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Lieutenant (j. g.) Frederick A. Johnson, U. S. N. R. F., to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations



New London, Connecticut.

Office of School for Merchant Officers.

11 March, 1918.

From:     Lieutenant (j.g.) F.A. Johnson, U.S.N.R.F.,

To  :     Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department,

Washington, D.C.

Via: Officer in charge, Merchant-Officer School.

     Commander Submarine Base, New London, Conn.

     Chief of Bureau of Navigation.1

Subject:  Report of voyage to England and return on S.S. NEW YORK, American Line.

Reference: (a) Bu.Nav. telegram No.15228.

           (b) Bu.Nav. RADIOGRAM No.10129.2

     1.   Pursuant to the above, I reported to the Commanding Officer of the Armed Guard S.S. NEW YORK,3 and sailed February 8. After an eventful voyage, arrived Liverpool, England, early Sunday morning February 17th. Monday, February 18th, proceeded to London and reported to Force-Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters,4 from whom I received orders to proceed to Chatham, England, and acquire such information as I was able to with regard to the instruction of Merchant Officers in anti-submarine measures, arrangements having been made for my visit to the School, and also for visiting the Officer in charge of this instruction work at the Admiralty. Upon completion of this duty, I returned to Liverpool and reported to the Commander, Armed Guard, Friday, February 22. Sailed Monday, February 25th, arriving New York Wednesday, March 6th.

     2.   The following observations and recommendations are submitted as a result of experience and information gained on the voyage and during my stay in England.

     (a)  Smoked glasses should be furnished the gun’s crews as on bright days it is impossible to look into the bright glare, from which bearing the enemy submarines are most likely to attack.

     (b)  Better protection should be afforded lookouts in crow’s nests. Weather screens are provided, but no protection from above. A lookout will be more efficient and alert if made comfortable. Gun shields should be provided, both for protecting crews from heavy weather, as well as machine gun and shrapnel fire. As prompt handling xxx of ship with alert lookouts is 90% of the protection against Submarine attack, too much attention cannot be given to this point. Lookouts at night on main deck are, in my judgement, more important than from bridge or crow’s nests. The former, from my own observation, can better detect a dark object close abord than the latter who, higher up, can only see an object against the horizon.

     (c)  Zig-Zag plans should be worked out and numbered. It requires unnecessary signaling to convoying destroyers; they should go by designating numbers or code letters. The British Admiralty employ about thirty plans, each numbered. I left a request with the Force Commander to secure these from the Admiralty and forward to United States. Convoying destroyers should get all information regarding Zig-Zag and base course before dark by semaphore; this avoids use of blinker. Both Eastbound and Westbound U.S. Destroyers failed to observe this important precaution. For slow ships (12 knots maximum) would strongly recommend immediately before dark and daybreak to make radical departure from base course, of not less than 45° for one hour, after which return to course again or parallel former course. A good Zig-Zag for faster ships will suffice.

     (d)  All shore lights in English Channel and Coast of Ireland should raise their beam of light, as they often fall fair on passing vessels, and disclose their position I am informed a number of ships have been torpedoed in this manner.

     (e)  The Armed Guard can protest a vessel from Submarine attack if sighted before a torpedo is delivered, or if vessel is attacked by gunfire, but clever handling of ship with alert lookouts is the ship’s greatest protection.

     (f)  Schools for the instruction of Merchant Officers in anti-submarine measures as established at the Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham, England, and at the Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut, are considered of the greatest importance abroad abd justly so.

          At the Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham, England, I was impressed with the earnestness and eagerness with which merchant officers applied themselves. Of a class of forty there were seven who had been torpedoed, and they told me if they had had the instruction, which they were then receiving, they would have saved their ships. Personally, I do not think we can expect a high standard of merchant service, on a war basis, until our ships are manned and officered by reserve crews, subject to Navy Regulations. These reserve crews to be made up from merchant personnel, but under the authority of, and subordinate to, the Navy Department. Friction would then be eliminated between Navy gun crews and the ship’s crews, which under present conditions do not harmonize, and on some ships the feeling runs to extreme antagonism. Merchant crews are now only shipped for the voyage, and to attempt to train these crews in gunnery is impracticable, which would not be the case if they were Naval Reserves. At Chatham, as well as other Naval Stations, in England, all who attend the courses of training are Merchant officers abd apprentices of the Reserve. They are given instruction in all anti-submarine measures. Much attention is given to gunnery, use of smoke screens, the operation of paravanes or otters, and studying Zig-zag plans, the latter supplemented by plotting courses of attack and defense in the lecture room. Until we can ship merchant crews for a fixed period of enlistment we cannot hope to develop an efficient organization, and Armed Guard crews will continue to be necessary, which in my mind is fundamentally wrong, dividing as it does ship authority. With a merchant reserve personnel to draw from, instruction and training can be given which will equip them for service on a war basis and not only a more efficient organization will result, but after the war a standardized merchant marine will have been created, and while the major part will be retired, or discharged, it will be available for future needs. We have assumed a responsibility that we cannot now avoid, if we would, and the new tonnage that will be available by the end of 1919 must be manned and officered by trained merchant crews whose duty will be to deliver their cargoes at their ports of destination, and we accept no excuses for failure to do so, but to require this service, we must equip them to be able to render it. To improve their standard, the Department must recognize a type that is, by reason of training, different and apart from a school of regulation, discipline, yet possessing worth and a rare intuitive knowledge of conditions met at sea. Naval Officers should not be too intolerant, for they themselves might learn, with no loss of caste, something in practical navigation, and much in seamanship, from what might appear crude methods.

     (g)  The British Admiralty have had designed and are furnishing merchant ships a mine cable cutting device, made by Vickers, Ltd. called otters or paravanes. Their efficiency is unquestioned but practicability limited to capacity of merchant crews in handling them. So much is xxxxxxx thought of them that a special course for the instruction of merchant personnel is held at Portsmouth every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Otters are put over in waters of 60 fathoms or less, and so certain are they to function that ships have passed through mine fields, cutting the mooring cables. Crew has then destroyed the released mines when they came to the surface by gunfire. Complete description of this device is given in secret and confidential book, “The copy of which No.1912 was, issued me by the Admiralty.

     (h)  In my opinion, the German Submarine menace has been but little abated, due in no small measure to England’s passive attitude, and apparent willingness to shift the burden to us. With the Straits of Dover wide open, which could be closed, for unhampered passage of German submarines, all shipping must be ever on the alert to defend itself as best it can.

     (i)  Summarizing my observations: The best defense against the Submarine is speed, alert lookouts, ship discipline and a quick rudder. Gun crews are secondary.

/s/ F.A. Johnson.            

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Box 342-44. Document identifiers: in upper right-hand corner: “MO-44/FJ-F”: and in upper left-hand corner in columnar fashion: “3/C/H/J.”

Footnote 1: Cmdr. Arthur J. Hepburn and RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer.

Footnote 2: The aforementioned correspondence have not been found.

Footnote 3: Lt. Samuel S. Payne.

Footnote 4: VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters.

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