Born 17th July 1882, at Weymouth, Surrey. James Somerville joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1897. He became Lieutenant in 1904, having firstly qualified as a torpedo officer and then, later specialising in wireless telegraphy. It was as Fleet Wireless Officer on the staff of Admiral de Roebuck that he served for the greater part of the First World War, being involved in the Dardanelles campaign and the equipping of ships in the Grand Fleet for wireless fire control. For his services during the war he was promoted Commander and awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916.
In 1921, Somerville was promoted to Captain, and served in the Admiralty as Director of the Signal Department from 1925 for two years. In 1929, he served on the staff of the Imperial Defence College for two years, and in 1932, he was appointed Commodore of the Royal Navy Barracks at Portsmouth. In 1933, he was promoted to Rear Admiral, and in1934, became Director of Personal Services. In 1936, he became Commander of destroyer flotillas in the Mediterranean, a position he held for two years. He was promoted to Vice-Admiral in 1937, and in 1938, became Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, until he retired with pulmonary tuberculosis in 1939, in the same year he was awarded the Knight Commander of the Bath.
He was unofficially recalled to the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Second World War to work on the development of technical devices, particularly radar, and was largely responsible for speeding up the installation of effective surface warning radar in British warships. During the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940, he volunteered his services, and served under Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey.
In June 1940, Somerville was officially recalled to active service to command Force H, a squadron based at Gibraltar. He was involved in the bombardment of the French squadron at Mers-el-Kebir, Oran. He oversaw a number of convoys through to Malta, beating off attacks by the Italian fleet and the bombardment of Genoa. While under his command, the torpedo-bombers from HMS Ark Royal attacked the German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic in 1941, immobilising the ship and allowing the Home Fleet to catch and sink it. When Japan entered the war, Somerville was given the task of assembling the Eastern fleet in the Indian Ocean. In 1944 it delivered successful air strikes on Sabang in Sumatra and Sourabaya in Java. Somerville was relieved by Admiral Fraser in August 1944, and served as Head of the British Admiralty Mission in Washington until the end of 1945. He became Admiral of the Fleet in 1945. He died on 19th March 1949 in Dinder House, Somerset.
© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000
The information contained in this fact sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.