Somerville, Sir James Fownes.

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Somerville, Sir James Fownes, born on 17-07-1882, in Weybridge, Surrey, the second son of Arthur Fownes Somerville, of Dinder House , Somerset, and his wife Ellen Somerville born Sharland, daughter of William Stanley Sharland of New Norfolk, Tasmania). His father had studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, was called to the bar as a barrister in 1875 and had then become a Recorder of Wells, Somerset in 1916 and had served as President of the Somerset Archaeological Society. Somerville was descended in the male-line from the Fownes family of Nethway and Kittery Court, his ancestors being John Fownes the younger and John Fownes the elder were Members of Parliament for Dartmouth in the early eighteenth century and another ancestor went on to marry an heiress of the Somerville family of Dinder House, changing their surname to Somerville in 1831 in honour of this connection. Through his paternal grandmother, he was descended from the Hood family, which had a long tradition of naval service and which counted as members Vice Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, 1st Baronet, and Admiral Samuel Hood, 1st Viscount Hood. In 1913, Somerville married Mary Main; they had a daughter and a son. The news reader Julia Somerville is one of their granddaughters

Somerville became Flag Officer Destroyers in the Mediterranean Fleet in March 1936 and during the Spanish Civil War commanded an international force in the area of Majorca when Palma was threatened with bombardment by Republican forces. Promoted to vice admiral on 11-09-1937, he became Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, with his flag in the cruiser HMS Norfolk in July 1938. He retired with suspected tuberculosis in early 1939 but was still advanced to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath on 08-06-1939.

With the approach of the World War II, Somerville was recalled to duty on special service to the Admiralty later in 1939 and performed important work on naval radar development. In May 1940, Somerville served under Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, helping organize the Dunkirk evacuation. His next major assignment was as commander of the newly formed Force H based in Gibraltar, with his flag in the battlecruiser HMS Hood. After the French armistice with Germany on 22-06-1940, Sir Winston Churchill gave Somerville and Force H the task of neutralizing the main element of the French battle fleet, then at Mers El Kébir in Algeria.  They were to attack and destroy the French ships 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 Somerville privately felt that such an attack would be a mistake, he carried out his orders. The French refused to comply with British conditions and so on 03-07-1940, Force H attacked French ships at Mers-el-Kébir.  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, but he admitted privately to his wife that he had not been quite as aggressive in the destruction as he could have been. He was Mentioned in Despatches on 16-08-1940.

Somerville transferred his flag to the battlecruiser HMS Renown in August 1940 and led the British forces in the Battle of Cape Spartivento in November; Churchill was outraged at Somerville for not continuing the pursuit of the Italian Navy after that battle and dispatched the Earl of Cork to conduct an inquiry, but Cork found that Somerville had acted entirely appropriately. Force H bombarded Genoa   on 9-02-1941, and Somerville, still in HMS Renown in May 1941, also played an important role in the pursuit and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck , under Admiral Johann Günther Lütjens  later that month.May 1941. Somerville transferred his flag to the battleship HMS Nelson in August 1941 and also played a major role in protecting Malta from enemy attack in autumn 1941.1] He transferred his flag to the battleship HMS Rodney and then to the battleship HMS Malaya. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his service with Force H on 21-10-1941.

The Bismarck was sunk 27-05-1941. By mid-morning, the pride of the German navy had become a floating wreck with numerous fires aboard, unable to steer and with her guns almost useless because she was listing badly to port. Soon, the command went out to scuttle the ship, and the Bismarck quickly sank. Of a 2,221-man crew, included Admiral Lütjes, only 115 survived..

Somerville became Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet with his flag in the battleship HMS Warspite in March 1942 and was promoted to full Admiral on 06-04-1942. Following the fall of Singapore, Somerville transferred his fleet headquarters from Trincomalee in Ceylon to Kilindini in Kenya. In April 1942 Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s  powerful 1st Air Fleet (Kidō Butai) centered around five fleet carriers launched the Indian Ocean raid that inflicted heavy losses on Somerville’s fleet including a light aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers, two destroyers, one corvette, five other vessels, and 45 aircraft. The damage inflicted upon Royal Navy and allied Commonwealth forces in the Indian Ocean was nonetheless minimized, being forewarned by intelligence so their heavy units sailed from their bases prior to the Japanese air attacks. Somerville avoided a direct confrontation with the Imperial Japanese Navy, preserving the Eastern Fleet’s two fleet carriers and one fast battleship.

In Spring 1944, with reinforcements, Somerville was able to go on the offensive in a series of aggressive air strikes in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies: these included attacks on Sabang in April and May 1944 and on Surabaya in May 1944. He was also advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath on 22-08-1944.

Somerville was placed in charge of the British naval delegation in Washington, D.C. in October 1944 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. Somerville became Deputy Lieutenant of Somerset on 08-11-1944, was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet on 08-05-1945 and was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire on 01-01-1946. He was also appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Netherlands government and a Commander of the Legion of Merit by the United States.

Death and burial ground of Somerville, Sir James Fownes.

Somerville as Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet Admiral Sir Geoffrey Nigel Oliver on board HMS Warspite.

In retirement Somerville became Lord Lieutenant of Somerset in August 1946 and was appointed a Knight of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem on 23-12-1946. Sir James lived at the family seat of Dinder House in Somerset where he died of coronary thrombosis on 19-03-1949, age 66..James Somerville’s body was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels Church at Dinder, St, Dinder, Wells BA5 3PE..

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