British Admiralty to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters
[20 August 1917]
First Sea Lord.1
The”Vaterland” is 907 feet long, 101 ft.Beam 54,000 tons gross.
The “Kaiser Wilhelm II” 684 " " 72 ft.Beam 19,000 tons gross
The “George Washington” 699 " " 78 ft.Beam 25,500 tons gross.
The “Olympic” 852 " " 92 ft.Beam 46,000 tons gross
The “Aquitania” 868 " " 97 ft.Beam 45,600 tons gross
From enquiries made in the Admiralty and the Ministry of Shipping it appears the port of Brest is very congested and the available wharfage is fully utilised, some ships even waiting to come alongside.
The rate of discharge of colliers is slow due to the shortage of labour; most of the handling being done by German and Austrian prisoners of war. The congestion is largely due to ships loading munitions for the White Sea. The quayage at Brest has only a depth of 25 1/2 feet at low water, so that it would not be possible to take such a large ship as the “Vaterland” inside. The only ports where she can be dealt with for coaling are at Liverpool in the Gladstone dock or alongside the landing stage at Southampton in the White Star wet dock.
At both of these places the coal would be rail and water borne. Coaling at Liverpool is done from lighters and at Southampton from lighters and transporters. All of these ships coal through side ports and consequently owing to shortage of lighters at Brest it is not a practicable proposition to coal them there, in the roads. Moreover a nasty sea gets up in the Roads in westerly gales.
The actual disembarkation of troops and their kit can be carried out at Brest but no heavy equipment or heavy weights can be dealt with and any of this type of gear would have to be sent in cargo boats which can be put alongside at St.Lazaire [i.e., St. Nazaire] or Brest.
It is suggested that the “George Washington” which apparently only requires 2,000 tons might be adapted by putting in an extra bulkhead or cutting a watertight door, to carry sufficient coal for the round trip to Brest and back; also that it might be considered whether these large ships could be going a moderate speed across the Atlantic and high speed in submarine waters, and thus economise their coal consumption very considerably,and at any rate require less coal on this side.
Suggest that a reply may be sent in the following terms:-
“Coaling of these large ships is a great difficulty. Ships such as “George Washington” should be adapted, if at all possible to carry enough coal for the round trip. “Vaterland” and “Kaiser.Wilhelm II” cannot be so adapted and consequently must coal on this side with coal supplies here. It is proposed that they should discharge the troops at Brest and then go to Southampton or Liverpool for coaling according to circumstances at the time.2
In large ships going to Brest no heavy equipment can be taken, only personnel and kits. It is suggested that radius
and of action can be greatly increased by going a moderate speed across the Atlantic and high speed in danger zone; this should reduce amount of coal required if not entirely obviate the necessity of coaling. It is not considered desirable to supply coal from the United States owing to waste of tonnage which would be caused.
If the Submarine situation necessitated it, Admiralty can order any of these large ships to Liverpool or Southampton direct and convey the troops across England but it is not desirable to do this if it can be avoided on account of the already heavy demands on railway and cross channel services.
The Admiralty are prepared to loan the “Olympic” to assist trooping it [i.e., if] desired, on terms to be arranged. She would work to Liverpool.
Approved to inform Admiral Sims as DDOD.
Source Note: Cy, UK-KeNA, Adm. 137/1437. This memo is in response to a cable from Sims to Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations. Sims warned Benson that while most of the interned German ships intended as troop transports could make the round trip without refueling, Vaterland, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and George Washington lacked sufficient capacity to carry the necessary supply of coal. Sims suggested they stop in England to discharge troops and re-coal, or possibly have colliers resupply them at sea. An Admiralty note appended to their copy of Sims’ letter argues that it is far better for these ships to disembark in Britain, since sending them first to France to unload troops and then to Britain for more coal would force them to “run unnecessary risk by going twice through dangerous areas;” Sims to Benson, 22 July 1917, UK-KeNA, Adm. 137/1437.
Footnote 1: Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.
Footnote 2: Several words in these two sentences have been crossed out and rewritten in the margins. The new version reads that Vaterland and Kaiser Wilhelm II “cannot be so adapted and consequently must coal on this side, if it is essential that these ships be used which cannot do the round trip without coaling they should discharge troops at Brest. . .” The final version of the memorandum included this wording. Memorandum, UK-KeNA, Adm. 137/1437.
Footnote 3: Capt. Henry W. Grant, Deputy Director of Operations Division.
Footnote 4: Third Sea Lord RAdm. Sir Lionel Halsey