The arrival of the first convoy carrying the soldiers and Marines of the American Expeditionary Force at Saint-Nazaire, France, on 26 June 1917 surprised the world and provided much-needed encouragement to the allies. Today, after two world wars and a century of witnessing military operations around the world, Americans might take this large troop movement for granted. In 1917, however, it was earth-shaking. For over 100 years, the centerpiece of American foreign policy revolved around defending the Western Hemisphere from European incursions. When the United States declared war on Germany, even the most recent war plans emphasized defending the Caribbean against European powers. Nowhere in those plans was a major troop movement to Europe considered. Nevertheless, this movement was accomplished within weeks of the declaration of war.
The Germans, above all, did not expect American troops to arrive so early in significant numbers. Three months before the American declaration of war, on 9 January 1917, Kaiser Wilhelm II met with his most trusted advisors in the castle of Pless, Silesia, Germany.The council considered the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, curtailed one year earlier due in large part to American pressure. The Germans believed that U-boat attacks on neutral and allied shipping would starve Great Britain into submission and win the war. One likely consequence of that decision, however, would be the United States’ entry into the conflict. Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, chief of the German Imperial Admiralty Staff and a leading proponent of unrestricted submarine warfare, argued that if the Kaiser untethered the U-boats, “England would be defeated within six months, at the most, before a single American had set foot on the Continent.” He claimed that the United States offered no real threat to the Central Powers: “Money as well as words will be hurled at us; military developments will come either not at all or too late to have an effect.” The Kaiser agreed, and ordered the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917. Warned by telegram from the German ambassador in Washington that the action would likely lead to war with the United States, Wilhelm II wrote in the margins, “that is irrelevant.”
The Kaiser’s action and the resulting attacks on American shipping did, indeed, lead to an American declaration of war on 6 April 1917. But how could the United States assist her co-belligerents across the ocean? Obviously, men, material, ships, and supplies were essential, but also important was less tangible aid to the allies’ flagging morale. The allied cause was teetering on the brink of defeat. The French Nivelle offensive failed in early May and French army units were mutinying at the front. Shipping losses due to the submarine campaign caused acute shortages in Great Britain. In eastern Europe, revolutionaries overthrew the Russian Tsar and allied fronts in Russia and Romania were threatening to collapse. In this environment, a French delegation including former French Prime Minister René Viviani and former French Army Chief-of-Staff Marshall Joseph Joffre visited the United States. The delegation requested that the Americans send troops to France as soon as possible. They claimed that the arrival of this force, even a small one, would boost allied spirits considerably.
The Americans agreed to dispatch a force of soldiers and Marines and to transport them to France in American vessels. The War Department summoned General John Pershing and sent him to France on 28 May to make preparations for the arrival of the U.S. contingent. On 23 May, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels named Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves commander of the convoy, and later designated him as Commander of Convoy Operations in the Atlantic. Gleaves reported to New York City to prepare the convoy.
Gleaves’s task was not an easy one. Only three commissioned Navy vessels were capable of transporting troops: the transports Hancock and Henderson, and the seized German auxiliary cruiser SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich, renamed DeKalb after the Bavarian-born Revolutionary War hero. As army authorities scraped together ocean liners and merchant vessels to carry the troops, Gleaves ensured that they were armed, seaworthy, and manned by appropriate Navy personnel. Of the 13 vessels that carried troops, three were previously commissioned in the Navy, two were ocean liners for the United Fruit Company, two carried mail, and six were merchant or ocean liners with various shipping companies. Workers and personnel rapidly armed these commercial vessels for defense and outfitted them to carry troops. Four cruisers, 13 destroyers, three armed colliers, and two armed yachts would escort the improvised troopships and four cargo vessels to the western French port of Saint-Nazaire. This motley convoy would steam in four separate groups.
The operation involved substantial coordination among American forces throughout the northern Atlantic. The army would coordinate the embarkation of the troops and cargo. After getting underway, destroyer escorts with lesser fuel capacities would break off from the convoy and return to North American ports once they reached their cruising limit. The oiler Maumee, departing from St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada, would rendezvous with and refuel the rest of the destroyers at sea. American destroyers operating out of Queenstown, Ireland, since May would join the convoy groups mid-ocean as they approached submarine-infested waters and escort them through the danger zone. Finally, as the convoy groups approached France, they would rendezvous with a small French escort for added protection. This complex operation required careful cooperation on both sides of the ocean, and Vice Admiral Sims (commanding U.S. naval forces at Queenstown) and French authorities repeatedly contacted the Navy Department to arrange details. The American naval attaché in France loudly made sham preparations for the troops to arrive at the port of Brest, to deceive any agents of the Central Powers. On 4 June, Gleaves reported again to Secretary of the Navy Daniels at Washington for final instructions. Following the meeting, Daniels bid Gleaves farewell, stating, “Admiral, you are going on the most important, the most difficult, and the most hazardous duty assigned to the Navy—good-bye.”
At daybreak on 14 June, Convoy Group I, led by Rear Admiral Gleaves in his flagship, the armored cruiser Seattle, weighed anchor in a thick fog. The convoy passed through The Narrows at the mouth of the Hudson River and into the Atlantic. Two hours later, Convoy Group II departed and after two more, the third group made steam. In all, the three groups carried 14,000 soldiers and Marines and their weapons. Convoy Group IV, carrying supplies, departed on June 15. Gleaves arranged the groups’ speed in descending order, with Convoy Group I consisting of the fastest vessels and Convoy Group IV the slowest. Their departure was timed so that during the trans-Atlantic passage the speed difference between groups increased the time between their arrivals, which would permit the small port of Saint-Nazaire to accommodate each group.
Extreme caution was exercised by the convoy. Sixteen lookouts were posted during the day, eight at night in one-hour watches. Ships were completely darkened at night and radio silence maintained throughout. The ships zigzagged to deny submarines a clear shot. Inexperienced and jumpy gun crews saw threats everywhere, even before entering the danger zone of heightened submarine activity. After five days at sea, on the afternoon of 19 June, troops milling around the deck of armed transport Antilles, Convoy Group II, began pointing and shouting about a submarine astern. The Navy crew of gun No. 4 fired two rounds before their antagonist proved to be a whale. On the night of 22 June, Convoy Group I claimed to have been attacked. Between 2215 and 2225, two vessels witnessed a rapidly passing wake that lookouts interpreted as a torpedo. DeKalb fired two shots and sounded her siren six times as a warning. DeKalb sighted a second wake at 2235. The escorts sprang into action and destroyer Fanning closed on the source of the wake, finding nothing. In all, the convoy sighted four separate torpedoes. While most of the convoy assumed it had been attacked, lookouts on transport Tenadores claimed the wakes came from a large fish. What caused the alarming wakes is unknown, but postwar inquiries with the German Admiralty confirmed that no submarines were in the vicinity.
At 0830 the following morning, lookouts on Gleaves’s flagship Seattle spotted American destroyers emerging from the mist. The troops cheered the arriving four-stackers. Lieutenant (and later Rear Admiral) Aaron “Tip” Merrill, onboard Queenstown-based destroyer Conyngham, later remembered that “more than one heart beat a little faster when the two areas of the service met some several thousand miles from home.” Gleaves was less sentimental, reportedly greeting the destroyers by signaling “Gentlemen, you are ten minutes late.” The destroyer escorts took position around the convoy as it continued into the danger zone.
The final portion of the passage was the most treacherous. The convoy groups made top speed as they zigzagged in case of submarine attack. Reminders of the submarine threat were all around. Wreckage from sunken ships bobbed on the surface and radio rooms were alive with S.O.S. calls from distant merchant vessels. On 26 June, destroyer Cummings was escorting Convoy Group II when lookouts sighted a periscope on her port bow 1,500 yards away. The destroyer pursued the submarine after it submerged and dropped a depth charge on a mass of bubbles. Apparent wreckage led the commanding officer of Cummings to claim the attack as a probable sinking of the submarine. Later investigation disproved that assertion. Convoy Group I reported an attack later that day when Antilles and Lenape sighted an apparent torpedo wake off of the French coast. The slow-moving merchant vessels of Group IV engaged in a confused battle on 28 June when cruiser St. Louis and oiler Kanawha sighted torpedoes and a submarine and opened fire. When the smoke cleared, all ships in the convoy except Kanawha believed that the vessels had engaged various forms of oceanic wildlife. Despite the confusion, all believed the fire was necessary. Commander J. E. Trench, captain of St. Louis, concluded, “At any rate the experience was good and we must fire on everything suspicious.” St. Louis again engaged an apparent periscope on 1 July, but the U-boat submerged before the cruiser’s crew could bring all of her guns to bear.
As the convoy groups approached the French coast, token forces of French warships ushered the American vessels into the Loire River estuary and Saint-Nazaire. Group I arrived off of the French port at midnight on 26 June, and by 2 July all four groups had reached their destination. In a final brush with danger, the convoy groups successfully navigated a minefield recently laid by a German submarine in the channel entering the harbor. The vessels crowded into the diminutive port and disembarked men and supplies. According to Gleaves, the operation was entirely successful and the convoy reached Saint-Nazaire without any casualties.* Gleaves later recalled one officer’s quip, “We didn’t lose but one horse, and that was a mule.”
The landing was a moral victory for the Allies and a harbinger of the over two million American troops who would be transported to Europe during the balance of the war. The Kaiser risked American intervention under the assumption that no troops would touch France before the Allies submitted in August 1917. The United States Navy proved him wrong, first by disembarking troops at Saint-Nazaire in June and later by helping to keep the sea lanes to Great Britain open, thereby keeping that nation in the war. On 4 July 1917, U.S. Army Colonel Charles Stanton stood in front of the tomb of Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, and famously proclaimed “Lafayette, we are here!”, evoking the vital military assistance the marquis and his French compatriots had provided the American colonies nearly 140 years before. Left unspoken was the United States Navy’s essential role in that historic reunion.
*Although Gleaves reported that the convoy suffered no casualties, destroyer Preston of Convoy Group III lost two sailors after a shipmate sitting on deck on a camp stool was washed overboard in a moderate sea. While being lowered off Preston's side to assist the man overboard, a line attached to a lifeboat released, dropping the boat's bow and throwing three or four more of Preston's crew into the rough seas. While some of the boat's crew recovered immediately, the sea carried three away. Reports seem to indicate that a lifeboat from the collier Cyclops saved the original man overboard and one member of the boat crew, but was unable to locate the two other Preston sailors. Since Preston returned to a North American port after reaching her cruising radius, these losses were either not noted by Gleaves or not considered as losses sustained by the arriving Europe-bound convoy.
Holger G. Herwig, Politics of Frustration (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1976).
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel. New York: Random House, 2003).
William Jr. Still, Crisis at Sea. (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006).
Josephus Daniels, Our Navy in the War. (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922).
Albert Gleaves, A History of the Transport Service (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1921).
William S. Sims, The Victory at Sea. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920).
For primary source June 1917 documents related to the convoy, many used in the writing of this essay, see the NHHC World War I Documentary History Project.
Essay by Matt Cheser, NHHC Histories and Archives Division, May 2017