Members Blog

The Loneliness of Command during World War 2

Posted by Paul Harrison, on June 30th, 2020

This blog entry is all about the isolation of high command, when scapegoats are searched for amid the tragedies of war. It is also rather touchingly about the need in such isolation for the support of family and friends, something we can all relate to in lock-down and in life.

Force H was created hurriedly under Vice Admiral James Somerville’s command on 27 June 1940 to guard the western Mediterranean after the fall of France. One of its main tasks was to escort vital convoys to Malta, including the ferrying of fighters from aircraft carriers to keep that beleaguered island in the war. Somerville’s vocal opposition to the use of his force against Vichy France, rather than Italy, and his failure to prevent the escape of the Vichy battleship Strasbourg at Mers-el Kebir made him enemies in high places. In November 1940 he found himself facing two boards of enquiry; one for the loss of 8 out of 12 Hurricanes which flew off HMS Argus 400 miles west of Malta and ran out of fuel. The other, just days after the Fleet Air Arm’s success at Taranto, was for his decision to break off an attack on an Italian force containing the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Cesare during the Battle of Cape Spartivento. Although the forces equally balanced, his ships were sailing away from the convoy they were supposed to be protecting, which was moving towards enemy territory and certain air attack. Somerville judged that his slim chances of catching the enemy did not warrant his neglect of the convoy. The Boards of Enquiry exonerated him, but he remained understandably bitter. Whilst at sea he shared all of his concerns with his wife.

Extract from ‘The Somerville Papers‘ edited by Michael Simpson with the assistance of John Somerville, son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville, G.C.B., G.B.E., D.S.O. N.R.S. Volume 134 (1995) pp.203-209

To his wife, 30 November 1940.

Apparently TL (Their Lordships) do not approve of my actions in Wednesday’s engagement because Cork and Orrery and George Lyon are arriving here by a destroyer on Tuesday to hold a Court of Enquiry on the action and in particular why it was broken off and why the second torpedo bomber flight did not attack the battleships. So that’s that. I seem to be entirely surrounded by Boards of Enquiry and I imagine the net result must be that I shall be seeing you before long. So that is something cheerful anyway. Mind you I am not prejudicing myself but knowing old Cork I imagine he will take the view that I ought to have gone haring after the Itis whatever the disproportion in forces and possible consequences to the achievement of my object.

I had a brief conference this morning with the Commanding Officers of ships which were present and asked them to say quite frankly whether they considered we could have continued the action with advantage and they all said no. I have drafted out a summary of my views of the situation and concluded it by saying that I had to resist the temptation of attempting to score a small advantage by sinking an Iti ship at the expense of achieving my object which was to pass the convoy, corvettes and personnel through to the eastern Med. This I accomplished and have had signals of thanks and congratulations from the Governor of Malta and old Ma Ford. It is odd to think that as we came into harbour yesterday the ships and destroyers all cheered and I had all sorts of congratulatory signals and now comes this lovely cold douche…I spent all day today attending the enquiry about the loss of those Hurricanes.

The air people at Malta are now trying to make out that a very badly worded message from the Air Ministry indicated they did not agree with the proposed position for flying off. Actually in evidence today it appeared that the pilots of the Hurricanes had no idea what was the economic speed for their machines. They had never been told! Only one knew apparently, and he arrived with plenty of petrol to spare.Old Dudley North and my staff are simply livid about the whole business. But all the same if it leads me to obscurity along with you I don’t really mind for myself.To his wife, (two days after the conclusion of the Boards of Enquiry ) 8 December 1940….I wrote in reply to Cork thanking him very much but saying that I looked to my brother flag officers at home to protect and champion me until it was established that I had done wrong and only then was I content to be judged by them. I now hear that all the wardrooms were seething with indignation and in fact the whole force is savage at this monstrous insult to which I as their leader have been subjected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison has taught at a Blackpool primary school for 34 years, and has always had a passion for history, especially naval aviation. He is due to start a PhD with Lancaster University to further his research into the Fairey Barracuda, a three-seat carrier-borne torpedo and dive bomber which saw extensive service with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War.