Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander, Southern Ireland
10th April 1918.
My dear Admiral,
I have been intending to write you for some time concerning many subjects but there has been such a demand on my time that I find it difficult indeed to keep up with the correspondence which I should like to carry on.
I am enclosing an extract from my last General Report to the U.S.Navy Department.1 Ifeel very strongly on the subject set forth therein. Of course, the development of the listening device problem is coming along slowly and, as yet, the devices which we have been able to get into operation in the war zone are far from perfect.
There is one subject particularly that I have been stressing of late at the daily Admiralty Staff Conferences. I feel that we have not fully realized in the past the utter hopelessness of patrol operations against submarines, particularly when carried out by single vessels or small numbers. It seems to me a simple proposition particularly when one lays down to scale, relative radius of visibility of submarines and surface craft. The more I think of this question the more it impresses me that we have wasted a tremendous amount of oil and effort in sending destroyers out on patrols. Of course, it is true that a submarine if left unopposed in a fruitful area will be more successful and would probably continue to operate in a more or less restricted area, and therefore sending one or two destroyers to patrol will mor<e> or less restrict his efforts in that particular area.
However, If<e>el even naval officers of experience are prone to forget relative distances at sea. They are too likely to be influenced by hasty judgement formed on small scale charts.
The point that I am particularly impressed with, however, is that we so frequently send destroyers and patrol craft to steam hundreds of miles patrolling in areas in which no submarine exists[.] We have in the Admiralty and in all Operation rooms, pretty good evidence at all times of where the submarines are, in fact, they cannot accomplish their mission without disclosing their presence. It is of course to their interests to cruise as little as possible in order to conserve their fuel, and, it is also encumbent upon them to adhere to the areas or lanes where their prey is more likely to be found.
Past records show that we do not have a large number of submarines in any particular field, for example;- in the Channel perhaps an average of three at a time, the same for the Irish Sea, and one or two perhaps off the Scillys.
In other words, although a total of 15 may be out, still their areas are more or less widely separated. Therefore, it seems to me of the greatest importance that (pending the advent of listening devices) we should assemble such forces as we can spare from escort service into groups each as large as possible
are operating under one head in each area, who will co-ordinate the actions of the group. For example, say in the northern part of the Irish Sea, from perhaps outside of the North Channel all the way to Liverpool, if a group of destroyers, as many as could be spared, instead of attempting to patrol, should start out with their bunkers full and take up a good position within striking distance of probable sinkings, they would stand much more chance of being successful. My proposition would be to give the senior men of such a hunting group the maximum possible freedom of movement and discretion. I would expect him to get his Captains together and work out co-ordinated plans of scouting and searching, communications within the force, and methods of concentrating. If on each destroyer an excellent radio watch was kept and all S.O.S. calls as well as other radio information kept plotted on the chart, it would seem they might be able to get on the trail of the submarine, and by following him up closely in search formations, they should make his life rather trying even if they did not actually “kill” him. Such a plan at any rate would result in our hunting forces being in the area where the submarines were rather than in areas where they might come and wherein we have been expending so much oil in patrolling back and forth.
I quite realize that, in the absence of directional listening devices, even with such plans as suggested above, unless the number of searching vessels is considerable, the chances of actually running down the submarine are poor. Actually killing him will not be a successful game until we can develop the listening devices, but, I am very anxious however to see the above general plan substituted for the present more or less prevalent scheme of assigning single vessels to patrol areas, with little co-ordination between patrol ships, and restrictions against leaving the areas assigned.
I am enthusiastic over our present policy of using depth charges in large numbers even where the evidence of the submarine’s location is vague. There is plenty of evidence that the depth charges even as far away as 1000 yards give ships a good shaking up. It will, of course, always be impossible for us to determine the effect of such mild punishment as“Shaking up” upon the enemy morale but surely the effect is worth expending. I think that the supply of depth charges from now on will be adequate, if not unlimited, and I strongly recommend using them as munitions rather than as “torpedoes”.
I would even advocate when a ship has been torpedoed out of a convoy with no evidence whatever of the submarine, that all the destroyers on this side proceed full speed in more or less a formation in the direction from which the torpedo came and lay a real barrage of depth charges in the general vicinity. There is always the chance of an explosion close aboard and in any case the submarine captain will be well aware of the reception they have been given, and the doubt will always exist in their mind as to whether on the next occasion the barrage may not actually fall on them.
The importance to me of damaging a single submarine, let along shaking up the nerves of the crews, is so great that we should leave no stone unturned to take offensive action on the slightest evidence.
I know how busy you are, but I will appreciate hearing from you on the general subject discussed above. I would be particularly pleased to receive your support in advocating such measures in the Admiralty.
Reports I have been receiving from our destroyer, the AYLWIN operating in the Channel, and also from trained listening men whom we have put on many Admiralty trawlers both to the north of Scotland as well as in the Channel, indicate that the hunting groups suffer a great deal from lack of information from the shore. They report that delays in getting such information as they get from the shore are such as practically to render the information of little value when it is received. For example: the AYLWIN with a group of three British trawlers recently received a message that a ship had been sunk in a certain positiin some little distance away with orders to proceed there. It developed later that this message was a matter of seven or eight hours in the course of transmission and that in fact the ship had been sunk some thirty hours previously.
I am not in a position at all, of course, to judge of such difficulties in the detailed machinery of communications afloat. Such an investigation would go into the intricate fields of radio wave lengths, relay stations, etc., etc., which are Greek to me. I do know however, that after taking command of the destroyers of the Atlantic Fleet in time of peace, I succeeded in greatly improving their efficiency in night search and attack over what it had even been in the past, and that the principal reason for this success was the work of my staff in improving, simplifying, and accelerating, communications at sea. We made the most thorough study of the subject and even went to the point of assembling all radio operators repeatedly, and always immediately preceding and following all games. We found it of inestimable value to arouse the interest of the radio operator in the game in which he before had been blindly taking part. We even went to the point of sending down frequently from the bridge of the destroyer, a rough sketch of the game at the different stages of i[t]s progress showing the Operator just which ships were next tohis in the scouting line. It was surprising indeed to see how this one small step of taking the operators into our confidence and arousing their interest, actually affected the efficiency of the operations of the entire flotilla. The suggestions for improvement of communications which were thus obtained from the xxxxxxxxxxxxxx operators themselves were in many cases startling indeed and did not reflect any too much credit on the officers.
I am constantly in receipt of the highest praise of the Irish Station. command. Its fame is travelling far and wide.
Source Note: LT, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 23.
Footnote 1: This enclosure is no longer with the document. For the full report, however, see: Sims to Josephus Daniels, 5 April 1918.