Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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

July 28th. 1918.

My dear Admiral,

          As you doubtless know affairs have been more or less strenuous over here for the last few weeks, not only because there has been an increase in the ordinary work, but because of the time killing complications of the celebration of Independence Day and a number of celebrations that have followed.

          This has of course been added to somewhat by the arrival of the Assistant Secretary and by the arrival today of thirteen members of the House Naval Committee

          Mr ,Roosevelt1 landed at Portsmouth after a pleasing and uneventful passage and after being shown around the Portsmouth Navy Yard and taking lunch with the Admiral Superintendent2 came on to London, arriving here Sunday afternoon, the 21st. The following morning he called upon Sir Eric Geddes3 and was at once invited to go with him on a visit to Queenstown, via Milford Haven and a passage across the Irish Sea in the KIMBERLEY.4 He returned here Thursday evening and expressed himself very well pleased with the visit.5

          The First Lord has also invited him to go to the Grand Fleet with him, but whether that will be immediately after the Assistant Secretary returns from France has not yet been decided. I believe the Assistant Secretary intends to visit the Western Front and also to go to Italy.6 

          Arrangements have been made for the exchange of civilities between the Congressional Committee and the Governmental officials.7 They will be given a dinner in the House of Parliament, a lunch by the First Lord , possibly a lunch by Mr.Lloyd George ,8 and a dinner or a lunch by the Ambassador,9 and I will have them all one evening to dinner with certain members of Headquarters staff so that they may have an uninterrupted opportunity for talking shop. They all expressed themselves as very much pleased with their experience in coming across in the ARKANSAS. They landed at Scapa.10 From there they visited Invergordon, Inverness and Strathpeffer11 and thence went to the Grand Fleet where they werereceived by the Commander-in-Chief12 and where they visited our squadron.13 They were very much gratified with the condition of the NEW YORK, particularly with the compliments paid her by the British Officers. Captain Gaunt14 who is in charge of the Congressional party for the British told them that he had never seen any vessel kept in such fine condition.

          Toward the latter part of this week the Committee will go to Queenstown and on the way back to London will visit one of the large British shipbuilding yards. It is also arranged for them to visit Harwich and Dover

          When this is accomplished they will go to France and they have informed me that they intend to go to Italy. They will probably wind up their trip by visiting Brest and the stations on the west coast of France, and thence leave for home on one of the big transports. I assume that they will also want to visit the Western Front.

          I believe I have told you briefly in previous letters of the difficulty the British have had in planting deep automatic mines in area “B” of the Northern barrage.15

          The mines proved to be so unreliable that it would not be a justifiable risk to pass over them with the Grand Fleet and perhaps not with the Norwegian convoy. It was proposed at one time to leave a gap further east in the minefield in order to permit the passageof the convoy. After considerable negotiation, they have finally decided to take the bull by the horns and rip out the mines that are already down in area “B”, complete our minefield as far as originally projected, that is, as far as longitude 1° west and I believe the final decision will be to continue both surface and deep mines from area “A” through area “B” all the way up against the coast of the Orkneys, thus completely closing the North Sea. This will leave the Grand Fleet based on Scapa with a clear run in the North Sea south of the barrage. There is no objection made to this from a strategic point of view, but the only difficulty is as to whether or not the large Norwegian convoy can be got across to the Norwegian coast north of the barrage. It will be hazardous to take it across south of the barrage. The only way to get it to the North after the barrage is built as far as the Orkneys is for it to pass through the Pentland Firth. This as you know, is a dangerous passage at any time. They have tides as high as seven knots an hour and this is often complicated by high winds.

          I am in great hopes however, that the decision will be made if it is possible to handle the convoy through the Pentland Firth. This will leave a solid barrier of three “fences” that is fifteen lines of mines all the way across from the Orkneys to the neutral waters of Norway.16

          You can imagine that this will at least embarrass the submarines very seriously, but only provided we can prevent them passing through Norwegian territorial waters. If we cannot prevent that it means that the barrage is a useless expenditure of money, time, energy and tonnage.

          The submarines have already found it uncomfortable to say the least, to pass through the Fair Island passage, or to the north of the Shetlands, as these areas have been extensively patrolled during the last couple of months. There have been a good many hunts after submarines passing through here and there are two cases where it is thought that submarines were destroyed and four that are considered probable. At all events, during the last week or ten days, all submarinesreturning to their baseshave avoided the areas above indicated and have passed down through the Norwegian territorial waters. There is no doubt 6that they will continue to do so both coming in and going out, as soon as area “B” is declared a mined area. It is therefore apparent that unless all our great effort is to go for nothing, something must be done to stop the submarines using the Norwegian passage.

          The British Government is now in negotiations with the Norwegian representing that it is up to them to prevent the passage of the submarines. I believe that they agreed to supply mines if Norway will lay them. I also believe that if Norway is not willing to take any action herself for fear of incurring the displeasure of the Central Powers that the three mile strip of territorial waters will be mined in any case.

          There is forwarded by this mail the conclusions of the Special Committee that has been examining conditions in the Mediterranean with a view to stopping submarines there.17 This would depend very largely upon the success in developing a mine that can be planted in deeper water than was required for the North Sea. I should not think this would be very difficult. The maximum number of mines required would probably not be more than about twentyfive thousand, and they could be laid by our mine layers assisted by those of our vessels that have finished their work on the northern barrage. There would also of course be required a certain number to keep the northern barrage in repair, that is, to stop up a hole in case the enemy succeeds in making one. The rest of the vessels could be utilised on the barrage. I see no reason why we should not easily succeed in stopping submarines from coming out of the Otranto Straits or coming out of the Dardanelles.

          Strauss leaves for Malta the day after tomorrow to discuss this matter as our representative, with the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, when they meet for this purpose at Malta on August 5th.18 When the Northern barrage is completed, and assuming that the Norwegian territorial waters are blocked, there will be released from the Northern patrol over one hundred vessels, most of them fitted with the fish hydrophone for work in the southern waters of the British Isles.

          In addition to the mines being laid in the Northern barrage, there is a continuous mining war being carried on in the Heligoland Bight. Almost every other day, when the weather will permit, mines are laid in one or the other of the passages out through the minefield that the Germans endeavour to keep clear. They have been so much harassed and threatened so often with attack that they never attempt these operations without the support of a division of battleships or battle cruisers, backed up by scouting forces, barrier breakers, mine sweepers and so forth. They have lost a number of vessels in this way , and have been more or less extensively bombed. They have enjoyed the advantage of having Zeppelins to scout and warn their mine dragging expeditions of the approach of any hostile force. Thisscouting will probably be considerably diminished in the future through the destruction of one double and one single Zeppelin at the Tondern sheds.19 It is not believed that the port of Zeebrugge is closed to submarines. A passage has been blown through the above obstruction which is large enough to admit these vessels, but it is doubtful as to whether destroyers can enter the harbor.20

          There has not been a large submarine, that is a U boat, through the Dover Straits since last January. A number of the small ones have passed through from time to time, but five of these have been blown up and have been located on the bottom. It is becoming increasingly difficult. This is apparently shown by the increased activity of the submarines against the coasting trade on the east coast of England. This trade is very heavy along the coast about the latitude of Newcastle and inside the minefields that have been laid parallel to the coast. On one day a hundred vessels passed up the coast and were subject to the attack of four submarines. Nine attacks were made upon these submarines by either surface or air craft. One vessel was torpedoed. At the same time two submarines attacked a fishing fleet further south between Dogger Bank and the coast. By this Fall there will have begun the laying of a barrage across the Dover Straits, which will, I believe, render it practically impossible for any submarine to pass through.

          You have doubtless noticed the change in the method of operating the enemy submarines. Withvery few exceptions they have kept out of the English Channel and the Irish Sea during the last few weeks. They were evidently finding it too dangerous on account of the increased number of patrol boats fitted with hydrophones. They have recently been concentrating their attack off the entrance to the North Channel to the Irish Sea and off the English Channel and the south of Ireland. In addition to this there are the two cruiser submarines on our coast and one which is now apparently operating in about mid-Atlantic. It is known that one of the submarines on the American coast is of the Deutschland type, viz: U-156. It is not know whether the other two are of this type or not.21 It is probable that one and it is possible that both of the latter are of the new cruiser type. If so, they have not yet begun to develop the tactics which we feared. That is, they apparently have not yet begun to take advantage of their increased speed to dog a convoy across the ocean making attacks each night.22 I have an idea that these will not prove as efficient as the Germans hoped. I think their size and necessary unhandiness will prevent them making dangerous attacks. They can of course fire Browning shots,23 but I can hardly imagine a vessel of nearly three thousand tons maneuvering to get within 300 yards of a merchant ship which is the limit prescribed for the attack by U and UB boats. We know that the Germans consider the UB boat the most efficient for making torpedo attack.

          I believe we may expect a change of method on the part of the Germans as the nights become longer this fall. Of course the further they operate at sea the less chance they have of even sighting a convoy, and when the long nights come these chances will be considerably diminished. I think as that time approaches we may expect that they will operate near shore, and possibly in inland waters again, though the latter is rather doubtful on account of the increasing danger to the submarines from the increased number of anti-submarine forces and the increased efficiency of listening devices. It is a very considerable advantage to keep the submarine out of enclosed waters, as it is in the latter places that the utmost difficulty is experienced in protecting vessels, because in those areas convoys must be split up to go to the different parts, and isolated vessels must go to rendezvous to form convoys passing out.

          There is now sitting in Paris a conference on the question of communications by wireless, and so forth. One of the recommendations made by a joint discussion in Washington between the Army and Navy was that the advisability of blocking (interfering with) the German high power wireless be examined. I have telegraphed recommending that this matter be not even discussed.24 This is for the reason that two can play at that game. If Germany wishes to block us she can put up a very strong interference. Moreover, a great deal of very useful information is derived from the intercepted German messages and it is very undesirable that this be interfered with in any way. You may remember that a good many months ago the question was asked as to whether measures should be taken to prevent messages being sent to Germany from Spain and the reply was that these should on no account be interfered with.25

          You of course know the encouraging features of the battle on the Western Front as well as we do on this side. I see from the American papers we get over here that everything that is published on this side is published on the other, and a good deal more besides. The situation this morning is very decidedly encouraging, though nobody pretends that the situation is not still a dangerous one. It depends upon the number of reserves that are behind the armies of the Central Powers and the Allies.

          It seems clear now that the last offensive started was not really intended to be a final drive, but was intended to draw reserves to the south in order that a more severe blow might be struck in the North. That this scheme has been prevented by the counter attack is now reasonably apparent. All of the critics agree that from a military point of view it would be to the advantage of the enemy to fall back at once to the Aisne thus abandoning the Chateau Thiery salient.26 It is also recognised that public opinion if Germany may render it very inadvisable to do so.

          The above opinions are of course, not my own as I have not sufficiently intimate information to be able to form an opinion, nor sufficient knowledge of that sort of thing to make the opinion of any particular value. However, I follow the discussions by the military experts that are published in the papers here, and the above is a general summary of their conclusions.

          Of course you know that the conduct of our troops has exerted a tremendous influence upon bucking up the morale of all of the people in our Army and to possibly an even greater extent the morale of the French Army. It has also had its influence upon the British. Naturally men who have been fighting on the Western front for three or four years and who have learned what they know from bitter experience, would almost necessarily conclude that our men would require a considerable amount of experience under fire before they could be trusted with any extensive part of the line. Recent actions have shown not only that this is mistaken but that our troops can be relied upon to hold their own alongside of any of the rest.

          This is particularly true of the marines On every side we hear the most complimentary estimates of their ability as soldiers. It is frankly stated by many distinctly high French officers that they are as good if not better than any troops in Europe today.

          Our relations with the Army continue to be entirely satisfactory. We find that Commander Roger Williams, who has been sent to work with General Pershing’s staff,27 is doing work that is very useful indeed. This is largely due not only to his knowledge of the requirements, but to his personality. Whenever there is any trouble in any particular spot where the Army and the Navy are intimately associated, Roger Williams is sent down, and the trouble disappears. Conditions in this respect could not well be more satisfactory.

          With regard to the question of decorations, there is to a certain extent a feeling in the forces over here, that it is a mistake to allow our people to receive decorations that are purely honorary. Of course I have been recommendingxx strongly that our destroyer captains, and so forth, be permitted to receive purely war decorations that are accorded to the British and the French for like actions.28 For example, the D.S.O. and so forth. I have seen a number of editorials in the newspapers advocating this, but in all cases they have referred to the war decorations.

          We were therefore some surprised at the wording of the law as telegraphed to us by the Department.29 This specified that any officers or enlisted men were authroised to accept any decorations or medals from the countries with whom we are engaged in this war. This was telegraphed over here by the British authorities on the other side to their Government and as a result the decorations were accorded Pershing, Marsh, Bliss, Rodman, Strauss and myself.30 I did not know anything about this until I saw it in the papers. A day or so before somebody telephoned from the Admiralty to Headquarters asking the names of the Admirals who were serving in British Waters. Whoever received the message gave the names of Rodman, Strauss and myself and the next thing we saw was the announcement of the decorations in the papers. Of course, if we had known what was intended Niblack’s name would have been given along with the rest, as he is also serving in British Waters.31 There can be no doubt that the according of these decorations has produced a very good effect on this side of the ocean, but I do not feel at all sure that they will produce a similar effect on the other. I am therefore curious to see what the American Press will have to say about it.

          There was an amusing incident occurred the other day of the literal mindedness of certain of our British friends. One day Admiral Rodman paid a visit to the Commander-in-Chief, and upon entering the cabin he said: “I have just seen the Royal standard flying in the Fleet.” I can imagine that Admiral Beatty jumped out of his chair because the Royal standard would mean that the King was on a visit to the Fleet. Beatty said he did not believe that that could be true, but Rodman said he could prove it to him if he would look out of the port. He did so and saw a vessel passing flying a white flag on which was a blue bull. Rodman said: “There’s John Bull on the flag and if that is not the Royal Standard it ought to be” or words to that effect! Sir Eric Geddes related this incident at the opening of the exhibition of naval pictures the other day, whereupon the reporter of the great London TIMES very lamely related the incident as a matter of fact and put at the heading of the article “AMUSING MISTAKE”! Subsequently one of the daily illustrated papers published a picture of a vessel flying a white flag with a blue bull on it. This flag indicates the beef ship that supplies a squadron. Under this picture was an explanation that this was the flag that the American Admiral thought was the Royal Standard!

          I assume there will be some changes in assignments of flag officers and captains consequent upon the promotions made by the recommendations of the board which is now in session. Since the number of flag officers is to be quite considerably increased it also seems probable that employment will be sought for some billets which are either filled by officers of lower rank now or not filled at all.

          In the first place, in reference to the command of destroyers. When the enlisted personnel was increased there was considerable excitement among the commanding officers of destroyers as to whether they would lose their ships in case they were promoted. In all cases they have stated that they would rather retain their command than be assigned to any other duty whatever.

          Of course the efficiency of our destroyer force over here depends very largely upon the captains themselves. This is particularly true with reference to the handling of our troop transports, as the efficiency of an escort depends so largely on the experience of the escort commander. For these reasons it must be perfectly apparentl that to take these men out of their ships just because they were promoted to captains would result in a marked decrease in the efficiency of our escorts and consequently in the safety of our troops.

          There is no precedent for a captain being in command of a destroyer but neither is there any precedent for such a war as this or for such conditions as these destroyers are confronted with. I therefore hope that there will be no question whatever of diminishing the efficiency of this force by shifting people around just because they have been promoted.32

          As you of course know, I am so thoroughly satisfied with the situation at Queenstown that I should very much regret it should the Department send a Flag Officer to command the forces based there. The situation might be very different if the personalities of Admiral Bayly and Captain Pringle33 were different, but they work together so perfectly and with results so eminently satisfactory that I think we could do no better than leave things as they are with Pringle in his capacity as Chief of my Staff, at least so long as Admiral Bayly remains. The First Lord of the Admiralty has recently been to Queenstown, and he was so very much impressed with the success of the cooperation there that he has announced Admiral Bayly is to remain in command even though he has been there more than three years, and the tour of duty for a British Admiral is usually two years.

          I think the time is rapidly approaching, if it has not already come, when we shall need a Flag Officer with a small staff at Malta. As you doubtless know, the British Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean, Vice-Admiral Calthorpe is stationed there, and Flag Officers from all of the other Allied Nations concerned in the war, except the United States, are there with him.

          We are now beginning to have interestsin the Mediterranean, andif any extensive mining operation is undertaken there, we shall have still further interest, and I believe it is very desirable that we have an officer of flag rank stationed with the other similar officers at Malta with the Commander-in-Chief.

          I am not yet prepared to say that such an officer should be in command of all of our forces in the Mediterranean. In fact at present I should not favor him having that position. Niblack is doing well at Gibraltar and is working in thorough accord with the British Admiral there , and I think he should not be transferred to Malta unless he were given command in the Mediterranean. I would therefore, at present, favor having a flag officer junior to Niblack sent to Malta.34

          Another place where we will need a rear-admiral is Plymouth, England, where we expect soon to have seventy-two submarine chasers based, and where we are obliged to maintain a depot of stores, as well as considerable personnel. It is a distributing point for personnel coming out from the United States via England for Gibraltar and there are frequently as many as 250 men there. The whole station including the base, repair ships, stores, the chasers and personnel, make a suitable command for a rear-admiral.35

          As for Corfu, we have at present but a small force there. The British officer in command of the barrage, under the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean, is a Captain Kelly, who has what is called the local rank of Commodore. I have received a letter from him speaking in the highest terms of the cordiality of the cooperation between his forces and our chaser force, and incidentally, speaking in the highest terms of the ability and tact of Captain Leigh.36 It is of course important, that we have at Corfu a thoroughly competent man with a sufficient number of young officers as assistants to go out in tactical charge of the operations. While I should like to retain Captain Leigh in the North, for the benefit of the advice he can give us on the specialty he has made, still it may be necessary to send him to Corfu, at least on periodical visits, until a suitable captain can be had to take command. Incidentally, also, Captain Leigh has just presented a memorandum to me explaining the relations that exist between our force at Corfu and the French commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean.37 Without going into details it will suffice to say that these relations are as satisfactory as you could possibly imagine them to be. The French commander-in-chief has given us every possible assistance in his power and has gone out of his way to show his personal interest in our enterprise there.

          From all of the above, I would say that we could advantageously employ two rear admirals in addition to those now with the forces, that is to say, one at Malta and one at Plymouth.

          In case Twining should be promoted, (and I assume that he will be) I should expect to retain him as Chief of Staff, which would account for another of the new flag officers or three in all.38

          In case it should be your intention to send additional flag officers for the above suggested places, or for others, I hope that you will give me a chance to select the officers or at least to exercise choice within such limits as you may think it necessary to prescribe.

          You know of course to what an extent personality counts for efficiency under the circumstances which now exist over here, and how highly important it is that we should have officers on duty in European Waters in positions of responsibility who are not only willing to cooperate with our Allies here whole-heartedly and loyally, but who have the necessary tact and personality to render this cooperation successful.

          Perhaps it is equally important that the officers indicated should be in sympathy with me and my methods. You know the difficulty that has arisen through lack of sympathy of this kind. I feel that this particular point should be given very serious consideration, because not to do so might add very considerably to the strain which I necessarily have to bear.

Very sincerely yours,             

(Signed) Wm.S.Sims.          

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49.

Footnote 1: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Footnote 2: Adm. Sir Stanley Cecil James Colville, R.N.

Footnote 3: Geddes was First Lord of the Admiralty.

Footnote 4: That is, U.S. destroyer Kimberly.

Footnote 5: On his Roosevelt’s first days in England, see also: Roosevelt to Josephus Daniels, 26 July 1918. On Roosevelt’s journey to Europe from the United States, see: Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 22 July 1918.

Footnote 6: Roosevelt did visit both France and Italy.

Footnote 7: The congressional delegation was led by the chairman of the House of Representatives Naval Affairs Committee, Lemuel P. Padgett.

Footnote 8: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Footnote 9: United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom Walter Hines Page.

Footnote 10: Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland, a base for the British Grand Fleet.

Footnote 11: Inverness and Invergordon were bases for the American mine-layers participating in laying the North Sea mine barrage; there was a newly-constructed American hospital at Strathpeffer, Scotland.

Footnote 12: Adm. Sir David Beatty, R.N.

Footnote 13: A squadron of American battleships commanded by RAdm. Hugh Rodman was serving with the Grand Fleet. The NEW YORK, mentioned in the next sentence, was Rodman’s flagship.

Footnote 14: Commo. Guy R. Gaunt, R.N., the British naval attaché in Washington.

Footnote 15: For a map showing the locations of the areas of the Northern Mine Barrage, see: Maps section for April 1918.

Footnote 16: The Allies put significant pressure on Norway to do something about submarines using its territorial waters. The protracted negotiations culminated on 29 September 1918 when Norway announced that it would mine its territorial waters and that these waters would be closed to general traffic as of 7 October. Northern Barrage: 120-21.

Footnote 18: The British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean theater was VAdm. Sir Somerset A. Gough-Calthorpe, R.N. For more on the dispatch of RAdm. Joseph Strauss, commander of the U.S. mine force, to the Mediterranean, see: Charles P.R. Coode to Gough-Calthorpe, 25 July 1918.

Footnote 19: On 19 July the British mounted a bombing raid on the German Navy’s airship base at Tǿnder (Tondern), Denmark. The British bombers were launched the converted battleship Furious. Although the Germans abandoned the base at Tondern, defenses at other bases were improved and the Germans were not left as defenseless as Sims’ hoped.

Footnote 20: On the raid on Zeebrugge and the damage done, see: Sims to Josephus Daniels, 13 June 1918.

Footnote 21: U-156 was then operating in U.S. coastal waters; U-140 was then off the coast and did not arrive in American waters until 1 August. The third submarine may have been U-117 and long-range minelaying submarine which was then en route to America. Neither of the latter two were Deutschland-class U-boats. Clark, U-Boats to America: 176-91, 206-7.

Footnote 22: The Germans never instituted such tactics.

Footnote 23: That is, shotgun-type attacks, shooting a spread of torpedoes.

Footnote 26: The German army did abandon the Château Thierry salient in the face of an allied offensive., usually termed the Aisne-Marne offensive. The Germans established a new defensive line along the line of the Aisne and Vesle rivers. Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: 113-17.

Footnote 27: Gen. John J. Pershing, U.S.A., Commander, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 28: Sims’ cable has not been found.

Footnote 29: See: Leigh C. Palmer to Sims, 18 July 1918; and Benson to Sims, 7 June 1918.

Footnote 30: For more on the medals awarded Sims, Strauss, and Rodman, as well as Pershing, Maj. Gen. Tasker H. Bliss, and Gen. Payton C. March, see: Josephus Daniels to Woodrow Wilson, 29 July 1918.

Footnote 31: RAdm. Albert P. Niblack, commanded American forces at Gibraltar, a British possession.

Footnote 32: A list of destroyers and their commanders done on 1 October 1918 does not show any to be commanded by someone of captain rank. Supplement to the Navy List.

Footnote 33: VAdm. Sir Lewis Bayly, R.N., Commander, Naval Forces in Southern Ireland and Cmdr. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle, Chief of Staff, Destroyer Flotillas, European Waters.

Footnote 34: The U.S. Navy did send a rear admiral to serve at Malta, William H.G. Bullard, and as Sims requested, he was junior to Niblack.

Footnote 35: No rear admiral was sent to Plymouth.

Footnote 36: See: William A. Howard Kelly to Sims, 15 July 1918. In his letter, Kelly was very complimentary of Capt. Richard H. Leigh.

Footnote 37: VAdm. Dominique-Marie Gauchet, French Navy.

Footnote 38: Sims’ chief of staff Capt. Nathan C. Twining was not promoted to rear admiral at this time, but did achieve that rank later on in his career.

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