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Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces in Europe, to Captain William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations


July 3rd.1917.

My dear Pratt,

          My last letter to you written from Queenstown, will have reached you by this time.1 I hope that they will give it in earnest consideration,particularly in reference to the point I make about the war being on this side. I want to speak quite frankly about that matter in this letter, but it is for your ear only.

          It would be very funny, if it were not so tragic, the spectacle of many dozens of ships, destroyers, yachts and so forth parading up and down the American Coast three thousand miles away from where the vital battle of the war is going on. How is it that they cannot see that this is as wrong as it possibly can be from a military point of view. In other words, why does not America send her forces to the front instead of keeping them three thousand miles in the rear. If there were any danger on our coast or if danger should develop later you could send the forces back again, or such as were needed, before any considerable number of the enemy could get over there.

          If you have been reading my recent cables you will realize, that at least I believe, that this situation over here is a very dangerous one. To understand this you need only to be in possession of some very simple arithmatical facts. They are as follows:- The Allies are losing about 500,000 tons of shipping a month. The building capacity of the available yards within the next year are not more than 120,000 tons a month. This means that when the available shipping is reduced below the amount of tonnage that will land a certain amount of freight in England and France the war will be lost. The necessities are about 32,000,000 tons of imports a year. It requires a certain amount of tonnage to accomplish this. When it falls below it, it will be wholly impossible to maintain this population and to maintain the armies in the Front. It would be impossible to import the wholly essential ore that is necessary for munitions and to export the tremendous quantities of coal that are required for both France and Italy. In order to find out how soon the pinch will come all you have to do is to make the arithmatical calculation as to when the available shipping will be reduced to the point indicated. I have seen a study of this made out by the appropriate department of the British Government and it shows that the pinch will come in December if a certain rate of destruction is assumed, something like 300,000 tons a month, and by September if a certain greater rate of destruction is assumed, a little over 400,000 tons a month.

          These incontrovertible facts show what I mean when I state in my messages that the situation is very critical. The truth about the matter is that the enemy is winning the war, and all of the help that we will be able to give in the way of increased shipping facilities, money and so forth, a year or even six months from now, will be of no value. When the pinch comes on the Western Front, it would be impossible to provide reinforcements because you cannot feed them, and the end will then be very near. This opinion is founded upon absolutely reliable information and it is held by all the responsible British officials that I know. I do not include in these responsible officials those politicians, who, for fear of their own personal losses, do not dare to tell the truth. I realise, of course, that my reports on this subject are made to appear pessimistic by the speeches which are made here by politicians for their own political purposes. They do not dare to tell the truth for fear of trouble in this country and for fear of losing their jobs.

          Now these latter statements may seem to you to be exaggerated. If you think they are I would like to have you read a cable despatch that the Ambassador2 has just shown me and which goes forward today to the Secretary of State and the President.3 It points out this very thing and announces that in his opinion there is danger of a serious explosion.

          There is only one way in which disaster can be avoided, and that is, by diminishing the effectiveness of that feature of the campaign, which is necessarily influencing all others, that is to say, the submarine campaign. God knows I have said everything which I could say in official communications on this subject – so has the American Ambassador. I therefore went to him the other day and told him that in my opinion our statements which cannot be successfully disputed, should be verified directly by the British Government. He agreed that this was so and therefore took me to call upon Mr.Balfour.4 I explained the whole situation to him and he agreed with me that an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation should be made by their Government. He therefore requested me to go to Admiral Jellicoe5 and between us drew up the despatch which we would suggest that he send. We did so and it was sent practically in the same words.6 I assume that this will be brought to the attention of the Navy Dept. You will note, of course, that the language of this despatch is not as energetic as I have been sending in. The reason of this is the fear that it might leak out and do damage. But you can read between the lines and see that it is a very strong statement and very frank acknowledgement of the necessity for help to be sent by one great Government to another.

          There is one other thing that I would like you to understand and that is the embarrassment and the delay which is caused by the insistence of our people on the other side trying to advise these people over here in the direct lines in which they have had the most experience. My last letter concerning the convoy business, indicates what I mean. These people over here are really intelligent, the things they are doing now and the methods they are employing are the result of much bitter experience which has been learned in blood and tears. I do not know, therefore, that you can conceive the impression that was made, by recommendations as to different methods which amounted in effect to a statement that these people here are really not intelligent at all. I can understand that it is perfectly natural that such recommendations should be made, but the point I want to make is that when any such subject is taken up for discussion that the first thing to do and the only logical thing to do is to ask the people on this side what their experience has been so that your estimate on the situation on the other side, will be founded on real facts and not upon facts as you suppose them to exist.

          A most flagrant example of this was the astonishing statement received from the other side to the effect that the best protection of the merchant ships was a thoroughly trained and efficient gun crew. I subsequently learned that this opinion was based upon an estimate of the situation by Schofield.7 This estimate was a clear and concise piece of reasoning based upon a wholly false premises. He assumed that with sufficient training that men of character who were sufficiently vigilant would always see a periscope of a submarine in time to drive her below the water by gun fire. If this were true the estimate of the situation would be perfectly correct because the reasoning is sound in all respects. Unfortunately it is practically wholly untrue as I have tried to show by the information I sent in immediately by cable and as Admiral Jellicoe has shown by the cable he sent to his attache to be shown to Admiral Benson.8 You folks could have avoided placing yourselves in this position by a few simple enquiries as to what the actual experience had been on this side.9

          I do not know, but I suspect that this estimate of the situation has been the cause of holding up the introduction of the convoy system, particularly from New York. If this is true it has cost the Allies some hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping, assuming that theconvoy system is going to prove effective. That will probably prove effective, at least against the present tactics of the submarines, seems to be sufficiently proven by the fact that it has been successful up to date. I have been devoted to this convoy system since the first week I got here in London. I have been putting it up to our Navy Department as strongly as I knew how and supported it with all the arguments that there were and not until yesterday was there any reply on the subject. I leave you to imagine what sort of a position this places me in and how seriously it affects my relations with the people over here. I am happy to say that our Government has now expressed its willingness to help out with the convoy. I really believe that this will have the desired effect on the submarine campaign, that is, that it will at least reduce the losses well below the rate of building.

          But in order to put this generally into operation, it will be absolutelynecessary to have more anti-submarine craft both for the purposes of handling the large convoys in question as well as for the purpose of convoying specially valuable cargo ships that make over 12 knots through the dangerous part of the submarine zone. This is why I have been so insistent that America should get a move on, not some time in the future, but just as soon as it is materially possible. If they would send over every single destroyer, including those of four hundred tons, and every vessel that would serve the purpose of anti-submarine craft, and also all of the ocean going tugs they could muster, I am very sure that within a short time I would be able to report that the Allies are winning the war, that is to say, that the submarine menace has been reduced below dangerous proportions.

          You have been sending me your letters by vessels of ours that have been coming over and you seem to imply in one letter that this is the only safe means. This is an error. You can send me your letters any week by passing them over to O.N.I.10 and ask them to have them put in the pouch, in the same way that this will reach you.

          I think you will understand that I do not wish to be offensive in any of my criticisms. I believe you will recognize that they have invariably been construct<ive>. I am sending the information in this letter for your ear alone, but I hope you will be able to use it to good advantage. Of course, if at any time you should think proper to show this letter to anyone, that is entirely up to you. Remember only that I do not wish to endanger my relations with our own people by criticisms which are of such nature that they could not, or should not, properly be put into official communications.

          We were all distressed to hear through a cable from the British naval Attache in Washington, of the sudden death of Captain Chase.11 I assume that this will mean that you will take his place, at least for a time.12 I also assume that it is the end of my hopes that you may come over here to assist me. For this latter reason I am now cabling requesting that Twining be sent as my Chief of Staff and that Cone be sent as representatives of the Navy Department in the Submarine and Convoy Section of the Admiralty.13 Cone would be invaluable in this job. He is very anxious to come.

          I am also rather of the opinion that you will not wish to be leaving home about the time of the advent of the welcome little stranger.14 I can fully sympathize with you in this. I even believe that under the circumstances I would be quite willing to imperil the interest of the Allies. That may be an exaggerated statement but you know what I think of small folks. Please give my best love to Madame Pratt15 and also my sincere congratulations.

Always sincerely yours,      

P.S. There is another point of grave importance. Nothing that I have been able to say has apparently convinced you people that there was great danger in continuing to send vitally important messages through the Naval Attache’s code and other similar codes that have been in use for over a year. It is a fact that is perfectly well known to all people familiar with the ordinary invariable code that if the enemy can get hold of a couple of thousand groups that have been sent, they could rapidly work out enough of the code to be able to read your messages. There is absolutely no deception about this. Any expert can do it. I was not speaking without the book, I get my information from the Coding Dept. of the British Admiralty. These people withdraw their codes and ciphers sometimes at intervals of three weeks. I asked them about the chances of our codes being secret, and they informed me it was not at all necessary for the enemy to have the code book. I could give you in this connection, an extremely important piece of information if it would be at all proper for me to put it on paper or to mention it to anybody whatever until after the war.

          The inclination to trust your own judgement and to disbelieve what I have to say on the question of codes has been the cause of very grave danger to our forces, It was not a matter of luck only that we did not lose some destroyers of each group that arrived and also the MELVILLE and DIXIE. They were saved by the thouroughness of the precautions that were taken by the Commander in Chief at Queenstown.16 There is not the slightest doubt that the enemy knew all about the movements of these forces from the day that cables first began to be sent about them.

          The same applies to the much more dangerous case of the troop transports that recently arrived in France. I implored the Department not to send any messages concerning them in any other than the British Admiralty’s secret code. They did so with the result that the enemy was able to send a submarine to the Westward of the rendezvous given and attack convoy before it was joined by the destroyers.

She took advantage of being out that far (Long 25-30W to attack British Merchant ship, and Admrl Jellicoe has just told me that she is now (July 4) bombarding the Azores.17

          I am going to send over a recommendation as to the manner in which all future troop convoys should be handled, and I think that if you will look into it carefully you will see that it is iron clad, providing the recommendations are accepted; and I ask you, if you have any influence, for God’s sake get them accepted if you want to avoid a disaster which will bring humiliation upon our entire Nation.

          The decision in this matter, and the whole responsibility, should be put upon the man:

(1) Who is in charge of the escorting forces – the destroyers.

(2) Who is informed from day to day of the position of the enemy forces (subs.)

(3) Who is in touch with all experience to date on this subject.

I am willing to take the responsibility. But it must be the whole responsibility if we are to avoid risk of a shocking disaster. It will always be extremely dangerous to give detailed directions from the American side which must subsequently be changed on this side (to avoid the enemy) at the expense of a dangerous amount of wireless. In this respect the last convoys made an awful exhibition.

Several merchant convoys have come in escorted by British anti-submarine vessels. Not only were no vessels lost, but the convoys were not even attacked. Two vessels were lost from a Gibraltar convoy insufficiently escorted by French vessels.

          The scheme, which will probably be sent in this mail, will render wireless messages wholly unnecessary, except possibly some with very low power if the escorting destroyers have difficulty in picking up the convoy, due to bad weather, etc.

Cheer up!                   

Always sincerely yours,

(Signed) Sims.     


Source Note: LTS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 22. Addressed below close: “Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.N./Navy Department,/Washington.D.C.”

Footnote 1: See: Sims to Pratt, 7 June 1917.

Footnote 2: United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom Walter Hines Page.

Footnote 3: Secretary of State Robert Lansing and President Woodrow Wilson. See, Page to Josephus Daniels and Woodrow Wilson, 5 July 1917, DNA, RG45, Entry 517.

Footnote 4: British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour.

Footnote 5: First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 7: Capt. Frank H. Schofield, an aide in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 8: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 9: See: Pratt to Sims, 2 July 1917.

Footnote 10: Office of Naval Intelligence.

Footnote 11: Guy R. Gaunt, British Naval Attaché at Washington, D. C., and Capt. Volney O. Chase, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, who died on 25 June 1917.

Footnote 12: Pratt served as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for the remainder of the war.

Footnote 13: Capt. Nathan C. Twining and Cmdr. Hutchinson I. Cone.

Footnote 14: Sims was referring to Pratt’s newly born son. See: Pratt to Sims, 11 June 1917.

Footnote 15: Pratt’s wife, Louise Johnson Pratt.

Footnote 16: Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander, Southern Ireland.

Footnote 17: This paragraph and one below starting with “Several merchant convoys” were typed in the left margin.