Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Eric Geddes to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt

September 2nd 1918 

My dear Assistant Secretary:

     When you landed in this country and I had the pleasure of your company on a visit to Queenstown, you told me that you were proposing to give attention while over here and consult with us on the subject of repeat or additional orders for naval craft in your yards, as your builders would be asking for this upon your return to the United States. You invited me to give some thought to the question of the co-ordinated efforts of the British And American Forces in waters in which the British Admiralty take particular interest. These waters may roughly be defined as the waters of the North Sea and Atlantic generally speaking north of Brest, the Mediterranean for all light craft ( where the British Commander-in-Chief at Malta1 is entrusted by the Allies with the command of the anti submarine war and escort work) and also of convoy and escort work organized through the British Admiralty and the escort work done by the United States naval forces based on British ports. The accompanying chart illustrates the areas to which I refer.2

     It is, of course, impossible for us to say what the United States should build as we have no knowledge, nor are we directly charged in the provision they make in their own waters and, therefore, it has been necessary for us to draw up a programme which provides for what we suggest should be fixed the minimum allotment to the waters I have defined – and which for a short term I will call “British Waters” – out of the total provision made by the United States.

     I also venture to outline certain directions in which, in the opinion of the Board of Admiralty, the United States naval authorities might usefully extend their naval ship building programme.

     I would first like to refer to the question of capital ships. The strength of the Allies in capital ships, apart from battle cruisers, is preponderating, and in fact our proportion of this strength is probably excessive and at the moment not called for, nor, as far as one can foresee, likely to be called for in this war. We are therefore building no battleships whatsoever, and while I appreciate that I am treading upon somewhat delicate ground in referring to the matter, I venture to suggest to the United States Navy Department that so long as there is a deficiency in essential craft, it is a matter for their most serious consideration whether they are justified in continuing to build capital ships, which I understand they are still doing in accordance with the instructions of the Congress.3 I hope that I shall not be accused of presumption, nor of interference with matters that do not concern me in referring to this point, but with the general shortage of skilled labour and the serious shortage of skilled ratings which I understand the United States, in common with ourselves, experience, we have not felt justified in building capital ships because of the other great demands upon our resources; and we have in addition had to sacrifice very greatly our merchant shipping output in order to meet the imperative demands of the naval war.

     Coming to Battle Cruisers, the situation is different. In no particular naval arm are the Allies so unfavourably placed as in battle cruisers. The GOEBEN is a menace to which there is no entirely satisfactory reply,4 because battle cruisers cannot be spared to prevent a raiding exit from the Dardanelles. In the North Sea the position as regards battle cruisers between the Grand Fleet and the High Sea Fleet is by no means one of complete satisfaction. The only other battle cruisers which exist are in the Japanese Navy, and repeated efforts have been made, without effect, to obtain their cooperation in European Waters. In these circumstances, and having regard to the German Mattel cruiser building programme, we have felt obliged to go ahead with one battle cruiser, and it is a matter of high policy, having regard to the probable duration of the war, whether we should now undertake the completion of one or more of the three which are partially built in this country.

     Turning now to the craft of smaller size than battle cruisers and dealing only with the war demands of the waters which I have called British Waters, we would suggest that you frame your destroyer programme upon a basis of allotting to these Waters between now and the 31st August 1919 a minimum of 128 additional destroyers permanently in commission. Thereafter unless the naval situation changes, it would in the opinion of my naval advisers, be adequate if that number were maintained and not necessarily increased.

     As regards Minesweepers, you will be aware that the British minesweeping is <a> very formidable task and we are actually sweeping some 45,000 square miles of water every month. It is suggested that the United States might wish to undertake a proportion of this naval service, taking over definite areas to sweep, and we suggest for your consideration that you should arrange a programme of building to commission three mine-sweepers per month from the 1st January next year.

     Then as regards Trawlers, it is suggested that the United States might make a contribution to the trawler fleet in the areas concerned from the 1st July next year and complete and commission at the rate of 4.5 per month for service in these waters.

     As regards Mine-layers, as you are aware there are two distinct classes of mine-layer. There is the ordinary large mine-layer of considerable size – usually a converted merchant ship – which is used on a large mine field which can be well covered by naval forces to protect it from raids by the enemy. There is also the very fast offensive mine-layer used particularly at present for work close into the German shores and in the Bight.5 We are at the present time using some of our fastest destroyers for this work but their carrying capacity is small. Smaller cruisers are fitted for this work to carry 80 mines, but having regard to the protection required by a destroyer screen, it is uneconomical to use these craft for this purpose on account of their small carrying capacity. We are therefore proposing to embark upon a programme of fast mine-layers for this offensive work in the North Sea and we have two vessels of suitable character at present under consideration and propose to go on with an improved type as soon as the slips become available. We suggest, however, that the United States might desire to contribute to this offensive mine laying and that the Navy Department might consider laying down at once two or more fast mine-layers to carry 200 mines with a minimum speed of 30 knots. Should you desire it we should be glad to place at the disposal of the Navy Department any further information on the subject together with designs if required.

     A further direction in which we would invite the United States co-operation is in the construction of craft suitable for ocean escort work. As you are aware, last summer and again this summer the sinking of merchant ships by submarines has been undertaken much further out in the Atlantic than during the intervening months. Whether this fluctuation as between in shore sinkings and ocean sinking is caused entirely by the weather, or is due – in part at any rate – to the offensive measure of the Allies we are unable to say. But the fact is no doubt that at the present time and during the last six months there has been a noticeable tendency for a large proportion of submarines, other than those of the “Cruiser” type to operate further out in the Atlantic. We think that although our methods for dealing with the submarines on passage and in shore are by no means perfect they are proceeding on the lines calculated to give the most satisfactory results as the efficiency of material and personnel improves, but we are not satisfied that we have got the appropriate reply to the actions of the submarines far out at sea, say between a 250 mile and 500 mile belt from the coast. Admiral Sims6 and his officers have been considering this matter with the British Naval Staff and whatever type of craft might be considered most desirable by our Naval advisers, I would suggest to you that the time has arrived when we should lay our plans to have a more suitable type of escort craft for ocean work than exists to-day in adequate numbers. We have developed a comparatively satisfactory slow ocean escort craft called the “patrol Gun Boat”, and if more armed with 5.5. guns this craft might be very useful for ocean escort, but it is generally admitted that it does not combine all of the qualities desired. It must be a good sea boat; its radius of turning must be small; it must have the capability of quickly attaining high speed; it must have a long radius of action; it must be mechanically simple and capable of being manned by a less experienced and less highly trained crew; a Patrol Gun Boat is being used with great satisfaction in the immediate ten knot through convoys to Port Said and we have a considerable number of these under construction. Experience has shown that when all is said and done the destroyer is the most satisfactory known type of vessel for this work but it has certain drawbacks, the chief of which are the time occupied in construction and the difficulty in finding the necessary skilled personnel to man them, and I venture to suggest that the matter is one deserving the most careful consideration of the United States Navy Department as it is receiving ours.

     You will, of course, understand that the allotments out of your total future resources which I have outlined, are put forward as a minimum allotment.

     In concluding this letter I would like to reiterate that I would not presume to write in this sense had you not invited me to give the matter some consideration, and I feel sure that my action will therefore not be misunderstood.

Yours sincerely,             

Signed E. Geddes

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 82.

Footnote 1: VAdm. George Ballard, R.N., Commander-in-Chief at Malta.

Footnote 2: The illustration referred to has not been found.

Footnote 3: The Naval Act of 1916 required the Navy to construct a fleet in equivalent size to that of Great Britain. As a result, the Navy continued to dedicate construction to capital ships against the wishes of the British and the immediate needs of the war. Geddes is making reference to the British desire that the United States change shipbuilding emphasis to comply with Allied aims of destroyer and transport construction. Trask, Captains & Cabinets: 285.

Footnote 4: S.M.S. Geoben was an Imperial German Navy battle cruiser.

Footnote 5: The Heligoland Bight, a channel in the North Sea.

Footnote 6: VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters.

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