Fighting alongside allies typically exposes serious points of friction because the various partners hope to attain more than simply the defeat of a common enemy. With World War I affording the U.S. Navy its first extensive experience in coalition warfare, it therefore is impressive how harmoniously American and British forces coordinated their activities.[i] While each country’s leadership certainly had its share of differences with the other, Admiral William S. Sims, Commander of American Forces operating in European Waters, and his American Planning Section in London contributed much to the remarkable level of cooperation. In certain instances it was their ideas that mattered, but most of the time simply providing a medium for exchanging views with the Allies was every bit as important.
The Planning Section did not form until Sims, who had been in Europe since April 1917 and whose staff initially consisted only of but one aide, had spent months tapping the services of attaches and other incoming officers to steadily increase his support. Throughout these first months the Office of Naval Operations in Washington completed the service’s strategic planning. But in November, the Navy’s first Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson, visited Sims and agreed that planning would require the establishment of a dedicated team in London. The British capital long had served as the world’s center of maritime intelligence, which, along with proximity to the British staff, would benefit the new section. The small group of Americans, typically ranging from two to four, formed on 26 December 1917 and commenced its first study in early January 1918. Sims’s chief of staff, Captain Nathan C. Twining, officially headed the section although its activities were for the most part directed by Captain Frank H. Schofield.[ii]
Assigned no administrative duties, Planning Section members could focus on what they and Admiral Sims thought was essential. Thus many of the seventy-one memoranda they produced deal with critical topics such as anti-submarine warfare, efforts to streamline logistics, and improving or maintaining relationships with all the allies including France and Italy. Select problems were analyzed by emphasizing the German perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of Allied initiatives. The Planning Section interacted freely with counterparts from the British planning section, and sometimes it shared its work with the Inter-Allied Council. Sims believed firmly in demonstrating commitment to cooperation.[iii]
Addressing interrelated and often politically-sensitive topics proved easier thanks to the small section’s heavy reliance on Naval War College graduates, who, in Admiral Benson’s words, were to be “fully imbued with our national and naval policy and ideas.”[iv] Several subsequently would contribute to the Navy’s general intellectual orbit or occupy a top level of command. For example, Commander, later Commodore, Dudley W. Knox was a prolific author of U.S. naval history and served as the “guiding spirit” of the Naval Historical Foundation.[v] Captain, later Admiral, Harry E. Yarnell commanded the Asiatic Fleet from 1936-1939 and, in his later sixties, was twice recalled to active duty to help with planning in World War II.[vi] For some problems, such as Memorandum 17’s “Review of the Mining Situation,” the section prepared its own solutions and then compared them with independent analyses drafted in parallel by the British Planning Section. Another effective technique employed by the Americans was to make visits to bases “in order to keep the section in touch with the practical aspects of operations. . . [and avoid] becoming academic.” Occasionally getting out of London also stimulate[d] members’ imaginations.[vii]
The impact of the Planning Section’s nearly six-dozen memoranda upon the Allies’ operations between January and November 1918 likely was limited, but certain of their recommendations left their mark. During their year and a half as allies U.S. and British leaders disagreed about the tradeoffs of making a large-scale mining effort to restrict German vessels in the north. But after the war the Planning Section’s summary concluded that continued advocacy had “considerably advanced the completion of the barrage” in 1918, albeit with less urgency than it felt was warranted.[viii] The American planners also believed that their analysis of allied and enemy morale in February 1918 assisted governmental officials in both the United States and Great Britain.[ix]
One of Winston Churchill’s many famous observations about war holds that “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”[x] During times of peace it also often proves frustrating to coordinate military activities with partners bound by their own nation’s political and economic perspectives. But the effort to “pull together” must occur, both in war and in peace. Looking back a hundred years to the American Naval Planning Section’s work, the reader might observe many useful insights about working within alliances.
Although the U.S. Navy in World War I represented the world’s largest industrialized power and offered capabilities that could help tilt the balance in the favor of the Allies, it entered anew into an established team. A junior partner to the British but far stronger than the French or Italians, the United States opted to conduct a nuanced dance in order to attain access to and then improve widespread bases that would facilitate entry of the American army or be used for fighting enemy submarines. Instructively, the Planning Section’s memoranda offer a range of ideas about “political jealousy” and “cumbersome” planning councils that tend to impede the rapid execution of plans or sometimes stop them altogether.[xi] In the end, however, the American Naval Planning Section and Sims’s conspicuous commitment to the Allied effort writ large helped generate enough cooperation to achieve victory.[xii]
—Jon Middaugh, NHHC
[i] William N. Still Jr. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006), 73-77.
[ii] William Sowden Sims, The Victory at Sea (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1921), 245-247; Still 44-45; Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Historical Section, The American Naval Planning Section London, Memorandum No. 71, 1923.
[iii] Sims, 45.
[iv] Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Historical Section, The American Naval Planning Section London, Memorandum No. 71, 1923.
[v] Navy Department Library website, Dudley Wright Knox Biography.
[vi] Navy Department Library website, Harold Ervin Yarnell Biography.
[vii] Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Historical Section, “The American Naval Planning Section London,” Memorandum Nos. 17, 22, 39, 42A, 47, and 71.
[viii] Ibid., Memorandum Nos. 1, 3, 17, 35, 42, 43, 51A, and 71.
[ix] Ibid, Memorandum 11.
[x] Richard J. Mahoney and Shera Dalin, eds., The Quotable Winston Churchill (Fulton, MO: Winston Churchill Memorial and Library, 2005), 70.
[xi] Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Historical Section, “The American Naval Planning Section London,” Memorandum No. 71.
[xii] Still, 75-77.
Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Historical Section, The American Naval Planning Section London, 1923.
Sims, William S. The Victory at Sea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921.
Still, William. N., Jr. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006.