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




September 7th. 1917.

My dear Pratt,

     I thought I would write you a few items by the mail that goes today. There is a curious story just come through to us from Switzerland and I am inclined to think that there is something in it because it is supported by independent evidence, and by certain circumstances that developed in the beginning of the war. I will begin with the circumstances.

     When I first landed here a few days after we entered the war, I assumed as a matter of course that the Germans would send one or two submarines to our coast to scare our people and try and force public opinion to keep our anti-submarine forces at home. The Admiralty was of course of the same opinion, as this was the obvious thing to do from a military point of view. Every day I watched the positions of submarines as plotted on the chart. One day it was apparent that two of the largest mine layers were missing, and I was about to telegraph this fact when they turned up again. I had previously warned the Department that subs might come over.1

     The second circumstance was that when it was reported in the Press that a torpedo had been fired at the SMITH it was promptly denied by Germany and ridiculed as a foolish attempt to make out that Germany had struck the first blow.2

      The third circumstance was the lack of aggression against any of our American Liners. These vessels are of such a profile that all the nautical world immediately recognizes them.

     From the above I very naturally concluded and so reported that I believed the submarine commanders had orders to let these vessels alone, and stated my reason for this opinion that the Germans were probably still hoping that the peace propaganda would succeed in the United States or at least that the war spirit would be diminished if no blood was shed.

     A couple of days ago we received from O.N.I. a copy of a dispatch, the source of which was Germany and marked “Reliable”.3 It was so interesting that we took it to the [British] Secret Service and asked their opinion upon it. They said it was so specific in its statements of both fact and time that it bore all the earmarks of authenticity, and jibed with their information.

     This dispatch stated, among other things, that the submarine commanders had received specific orders, January 5th, not to attack any American passenger or war ships. This order was still in effect to the 1st.August.4

     It has been reported that our troop transports were attacked. There have been many instances of reports of an exactly similar nature where it was subsequently known that there had been no submarine in the neighbourhood.

     These reports are perfectly natural because a destroyer will take no chances when he sees anything in the water that resembles a periscope or the top of a conning tower when [i.e., where] the periscope is housed. There was a recent incident of this kind that I referred to in my last letter, where one of our troop transports fought a very furious battle against nothing at all.5

     There were other cases where a submarine was in actual contact with the escort of one of our troop transports but this does not prove that the submarine would have attacked the transports if he found out that they were carrying troops. One convoy must look very much like another to a man who is viewing through a periscope sticking a couple of feet above the water.

     The third piece of information on this subject is as follows: One of the most important of the American press men, a Director of one of our most important metropolitan papers,6 has just come back from Switzerland and gives the following information on the authority of one of our Consuls who is now in Switzerland. This man states that submarine commanders told him repeatedly that they had specific orders not to attack the ships referred to. One of these commanders told him what a narrow escape he had from disobeying orders. He stuck his periscope up in the presence of two vessels and was about to fire his torpedo when he noticed troops on board and at once dived. It appears that submarine commanders who return from a cruise very frequently go into Switzerland for their rest, where they can get plenty of food and beer.

     Of course if these orders were given to the submarine commanders they may be changed at any time, but if they are true they explain many things.

     The Naval Conference has finished its work. There were represented Great Britain, the United States, France, Italy, Russia and Japan. It was presided over by the First Lord [of the Admiralty], Sir Eric Geddes, and all hands admired the ability with which he handled it.7 The discussion was entirely open,not only on all the subjects in the Agenda, but on anything else that anybody wanted to bring up. The agenda, by the way, was drawn up by Admiral Jellicoe because, though we called the Conference, we presented no agenda. It was of course shown to Admiral Mayo8 and approved by him before it was sent out. The proceedings of the Conference were taken down in shorthand and are being written up and of course a copy will be supplied us. You will find it very interesting reading.

     Admiral Mayo and his staff have not discussed the matter with me, but I understand that they are not satisfied with the Conference. I cannot imagine why, because they could have brought up anything for discussion that they wanted. The Admiral has submitted a list of questions to the Admiralty in order to get answers to certain points, I assume, that were not discussed. I have not seen this list of questions, but only heard about it incidentally.

     I am sorry to say that there appears to be an indisposition to discuss many points with me. It would appear as though I were under suspicion. There is a good deal of discussion, or rather ward room arguments between the junior members of the two staffs, and of course I hear about a certain amount of this. Much of this seems to be more or less acrimonious criticism because the destroyer Flotilla is not organized according to the usual paper plan. They do not seem to understand that the Flotilla is now engaged in a very specialized mission. They state that there should be a rear-admiral in charge of the boats over here assisted by two Captains, the whole being installed on three flagships. You can readily imagine the impossibility of employing such an organization on the kind of work that the Flotilla is now doing.9

     Twice I have had occasion to telegraph and explain my embarrassment on the extraordinary opinions that are published in America papers with the statement that they are based on my reports.10 The last mail brought me an extraordinary collection of clippings. There were a number of despatches dated Washington, in which it was specified that Admirals Jellicoe and Sims had specifically warned the American Government that the German High Sea Fleet was about to make a dash for the open sea with the object of attacking the coast of the United States.

     One very important and influential paper published an editorial which was headed by this statement and then proceeded to show what an asinine opinion it was. Of course the editorial was perfectly correct in this last respect.

     There were other despatches which specified that I was the authority for the opinion that one of the best means for opposing the submarine was by arming merchantmen! Also that all of the submarine zone should be patrolled back and forth by vessels operating like a policeman on his beat.

     There were also two clippings from of the Hurst [i.e. Hearst] papers “The American” and its evening edition, and also the “New York Call”, which gives a long despatch from Washington which is one of the best pieces of journalistic work that I have ever seen.11 Without making a single statement as to the sources of authority which would have enabled other newspaper men to under-run the story, it conveyed the impression that it had received directly from the Navy Department information to the effect that there was reliable information that Germany was about to begin an aggressive submarine campaign against the United States. It deliberately stated that it derived this story from authoritative sources. Among other things it stated that at my request a number of additional destroyers had been despatched to this side but had been recalled because of the seriousness of the information just received as to Germany’s intentions.

     It is very probable that these despatches were inspired by the enemy.

     Is there nothing that can be done to prevent that sort of thing? It subjects us to humiliation and ridicule on this side. It also diminishes the proper consideration due to those who are responsible for the handling of our forces.

     As you may well imagine, I have been very unusually busy since the Commander-in-Chief has been here, what with assisting him where I could, and attending the functions that are inseparable upon an occasion like this.

     In a day or so the Commander-in-Chief goes to the Grand Fleet, will then return here, then go to Paris, then come back to London, and thence go to Queenstown, where I believe it is his intention to embark for America if the American Line Steamer can stop there for him.12

     Have just received the swat concerning our request to be informed of the movement of our forces that were pointing this way.13 I do not think it was desired <deserved>, under the circumstances.

     In the first place, there have been quite a few cases of vessels sent for service on this side that we did not know about until they arrived – or even know that there was any intention of sending them. This was the case with the last destroyers that arrived. Not until they arrived at Queenstown did we know their number or the names of all of them.

     As a fellow can judge the future only by the past, we were justified in assuming that the destroyers at St.Johns14 and Bermuda might be bound this way – particularly as we had been officially informed by cable that spare propellors had been shipped for two of the destroyers reported as arriving at St.Johns.

     At all events, I was asked by the Admiralty if I knew where they were bound, and had to say that I did not. If I had been informed that the vessels were not bound to this side, I would have been spared the necessity of such an answer.

     Here is an item for seamen. The other day at Harwich I saw a gang making nets for submarine defense, and was invited to take out my watch and time a gang of three men making a splice in a five-inch (in circumference) steel wire rope. The rope was nipped around a thimble and lashed to it.

     From that stage until the splice was completed took less than three minutes. There is no mistake about this. I do not mean days, or hours, but minutes. It is very simple – when you know how it is done. Can any of our men over there do a similar stunt? I will try to have some of our men taught the trick.

Always very sincerely yours,


Source Note: TLS, DN-HC, William Pratt Papers. This letter is printed on stationary, with the heading centered at the top of each page, and “TELEPHONE, VICTORIA 9110 30 GROSVENOR GARDENS,/CABLE ADDRESS, “SIMSADUS” LONDON, S.W. I./ REFERENCE No” likewise appearing on the left and right margins of every page. Address below close: “Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.N./Navy Department,/Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: In fact, Sims warned against putting resources towards defending the coast of the United States, arguing instead that the navy should focus on protecting shipping and keeping its anti-submarine craft in European waters. He urged Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in June that “we could well afford to strip our coast of seagoing protection and concentrate it all in the critical area on this side of the ocean.” See: Sims to Daniels, 20 June 1917. See also: Sims to Daniels, 14 June, 29 June, and 21 July 1917. In 1918, six U-boats entered American waters to strike at American ships leaving port, but this was more an act of desperation than a genuine threat to turn the tide of war. William Bell Clark, When the U-Boats Came to America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1920).

Footnote 2: The destroyer Smith reported sighting a submarine and a torpedo wake on 17 April 1917, though it is unclear if this was a genuine submarine sighting.

Footnote 3: This document has not been found.

Footnote 4: This dispatch was mistaken. Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February included no exceptions. Although some German leaders desperately tried to avert war with the United States, frustration with American material support for the Allies had become so great by early 1917 that the German government had no interest in placating the United States. In practice, Germany focused on supplies being shipped into Britain more than troop ships. Nevertheless, this strategy did not stem from any hopes that the U.S. would change its mind about joining the war. Massie, Castles of Steel: 685-709.

Footnote 6: It is not known to whom Sims is referring here.

Footnote 7: For a full report on the agenda for this conference, see: Mayo to Daniels, 30 August 1917.

Footnote 8: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe and Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 9: Sims was very concerned at this time that the navy would remove Capt. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle as commander of the Destroyer Flotillas based at Queenstown and replace him with an admiral. See: Sims to Pratt, 30 August 1917; Sims to Benson, 1 September 1917; Sims to Pringle, 3 September 1917.

Footnote 10: One of these cables is Sims to Daniels, 29 August. The other has not been found.

Footnote 11: Sims is being sarcastic here; he goes on to describe how disgusted he is at the poor research and outright dishonesty of the articles in question.

Footnote 12: Mayo reached Queenstown on 28 September, but later made a final stop in Liverpool, England, from whence he departed on 4 October for Washington, D.C., aboard St. Louis.

Footnote 13: This document has not been found.

Footnote 14: One of the Virgin Islands.