Skip to main content

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


Letter No. 52

30th July 1917.

Destroyer for Italy1

From: Vice Admiral Sims.

To: Chief of Naval Operations.

Subject: Naval and Military Conferences at Paris July 24th to 27th.

     At the request of the French and British Admiralties, I attended certain naval and military conferences in Paris between July 24th and July 27th.

     The Naval Conferences consisted in general discussion of exchange of information concerning the prosecution of the allied anti-submarine campaign.

     There were present at these conferences, the French Minister of Marine, the French Chief of Naval Staff and other leading officials of the French Admiralty;2 Admiral Jellicoe3 with staff representing the British Admiralty; and Italian Admiral with staff, who is both the Commander-in-Chief afloat and the Chief of the Italian Naval Staff.4 Japan was represented by the Japanese Naval Attache, Paris.5

     The first question before the Naval Conference was a revision of the agreements made some time ago at a conference held at Corfu.6 At that Conference it was decided that each Nation should be assigned certain zones in the Mediterranean, the senior allied officer commanding in each zone.

     The nature of the enemy campaign has shown the necessity for a more central allied organization, and hence the proposal at this conference was made by the French Minister of Marine that all anti-submarine operations should be put under the general command of the British Vice Admiral commanding at Malta.7 The plan was intended in no wise to interfere with the various allied commands, particularly of heavy forces. The proposal submitted was merely that one office should take general charge of the anti-submarine operations and that all other allied Flag Officers in the Mediterranean should co-operate with him and furnish all assistance possible. The area under discussion did not include Gibraltar which is under a British Admiral who commands waters in that neighborhood.8

     This suggestion of the French Ministers of Marine received unanimous approval.

     As both France and England felt that the forces of Italy available for anti-submarine work were not being employed to the best advantage, this point was then taken up for discussion. That is, particularly as to whether Italy could not allocate more forces to anti-submarine work.9

     It was recognized that all submarines operating in the Mediterranean now base at Pola or Cattaro at the head of the Adriatic, and that hence every effort should be put forth towards preventing their egress from, and ingress into, that sea. England has over one hundred drifters operating at the mouth of the Adriatic attempting to maintain what might be called a mobile barrage. That is, they constantly patrol across the Otranto Straits10 using their nets for the purpose of intercepting submarines. That the work of these drifters is of concern to the enemy has been proven by the raids made upon them by Austrian cruiser forces. The primary demand is therefore for destroyers and similar craft to protect the drifter service.11

     All French destroyers in the Mediterranean which can possibly be spared from vital escort duty are entirely available for duty with the Otranto barrage.

     The demand for British Destroyers in the North Sea and on the approach trade routes to France and the United Kingdom was so great that it is impossible to assign any British destroyers to Adriatic duty in spite of the fact tha[t] British as well as French lines of communication in the Mediterranean are constantly harassed by enemy submarines operating from the Adriatic.

     Out of one hundred British destroyers, which is the maximum number which can be considered as available for the British Grand Fleet in case of a general action, fifty-five are on constant patrol duty in the North Sea, an average of fifteen are at all times under repairs, leaving but thirty in what might be called a constant state of readiness with the Grand Fleet, though some of these on patrol duty could join the Fleet before an action took place, though not with full supply of fuel oil.

     Against this number the German High Sea Fleet probably has not less than one hundred and forty destroyers available for a high sea action. It has been necessary in the last few days to withdraw destroyers from the Grand Fleet to protect new mine barrages created near Ostend and Zeebrugge for the purpose of protecting the monitors and other naval forces which are assisting in the general combined military and naval attack on the above mentioned German bases.12

     A general discussion occurred as to a permanent material barrage to be attempted across the Straits of Otranto but it was unanimously agreed that such a barrage would be wholly ineffective if it could not be adequately protected by surface craft.

     The Italian Admiral stated definitely that he could not allocate any destroyers for this service on account of the danger of a high sea action between the Austrian and Italian Fleets. For this reason he dared not risk a single destroyer, and further more must keep them in the highest state of readiness at all times for Fleet action. He said he realised fully the pressing need for anti-submarine operations, but that he was forced to view the other considerations as paramount.

     In the general discussion it developed, and in fact the Italian Admiral admitted, that he was prompted in his naval policy primarily by the political pressure which is constantly brought to bear upon him in his own country. The fact was pressed upon him that destroyers on duty in protecting the barrage would be in no sense immobilized for duty in case of an action with the Austrian Fleet, and this for the simple reason that they would be at all times between the enemy and their own Fleet. It was also pointed out that the Italian Admiral in his discussion had not taken into consideration the French destroyers who were always available for any combined Fleet action.

     As stated above, however, it was apparent that the principal consideration governing the Italian Admiral’s statement was the political pressure under which he must operate.

     The effect of raids on the eastern Italian coast, and the effect on public opinion in case even a single vessel should be lost, were considerations, which, to him, in view of the conditions existing in his country were paramount.

     It was finally agreed, however, that the British Admiral from Malta — who was present at this conference — would, after consultation with the French Admiral in the Mediterranean13 and other Allied Flag officers afloat in that area, proceed to Italy and attempt to reach an agreement as to the employment of such forces as were available.14

     The Italian Admiral suggested the desirability of an offensive against the Austrian bases, particularly Catarro. He agreed that the waters in that region were too deep for mining and that the relative strength of heavy forces available with those of the enemy were not sufficient to warrant sacrifices in a purely naval attack upon land fortifications. He stated that he thought the attack should be primarily in the air This question of course depends entirely upon the number of available aircraft, which are wholly inadequate.

     Italy stated that she intended to make attacks on Catarro from the air, but it is apparent that the number of craft available will never result in effective success.15

     The Italian point of view seems to be one of considering her own forces solely and not of considering the other allied forces available particularly the fact, for instance, that the British drifter squadron is, in effect, an allied scouting force for the Italian Fleet.

     The question of a fixed material barrage across the Straits of Otranto depends entirely upon the availability and transport of material. Even if the material were available it was estimated that it would take at least forty weeks to transport it to Italy from England by rail.

     The Italian Admiral also showed an inclination to view destroyers as a type of craft which must be constantly husbanded. They could not be considered as effective weapons unless they were kept constantly under overhaul and repair. I called attention to the fact that while this was to a certain extent a view held before the war, still that the developments of the war had shown the view to be unsound.

     I pointed out the duty being performed by American destroyers (which was taken up immediately after the cruise across the Atlantic) and stated that in spite of their constant and strenuous duty at sea, I nevertheless considered them available at any time for a duty for which they were primarily created That is offensive duty in connection with high sea action.

     In this connection I may state that barring the expression of professional opinion such as that just indicated, I took no part in the discussion of the political or military relations governing the operations of the various anti-submarine forces in the Mediterranean.

     It was impossible to obtain any promises at all from the Italian Admiral concerning the use of his destroyers for other than holding them in reserve in case of a high fleet action, and it was apparent, as stated above, that the primary consideration governing his opinions were of a domestic-political nature.

     In connection with the above, it was brought out in the Conference that fourteen Italian destroyers remained at anchor at Brindisi16 for extended periods during the month of July.

     As stated above, the only definite decision reached by the Conference was that the British Admiral at Malta would take over the direction of the anti-submarine operations in the Mediterranean subject to general approval of, and co-ordination with, the French Commander-in-Chief in those waters.

     It was brought out that the relative allied situation as regards destroyers in the Adriatic, or in waters immediately adjacent thereto, is 34 Italian, 10 French and 22 Austrians. As compared with this situation, in case of unexpected high sea action in the North Sea, England could probably not count upon more than fifty destroyers against about one hundred and forty German destroyers. England has already sent to Italy two monitors, three submarines and a large quantity of aviation material.

     A general discussion followed concerning various questions in connection with the anti-submarine campaign. The first point considered was the problem presented by the use by the enemy of large type submarines of the nature of the Deutschland class17 carrying two 5.9” guns and a large number of torpedoes — perhaps thirty. It is understood that a number of this class are under construction and that four will be ready for sea toward the last of this year. As reported to the Department, one vessel, something of this type has been operating in the general vicinity of the Azores for some time, using captured neutral or other merchant vessels as a floating base. It is believed that the only answer to such a move on the part of the enemy (which would not be an extensive one for sometime) is the convoy system of escorting each convoy by a cruiser which would prevent the above type of submarine from using their guns, and hence force them to a restricted role with torpedoes only.

     The available destroyers of the Allied Powers are wholly insufficient to attempt any more extensive high sea escort work than that now, or soon to be, in operation. Even the extent to which that duty is being carried on now greatly restraits all contemplated strictly offensive plans. That is, against submarines themselves at, or near, their bases, and to the exclusion of immediate protection of trade.

     Concerning this new type of submarine, we only need consider their operations outside of the areas which are now commonly termed the submarine zone, because within that zone the destroyers and escorts will prove effective, providing the convoy system can be put into full operation.

     The relatively small numbers of the new type and the large areas over which they must operate outside of the submarine zone, will greatly restrict the menace which they will present.

     If shipping is concentrated in convoys, the routes of which, the submarine can determine only by scouting, it is believed that success on their part will occur only in isolated instances and, in the presence of a cruiser (which will prevent the use of the submarine’s gun) It is not believed that the losses they can inflict will be critical. For example:— a submarine of this nature might be able to approach a convoy during daylight and fire two or three torpedoes, but the cruiser which would immediately proceed in that direction on a widely zig-zagging course, would prevent succeeding attacks in the same area of approach. At night fall if the cruiser has thoroughly kept the submarine under in the direction of its approach and if the convoy makes a radical change of course for some hours, it is doubted whether a second torpedo attack could be carried out the same day or night.

     England has sent a Mystery Ship18 and two submarines to the Azores, and it is hoped that the United States will also send two submarines and a mystery ship to this locality at least for the time being.

     The advisability of the United States sending one of her older battleships with perhaps one or two small auxiliary craft to the Azores to prevent the use of those islands as a base during the coming winter should be considered. The needs of the situation in more vital areas however should be given full weight.19

     It is believed that no destroyers should be kept in the Azores as their operations are much more seriously needed closer to the European coast from whence they can be sent out for important escort duty.

     England has at present four convoys every eight days across the Atlantic. In order to cover al[l] trade it will require at least eight convoys each eight days, but this extension can not be realised for some time.20 There is no prospect in sight of ability to convoy outgoing ships.

     It was stated that the Gulf of Heligoland21 is sufficiently mined to leave the submarines but two safe channels of across that is, close to the shores principally in territorial waters. An attempt is being made to stop the ingress and egress of enemy submarines in these two channels with English submarines but the numbers available are very inadequate.22

     The question of mining territorial waters is a very serious one involving all of the Allies, and is of such a nature that a decision must necessarily be based upon diplomatic and military as well as upon naval considerations. This subject has naturally been under consideration for some time but I am not able to report anything definite as to its present status.

     Considerable discussion occurred as to whether any nation had developed effective means other than the use of surface craft for protecting mine fields from sweeping operations. Nothing of an effective nature has been developed to date.

     The question of mine fields which would be dangerous to submarines whilst submerged but safe for surface craft was discussed. No entirely satisfactory designs have been developed to date. England is attempting to modify some of her older mines so that they will be dangerous below a depth of 45 ft. from the surface, but will disarm themselves in case they drag or in any other way rise about 45 ft. in depth.

     Both England and France are attempting to develop a design of mine of this nature. The French stated that they were manufacturing some small floating mines for use by merchant ships being pursued by a submarine. They were designed to float for one hour and then sink.23

     The British have considered various designs of such mines but none of satisfactory type have been developed.

     The use of kite balloons was discussed. The British have had some success by using these balloons with a small group of destroyers on the outgoing routes of the submarines. The use of kite balloons for merchant convoys was considered questionable as they might attract submarines which otherwise would not sight the convoy. If kite balloons can be provided and handled by merchant convoys, their use is well worth serious consideration. It is probable that they will be tried.24

     The Naval Conference was requested to meet on one day with the Military Conference for a general discussion of the shipping situation, particularly as it effects the forces in the field.

     This combined conference was led by the French Military Chief-of-Staff - General Foch.25 It was apparent that the French are very much concerned as to the military support which they can count upon from the United States. Their urgent need of assistance is unquestionable. Their need of definite assurances, particularly as to the numbers and character of the troops and their time of availability is extremely desirable from a standpoint of morals[i.e., morale] if nothing else.

     Aside from their desire for definite knowledge of military support, their principal concern seems to be as to whether there is full realization of the demands which will be placed on over-sea lines of communication in maintaining over-seas military forces.

     They apparently have no doubt that the United States is planning to support its troops in France, but there seems to be considerable concern as to whether the United States realises the extent of the supply system which armies of to-day demand. They apparently feel that it is not only necessary for them to have definite knowledge of our troop movements, in order that their military plans may be governed accordingly, but also they seem to fear the demands which our troops may make upon our own resources will be over and above the supplies which will be sent from home.

     They also seem to fear that the shipping which will be taken for the supply of our military forces may seriously effect, either directly or indirectly, the shipping which is necessary to maintain the allied forces. For examples:— both British and French shipping necessarily works from the nearest ports and there is probably a large amount of material coming from the United States which has been brought by U.S. shipping from South America and other countries. There therefore seems to be concern over the possibility of our withdrawing a considerable amount of our shipping in the western hemisphere for troop and troop supply uses which will at once throw greater demands on British and French shipping.

     As stated in my telegram of yesterday,26 the British Minister of Shipping appeared before the combined conference and made a general statement concerning the shipping situation from his standpoint. It was to be noted particularly that in all of his calculations he had necessarily not be taken into account generally the assistance which the United States will probably render. This is on account of lack of definite information as to America’s plans. He stated that a movement was on foot to withdraw about 80,000 skilled British workmen from the western front to increase the output of merchant shipping construction in England, and that if this was done it was hoped that by November 1918, England’s construction programme would commence to yield about 3,000,000 tons per year. He stated that until that time the present entirely essential needs of England, together with the present support which she is giving to the Allies, could probably be met. He stated clearly however, that England could not exceed at all the support she is now giving the Allies and that his estimates would also involve considerably more privations in the United Kingdom than were now being experienced. His estimates also were dependent upon the supply of the necessary steel and other material. In other words, it is hoped that for the period extending to October, 1918 the continually diminishing available tonnage will suffice for imperative needs, that is, providing the distruction of shipping does not increase above its present average rate of about 500,000 tons per month. At present, 585 ships, or over 1,200,000 tons of British Shipping is allocated to supplying France exclusively, and also large amounts for the supply of Italy and other European Allies.

     It is apparent from the above that the situation can only be counted upon to begin to improve from November, 1918, and that there are many important considerations upon which depends the ability of the Allies to tide over the present critical shipping prospects.

     It was also made very apparent that closer co-ordination of effort should be immediately established between the United States and the Allies. All military future [p]lans are certainly largely dependent upon America’s action. Although America’s military support is urgently needed, it is nevertheless absolutely necessary that such support should not place any new demands upon the allied shipping situation considered alone. It is also very evident that the general campaign against the enemy both military and what might be called a “shipping campaign”, is really dependent upon America’s support, and hence that the efficient prosecution of the war requires a closer co-ordination of effort between the United States and the European Allies than now exists. By this it is meant that the Allied War Councils, both military and in other fields, should be supplied immediately, and should be kept supplied with more definite information of America’s plans and intentions. All experience clearly shows that this cannot be done by long distance communication It can be done efficiently only by sending responsible representatives of the United States to Europe for consultation. It is also vitally important thatall branches of war activity should be co-ordinated, and hence that such representatives as we send abroad should be forced into one organization. It is also considered important that such an organization after their first visit to Europe and their preliminary consultations should return to the United States preparatory to a further European visit in order that their information may be kept strictly up to date without depending entirely upon cabled communication.

     It is for the above reasons that the combined Naval and Military Conference were unanimous in hoping that the United States would be fully representated for both military and shipping questions at the approaching Council to be held in London about August 10th.27

     In general it may be said that the Conference in Paris both Naval and Military fully confirmed the general tenor of all the despatches which I have sent concerning the general allied war situation. I was present at all of these conferences and nothing developed at any time which would warrant modification in any way of recommendations which I have previously made.

     In closing, I wish to again call attention to the necessity for an adequate staff abroad? I have received the Department’s notification of certain young officers who are being sent, apparently for staff duty. I have tried to make it clear that the Department’s interests cannot be efficiently served without an adequate staff of experienced men of adequate training.

     The young officers who are being sent will, of course, be of assistance in handling routine administrative matters, but the urgent need is for men of much more experience who will be capable of collecting all information which is available concerning the general situation and from it preparing estimates of the situation concerning broad questions of policy and plans of operations upon which the United States naval efforts may be safely based.

     I fully realize the demands being made on the naval personnel at home, but as the naval staff organization abroad is the one co-ordinating the link between the current allied was[i.e., war] situation abroad, and the Department, I submit that its demands should take precedence over a large majority of the demands made for training and other purposes at home. I feel, and have tried to explain in my previous despatches and letters, that if I could have a council here of perhaps four officers of experience of the type of Captains Pratt, Schofield, or Commanders Knox, Stirling, Cotten,28 I could be assured of accomplishing the mission which I am sure the Department expects of me.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Box 341. Filing numbers appearing along the upper right side: “1/3/J/File Copy 55/1/1” and “See File 25-9-5 ‘B’”. There is a lengthy document attached entitled “Note NO. 4”; it is written entirely in French.

Footnote 1: Sims was either still in Paris or back in London when he wrote this letter. The heading regarding a destroyer for Italy is a reference to the question of sparing American destroyers for service in the Mediterranean, given Italy’s refusal to use its own.

Footnote 2: Adm. Marie Jean Lucien Lacaze, Minister of Marine, and Admiral Ferdinand Jean Jacques de Bon, Chief of Staff of the French Navy.

Footnote 3: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 4: Adm. Paolo Thaon di Revel, Chief of Staff of the Italian Navy.

Footnote 5: Adm. Mineichi Koga.

Footnote 6: An Allied naval conference opened on 28 April 1917, and took place aboard the French ship Provence off the Greek island of Corfu. The primary reason for the meeting were the unsustainable shipping losses in the Mediterranean. The decision on the part the conferees to adapt tactics to meet the submarine threat succeeded in greatly reducing losses, creating “a foundation for a central direction of anti-submarine warfare,” writes naval historian Paul Halpern, who argues that Corfu was “one of the most important conferences of the war.” Halpern, Naval War in the Mediterranean, 345-349.

Footnote 7: RAdm. Rosslyn Wemyss, Commander-in-Chief, East Indies and Egypt Station.

Footnote 8: In July 1917, RAdm. Heathcote S. Grant, relieved RAdm. Bernard Currey, as Senior Naval Officer, Gibraltar.

Footnote 9: This was a point of contention (as Sims goes on to discuss) among the Allies. The U.S., Britain, and France all believed the Italian Navy was not doing enough to support the anti-submarine campaign. Looking to the country’s postwar future, Italy’s Admiralty kept its fleet in reserve, despite constant pressure from the Allies. Still, Crisis at Sea, 482-483.

Footnote 10: The Strait of Otranto is a body of water running between Italy and Albania that connects the Ionian and Adriatic Seas.

Footnote 11: The Otranto blockade was never very effective, although it improved somewhat over the course of the war. Halpern, Naval War in the Mediterranean: 163-164, 244-245, 284.

Footnote 12: Ostend and Zeebrugge, both in Belgium, were two major exits into the Atlantic for German U-boats, and the sites of large submarine pens. Britain launched an offensive on 23 April 1918 to try to close off both channels, but the attacks failed in their objectives. After the raids, however, the number of U-boats leaving Ostend and Zeebrugge began to decline, due in no small part to frequent air raids on both harbors. Messimer, Find and Destroy: 170-176.

Footnote 13: VAdm. Louis Rene Dartige du Fournet.

Footnote 14: Despite the frustrations with Italy (as discussed in note 9 above), shortly after the Corfu Conference the Allies implemented an effective system of convoys. Halpern, Naval War in the Mediterranean: 349.

Footnote 15: Air raids on Cattaro did enjoy success in slowing German submarine activity. Although far from decisive, they played a part in eventual Allied victory. Halpern, Naval War in the Mediterranean: 456.

Footnote 16: A coastal city in southern Italy on the Adriatic Sea.

Footnote 17: The Deutschland, or U-151, class of submarines were significantly larger than earlier models, displacing 1,500 tons and measuring over 200 feet long. Originally used for cargo transport, they could cross the Atlantic without refueling, and thus posed a real threat to the United States. Germany only sent out seven of them during the war, two to the American coast. Although generally successful, they never came close to tilting the balance of the war. Sondhaus, The Great War at Sea: 242, 272.

Footnote 18: Mystery, or Q ships were heavily-armed vessels disguised to look like unarmed merchantmen. Although manned by naval personnel, the officers and crew dressed as civilians. The guns were all concealed from view, leading German submarine captains to mistake them for easy targets. U-boats would close in to torpedo the Q ships, only to have them quickly open their gun ports and begin blasting the submarine with their full firepower. Sims found the whole endeavor highly suspect at first, but, by the end of the war, he had completely changed his opinion about the mystery ships, praising their crews for “an endurance, a gallantry, and a seamanlike skill that has few parallels in the history of naval warfare.” Sims, Victory at Sea, 122, 142, 169.

Footnote 19: The Azores were a vital coaling station for the Allies, and both Sims and his superiors in Washington worried that Germany would either try to take the islands, or, more probably, set up its own submarine base there. Sims urged sending older battleships or other craft to safeguard the islands, while the Navy Department gave serious consideration to sending destroyers. Sims, however, wanted every available destroyer in European waters, and eventually his arguments carried the day. The Navy Department established a submarine base of its own at the Azores by the end of 1917. Still, Crisis at Sea: 134-135.

Footnote 20: For more on the schedule of convoys, see: Sims to Daniels, 5 August 1917.

Footnote 21: This body of water was located in the North Sea off the coast of the Netherlands.

Footnote 22: On 17 October, German submarines exiting from this area sank eleven ships-including two destroyer escorts-belonging to a Scandinavian convoy. Britain retaliated with an attack on German minesweepers in the Heligoland Bight on 17 November. The battle proved inconclusive – Britain sank a single German trawler, but the rest of the ships escaped. The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight (there had been another in 1914) was the last battle between big ships of the line. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I: 376-377.

Footnote 23: Schneider Mines were actually designed for submarines, not merchant ships as Sims describes. They would float to the surface when released, then took on water until they slowly sank. France started experimenting with such mines in 1914, but failed to develop an operational version during the war. Friedman, Naval Weapons of World War I: 378.

Footnote 24: Kite balloons were large balloons tied to destroyers or other vessels for use at sea. Their elongated shape made them more stable in stormy weather.

Footnote 25: Gen. Ferdinand M. Foch.

Footnote 26: See: Sims to Daniels, 29 July 1917.

Footnote 27: As of 10 August, there does not appear to have been any special representative appointed to represent the United States at this meeting of the Allied Naval Council, but VAdm. Montague E. Browning, Commander-in-Chief, North America and West Indies Station, reported that he had met with Benson that day and that Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, was preparing for a visit to the United Kingdom. Anglo-American Naval Relations: 93.

Footnote 28: Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations; Cmdr. Frank H. Schofield, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations; Cmdr. Dudley W. Knox, Commandant, Guatanamo Bay Naval Station; Cmdr. Yates Stirling, Jr., Commander, Submarine Flotilla, Atlantic Fleet, and Commander, Naval Submarine Base, New London; and Cmdr. Lyman A. Cotten. The Navy Department refused to send Pratt overseas, despite Sims’ repeated requests. Schofield and Knox would eventually be appointed, in November 1917, to serve on Sims’ Planning Section, the first such section in the Navy. Stirling commanded troop transports throughout the war and received a Navy Cross and the French Cross of the Legion of Honor for his service. Cotten trained subchaser crews and was responsible for establishing and commanding the naval base at Plymouth in July 1918, commanding the subchaser squadron based there.  Sims, Victory at Sea: 209, 215, 253. Yates Stirling, Sea Duty: Memoirs of a Fighting Admiral (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939), 164-186.