Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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

April 2nd. 1918.

My dear Admiral,

     Most all interests at present are absorbed by the very serious offensive on the Western Front. At this date it would seem almost that the Germans have been definitely checked, but there is no telling what else theymay have up their sleeve.1 It is recognized universally that this is probably their last chance. It was a very fortunate thing indeed that the Supreme War Council was formed and in operation before this offensive came off. We understand that they organized and stationed what is popularly called the Versailles Reserve2 and made up their minds what should be done with it in case the attack developed on this or that point of the line.

     The offensive began on Thursday the 21st. I was obliged to leave for Paris on the following morning to attend a conference over the Archangel affair at Versailles on Saturday.3 Of course the Archangel affair is no longer talked of under the circumstances, and of course we talked a great deal about the offensive. There was nothing particular at that time that they could tell us at Versailles, and the only significant comment was that made by General Rawlinson4 who expressed very considerable relief that they then knew, or believed they knew, where the offensive was to take place. I think they were apprehensive lest the Germans accumulated troops behind the Western Front and accumulated ammunition elsewhere where they really intended to attack. Rawlinson said “Now we know what we are up against and are taking the measures we have anticipated to counteract the blow”. He meant by this that the reserves above referred to were being moved in accordance with the then declared nature of the attack.

     I left Paris that same night for London, and was five or six hours late getting through to Boulogne, on account of being side tracked for troop trains going north. We were laid off for three hours at Amiens and the troop trains and city were bombed to a considerable extent. Boulogne was bombed the same night. We got to London about 10 p.m. Sunday. The following Monday I lunched with Secretary Baker, and that evening was at dinner at the Ambassador’s where Mr.Lloyd George, Mr.Balfour, Lord Derby and Secretary Baker were present, as mentioned in my last letter.5

     Mr.Lloyd George then made the significan remark that this offensive made certain that they would have to have what is popularly called a Generalissimo. I do not remember whether I ever told you of a previous conversation I had with Mr.Lloyd George on a similar subject. It was very shortly after the Supreme War Council had been decided upon. It was on a Channel boat on the way to a conference in Paris, I asked him whether it would have been possible to constitute this Council a year ago. He replied, “No, that sort of thing is not possible among Allies until they are sufficiently alarmed.” There is no doubt that if a generalissimo had been suggested a week before the offensive began, it would have been the subject of a more or less violent political fight in Parliament, and might have endangered the Government.

     Everybody here seems satisfied that General Foch is the right man, and there is confidence that he will defeat the designs of the Germans.

     When I say there is confidence, I do not mean that there is not considerable apprehension that the battle may take an unexpected turn at any time. I know that measures have been taken to counteract the worst in case it comes. Arrangements have been made even to repel a raid invasion in case it should be attempted or should be threatened. Complete studies have been made as to the best course to be pursued in case the British and French armies should be separated and the former obliged to fall back on the coast, inclosing in their lines Calais, and Bordeaux. I even know that plans have been made to render Calais, Bordeaux and other ports untenable to the enemy in case the British should be forced away from them.

     I was also shown by the Admiralty a prepatory order that was given to all destroyers not with the Grand Fleet to be ready to proceed and join the latter upon the receipt of a subsequent order, if this should become n[e]cessary, and I was asked if the American destroyers could not do likewise. This was an extraordinary precaution taken in case the very worst should come to pass in the North Sea. Of course I immediately consented that our forces should be used in the same way, though I do not believe for a moment that it will ever be necessary.6

     The whole question of this great offensive illustrates once again the extreme difficulty of cooperating with Allies, particularly when there is political distrust between them. It may be put down as a general rule that those military provisions which should be taken will not be taken by Allies until they are forced to take them.

     I have been discussing with the Admiralty for considerably more than a month a proposition to make arrangements by which, if this war lasts a year or so longer, we can take care of the docking and overhaul of our vessels on this side. When you come to look into the numbers that will be here on various dates, and compare the docking requirements that we now need it becomes apparent that the problem is a very considerable one. I will not attempt to go into details here, but when negotiations are finished, or have failed, I will of course send you all the details.

     I do not believe now that there will be much difficulty in coming to a final understanding. Up to the present time the matter has been discussed quite thoroughly with all material branches of the Admiralty and the result was a proposition made by them. It was to the effect that they could not handle the docking and repair of all the vessels that would be here by the end of the year and carry out at the same time, their own building program (principally of anti-submarine craft) and their own repairs.

     This was a logical conclusion from their point of view based upon the program laid down by the Board of the Admiralty. When things arrived at this stage, I presented a very able paper, which was drawn up largely by McBride, to show that the scheme they proposed, which was nothing less than an establishment on this side of a whole yard capable of doing this work, was wholly impracticable both as regards the time necessary, the tonnage required, the labor problem, the housing problem, and so forth. I then took this matter up with the First Sea Lord and his immediate advisors that meet at the morning Council and I asked that the question of a change of policy on the part of the Admiralty Board be considered and the necessary orders to the Material Department be given to carry out this policy. They appeared to agree with me as to the plan proposed, particularly when I was able to show them that the only alternative, which was to send our boats home for overhaul, would cause the loss of the services of more boats than could be built by the labor that it would take to repair ours on this side. I believe this change of policy will be made, and that some yard will be assigned to us for the purpose of repairs, and the British work diminished as may be necessary to carry this out. If so, they will take care of docking and overhaul of all vessels in British and French Waters.

     In all of this negotiation, and in similar negotiations, I find myself exceedingly hampered by not being allowed to be present when such matters are discussed by the Board of the Admiralty where alone questions of policy can be decided. It was for this reason that I have been so persistent in recommending that our Government allow me to be appointed a member of this Board. It was not at all that Sir Eric Geddes wanted to confer an honour upon me, but he wanted to make me an efficient working and cooperating member with his own Board.

     The above review of this question of overhaul and repair is of course only a summary one, and the final reports will give all of the necessary details.

     An examination of the detailed reports that come in will show that the anti-submarine warfare is being carried on with renewed energy. There is a regular little warfare going on in the Heligoland Bight pretty nearly all the time. They have embarrassed the Germans so considerably that it has been a good while since any of the passages through the minfields have been used by submarines.7 They are now laying a second minefield in the Cattegat8 and British mine laying submarines are at work nearly all the time in the Bight. The Channel itself has not been used for a considerable time by any of the large submarines. There has been no increase in the number of submarines operating to the westward of the British Isles. The operations are, generally speaking, in the Channel and in the Irish Sea. Convoys when formed at sea are very seldom attacked. An incoming convoy usually reaches port without very much molestation. The trouble comes generally in forming convoys by isolated ships coming along the coast to the point of rendezvous. There are not enough destroyers to convoy these.

     A small scale map on which are shown the submarines operating at any particular time in the Channel and the Irish Sea makes it look as though it would be easy to send out some destroyers and chase them away. You often hear people make remarks to this effect. This is because they lose sight of the very essential fact that a submarine can see a destroyer at a distance that is three or four times greater than the destroyer can see the submarine. This enables the latter to get out of the way until the danger is passed.

     As I have said in a previous letter9 the hope of the future resides in the efficiency of the listening devices, and a sufficient number of vessels to constitute hunting squadrons that can scout for and pick up the submarines by sound and thereafter not let go of them until they have been driven to the bottom or brought to the surface. There is considerable encouragement from recent reports of the success of these implements. The other day a British destroyer is reported as having followed a submarine for six hours by sound and finally attacked her by depth charges, and it is believed that she was destroyed.10

     What we need as soon as they can possibly be provided is more destroyers and more submarine chasers, all fitted with the latest listening devices. I believe that the American devices that were sent over here recently are more efficient than any other they have over here and we are particularly anxious to get them thoroughly tried out under the command of our own people. This will be done in the immediate future with trawlers that will be placed under the direction of the two American destroyers that are fitted with the latest devices. This may succeed better than we anticipate, because the trawlers are not very efficient boats for this service. I believe we will do better work with the 110 footers.11

     Considerable damage has been inflicted upon the enemy during the last week or so. He is believed to have lost four destroyers in the Dover Straits, three destroyers in the Heligoland Bight and three trawlers of a special type in the same neighborhood.12 There may be other vessels that are blown up and damaged that we do not know about.

     The other day we noticed in a War Diary from the French Coast that the officers of one of the vessels there had devised a bomb which they proposed to carry in the boats if it were necessary to abandon the ship, The purpose of these bombs was to destroy a submarine with them if the boat was called alongside the latter. This did not seem to me to be a proper procedure, as I was afraid that if anything like this should be attempted the Germans would seize upon it as a pretext to consider all boats containing survivors as hostile and act accordingly. I therefore informed Wilson that they were not to be used in this way. I asked the Admiralty their experience in the matter and they told me that they had at one time attempted using bombs in this way and even a small torpedo in a boat, but that on further reflection they had abandoned everything of the kind.

     We were all very much distressed over the accident to the fine boat MANLEY. A court of inquiry is now in session which will supply us with all of the details. At present we have only the report of the Commanding Officer13 which does not say very much. It would appear from the latter and from certain unofficial information, that the MANLEY went alongside of the escort leader, got too close, and brought one of her depth charges that was mounted in a bomb throwing gun on her after deck-house in contact with the hull of the larger vessel. This caused an explosion which probably detonated a number of other depth charges and practically blew off the hull of the stern of the vessel. It is not the kind of an accident that is ever likely to happen again.

     When the seriousness of the offensive on the Western Front became apparent, I gave Wilson14 preliminary orders to arrange for the mobilization of all of the naval men on the French coast that could be spared without detriment to the anti-submarine work, with the intention of sending them behind the Front to do any useful work they could in case they should be required. At the same time I telegraphed Jackson to get the opinion of the French Ministry of Marine and to find out whether these troops would be required. I am expecting the answer today. I am informed that General Pershing15 has offered to send 20,000 men to do work of this kind behind the lines, and it may be that our men will not be required. It seems to me that in view of the grave danger of this offensive that no practicable measures should be neglected to help out. All that it would have involved for us would have been the arresting of certain work at the air stations and so forth, during the period of time the men would be required.

     An official communication goes forward by this mail from Admiral Rodman recommending that his gunnery officers and so forth, should not be replaced by the corresponding officers of the Atlantic Fleet, thus diminishing for a certain length of time the efficiency of his vessel. I have endorsed his opinion in this matter very strongly.16

     In connection with the battle fleet, a prominent American repeated to me last night a conversation he had with a British captain who was in London on a few days leave from the Grand Fleet – the first leave that he had had from that date since 1914. The gist of this Captain’s remarks were that one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to the Grand Fleet was the arrival of the American battleships. He expressed himself as quite unable to explain the very remarkable effect that this had had on the spirits and the morale on the British officers and the British men. He said they were “fed up” to the last degree with the confinement on board ship without any opportunity to go ashore sometimes for weeks at a time, and at no time more than between 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. This officer spoke in the very highest terms of our vessels and their personnel.

     He also expressed the general astonishment of the British Navy in pretty nearly all ranks for the accounts theynow have of what they consider the taming of Admiral Bayly.17 There was a common saying in the British Navy that what they ought to do with Bayly was to put him in an iron cage and feed him on raw meat, until war broke out, and then turn him loose on the enemy. They cannot quite understand not only the respect in which he is held by our people, but the positive affection they all have for him and he has for them.

Very sincerely yours,        

Admiral W.S.Benson. U.S.Navy,

     Chief of Naval Operations,

          Navy Department.

               Washington. D.C.

     P.S. Jackson18 informs us from Paris that the French Ministry of Marine and the French Ministry of War have considered our proposition to send 7000 sailors for work on the Western Front and that they did not think that these men will be necessary. Jackson transmits the thanks of the Minister of Marine and the Minister of War, Admiral de Bon and General Foch for this offer.

     General Pershing also understands that we are ready to do our bit in case it may be necessary. Our relations with the army have been at all times most cordial. I have not seen General Pershing very often, but we keep up a correspondence on official matters. I have just received a personal letter from him, from which I quote as follows:-

     “I am very glad to have the remarks contained in your letter with reference to the shipping situation, and wish to express my appreciation of the close cooperation between the Naval authorities and Military authorities on all questions relating to this expedition.”

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49.

Footnote 1: For more on the German offensive on the Western Front, see: Sims to Henry B. Wilson, 1 April 1918.

Footnote 2: The Versailles Reserves, were a reference to the Group of Amiens Reserves, formed by Supreme Allied Commander, Ferdinand Foch from the French First and Third Armies. The purpose of this forces was to support British held positions on the Western front taking heavy losses from the German offensive of 1918 while tactically uniting the British and French commands. Hart, The Great War: 425.

Footnote 4: Gen. Henry S. Rawlinson, British Army, Commander, Fourth Army.

Footnote 7: In the margin: “1130 mines were laid in the Bight yesterday.”

Footnote 8: The Kattegat is the body of water between Denmark and Sweden.

Footnote 10: Sims’ is probably referring to British Patrol Craft 51’s sink of U-61 on 16 March in the Irish Sea. Kemp, U-Boats Destroyed: 45.

Footnote 11: For more on the use of 110 foot submarine chasers, see: Newton M. McCully to Henry B. Wilson, 19 March 1918.

Footnote 12: During a defensive sortie on 21 March 1918, British and French destroyers sunk the German torpedo boats A19 and A7 while protecting the British Coastal flank of the Western Front. The Five German destroyers with the torpedo boats were able to escape. It is not clear what Sims’ is referring to by German losses in the Heligoland Bight during this period. Newbolt, Official History of the War, Vol. 5: 226-227.

Footnote 13: Mandley’s commander was Cmdr. Robert L. Berry. On 19 March 1918 Mandley’s stern collied with that of the HMS Montagua while trying to deliver dispatches. A readied depth charge exploded was dislodged from a thrower and exploded on deck setting off a number of other munitions in the process. The explosions killed the Manley’s executive officer and 33 enlisted seamen. Berry was convicted for the error, but clemency was given in sight of the frequency of collisions due and the aberrant nature of the explosion. DANFS

Footnote 14: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces in France.

Footnote 15: Gen. John J. Pershing, U.S.A., Commander, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 16: RAdm. Hugh Rodman, Commander, Battleship Division Nine. For more on the planning and assignments of men for Battleship Division Nine, see: Rodman to Josephus Daniels, 16 March 1918.

Footnote 17: Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly, R.N., Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Ireland.

Footnote 18: Capt. Richard H. Jackson, United States Staff Officer in France. See: French Ministry of Marine to Jackson, 3 April 1918.