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Rear Admiral William S. Sims to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels

London, England.   

April 19, 1917.

From: Rear-Admiral Wm. S. Sims, U.S.N.

To:   Secretary of the Navy.

Subject: Confirmation and elaboration of recent cablegrams concerning war situation and recommendations for U.S. Naval co-operation.

     1. Reception.

     My reception in this country has been exceptionally cordial and significant of the seriousness of present siutation [i.e., situation] and importance to be attached to the United States entry into the war.

     I was met at Liverpool by Rear-Admiral Hope, R.M.1 a member of Admiral Jellicoe’s2 staff, and the Admiral of the Port,3 the former having been sent by the Admiralty to escort me to London. A special train was provided which made a record run, and within a few hours after arrival in London I was received by the First Sea Lord and his principal assistants in a special conference.4

     2. Conferences.

     More or less hesitancy was noted at first in presenting a full statement of the true situation, particularly (as it developed later) on account of its seriousness combined with a natural reluctancy against appearing to seek assistance, and a hesitancy in taking chances of allowing information indirectly to reach the enemy, and thereby improve enemy morale.

     I therefore positively took the position that I must be considered a part of the Admiralty organization, and that it was essential to safe and efficient co-operation that I be trusted with a full knowledge of the exact situation.5

     They finally consented, only after reference to the Imperial War Council,6 to my exposing the true state of affairs both as regards the military situation and rate of destruction of merchant shipping.

     I have had daily conference with the First Sea Lord, both at his office and residence, and also have been given entire freedom or the Admiralty and access to all Government officials. I have freely consulted with such officials as the following:

     Prime Minister7

     First Lord of Admiralty, (Sir Edward Carson)

     Minister of Munitions, Shipping Trade and

               other Cabinet Officials;8

     First Sea Lord and his assistants;

     Chief of Naval Staff;9

     Directors (Corresponding our Chiefs of Bureau) of

Intelligence, Anti-submarine operations, Torpedoes, Mines, Mining, etc.10

     3.   General Statement of the Situation:

     Since the last declaration of the enemy Government, which from intelligence information was anticipated, the submarine campaign against merchant shipping of all Nations has resolved itself into the real issue of the war, and stated briefly, the Allied Governments have not been able to, and are not now, effectively meeting the situation presented.

     4.   As stated in my first dispatch,11 the communications and supplies to all forces on all fronts, including Russian, are threatened, and the “Command of the Sea” is actually at stake.

     5.   My own view of the seriousness of the situation and the submarine menace have been greatly altered. My convictions and opinions, as probably those of the Department also, had been largely based upon Press reports and reports of our Attaches and other professional Americans who have been abroad during the war. All of this information has been either rigidly censored or else has been given out in such form that it would be of minimum assistance to enemy morale.

     6.   The necessity for secrecy which the British Government has experienced, and which I repeatedly encounter in London, and even in the Admiralty itself, is impressive. There have been remarkable and unexpected leakages of information throughout the war. Certain neutral legations of smaller countries are now under strong suspicion.

     7.   The extent to which the submarine campaign is being waged is in itself excellent evidence of the importance attached to it by the enemy, and of the degree to which they counted, and still are counting, upon it.12

     The Intelligence Department has reliable information (as reliable as can be) that the enemy really reckoned that the Allies would be defeated in two months through shortage of supplies.13

     8.   With improved weather and the shorter nights now coming on we may expect even more enemy submarine success.

     9.   The Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet14 was yesterday in conference in the Admiralty as to what greater extent destroyers and auxiliaries of the Fleet may be utilized without endangering its power in the remote possibility of another Fleet engagement.

          The concensus of opinion seems to be that the latter will not occur, but there is not complete unanimity in this belief, and of course, in any case the possibility must be adequately and continuously provided against.


     10.  I delayed forwarding my first report of the situation with a view of obtaining the maximum information consistent with the importance of the time element. I was also somewhat deterred by a natural reluctance to alter so radically my preconceived views and opinions as to the situation.

     11.  The evidence is conclusive that, regardless of any enemy diversions such as raids on our coast or elsewhere – the critical area in which the war’s decision will be made is in the Eastern Atlantic at the focus of all lines of communication.

          The known number of enemy submarines and their rate of construction, allowing liberal factors for errors of information, renders it inevitable that the main submarine effort must continue to be concentrated in the above critical area.

     12.  Even in this critical area, it is manifest that the field is relatively large for the maximum number of submarines which the enemy can maintain in it. For example, with the present Admiralty policy (explained below) they are forced to cover all the possible trade routes or approach between the North of Scotland and Ushant.

     13.  From consideration of the above and all other essential information available, it is apparent that the enemy could not disperse his main submarine campaign into other quarters of the Globe without diminishing results in this and all areas toa degree which would mean failure to accomplish the Mission of the submarine campaign, which can be nothing else than a final decision of the war.

     14.  Considerable criticism has been, and still is, concentrated upon the Admiralty for not taking more effective steps and for failing to produce more substantial and visible results. One of the principal demands is for convoys of merchant shipping, and more definite and real protection within the war zone.

          The answer, which manifestly is not publicly known, is simply that the necessary vessels are not available, and further, that those which are available are suffering from the effects of three years of arduous service.

     15.  It is insistently asked (was asked by myself) which shipping is not directed to and concentrated at various rendezvous and from these convoyed through the dangerous areas. The answer is the same – the area is too large; the necessary vessels are not available.15

     16.  However, I am now consulting with the Director of Shipping as to the practicability and advisability of attempting some approach to such a plan in case the United States is able to put in operation sufficient tonnage to warrant it.

     17.  After trying various methods of controlling shipping, the Admiralty now believes the best policy to be one of dispersion. They use about six relatively large avenues or arcs of approach to the United Kingdom and channel, changing their limits of axes periodically if necessity demands.

          Generally speaking, one is to the North of Scotland, another to the North of Ireland, and three to four others covering the Irish Sea and Channel. Individual ships coming into any of these areas of approach are instructed, generally before sailing, to cross the twentieth meridian at certain and different latitudes and thence steer certain courses to port.

          At times in the past they have found one of these avenues of approach free of submarines under such conditions as to lead them to concentrate shipping therein, but invariably the enemy has become aware of the course pursued.

     18.  The great difficulty in any method of shipping control is communication with the shipping itself and full co-operation by the merchant personnel. The moment a ship is captured the code either becomes dangerous or sueless [i.e., useless]. The merchant code is being continually changed and at times it cannot be counted upon for more than a fortnight. The immense difficulty of changing the code and keeping shipping all over the world in touch with changes is apparent.

     19.  Continual trouble is experienced with some merchant Captains taking the law into their won [i.e., own] hands and exhibiting contempt, or at least indifference, for Admiralty instructions. The American Liner “New York” upon which I took passage furnished a typical example. She was instructed to make Fastnet Light16 at daylight, but she passed it nine p.m. thus passing in daylight through the most dangerous area.

     20.  The Admiralty has had frequent conferences with Merchant masters and sought their advice. Their most unanimous demand is “Give us a gun and let us look out for ourselves.” They are also insistent that it is impracticable for merchant vessels to proceed in formation at least in any considerable numbers, due principally to difficulty in controlling their speed and to the inexperience of their subordinate officers. With this view I do not personally agree but believe that with a little experience merchant vessels could safely and sufficiently well steam in open formations.

     21.  The best protection against the submarine menace for all classes of ships, merchant as well as Naval, is SPEED and ZIGZAGGING, not more than fifteen minutes on a course. Upon this point no one disagrees, but on the contrary there is absolute unanimity of opinion.

     22.  In the absence of adequate patrol craft, particularly destroyers, and until the enemy submarine morale is broken, there is but one sure method of meeting the submarine issue upon which there is also complete unanimity – increased number of merchant bottoms preferably small.

          “More Ships! More ships! More Ships!” is heard on every hand.

     23.  It is also significant that until very recently the Admiralty have been unable completely to convince some members of the Cabinet that the submarine issue is the deciding factor in the war. The civilian mind, here as at home, in [i.e., is] loath to believe in unseen dangers, particularly until the pinch is felt in real physical ways.

     24.  The Prime Minister only two days ago expressed to me the opinion that it ought to be possible to find physical means of absolutely sealing up all escape for submarines from their own ports.17 The fact that all such methods, (nets, mines, obstructions, etc.) inherently involve the added necessity of continuous protection and maintenance by our own Naval forces is seldom understood and appreciated. I finally convinced the Prime Minister of the fallacy of such propositions by describing the situation into which we would be led, namely that in order to maintain our obstructions we would have to match the forces the enemy brought against them until finally the majority if not all of our forces would be forced into dangerous areas where they would be subject to continual torpedo and other attack, in fact in a position most favourable to the enemy.

     25.  Entirely outside of the fact that the enemy does, and always can force exits, and thereby nullify the close, the weather is a serious added difficulty. The heaviest anchors obtainable have been used for nets, mines and obstructions, only to have the arduous wokr [i.e., work] of weeks swept away in a few hours of heavy weather. Moorings will not hold. They chafe through. In this respect we could be of great assistance, i.e. in supply of moorings and buoys.

     26.  The channel is not now, and never has been completely sealed against submarine egress, let alone the vaster areas of escape to the North. Submarines have gone under mine-fields, and have succeeded in unknown ways in evading and cutting through nets and obstructions.

     27.  In addition to submarines, heavy forces are free to raid, and in fact escape through the Channel at any time when the enemy decides that the necessity of return will justify the risk. Hence the suggestion that two divisions of our fast Dreadnoughts might be based upon Brest primarily for the resulting moral effect against such possible raids.18

          I was told yesterday by an important Admiralty official that while he thought the chances of raids in or escape through the Channel by heavy enemy forces out of reach of the Grand Fleet (North of Scotland) were very remote, nevertheless the possibility existed and was principally thwarted on moral grounds, that is, the undertainty [i.e., uncertainty] in his mind of the opposition which would be encountered. He agreed with others, including the First Sea Lord, that the addition of some of our heavy forces to those maintained in Southern Channel approaches by the French and British would undoubtedly entirely preclude the possibility of such raids.

     28.  Submarine Losses:

          It has been found necessary to accept no reports of submarine losses as authentic and certain unless survivors are captured or the submarine itself definitely located by dragging. No dependence even is placed upon evidence of oil on the surface after a submarine has been attacked and forced down as there is reason to believe that when an enemy submarine dives to escape gunfire she is fitted to expel oil for the particular purpose of conveying the impression that she has been sunk and thereby avoid further pursuit.

          It has been shown that the amount of damage a submarine can stand is surprising and much more than was anticipated before the experience of the war. Upon a recent occasion a British submarine was mistaken for an enemy, and though struck by several shells, dived and escaped to port.

          The submarine losses which are certain since outbreak of war are as given in attached cablegram.19

          It is estimated that between thirty and forty submarines operate at a time in the waters surrounding the British Islands and French Coast. At least one is now known to be on White Sea trade lanes.20

     29.  Best anti-submarine weapons!

           One of the most efficient weapons now used by all destroyer and patrol craft against submarines is the so-called Depth-charge<,> sample and drawing of which have been forwarded by our Naval Attache. These are merely explosive charges designed to explode at a certain depth, formerly eighty feet, now about one hundred feet. They are dropped overboard where a submarine that has submerged is assumed to be and are counted upon to badly shake up and demoralize if they do not actually cause serious damage.21

          Howitzers and Bomb-throwers of large calibre are under construction designed to throw similar depth charges to distances of about 2000 yards.22 Details will be forwarded.

     30.  Torpedo Protection!

          This subject may be summed up by the statement of the Captain of a British Dreadnought who said in effect that after a year’s experience he did not fear being sunk by a torpedo. Unless struck by several the worst to be anticipated is damage to shafts or rudder, thus necessitating towing. Cruisers have often been struck and been able to reach port. Vital water-tight doors are kept continuously closed at sea.

          Destroyer officers have been heard to express the curious opinion that the enemy ships were more or less unsinkable. This is probably to be explained by the fact that they carry very few supplies; that they have their storage spaces compartmented or filled with wood or other water-excluding material; and that, when in port, they quarter their crews in barracks and when leaving for a cruise carry the minimum amount of berthing and supply facilities. These points, however, are not positively known.

          On the contrary, all vessels of the British Fleet must be kept fully supplied and fueled at all times for extended cruising. This is particularly true of battle cruisers and cruisers.

     31.  All officers of rank and actual experience consulted are convinced that the enemy have no unusual methods of protection, or in fact any surprises of ordnance or other fighting equipment.

     32.  All are agreed that the best protection against torpedoes is SPEED and ZIGZAGGING.

     33.  It is a common experience of the Naval as well as Merchant service that torpedo wakes are reported when none exist. Many reports are received of torpedoes barely missing ships. This was true in the Jutland battle. The Captain of one battleship said that he received numerous reports of torpedoes passing just ahead and just astern nearly all of which he had reason to believe did not exist.

          Streaks of suds, slicks, etc., are very deceiving and are easily mistaken for torpedo wakes, particularly when the danger of torpedoes is present. This accounts for many reports by passengers on liners and other merchant craft of seeing many torpedoes just miss their mark.

     34.  Submarine versus Submarines:

          There has always been opposition to using submarines against submarines principally on the grounds that the possibilities of their accomplishment would not be sufficiently great to justify the risk involved of mistaken identity and resulting damage to friends.

          The Director of Anti-Submarine warfare believes, however, that such operations promise well and the experiment is now being tried with as many submarines as can be spared from the Grand Fleet. Some enemy submarines have been destroyed by the method, usually torpedoed. One valuable feature of this method lies in the fact as long as our submarines are not so used, the enemy submarine is perfectly safe in assuming that all submarines sighted are friends. If this certainty is removed the enemy will be forced to keep down more and to take much greater precautions against detection. This is an advantage of no small amount.

     In addition to the possible offensive work that may be accomplished by our submarines on such duty, the plan furnishes us with more reliable information as to the limitations and capabilities of enemy vessels under the actual conditions existing in the areas in which they operate. Without this knowledge based on actual experience too much is left to conjecture which is liable to lead to a great deal of misdirected effort.

(signed) Wm. S. Sims.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517. In the upper-right hand corner is the identifier “42/8/4.” The memorandum is also printed in Naval Investigation, 30-34.

Footnote 1: RAdm. George P.W. Hope, Deputy First Sea Lord.

Footnote 2: First Sea Lord Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 3: RAdm. (ret.) Harry Hampson Stileman.

Footnote 4: In a letter to his wife, Anne Hitchcock Sims of 10 April, Sims wrote that he left Liverpool, where he debarked, at 10 A.M., arrived in London at 1:30 P.M. and had his first meeting with Jellicoe at 5 P.M. that day. DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers. The two men met twice the next day, 11 April, as well. Sims to Sims, 11 March [April] 1917, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers. The ease of these first encounters and the warmth with which Jellicoe welcomed Sims was facilitated by the fact that Sims was a well-known Anglophile and that he and Jellicoe had been personal friends for over two decades.  Sims, Victory at Sea: 7-8; Still, Crisis at Sea: 14.

Footnote 6: The Imperial War Cabinet was created by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in the spring of 1917 to coordinate military policy for the British Empire. In doing so, Lloyd George acknowledged that increased contributions to the war effort by the dominions necessitated increased consultation with dominion governments on the conduct of the war. The body met throughout 1917 and 1918. In addition to Lloyd George, the Cabinet consisted of: Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada; Louis Botha and General Jan Smuts, each successively Prime Minister of South Africa; William Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia; William Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand; Edward Morris, Prime Minister of the Dominion of Newfoundland; Sir James Meston, the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in India. Several senior British Cabinet ministers and Maj. Gen. Sir Ganga Singh, representing British India, also attended meetings. David Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 6 vols. (Boston, Little, Brown, and Co., 1933-37), 4: 1727-45.

Footnote 7: David Lloyd George.

Footnote 8: The Cabinet Minister of Munitions was Christopher Addison; the Minister of Shipping was Sir Joseph Maclay; the President of the Board of Trade, which Sims called the Minister of Trade, was Sir Albert Stanley.

Footnote 9: VAdm. Sir Henry F. Oliver.

Footnote 10: The director of the Intelligence Department was Capt. William E. Hall; director of Anti-Submarine Operations was RAdm. Alexander L. Duff; director of Torpedoes and Mining was RAdm. the Honorable Edward S. Fitzherbert.

Footnote 12: On 14 April, Gen. William R. Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: “We here are inclined to think that Germany’s plan is, or at any rate was, to fight slowly and stubbornly backwards, preserving her men as much as possible, and trusting to submarines to bring us to terms before the Americans can assist. Moreover American assistance will depend upon the results of submarine warfare.” David R. Woodward, ed., The Military Correspondence of Field-Marshal Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, December 1915-February 1918 (London: Bodley Head for the Army Records Society, 1989), 172.

Footnote 13: German leaders anticipated that the submarine campaign would cripple Great Britain in roughly five months. See: Henning von Holtzendorff to Paul von Hindenburg, 22 December 1916.

Footnote 14: Jellicoe.

Footnote 15: In his later testimony before Congress, Sims said: “I think that in my first day’s conference with British naval leaders the first thought that occurred to my mind was the ancient convoy system, such as was pursued in Napoleonic and many other wars. This point naturally came to everyone’s mind. I found, of course, that it had received the fullest considerations by the British authorities. I was confronted with a great mass of data which had caused them to delay so far in resorting to this measure. . . . For myself I could not agree from the first with these objections, and I took my place on the side of those who favored this measure. Nevertheless, I fully appreciated all the obstacles.” Naval Investigation, 1: 87. In late April, the British took steps to institute convoying on a trial basis. There is disagreement about who should be credited with the decision to adopt this tactic, which, according to most historians, defeated the German submarine campaign. Some, including British Prime Minister Lloyd George, have credited Sims. David Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 6 vols. (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1933-36), 3: 1161. For a full discussion of the British adoption of convoying and the role Sims may have played in it, see Still, Crisis at Sea: 344-45.

Footnote 16: Fastnet Lighthouse is on Fastnet Rock, located at the extreme southwest point of Ireland.

Footnote 17: Daniels had raised the same question in a cablegram to Sims. See: Daniels to Sims, 17 April 1917.

Footnote 18: This suggestion was never implemented.

Footnote 19: The attachment has not been found.

Footnote 20: The White Sea is a southern inlet of the Barents Sea located on the northwest coast of Russia.

Footnote 21: According to a historian of naval weaponry, the British type D depth charge that was first issued in July 1916 had become the standard. This depth charge detonated at 40 to 80 feet depth. A depth charge that could be set to detonate from 50 to 200 feet was not issued until October 1917. The standard U.S. Navy depth charge that was later deployed was essentially the British D depth charge with a different triggering mechanism. The American naval attaché in Britain was Capt. William D. MacDougall. A sheet showing the different types of British depth charges can be found in the illustrations section, though it is not clear if this was the one that MacDougall sent. Norman Friedman, Naval Weapons of WWI: 391. An illustration is on p. 390.

Footnote 22: Typically, depth charges were rolled off boats. However, it was decided that a “thrower” was desirable. In March 1917 the Royal Navy placed orders for a Vickers 7.5 inch howitzer adapted to throw 100 pound projectiles with a 43.5 pound burster, the largest that could be manhandled. It was discovered that the burster was not big enough to destroy submarines so a heavier gun was designed. However, it had not been widely deployed before the war ended. Ibid., 390-94.