensoul. The British ultimatum was rejected.
This left Somerville with no option but to attack the French fleet and the shore installations. A single burst of gunfire from one of his battleships blew an army barracks off the crest of a hill. Supported by an attack by aircraft from Ark Royal, it took just fifteen minutes for Force H to blow up the old French battleship Bretagne, and cripple the battleship Provence and the battlecruiser Dunkerque, both of which had to be run aground to prevent them sinking; the battlecruiser Strasbourg and six destroyers managed to escape to Toulon. Force H’s ships were completely undamaged in this short action, although the thin flight deck of the British carrier would have been vulnerable to heavy shellfire.
Somerville’s forces having inflicted severe damage on their erstwhile allies, the operation was judged a success, although he admitted privately to his wife that he had not been quite as aggressive in the act of destruction as he could have been.
On 27 November 1940, Force H, with the battleship Ramillies and battlecruiser Renown, as well as the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, was escorting three fast freighters from Gibraltar to Alexandria when Admiral Campioni was sent with the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Guilio Cesare to intercept them. When the Italians were spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft off Cape Teulada in Sardinia, Somerville moved Force H towards them. Both sides were supported by cruisers, with the British having five against the Italians’ six, and these clashed first. The elderly Ramillies soon fell behind, but Renown followed closely on the British cruisers, and once they came under her fire the Italian cruisers withdrew behind their battleships, which then joined the Battle of Cape Teulada. Ark Royal sent her Swordfish to attack the Italians and although no torpedo strikes were made, this was enough to encourage Campioni to break off the battle, having no aircraft of his own. The outcome was that one Italian destroyer was badly damaged, as was the British cruiser Berwick. Nevertheless, the priority for Somerville was the protection of the convoy.
Force H continued to do its best to maintain the pressure on the Axis forces in the Mediterranean, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, not to mention having to face the combined forces of the Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica. On 9 February 1941, Somerville took the battleship Malaya, the battlecruiser Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, with a cruiser and ten destroyers as escorts, into the Gulf of Genoa, steaming into a relatively confined area close to the enemy’s mainland. Malaya and Renown bombarded Genoa itself, while the Ark Royal’s aircraft bombed the port of Leghorn and dropped mines off the naval base of La Spezia. The Italian battleships Vittorio Veneto, Giulio Cesare and Andrea Doria, with three cruisers and ten destroyers, were sent to intercept Force H, which they heavily outgunned and outnumbered. For a while, it looked as if Somerville was to have the decisive naval engagement for which Cunningham had longed, but the Italian ships failed to make contact. He was knighted that year for his successes with Force H.
It was this buccaneering spirit that probably inspired the Admiralty to send him to the Far East, and by February 1942 he was Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet. His force was ill-equipped to cope with a confrontation with Japanese forces. Between the wars, the British Government had sought to calm Australian and New Zealand fears about Japanese expansion by promising to send a large fleet eastwards in the event of war, but with war against both Germany and Italy in Europe, and France defeated, this was an impossible commitment. Having struck at the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, and covered landings in New Britain and the Netherlands East Indies, Admiral Nagumo took his carrier force into the Indian Ocean to attack Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This was the furthest west Japanese warships reached, and while they did not attempt to invade the island, they brought considerable force to bear. Further north, Vice Admiral Ozawa took a smaller force to attack shipping in the Bay of Bengal and also bombed the Indian towns of Cocanada and Vizagatapan, causing little damage.
The Eastern Fleet had five elderly battleships, three aircraft carriers, and five cruisers. Two of the aircraft carriers were modern, but lacked high-performance aircraft and his battleships could not keep up with them, while the third was the elderly and small Hermes, the first aircraft carrier designed as such from the keel upwards. She was really only suitable for escort duties.
Alerted to Japanese intentions by Ultra intelligence, Somerville planned to use his carrier-borne aircraft for a pre-emptive strike at the Japanese fleet, planning a night attack to reduce the risk of his aircraft being shot down by the 300 aircraft aboard Nagumo’s five carriers. Expecting an attack on 1 April, when the time passed, Somerville split his forces and sent most of his warships to his secret base at Addu Atoll (now Gan) in the Maldives, including his two modern, fast, armoured carriers, HMS Formidable and Indomitable. This left him with just the elderly Hermes and her twelve or so Fairey Swordfish.
The Japanese fleet was discovered by a RAF Consolidated Catalina flying boat on 4 April, which radioed a report before being shot down by Zero fighters. On Easter Day, 5 April, Nagumo sent his aircraft to attack Colombo in what was intended to be a repeat of the raid on Pearl Harbor. The harbour was packed with merchant shipping, but the Eastern Fleet was absent. Although the RAF was able to put Hawker Hurricane fighters into the air, these were shot down by the faster and more agile Zeros. The Japanese aircraft caused severe damage to the harbour and shore installations, and hit an armed merchant cruiser and a destroyer, but their losses were heavier than on their earlier operations.
Aerial reconnaissance was mounted later in an attempt to find the Eastern Fleet, and a flight from Soryu discovered the two heavy cruisers, Cornwall and Dorsetshire, which were sunk in just twenty minutes.
On 4 April, Hermes was in harbour at Trincomalee – ‘Trinco’ to the Royal Navy – and was ordered to sea where it was thought she stood a better chance of surviving an attack. On 6 April, she was ordered to return to Trincomalee, but left again on 8 April after intelligence indicated that a Japanese attack was imminent. Spotted at sea on 9 April, she was ordered back to Trincomalee so that she could be protected by the harbour’s AA defences. The Japanese attacked ‘Trinco’ at 0730 on 9 April, but again found the British Eastern Fleet absent. Nevertheless, out of eleven Hurricane fighters scrambled by the RAF, nine were shot down, while the Japanese attacked airfields and destroyed aircraft on the ground, as well as attacking the harbour and shore installations, and sinking a merchantman.
On learning of the presence of Hermes and her escort, the destroyer HMAS Vampire, an attack by eighty aircraft was ordered and the carrier was soon sinking, with the destroyer crippled by explosions from her magazines. Fortunately, the aircraft carrier was without her aircraft that day and many of the crew were able to swim the short distance to the coast of Ceylon.
Somerville’s reaction to these setbacks was pragmatic. He realized that he could not protect his battleships and ordered them to Kilindini (now Mombasa) in Kenya, out of reach of the Japanese, who had still failed to find the Eastern Fleet. He signalled to the Admiralty that he was reduced to creating diversions and ‘false scents, since I am now the poor fox’. It was a matter of good luck for the British that the Japanese had no plans to invade Ceylon, but that was scant comfort as they were determined to take Malaya, Singapore and Burma.
Having managed to keep his fleet intact, Somerville was promoted to admiral, although still on the retired list, in May 1942, and later reinstated on the active list. He remained with the Eastern Fleet until August 1944, when Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, who had sunk the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape the previous December, was sent to relieve him. By November, the balance of power was changed when Fraser was given command of the newly formed British Pacific Fleet. Somerville was then sent to Washington to head the Admiralty delegation and was promoted admiral of the fleet in May 1945.
He famously signalled Cunningham when ‘ABC’ received his second knighthood: ‘Fancy twice a knight at your age!’ When Somerville died in 1949, Cunningham wrote: ‘He was a great sailor and a great leader: shrewd, imaginative, determined and far seeing.’
Somerville was undoubtedly one of the most imaginative and inspiring of the Second World War admirals, and the impact of Force H in the Mediterranean was far in excess of its size. His period in the Far East was less successful, simply because his forces were outnumbered by the Japanese and he did well to husband his resources, which was often a braver decision than that of fighting and losing ships and men that were hard to replace. He was an aggressive commander in warfare, but lacked that certain arrogance or madness that was a law in Halsey’s make-up. He possessed a sense of humour and of humanity, and left to his own devices might well have resolved the problem of the French fleet in North Africa without bloodshed, and without the appalling impact it inflicted on Anglo-French relations.