[By Capt. Dudley W. Knox]
General Situation in April 1917
Naval Transport and Supply Service
Activities of American Battleships
Naval Aviation in the European Area
Augmenting the American Army with Marine and Naval Artillery
General Situation in April 1917
It will be recalled that the United States entered the World War after Germany's declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. In reaching this momentous decision of ruthless warfare at sea, it is not to be supposed that Germany failed to take into account the effect of probable participation of the United States on the side of the Allies. As the result of careful calculations, the German high command firmly believed that their submarines could not only prevent the large scale transportation of American troops across the Atlantic, but furthermore could also cut the sea communications of her European enemies to such an extent as to actually force them to an early surrender through lack of supplies from overseas.
These German calculations were made from the broadest considerations of the progress of the war as a whole. In 1914 they had expected to win an early decision on land. They were then content with a passive policy at sea, except for cruiser raids and the gaining of the control of the Dardanelles, the only access to the Black Sea. Spectacular cruiser warfare was intended merely as a diversion and was not expected to bring permanent success of any importance, but the move at the Dardanelles was one of primary strategic magnitude, even though accomplished with small forces. German control of the Dardanelles, in conjunction with German naval control of access to the Baltic, effectually blocked off badly munitioned Russia from the benefits of sea communications. Thus were precautions taken by Germany in 1914 against the possibility of a long war in which Allied control of the oceans would prove of vital consequence. Russia, potentially the most powerful of the Allies, was prevented, through a scarcity of munitions, from bringing more than a small proportion of her war strength to bear. By the end of 1916 German hopes with respect to Russian collapse were rapidly materializing. Yet Germany herself was feeling the pinch of isolation from the sea, while Britain, France, and Italy were freely supplied from all the world.
Meantime Germany had developed the design and methods of operation of submarines, had laid down large numbers of them, and pushed their construction to rapid completion. Early in 1917 she possessed sufficient submarines to undertake a campaign against the allied line of sea communications on a large scale. If successful, such a campaign would place England, France, and Italy in the same situation of isolation with respect to overseas supplies as Russia and Germany herself. This was the underlying strategic motive behind the ruthless submarine warfare begun in February 1917, as a consequence of which the United States went into the war.
As has been stated, the German high command had discounted American participation. They believed that the effectiveness of the submarines themselves would prevent America bringing to bear in Europe any great strength. It was a clear case of our apparent weakness at sea being responsible for getting us into war, just as had been true in 1798 (quasi war with France), in 1812, and in several of our wars with the Barbary powers. Between 1914 and 1917, before the development of the submarine, our entry into the war on the allied side would have been a quick knockout blow to Germany, and she was careful of American rights on the sea and attentive to our diplomatic notes. When she felt strong enough at sea to ignore our rights, she did so.
German calculations as to the effectiveness of submarines at first proved to be painfully correct. Allied navies appeared to be taken by surprise. No counter measures of consequence had been developed, and the opening months of the submarine campaign seemed to portend the quick and decisive defeat of the Allies. Upon the arrival of Admiral Sims in London early in April, 1917, he was informed of this exceedingly grave situation by the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty who stated that "it is impossible to go on with the war if losses like this continue. They will win unless we can stop these losses and stop them soon." The rate of sinking at that time was nearly 900,000 tons of shipping per month, the total allied and neutral tonnage then being about 34,000,000 tons and the rate of new construction only about 177,000 tons per month.
The general situation as viewed by Admiral Sims in April, 1917, is indicated by the following abstracts from his official reports at that time:
The submarine issue is very much more serious than the people realize in America. The recent success of submarine operations and the rapidity of their construction by Germany constitute the real crisis of the war. The allied supplies and communications of forces on all fronts including the Russian are threatened and the control of the sea is actually imperiled. The German submarines are constantly extending their operations into the Atlantic, thus increasing the difficulty of patroling.
On account of the immense theater of war and the length and number of lines of communication, and the material deterioration resulting from three years' continuous operation with inadequate base facilities, the strength of the allied naval forces is dangerously strained. This applies to all of the allied sea forces outside of the Grand Fleet. To accelerate allied efforts and insure defeat of the submarine campaign, the immediate active cooperation of the United States is absolutely necessary. The issue is and must inevitably be decided at the focus of all lines of communications in the eastern Atlantic, off the approaches to the English Channel. It is therefore, urgently necessary that the maximum number of destroyers and other antisubmarine craft be sent abroad immediately. At present American battleships can serve no useful purpose in Europe, except for moral effect against anticipated raids by heavy enemy ships out of reach of the British main fleet. The chief other and urgent practical cooperation is the construction of merchant tonnage and a continuous augmentation of antisubmarine craft, of which there is now a serious shortage.
It is likely that the enemy will make submarine mine laying raids on our coasts to divert and keep our forces from the critical areas in the Eastern Atlantic. The difficulty of maintaining submarine bases and the focusing of shipping on this side will restrict such German operations to minor importance, although they should be effectively opposed.
The extent to which the submarine campaign is being waged is in itself excellent evidence of the importance attached to it by the enemy. There is reliable information that the enemy really reckoned that the Allies would be defeated in two months through shortage of supplies. The Allied Governments have not been able to, and are not now, effectively meeting the situation presented.
The official dispatches of Ambassador Page at this same period indicate his viewpoint as follows:
There is reason for the greatest alarm about the issue of the war caused by the increasing success of the German submarines. The British transport of troops and supplies is already strained to the utmost and the maintenance of the armies in the field is threatened. There is only food enough here to last the civil population not more than six weeks or two months.
It seems to be the sharpest crisis of the war and the most dangerous situation for the Allies that has arisen or can arise. The pressing and increasing danger of this situation can not be exaggerated and there is no time to be lost.
Outline of American Naval Aid
It was manifest that the emergency in Europe had to be met with the very minimum of delay and that it could not possibly be met successfully without extensive American naval aid abroad. This took form principally as follows:
(a) Employment of destroyers, converted yachts, cruisers, and other suitable craft to serve as patrols and escort vessels for convoys.
(b) Organization and administration of transport service to put the American Army across, and of overseas supply service to supply that Army and others.
(c) Reinforcing the Grand Fleet with a few American battleships and utilizing the remainder of our battleships to train personnel for naval duties.
(d) Development of offensive means of combating the submarine. Two principal measures were adopted. First, a great mine barrage across the North Sea extending from Scotland to Norwegian territorial waters; and, second, the development of sound detection devices for installation on destroyers, submarines, and submarine chasers so as to enable these vessels to hunt down enemy submarines.
(e) Creation of naval aviation force to assist in both escort and hunting work.
(f) Augmenting the American Army by furnishing quotas of marines and great gun units.
The duties of antisubmarine patrol and escort required primarily a small vessel of light draft, good sea-keeping qualities and preferably high speed. The destroyer was especially suited for the work, but since the number available was inadequate to meet the demands, they were supplemented by converted yachts, revenue cutters, gunboats, small cruisers, etc. The first American men-of-war to reach Europe was a division of destroyers which arrived at Queenstown on May 4, 1917. This place was selected as a base of operations on account of its proximity to the focus of traffic lanes to the waters of Great Britain and northern France. As the war progressed there were established similar American main bases at Brest and Gibraltar, and smaller bases on the west coast of France.
During the first few weeks of American participation, the method of protection to shipping in the war zone was by patrol. Each destroyer was assigned a certain area within which it cruised with the object of forcing any submarines in that area to remain submerged and thus hamper the facility of its operations and favor the safe passage of surface vessels proceeding singly. This method proved to be extremely inefficient because of the small force which could be assigned to the work and the very large area to be covered.
Meantime plans were formulated to put the convoy system into effect. As is well known, this system involved the formation of a large number of merchant vessels into one group and the escort of that group through the war zone by antisubmarine vessels. It was not adopted earlier principally because of a shortage of war vessels to serve the tremendous amount of shipping passing through the danger zone. It was due to this fact that the American naval aid was at first so important, that American destroyers and other suitable vessels were available in fairly sufficient numbers to place world shipping on a convoy basis at a very acute crisis. This was true especially of the destroyers which necessarily had to form the keystone of the whole convoy system.
While the convoy system was a defensive measure, it was established as a matter of sheer necessity. Offensive measures would have been generally preferred as being the surest way in which to defeat the submarine campaign but no offensive means had been sufficiently developed at that time to promise any considerable success, and the severe losses which were being incurred in the spring of 1917 left no other than a defensive alternative. To a degree the convoy system was an "offensive-defensive" in that the escort vessels were prepared, upon an attack being made on their convoy, to instantly take the offensive against submarines and endeavor to destroy them with gunfire or depth charges.
From the beginning the convoy system was a great success. It was put into effect gradually and by the end of July, 1917, more than 10,000 ships had been convoyed and only one-half of 1 per cent of them lost. Ultimately practically all shipping was placed in convoy and the low percentage of losses under this system was maintained until the end of the war. The very fact of its success created a strong tendency to make the escorts of destroyer and other small vessels more numerous, thus constantly absorbing the reinforcements of small craft for this semidefensive work rather than for more offensive measures, such as hunting. By July, 1917, there were 34 American destroyers with their tenders based on Queenstown; 17 converted yachts and 9 mine sweepers were based on the Bay of Biscay French ports for the purpose of keeping that coast clear of mines and giving escort to local convoys. As more destroyers became available, they were assigned to Brest and at that port there was gradually assembled a force of approximately the same size as the Queenstown organization. These two detachments were the principal American anti-submarine forces employed in Europe for the protection of the sea transportation of the American Army. Their work was, of course, augmented by British and French forces.
Another very important American detachment was that at Gibraltar, the "gateway" for more traffic than any other part in the world. Gibraltar was the focus for the great routes to and from the east through the Mediterranean, and from it extended the communications for the armies in Italy, Saloniki, Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The allied forces based here were chiefly British and American, though French, Japanese, and Italian vessels also assisted. The American contingent comprised cruisers, gunboats, revenue cutters, antiquated destroyers, and yachts, ultimately aggregating about 41 vessels, with a personnel of nearly 5,000.
The duty of escorting convoys was extremely arduous. The small vessels had to keep the sea for long periods and maintain the same speed as the convoy regardless of weather conditions. Many convoys had to be met as far as 300 miles from the coast. The great extent of the ocean combined with the comparatively few (about 12) submarines which the Germans could maintain continuously on station prevented frequent attacks by enemy submarines. Many escort vessels went through the entire war without a hostile submarine, but this was due in part to the fact that the submarines preferred to leave the protected convoys alone and to expend their efforts in the less dangerous work of attacking single ships of which one or more usually straggled from each convoy.
Usually the escort vessels went through the cycle of proceeding to a port in Europe where empty ships were made up into convoys, scouting the approaches of the port, forming up the convoy and getting it started westward, escorting it through the danger zone and dispersing it, scouting for and picking up an inbound convoy, escorting it eastward through the danger zone, and protecting it during the period when detachments separated to go to respective ports. This usually occupied three or four days, after which the escort vessels would proceed to their home port for a few days of rest and repair, preparatory to another cycle of operations.
During the period at sea, it was principally hard work and hardship with no wild adventure, although expectations were keyed up by the frequent radio reports of submarine positions and operations, S.O.S. signals from vessels which had been attacked by submarines, and other similar information. A destroyer was frequently detached and sent ahead or astern of the convoy to drive down a submarine which had been reported. When vessels in the vicinity were torpedoed, one or more destroyers would be sent to rescue the personnel, taking them off the sinking steamer or picking them up from their boats. Not infrequently a submarine would hover about a convoy for several days awaiting an opportunity to attack, even though its presence was known to the escorting vessels, and a number of attacks were made upon convoys after which the submarine escaped successfully in spite of barrages of depth charges from the destroyers.
The most successful operation American escort vessels during the war was the capture of the U-58 by the United States destroyersFanning and Nicholson. This occurred in November, 1917, when an American destroyer division was escorting an outward bound convoy of eight empty ships toward its point of dispersal, with instructions to meet subsequently an incoming convoy. After the usual preliminary scouting off the port, the destroyers were patrolling the vicinity and giving instructions with a view to having the merchant ships take their formation promptly. While the Fanning was thus engaged, the lookout sighted a periscope in such a location as to seriously endanger the merchant ship Welshman. Immediately the Fanning's helm was put over and the difficult task undertaken of reaching a position immediately over the submarine whose periscope had disappeared. The Fanning made a wide and rapid turn and depth charged the place where she estimated the submarine to be. The Nicholson also joined the attack and dropped another depth charge ahead of the Fanning.
Eagerly the sea was scanned for evidence of success in the usual form of oil patches, air bubbles or pieces of wreckage, but none were seen. For 10 or 15 minutes, everything was quiet and it appeared that the submarine must have been missed. But at that time she came to the surface apparently undamaged and was immediately fired upon by the guns of the destroyers. Suddenly the submarine's conning tower opened and officers and crew filed up with their arms overhead shouting "Kamarad." Of course the gun fire was immediately stopped. The submarine had surrendered, but soon afterwards she began to sink, her sea valves having been purposely opened. The crew was rescued from the water by the American destroyers.
It was subsequently learned that although the depth charges had not exploded sufficiently close to the submarine to do her any material structural damage, the concussion had wrecked her motors, making it impossible to control the vessel while submerged. The German captain then had the alternative of sinking until the water pressure crushed the vessel or to blow the ballast tanks, rise to the surface and surrender. He first attempted to stay under water but upon reaching the critical depth of 200 feet with the boat still descending rapidly, he decided to take his chances on the surface.
During the 18 months of war when American vessels escorted convoys through the war zone, 183 attacks were made by them upon submarines, 24 submarines were damaged and 2 known to have been destroyed. A total of 18,653 ships were escorted carrying vast quantities of freight to the armies in France and the civilian population of the Allies, as well as more than 2,000,000 troops.
The principal burden of this stupendous work fell upon the destroyers, whose very efficiency created never ceasing demands for protection to the endless stream of vessels passing the great focus of the allied lines of sea communications. Few of the millions of soldiers, sailors, and civilians, who were met far at sea by these comparatively tiny craft will ever forget the sense of great relief and security given by their mere presence. The thousands who witnessed attacks upon submarines or who were rescued from stricken vessels will have an even more vivid recollection and a better comprehension of the highly important work of the destroyers. The fact that not a single American soldier, en route to France under the protection of the United States Navy, was lost through submarine attack, is very largely due to the efficient and unremitting work of the American destroyers.
Naval Transport and Supply Service
Upon the entry of America into the World War it was believed that our principal role would be furnishing supplies and the protection of shipping against submarine attack. It was not expected to send troops to any great extent at first, beyond a few divisions for moral effect.
The German Government believed that whatever effort the United States might make to transport troops across the Atlantic would be so well met by German submarines that it would not be possible to transport large American forces in time to affect the outcome of the war. The Allies held much the same view.
The military commissions from various countries, which soon began to reach Washington, demonstrated very clearly the imperative need of American military reinforcements in France. The problem of getting as many men as possible into France in the shortest possible time became acute.
At the outset the United States had a very limited supply of seagoing merchant marine ships, officers and crews. These were taken almost bodily into the Navy but they were barely enough to form a nucleus around which to build a transport service.
The German and Austrian steamers which had taken refuge in our ports and voluntarily remained there during the early part of the war were taken possession of by our Government when we became belligerents. The better class of vessels were converted into troop ships, and the others used for carrying supplies. Steps were taken to speed up completion of ships already under construction, and great preparation was made for new construction on a large scale, as will be described later. One of the biggest problems was to provide competent naval personnel, which will also be discussed later. Of course, allied shipping was utilized whenever possible.
Overseas American troop movements in our own transports began with the sailing of the Tenadores, Saratoga, and Havana from New York, escorted by the U.S.S. Seattle, the U.S.S. DeKalb (troop transport), and the destroyers Wilkes, Terry, and Roe, on June 14, 1917. The movement grew at an astonishing pace, as the following table of aggregate troops transported before the armistice will show:
United States Navy transports-911,000
Other United States ships-41,500
Other foreign ships, French, Italian, etc.-121,000
Only the fastest vessels, such as the Leviathan, the Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern, were allowed to go unescorted, their high speed being considered sufficient protection. On these ships, where the time of passage was short, the troop capacity was practically doubled by allowing only one bunk for every two men, who took turns in sleeping, so that the bunk was always occupied and half of the troops were always awake.
At one time, when the need for haste was greatest, difficulties with civilian labor made it necessary to coal ships with enlisted personnel until wages could be adjusted. The same conditions arose in England with our cross-channel transports, and delicate handling was necessary in dealing with the stevedores who loaded the coal, in order to prevent them from stopping work.
Nearly all troops carried overseas in American and French ships were landed at Brest or other French ports. Of the troops carried in British and Italian ships the greater part were first landed on British soil. These last were sent across the channel to France from Southampton, where there was stationed a small squadron of United States naval transports in addition to a number of British cross-channel steamers. These vessels left port after dark every night and landed their troops at Le Havre the next morning.
The effort of the Germans to prevent America from landing an army in France failed even more completely than anyone had expected. It was a surprise to both Americans and to the Allies that the Germans did not have more success in carrying out their threat. As ship after ship landed her troops on the other side and turned back for more, confidence grew stronger, but vigilance could never be relaxed. There were enough sinkings in spite of all precautions to indicate that the Germans were endeavoring to make good their threat to prevent the American Army from landing in France, and it was their failure to accomplish their intentions that leads naval opinion to-day to refuse to accept the doctrine that the advent of the submarine spells the doom of the surface vessel.
On October 17, 1917, the first American troop transport, the Antilles, was sunk. This vessel had landed her troops at Brest and was returning for a second cargo when she was torpedoed. She sank in 6 minutes, with a loss of 67 out of 234 persons on board.
Less than two weeks later, on October 28, 1917, the Finland was torpedoed only a few hours after leaving port. This ship, like theAntilles, was on her return voyage and, also like that ship, was manned by a civilian crew. She was carrying the survivors of theAntilles, who, suffering from the effects of their recent experiences with that vessel, stampeded and rushed for the boats, taking with them some of the lowest elements of the Finland's crew. The officers and the better element of the crew drove the men back to their stations, and the vessel was saved from sinking. She returned to Brest, where she anchored the next morning. The experience of these two ships was instrumental in causing all troop transports to be manned by regular Navy personnel as rapidly as it could be done.
At daylight on May 31, 1918, the President Lincoln, while on the return voyage from Brest, was struck by three torpedoes from a submarine that had been trailing the convoy all night.
The escort had turned back the day before, as shortage of destroyers forbade convoys being so carefully guarded on the return voyage as they were when carrying troops. The submarine, therefore, had an easy chance and took full advantage of her opportunity. Out of the 715 people on board, 3 officers and 23 enlisted men, all belonging to the ship's company, were lost.
June 25, 1918, the transport Atlantian eastward bound was struck by two torpedoes and sunk about 10 o'clock p.m. She was one of a convoy of cargo ships, not carrying troops, and had no escort of destroyers. The crew was saved.
The Covington, which had been the Hamburg-American steamer Cincinnati, was torpedoed on her sixth return voyage from Brest on July 1, 1918. She was struck shortly after leaving port. She was kept afloat until the following day, during which time an attempt was made to tow her back to port, but she gradually settled and sank. Six men were lost out of a total of 780 on board.
The last vessel of the United States Navy troop transport service to be torpedoed was the Mount Vernon, formerly the Kronprinzessin Cecile. She, like the others, was on the homeward voyage from Brest which place she had left the previous day. On September 5, 1918, she was struck by a torpedo fairly amidships, but her engines were never stopped and she succeeded in returning to port safely. There were 37 men killed by the explosion out of a total of 1,450 on board.
In addition to the above successful submarine attacks on American transports, there were numerous unsuccessful attacks in which the submarines were diverted by gunfire or depth charges or the torpedoes sighted in time to be avoided by quick handling of the vessel attacked.
As the number of American troops overseas increased from nothing to over 2,000,000 men, the problem of keeping up an uninterrupted line of supplies grew increasingly arduous. There could be no stoppage, not even a temporary interruption, in the constant stream of supply vessels which must follow the Army. Military men of experience best realize the great extent of the lines of supplies necessary to an army. The interruption of such a line of communications for even a short period is sufficient to compel a halt in the activities of the Army. Hand in hand with the development of the naval transport service had to go that of the naval overseas transportation service of much larger proportions.
From a beginning of two vessels with guns and Navy gun crews the supply service-generally called the N.O.T.S.-grew until it contained 450 vessels of over 3,000,000 tons, with another 100 vessels of an additional 1,000,000 tons in process of being taken over.
Cargo ships were drawn from every possible source even including the Great Lakes, where there was a quantity of fresh-water ships and men which were available after some preparation. About 100 years earlier, at the time of Perry's victory on Lake Erie, it had been necessary to transport seamen from the coast to the Lakes, but now the conditions were reversed and seamen as well as ships were brought from the Lakes to the coast. Those ships which were too large to pass through the locks in the canals, were cut in half until they reached deep water, where they were joined together again.
The personnel necessary to man and operate the whole N.O.T.S. fleet was 4,150 officers and 28,047 men. Only 12 of the offices were regulars.
These cargo vessels operated by the Navy, but distinct from troop transport, carried in all approximately 6,000,000 tons of supplies, as well as 15,000 horses and mules, before the armistice.
The services performed by the N.O.T.S. vessels are especially praiseworthy. To the usual perils of the sea were added war risks greater than incurred by other types of ships. In common with other ships, they usually had the dangers incident to the convoy system; the steaming in compact groups with all lights out, and the zig-zagging every few minutes. A mistake or a deranged steering gear was almost certain to result in collision. But in addition to these dangers they were slow vessels and often had to traverse the war zone with little or no protection from destroyers or other escort vessels. This deplorable condition followed from the fact that the Navy had to give priority to the protection of ships carrying troops, and often there were not sufficient escorts available for properly guarding the supply ships, notwithstanding that the slow speed of the latter made them a much easier prey for the submarine.
Of course, every effort was made to route these ships clear of known submarine positions, and some protection was given by the stern gun manned by trained gun crews. But the service was nevertheless very hazardous, and the courage and resource shown in its performance gained the highest admiration of the Navy, which appreciated the dangers.
The steamers brought from the Great Lakes were largely employed in carrying coal from Cardiff, Wales, to France. These vessels were officered and manned by "fresh-water sailors," but they rendered excellent service under unfamiliar conditions, and, owing to the peculiarities of their construction, were liable to very rapid sinking if torpedoed. Their service was entirely within the war zone, through the most dangerous part of it, and very frequently without naval escort. The Navy took its hat off to them.
Activities of American Battleships
Within a few weeks after the United States entered with the World War its battleship force, which had been cruising in Cuban waters, was sent to Chesapeake Bay. There was no occasion for any great battleship reinforcement to the British Grand Fleet, which was amply strong to prevent the German High Seas Fleet from operating anywhere except very close to its own bases. In fact, to have sent the American Battle Fleet abroad would have proved an actual detriment, because of the consequent great demands upon merchant tonnage, which would have been required to supply it and which could not well be spared for that purpose. Already there was an acute shortage of shipping needed to supply the allied armies and civil populations.
Moreover, the American battleships had just had their complements substantially reduced by the necessity of furnishing armed guard crews to American merchant vessels, for which purpose trained men were essential. It was therefore necessary to train not only a considerable number of men to fill these gaps in the battle fleet but also a very much greater number of men who would be required to man the large American building program both of men-of-war and merchant ships which was projected. Many trained men were also required to man the numerous yachts and other auxiliary craft which were taken over by the Navy at the outbreak of the war.
Some idea of the scope of the problem of training men may be gained from the fact that in the beginning there were 70,000 men and officers in the Navy, whereas at the time of the armistice the number had been increased to 538,000. In addition to keeping itself ready for service by extensive maneuvers during most of the war, the battleship force was largely engaged in this work of training. Recruits would be sent to the greatly expanded training stations on shore for a short preliminary period of training and then to the battleships in Chesapeake Bay for a finishing course of several weeks, including the actual firing of guns at target practice. Finally, the men were transferred to ships in active service at sea.
In September, 1917, the British requested a reinforcement of four battleships for the Grand Fleet. This was in consequence of a shortage of British personnel due to their necessity if manning newly completed light cruisers, flotilla leaders, and destroyers, which required that they place out of commission several of their older battleships. The British desire for a reinforcement was gladly complied with, coal-burning battleships being selected for this foreign service on account of a great shortage of fuel oil in Great Britain as compared with ample coal supplies. Accordingly, the battleships New York, Delaware, Florida, and Wyoming sailed from Hampton Roads on November 25, 1917, and joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow on December 7.
Subsequently the battleship Texas joined the division. In July, 1918, the Arkansas took the place of the Delaware.
The division of American battleships commanded by Rear Admiral Rodman became an integral part of the Grand Fleet, regularly exercising in fleet maneuvers and accompanying the fleet to sea whenever it was suspected that the High Seas Fleet might come out. Among other duties performed by the American battleships was that of acting as a screening group for American and British mine layers engaged during the summer of 1918 in laying the great North Sea mine barrage from Scotland to Norwegian territorial waters.
The American Battleship Division screened by British light cruisers and destroyers also took its turn in furnishing escort to the important convoy which sailed periodically between Scotland and Norway. While engaged on this duty in February, 1918, it was attacked by one or more German submarines. At about 1:20 p.m. a large wake was sighted, evidently of a submarine traveling under water and headed across the bows of the Florida, which vessel immediately changed course and tried to ram. The submarine was too deep to be hurt. About five minutes later a torpedo passed between the Florida and the Delaware but failed to hit either vessel. Soon afterwards a second torpedo passed between the Wyoming and the Florida and also missed. At 2.08 the periscopes of a submarine were sighted and a few moments later the wake of a third torpedo was sighted, which missed the stern of the Florida by about 100 yards. A fourth missed her by 100 feet a few minutes afterwards. In this encounter no damage was done to either side.
It will be recalled that during the early stages of the war the commerce of the allies was seriously interfered with in outlying places by German cruiser raiders. By 1917 these had all been accounted for, but there was always a possibility of others escaping from Germany and raiding the important trans-Atlantic lines of communication. After the adoption of the convoy system this danger was deemed to be even greater because of the concentrated form in which raiders were likely to find their prey. It was for this reason that convoys were escorted by cruisers during most of the trans-Atlantic passage. Toward the latter part of the war, when it became more and more apparent that the German High Sea Fleet did not intend to risk another fleet action, it was feared that the Germans might detach one or more of their fast and very powerful battle cruisers for the purpose of raiding in the North Atlantic. Against such a raider the ordinary cruiser escort would have been powerless, and plans were therefore formulated to protect convoys with battleships should occasion arise.
Accordingly, a division of American battleships under Rear Admiral T.S. Rodgers, comprising the Nevada, Oklahoma, and Utah, was dispatched to Bere Haven, at the southwest corner of Ireland, and held in readiness for this duty so soon as any reports were received of the escape of German battle cruisers. The Germans failed to send out any battle-cruiser raiders and therefore this force had no opportunity of engaging the enemy.
Comparatively early in the war the British adopted a policy of extensive mining in the southern part of the North Sea with a view to hampering the passage of German submarines to the English Channel and its outside approaches. At the same time they endeavored to close the Dover Strait to the passage of submarines by the use of patrols, mines, nets, etc. While the efforts to block Dover were not very successful until the last few months of the war, the general hazard of that passage caused most of the German submarines to use the route around the north end of Scotland to their operating ground to the westward of Great Britain and France.
The British gave periodical consideration to the possibility of a mine barrage combined with patrols to prevent exit from the North Sea by the northern route, but the tremendous number of mines required of the then existing type and the urgent demand for mines elsewhere caused them to reject the idea. In the United States the problem of closing the northern exit of the North Sea had been studied by the Bureau of Ordnance, Navy Department, even before the United States entered the war. Many devices and plans were considered, among which was an invention by a civilian. It consisted of a buoy carrying a gun extending vertically downward, which was to be electrically fired on contact by a submarine with a copper wire suspended from the buoy. While the device as a whole was deemed to be of little practical use, the firing mechanism contained a new electrical principle which could be well adapted to a novel submarine mine of such type that a comparatively few mines would be required to offer a barrier to the passage of submarines. This type of mine was developed by the bureau and it made practicable the great barrage ultimately laid from the Orkney Islands to the Norwegian territorial waters.
By October, 1917, most of the preliminaries of the project had been completed. The British were to lay about 80 miles of the barrage out of the necessary total of 270 miles. Preparations were at once begun in America to manufacture 125,000 mines, the design of which had not yet been perfected, to convert 8 merchant ships into mine layers, to organize a special transportation service of 24 cargo ships for getting mines and appurtenances across the Atlantic Ocean to the west coast of Scotland, from whence they would be barged via the Caledonian Canal to great mine bases yet to be constructed at Inverness and Invergordon.
Meantime the British made renewed efforts to render the Dover Strait impassable to submarines, as the northern project would be useless without this. Early in 1918 they had solved the difficult problem at Dover, where strong currents, bad weather, great rise and fall of tide, and a bottom of loose stones had previously baffled all efforts to make an effective barrier.
After great preparatory efforts the operation of laying the northern mine barrage was actually begun by the British and Americans in March, 1918. The British used small mine layers and their type of mine which required a great number to cover a comparatively small area. The Americans used especially designed large steamers. Mining operations were actively continued up to the date of the armistice, at which time the barrage was almost completed. The British had them laid about 14,000 mines and the Americans 56,000.
The American mines were laid in a series of 13 expeditions in which all 10 mine layers participated. They usually sailed from the two bases at Inverness and Invergordon on the east coast of Scotland on a dark and misty night, escorted by British destroyers from the Grand Fleet. Near the point of a laying, they were met by a squadron of American or British battleships with cruisers and other destroyers to cover the whole operation against the possibility of raids from the German High Seas Fleet. The mine layers were formed into a line abreast at a standard interval of about 500 yards and, while steaming in this formation at high speed, each ship dropped mines every few seconds until the whole cargo was disposed of. In this way more than 5,000 mines were laid in a single expedition. The operation would be completed in three or four hours and then the whole force would return to base.
Soon after the first two American excursions had been completed, two enemy submarines were damaged in crossing that portion of the barrage. The first, U-86, was damaged on July 9 while homeward bound. The second was the UB-22 outward bound and apparently destroyed. Of course the enemy immediately routed his submarines through a different part of the North Sea but the continual mining operations constantly extended the area which was dangerous to submarine passage. On August 10 U-113 was damaged in the barrage while outward bound and was forced to turn back. On September the 8th, U-92 was sunk in the barrage and another submarine was so severely damaged that it was forced to return to base. On September 25 U-156 and on October 18 UB-123 were probably lost in the barrage.
It is probable that a total of six submarines were destroyed and the same number severely damaged as the result of this great North Sea barrage. Considering the fact that it was never quite completed and that only in March, 1918, did it begin to be even partially effective, these results appear to more than justify the wisdom of the project. It can be stated that the influence of the barrage was great in that it definitely indicated to the Germans an early impossibility of continuing the submarine campaign. Therefore it must have been a considerable moral factor in the change in their state of mind which finally brought them to sue for peace.
The idea of restricting German submarines to their bases by mine barrages was also extended to the Mediterranean, where German submarine efforts were constantly increasing and constituted an embarrassment almost equal to that in the north. It made little difference where a ship was sunk. It was the loss of tonnage already so acutely short which mattered. The Allies had early attempted to prevent the passage of submarines from the Adriatic Sea into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Otranto. Here a mobile barrage of a large number of patrol vessels was maintained, and the Italians tried laying a floating net barrage since the water was too deep for ordinary mining. The development of the American mine appeared to offer a better solution and steps were accordingly taken to lay a barrage of these mines across the Strait of Otranto. In order to prevent a probable German move to Constantinople as a submarine base, a project was also put forward for the laying of a barrage of American mines from Greece to the Island of Samos, taking advantage of the string of islands in between. At the time of the armistice work upon an American mining base at Bizerta had been actually begun, with a view to serving the mine-laying operations for the Otranto Aegean barrages.
The necessary use of practically every available vessel of suitable type in the protection of shipping greatly reduced the means for direct offensive action against German submarines. The value of submarines themselves in searching for and attacking hostile submarines led to the employment of American submarines in European waters. Such service was inherently very hazardous not only from enemy action but also because friendly vessels had little choice but to attack any submarine on sight without pausing for identification. The latter condition made it preferable to employ our own submarines in areas where allied antisubmarine vessels were few.
The first American detachment of five submarines to go abroad (October, 1917) was assigned to the Azores. This was an important point on the line of communications between America and the Mediterranean. In July, 1917, it had been raided by an enemy submarine which shelled Ponta Delgada until driven off by the return gunfire of the U.S.S. Orion (Navy collier) which was lying behind the breakwater under repairs. After the arrival of American submarines, which maintained a constant patrol within a radius of 300 miles from the Azores, these waters were not frequented by enemy submarines.
Another detachment of seven American submarines reached Ireland in January, 1918, and maintained active patrols to the southward and westward until the end of the war. In this crowded shipping area there was constant danger from both friend and foe. In March theAL-10 was depth-charged by an American destroyer which fortunately did no damage. About 20 contacts were made with the enemy serving to hamper his operations. In July the AL-10 got close enough to a German submarine to attempt ramming her, but missed by a narrow margin. The enemy seems to have fired a torpedo which may have exploded prematurely or else made an erratic circular run and struck the firing ship. Precisely what occurred is not known, except that as the result of the engagement the German submarine was destroyed, the credit going to U.S.S. AL-10.
One of the important results of the convoy system was to change the general policy of the German submarine operations. Previously the submarines had operated through a distance of several hundred miles from the coast and a large proportion of the sinkings were in that area. The protection given to convoys by escorting destroyers and other vessels proved to be so dangerous to the submarines that they found it more profitable to make their attacks close to the terminal ports where necessarily convoys had to be broken up and distributed. It was also a fact that the detail of destroyers to convoy escort duty weakened the number of antisubmarine vessels which could be normally employed in the regions near the coast. Early in 1918 the submarines therefore became very active in the Irish Sea, English Channel, and other coastal waters, and reinforcements of small craft for protection there was desirable.
In the meantime construction had proceeded in the United States of several hundred so-called "submarine chasers," gasoline-driven vessels of wooden construction which might be regarded as enlarged motor launches. Coincident with their construction, American scientists had been busy upon the development of sound detection devices in the hope of producing a means of locating submarines under water. About the time of the completion of subchasers the sound devices had reached such a stage as to warrant their incorporation as an important part of the design of the new vessels.
At the request of the allied naval council, 135 of these vessels were sent to European waters with a view to operating in three large groups. One group based on Queenstown was assigned to the Irish Sea, another group was based on Plymouth for operations in the English Channel, and a third group was sent to Corfu to assist the then existing mobile barrage of surface vessels, which had been maintained for sometime in the Strait of Otranto with the idea of restricting the passage of hostile submarines to and from their Adriatic bases.
The passage of these small vessels, only 110 feet long, across the Atlantic Ocean was in itself a difficult undertaking, more especially since the demand for experienced personnel had made it necessary to man them with officers and men, many of whom had never been to sea before. The subchaser crews contained probably less that 1 per cent of graduates of Annapolis and less than 5 per cent of experienced sailors. That all of them reached the designated overseas operating ground was a great tribute to American pluck, intelligence, and adaptability. That they were successful in their subsequent operations against the highly efficient enemy submarines is even more creditable, since it involved every element of naval efficiency, from the operation and maintenance of the individual vessels themselves to highly complicated naval tactics. One captain in the regular Navy wrote of them in his official report as follows:
"There are many details that might be elaborated upon, such as the constant employment at night in one of the most crowded marine traffic lanes in the world, the dangerous character of the coast, the severity of the weather encountered, the wet conditions of the boats due to leaky decks, the almost intolerable gas fumes which in some instances gave rise to severe cases of suffocation, the frequent seasickness, the almost total lack of recreation and even of comfortable living conditions when on rest periods. I confidently believe that no other class of personnel in the service was subjected to such a test of their stamina and devotion. Insignificant as these little ships may appear in the broad view, if the prestige of the United States Navy could be conceived as resting solely upon the qualities displayed by them it would not suffer."
By June, 1918, 36 chasers had assembled at Plymouth, England, for operations in the English Channel. Until their arrival sinkings had been taking place in those waters on a considerable scale, but from the beginning of their operations until the middle of August, when they were sent elsewhere, not a single merchant ship was sunk between Lizards Head and Start Point. The fact that sinkings again started immediately in that region after they left it is additional evidence of the undoubtedly valuable service which they rendered in the protection of merchant shipping.
About the middle of August, 1918, this group was dispatched against a concentration of German submarines which secret information had disclosed was to be made at a point about 250 miles west of Brest. The fact that the German U-53 was included in the operations indicated that something important was in hand. The U-53 had always been the most efficient of the German submarines. She was the one which had been selected to cross the Atlantic to Newport, R.I., in the autumn of 1916, and her record of sinkings in the war zone was preeminent. It was a severe strain upon such small vessels as the subchasers to operate so far as 250 miles from the coast but they performed the task in a highly efficient manner.
On September 2 one of the chasers picked up a suspicious sound. A little later, the Parker, an accompanying destroyer, sighted what appeared to be a submarine disguised as a sailboat, which disappeared as the destroyer approached. The Parker depth charged the locality and was soon joined by the chasers which established sound contact with the submarine and were able to attack her with depth charges that afternoon. Subsequent information disclosed that this was actually the U-53 and that she was so badly damaged as to force her to return to Germany without having made a single attack on merchant vessels.
On September 6 another contact was made with a submarine about 150 miles west of Land's End. She was attacked several times by depth charges and is believed to have been destroyed.
The squadron of 36 chasers from America which reached Queenstown in September made several contacts with the enemy and is credited with badly damaging one submarine, but the armistice was signed before it had really settled down to work.
Meantime the subchaser group at the Strait of Otranto was performing excellent service in strengthening the mobile barrage. While this strait was very narrow the water was too deep to use mines and the Allies had adopted the policy of placing there a large number of antisubmarine vessels distributed in a broad band so as to force the submarine to make the passage in a submerged state. The sound devices of the subchasers were very valuable in detecting the enemy so that an attack could be made.
Information from Austrian sources is to the effect that two weeks after the arrival of the American vessels it was impossible to compel an Austrian crew to take a submarine through the barrage, and that the Germans were able to force their crews to run the risk only with the greatest difficulty. This was because during practically every passage the submarines were bombed.
To the Corfu detachment of subchasers goes the honor of participating in the biggest naval battle of the war after America's entry. This occurred at the Austrian port of Durazzo which Germany and Austria were using to send supplies to their ally, Bulgaria. On October 2, 1918, the port, together with the merchant shipping and men-of-war at anchor there, were bombarded by the Italian and British cruisers, which were screened against submarine attack by destroyers and American subchasers.
During the bombardment the allied cruisers were attacked by hostile submarines, two of which were either badly damaged or destroyed by the subchasers. Subchaser No.129, commanded by Ensign Jacoby, United States Naval Reserve Force, sighted a submarine standing toward the cruisers and dropped eight depth charges directly over it. In the water thrown up the officers counted several pieces of metal plates, besides seeing great masses of oil and bubbles as additional evidence of the submarine's destruction.
At about the same time another submarine was sighted and attacked by subchaser No. 215 (Commander Bastedo) and subchaser No. 128. Their depth charges also brought up steel plates, wreckage, and other evidence of destruction. The British cruiser Weymouth was torpedoed, but under the escort of subchasers and destroyers was safely taken into Brindisi.
The final operations of subchasers was at Gibraltar in the last four days of the war. The Austrian surrender had forced the German submarine based in the Adriatic to attempt making their way back to Germany. A squadron of subchasers having just arrived at the Azores on their way to Plymouth, seven of them were dispatched to Gibraltar in an effort to intercept the homeward bound submarines. They made several attacks notwithstanding very stormy weather and there is good evidence that they destroyed one German submarine.
In common with several other American projects the subchaser effort had scarcely gotten a fair start before the armistice was declared. Doubtless Germany saw "the handwriting on the wall" and was all the more anxious to sue for peace before a decision of arms could be reached.
Naval Aviation in the European Area
The first organized military or naval American unit to land in Europe after the United States entered the war was a detachment of the naval air force consisting of 6 officers and 63 enlisted men. This represented a large proportion of the total aviation service of the Navy then existing, so backward had been the American preparation in this important arm of warfare. The detachment had no base from which to operate and very little aeronautical equipment.
This was in June, 1917. At the date of the armistice naval aviation forces in Europe comprised 1,100 officers and 18,000 enlisted men, 400 planes, 50 kite balloons and 3 dirgibles. It had constructed, in many cases upon wholly undeveloped sites, 27 operating bases, some of them of enormous size, so distributed as to cover most of the coast line of Ireland, England, France, and eastern Italy. Contemporaneous with this building of bases and expansion of personnel and equipment, the naval aviation forces in Europe made 22,000 flights, nearly 6,000 of which were war flights. They covered almost 1,000,000 miles of flying, almost wholly over the area of submarine operations.
In the earlier stages of the service in Europe, the principal naval objective was the protection of shipping against enemy submarines. On this duty, the airplanes themselves were always in readiness for making an actual attack upon the submarine, of which 37 in all were executed and 10 considered to have been at least partially successful. But these figures by no means represent a fair estimate of the accomplishment of aircraft in combating submarines at sea. Very frequently the aircraft caused submarines to submerge from the mere fact of having sighted them, thus reducing the effectiveness of the underwater craft. In many cases the information of the location of the submarine given from the air enabled destroyers and other surface vessels to gain contact with and attack the U-boats. Moreover, information of the submarines, whether positive or negative, was very valuable to convoys in shaping their courses clear of submarine danger.
Another important mission of the naval aviation forces in Europe, which toward the end of the war became their primary purpose, was the offensive bombing of enemy naval objectives, more particularly submarine bases. The great naval aviation base at Killingholme was originally planned with a view to the bombing of German naval bases in the vicinity of the Heligoland Bight. The distance to be covered over water was so great that this plan involved the transportation of the planes on lighters, which were to be towed about 200 miles toward the German coast before the planes were to take off. Then they were to execute bombing attacks and fly all the way back to England. Although preliminary trials demonstrated the practicability of the plan, it was subsequently abandoned on account of the Germans obtaining information of it. Thereafter the operations from Killingholme were in the nature of patrols and direct operations against submarines. More than 6,000 ships were escorted by aircraft from this station along the important traffic lane bordering the east coast of England.
The following is an illustration of the work of this force: On the night of August 9, while on patrol from Killingholme, the large American seaplane No. 4336 sighted a submarine on the surface, signaled with Very's lights to indicate the position to other vessels, and dropped two bombs which exploded near the submarine. The signal lights brought the assistance of several patrol vessels which dropped depth charges and a considerable quantity of oil came to the surface. From later information it appeared that the submarine was probably seriously damaged by the air attack.
Early in 1918, at the request of the Italian Government, American naval aviation stations were established at Pescara and Porto Corsini with the object of bombing the Austrian naval bases lying across the Adriatic Sea. The following is abstracted from a report made by the Chief of Staff of the Italian Navy on August 25, 1918:
"American aviation recently began its support for our operations in the Adriatic. An American squadron energetically attacked and forced to return to Pola, Austrian airplanes met near the Istrian coast. During the pursuit one American machine was obliged to land but a very intrepid aviator took the pilot on board and destroyed the machine. Military works at Pola and especially aviation installation and submersible bases were bombarded by day on the 21st, during the night of the 22d, and at dawn on the 23d, by several Italian machines and some Americans. Four tons of explosives were dropped and numerous explosions and fires were seen. One of our hydroplanes is missing."
The most ambitious and enterprising of American aviation operations undertaken in Europe was that of the United States naval northern bombing group created for the purpose of bombing submarine bases on the Belgian coast, particularly those at Ostend, Zeebrugge, and Bruges. The project originally included 12 squadrons of bombing and fighting planes to be based at various points near Calais and Dunkirk. The difficulty of obtaining the necessary planes reduced the plan to eight squadrons. Besides American planes, some were obtained in Italy and flown from there to Flanders. As in many other naval forces a considerable proportion of the personnel was composed of marines. Only a part of the proposed force had been assembled when the armistice was signed.
Active operations against the enemy were begun on October 13, 1918, when a raid was made on enemy railroad lines at Thielt. Eight day and night raids on various objectives had been executed by October 27. Before the project could reach a normal working basis, the mission for which it had been established was accomplished through the evacuation by the Germans of their submarine bases in Flanders as a result of the retreat of the German Army.
The services of the northern bombing group were then offered to General Pershing, who declined on the grounds that it could be used to greater advantage in conjunction with the British Army in the north. Accordingly it worked with the fifth group of the Royal Air Force in support of the advance of the British Army until the signing of the armistice. The northern bombing group dropped an aggregate of about 100 tons of explosives on enemy objectives.
In general the work of the naval aviation forces in European waters was of inestimable value. They contributed, not only directly through their own efforts but indirectly through the assistance rendered to other naval and military forces, a large share in the ultimate victory. Their accomplishment was all the more remarkable from the fact that, starting from almost nothing, the forces and facilities had to be built up simultaneously with the carrying on of operations against the enemy, and was in the main accomplished by men who had no previous training or experience either in military, naval, or aviation work. The great majority of the personnel was drawn from the Naval Reserve Force, recruited from every walk in civil life. Their enthusiasm and devotion to duty was remarkable. Almost without exception on first enrolling these men begged for billets at the stations where the service was most arduous and dangerous.
Augmenting the American Army with Marine and Naval Artillery
The fundamental mission of sea power is the support of land power. In the acute situation of 1917-18 the Navy assisted the general land cause not only in its normal way of controlling sea communications but also by attaching to the Army such quota as could not well be utilized afloat under the special circumstances of the World War. Two brigades of the versatile and ever-ready marines were temporarily detached from the Navy for this purpose. In addition five 14-inch naval guns were put on specially designed railway mounts and sent to France with naval personnel.
The first expedition of American troops to sail for France (June 14, 1917), included a regiment of marines, which constituted one-fifth of the total force. When the Second Division of the American Army, which saw so much subsequent fighting, was formed in October, one of its two Infantry brigades were marines. Another marine brigade was assigned to the Service of Supply, where it performed necessary and important work.
The Second Division first went into action (March, 1918), in the comparatively quiet Verdun sector. Its real baptism, however, occurred in a spectacular way at one of the great crises of the war, at the very high-water mark of the series of German major offensives which were projected in the spring of 1918, in the hope of gaining victory before American reinforcements could count on a large scale. At several points the Germans had pushed great salients into the allied line and seriously impaired allied morale. On June 1, 1918, a great advance was being made toward Paris, and a gap had been created in the sorely pressed French line at Belleau Wood (Chateau-Thierry sector). The Second Division and other American troops were thrown into this gap. The marine brigade were the first American troops to come into action and check the enemy. This occurred at Les Mares farm, the point nearest to Paris reached by the Germans in this great series of drives, 9 miles north and west from Chateau-Thierry. In the battle which bears this name the German advance was permanently stopped.
This event derives its importance principally from its having turned the psychological tide of all Europe. It marked the zenith of German confidence and success, and the nadir of allied despondency and reverses. President Wilson said of it, "Thereafter the Germans were to be always forced back, back; were never to thrust successfully forward again."
The marines took a conspicuous part in the next month of heavy fighting in the Chateau-Thierry sector where the Germans were definitely placed on the defensive and were forced by the French and Americans to give up important ground. On June 6 the marines captured Hill 142 and Bouresches and held their positions against the enemy's best guard divisions. Almost continuous fighting took place until the 26th, when the marines participated in the attack which finally drove the Germans out of Belleau Woods. General Pershing has aptly characterized this battle as "The Gettysburg of the war." The marine casualties in these operations were more than 1,000 killed and 3,500 wounded.
On July 18 General Foch began his major attack on the great Marne salient which the Germans had previously pushed into the allied line. The spearhead was composed of the First and Second American Divisions (including the marine brigade) and a French Moroccan Division. These picked troops without any preliminary bombardment, rushed the enemy's positions near Soissons, broke through his infantry, overran his artillery, and impaired his communications leading into the salient. A general withdrawal from the Marne was immediately begun by the Germans. Soon after this battle Major General Harbord of the Army turned over the command of the Second Division to Major General Lejeune, Marine Corps, who remained in command of it until the end of the war.
The marine brigade participated in the spectacular American Army operation of reducing the St. Mihiel salient, where during the first part of September they were in action near Remenauville, Thiacourt, Xamwes, and Jaulny. From October 3 to 9, the Second Division participated in the major offensive of the Fourth French Army in the Champagne. The single American division (including marine brigade) was assigned the task of capturing the strongly held Blanc Mont Ridge, the key to the whole German position on the Rheims Massif. This was done in a brilliant way over very difficult ground in a single assault. A large quantity of munitions and 3,000 prisoners were captured. The victory freed Rheims and forced the entire German Army between that city and the Argonne to retreat 30 kilometers to the Aisne River.
In the latter part of October, 1918, the Second Division rejoined the American Army, then heavily engaged in the immense Meuse-Argonne offensive. The following is quoted from the official report of the commanding general, First Army:
"In the first Army attack of November 1, 1918, the Second Division was selected and so placed in the battle line that its known ability might be used to overcome the critical part of the enemy's defense. The salient feature of the plan of attack was to drive a wedge through Landreset-St. Georges to the vicinity of Fosse. It was realized that if the foregoing could be accomplished the backbone of the hostile resistance west of the Meuse would be broken and the enemy would have to retreat to the east of the Meuse. Success in this plan would immediately loosen the flanks of the first Army. The Second Division (including marine brigade) was selected to carry out this main blow."
"The Second Division accomplished the results desired in every particular on the first day of the attack -- continuing its advance -- about 9 kilometers. This decisive blow broke the enemy's defense and opened the way for the rapid advance of the Army."
Armistice morning found the marines firmly established on the heights of the far bank of the Meuse River, after an advance of 30 kilometers since November 1.
Meantime the naval railway battery under Rear Admiral Plunkett had arrived at St. Nazaire during July and August, 1918. These five guns were of greater power and longer range than any others on the allied line. They were intended for the bombardment of enemy railway bridges, tunnels, ammunition dumps, and other objectives beyond the reach of ordinary artillery. From headquarters at the Artillery base at Haussimont, the guns were "farmed out" as called for by the strategic situation; but in general two batteries operated with the French Armies and three with the American Army. A total of 782 shots were fired at the enemy at ranges from 25,000 to 40,000 yards.
The first shot was against Terguier on September 6, in support of French operations. During the next month two guns were repeatedly in action in the Laon vicinity, firing at ammunition dumps and railroad yards. Here 176 shots were fired before the targets passed into allied hands, and were found to have been seriously damaged by the naval shells. For example, one hit had been found sufficient to wreck a railroad line of three tracks for a distance of 100 feet, tearing up the rails, shattering the ties, and blowing a large crater in the road bed.
The most important work of the batteries was their bombardments during October and November of Longuyon, Montmedy, and Conflans, and other centers along the German main line of communication west of Metz to Sedan. The cutting of this line was the principal objective of the last great American drive of the war. In reporting the final accomplishment General Pershing wrote:
The strategical goal which was our highest hope was gained. We had cut the enemy's main line of communication and nothing but surrender or an armistice could save his army from complete disaster.
Weeks before the line was cut it had been under bombardment by American naval guns and for the first time during the war casualties and traffic interruptions had occurred there. The assigned targets were struck frequently. Montmedy was set on fire. Railroad traffic was completely held up repeatedly, not only during the actual firing but for 6 or 10 hours afterwards. With their main line of supply thus impaired the Germans could not exert their full strength against our advancing troops.
In their operations the batteries were repeatedly shelled and bombed by the Germans. Only minor damage was done to our material. Eight men were killed and three wounded.