Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations

January 15th. 1918.

My dear Admiral,

          As Babcock1 will arrive about a week before this letter can reach you, it hardly seems worth while to go into any of the details which he is prepared to unload. He has about a bushel of notes and so forth with him and will probably bring back about twice as much.

          You will have seen by the papers the nature of the re-organization at the Admiralty. This is practically the same as that originally recommended and partially carried out by Sir Edward Carson, and subsequently brought about up to its present condition by Admiral Jellicoe and Sir Eric Geddes.2

          Admiral Wemyss has been something of an unknown quantity in the Service, except that it has always been stated that he was a man who would not permit a subject to be brought to his attention until after the proper section of the Admiralty had accumulated all of the information available, have put it in understandable form, and had made a tentative decision.

          There was a good example of this the other day when the question of arranging certain details about the barrage came up for discussion. Admiral Wemyss at once said that he did not want to discuss the matter at all until it had been thoroughly examined by the Planning Section of the Admiralty, that is, by the British members of the Planning Section working in conjunction with the American members. This work is now going forward.

          To further illustrate Admiral Wemyss’s attitude of mind in such matters I may say that one of the first steps taken by our members of the Planning Section was to prepare a memorandum of certain points to be discussed. Through a mistake this memorandum was passed up to the 1st. Sea Lord. He showed it to me and said that this was all wrong that neither of us should give attention to the subject until the Planning Section had finished its discussion and arrived at a conclusion. Of course, I completely agreed with him in this and explained that the paper reached him only through a mistake.

          He handles all business in this way, that is, he puts each subject up to the branch of the Admiralty most concerned in order that they make the study and present it to him with their conclusions and recommendations.

          The other day I took lunch with the Admiral and Lady Grant.3 The Admiral is leaving within a few days to take command of the British Squadron on our coast. He said he had been in to see Wemyss and the latter had said “I am a bit busy just now getting this new organization into working order, but it won’t be very long before I will have very little to do personally.”

          To me the most interesting of the recent developments is the utilization of different forms of hydrophones on vessels organized in hunting squadrons. Captain Leigh4 is very enthusiastic on the subject, and is working in close co-ordination with the Admiralty. In a memorandum he presented to me he states in reference to the instrument:- “This matter has been very thoroughly gone into with Captain Fisher, D.A.S.D (Director of Anti-Submarine Division)5 and it is believed that every effort is now being made for the adequate provision of the hunting groups in this respect. There only remain the questions of improving communications and training the groups.”

          In reference to the latter I may say of my own knowledge that all this question of communications and tactical training of the groups is being pushed forward with the whole weight of the new 1st. Sea Lord behind it. This will involve trained signalmen, wireless telegraph operators, a code of special signals, shapes, and so forth, flash light signals, and possibly radio telephones. There will also be direction be direction bearing indicators, and graphic position plotters with plotting boards. Each hunting vessel will carry a considerable number of 800 lb. depth charges, and possibly a depth charge projector. The latter appliance is being tested out on vessels of various kinds. It may be useful on slow vessels but I think that a destroyer can do better work with her speed if she carries a couple of dozen depth charges and can drop them on the periphery of a circular track within which the submarine must be.

          It is intended to train each one of the hunting groups in the manoeuvering, signaling, and bombing operations.

          Of course the greatest difficulty about the whole matter is the lack of sufficient vessels. However, four hunting squadrons are in operation and four others are being organized.

          What a pity it is that we have not thirty or forty more destroyers that could be put on this work.

          I have no doubt whatever that if we got one or both of the squadrons of chasers over here, (72 vessels each) we could easily neutralize the effect of submarines in waters in which these boats can operate successfully.

          What we want now is a sufficient number of destroyers to organize a hunting squadron<s> to get after the submarines that operate well off the coast.

          Of course, everybody is thinking about the possible tactics of the cruising submarines. Various suggestions have recently been made upon this subject, but Admiral Wemyss expressed the opinion that it wouldnot be useful for him to give his personal consideration to these suggestions before the whole matter had been thrashed out by the Planning Section with a view, first, of getting all of the facts concerning these vessels, and second, all of the experience possible from officers who would command the vessels that operate against them.

          Without going into details just now, I may mention as an example the kind of facts referred to. One is the history of the operations of all of the cruising submarines so far as known, with particular reference to not only their methods of attack but also the areas in which they have operated. It is believed that this will bring out the important fact that these boats have never operated in waters where they might be subject to attack by other destroyers or submarines. As you of course know, they are very clumsy boats as submarines. They require about three minutes in order to dive, and so would be in great danger in the presence of smaller and handier submarines or in the presence of destroyers.

          If the examination of the facts bears this out, it may be concluded that it would be a waste of effort, so far as these particular cruising submarines are concerned, to escort vessels from a port out two or three hundred miles to sea. It will be interesting to see what conclusions the combined British and American Planning Section comes to upon this problem. They are now at work upon it.

          Personally, I am inclined to believe that the conclusion will be that the only reasonable opposition to these boats is through organized hunting squadrons of destroyers, and (or) submarines.

          As a matter of fact, a number of submarines have been sent down to the Canaries to try and get one of these big boats.

          I think I have included in one of the weekly letters a brief description of the manner in which submarines are now operating in the Irish Sea. Just inside the southern entrance and for about 40 or 50 miles north of that, five submarines are patrolling on east and west lines that overlap each other. These lines are not more than about 15 miles long, and their distance apart in latitude is nearly ten miles. It is believed and advised by the most experienced British submarine commanders, Nashsmith,6 who did such remarkable stunts in the Sea of Marmora, that these boats can safely be maintained at a distance of 10 miles in latitude from each other, particularly as each one of them is based upon a well defined navigational object, light, and so forth, and that each one will take its departure therefrom each night in time to arrive on its patrol line by daylight.

          An attempt is to be made to block the northern entrance to the Irish sea by a patrolled area about 35 miles long in the narrowest part. Fifty patrol vessels will be employed for this purpose.

          Every effort is now being made to render the Straits of Dover too dangerous for submarines to attempt a passage. A line of vessels extending across the Channel and fitted with listening devices will give warning of any vessel that makes an attempt. Mines are being planted every day, and the effect is seen in the fact that many of the submarines are now coming around the North of Scotland.

Very sincerely yours,

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49. Following the close, the letter is addressed to: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.Navy,/Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Dept. Washington, D.C.”

Footnote 1: Cmdr. John V. Babcock, one of Sims’ aides.

Footnote 2: From December 1916 until July 1917, Carson had served as First Lord of the Admiralty. Upon his resignation from the post (itself a result of the resignation of H. H. Asquith as Prime Minister), Carson remained a member of the War Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio; Sir Eric Geddes replaced Carson as First Lord. Until 17 December 1917, Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe served as First Sea Lord, whereupon he was replaced by Adm. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss on 31 December 1917.

Footnote 3: RAdm. Heathcoat S. Grant, R.N.

Footnote 4: Capt. Richard H. Leigh, Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering. For his report, see: Leigh to Sims, 8 January 1918.

Footnote 5: William W. Fisher.

Footnote 6: Capt. Martin E. Nasmith. Sims misspelled Nasmith’s name above.

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