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 16th. 1918.  

My dear Admiral,

     The last few mails were despatched with so little warning and we have been so much pre-occupied with the present crisis and the many incidents that have arisen in connection therewith, that I have not been able to write as I intended.

          I assume that practically all there is to know about operations on the Western Front are contained in the press reports sent to America, I judge this because clippings that have come back to me seem to be very full indeed.

     To those who know the circumstances that have followed up to this situation, it must be entirely apparent that many things that should have been done have been neglected. Many of these are so apparent even to those who have little or no military knowledge, that they are of course the occasion of more or less violent criticism. Some of the essential principles of warfare have undoubtedly been neglected. Things that should never be done have been done by the Governments, but the play of politics behind it all have been almost entirely responsible.

     In my last letter I mentioned a conversation that I had with Mr.Lloyd George which indicated that in his opinion the measures that were taken in reference to the Versailles Council and a Generalissimo, could not have been put through before the absolute necessity arose. Of course it is a question as to whether what was actually put through was the best that could have been done under the circumstances. It is perhaps hardly fair to criticize these actions while one is necessarily ignorant of the political forces behind them all.

     However, in London SUNDAY TIMES of April 14th, Professor Spenser Wilkinson, the well known military writer, makes the following remarks in an article on the effect of the general situation on the Western Front, under the sub-heading “Neglect of the Principles.” Under the latter heading, the following is what he says:-

     “Ever since the pike gave way to the bullet and the bayonet – that is, ever since modern war began – the experience of generals has been recorded in a great literature, in which have been repeated after every way<r> the lessons which thoughtful generals had learned. It is by the sifting and sorting of these lessons during two hundred years that the principles of the art of war have been established. Two practical rulers[i.e. rules] have been reiterated unanimously by all the best writers on the subject. The first, that the direction of operations ought never to be entrusted to a council. The Government has persistently violated this. A War Cabinet, of which not a single member if a connoisseur of the art of war, has over and over again made strategical decisions of the utmost importance. It has interfered with the plans of its commander-in-chief, and its exploit during this last winter was to subordinate its commander-in-chief to a Council of War in which he himself had no voice.

     The second rule is that no one of higher authority than the commander-in-chief should ever go near the headquarters of an army in the field. The only result is to diminish the authority and to reduce the responsibility of the Commander-in-chief. But the British Headquarters in France have been repeatedly visited by the Prime Minister and by one after another of the members of the War Cabinet.

     The House of Commons is at present discussing with feverish haste, measures which in any case cannot be carried out in time to affect the issue of the battle now raging. What is required is not legislation under the influence of panic, but the presence in the Cabinet as Minister of War of a man who knows war and has no personal or party end to serve.”

     Of course it is a question as to whether or not these principles could have been followed by Mr.Lloyd George with all of the Opposition yelping at his heels. For example, I have always regarded the visits to the Front of the Prime Ministers and members of the War Cabinet as being undertaken for the purpose of satisfying public opinion that they were taking a real interest in the war. Of course what Wilkinson means is that the inference of the soldier must be that when the civilian authority visits the Front it indicates a certain lack of confidence in the military commanders.

     There can be no doubt however that Great Britain is now stirred clean down to the bottom; that they realize, perhaps for the first time, what they are really up against in the way of a campaign and what it will mean if they lose it. From this time it may be assumed that nothing will be neglected that can be done. We can only hope that the incomparable British Tommy will hold out until these measures can be made effective.

     As for the Navy part in these critical times, they have undoubtedly got the German High Command very considerably worried. The Straits of Dover are no longer used by any of the large submarines. It has been a good while since any submarines have even attempted to go in by way of the Heligoland Bight, and none have come out except those which have been heavily escorted and preceded by a large aggregation of barrier breakers, mine sweepers, and so forth.

     The Skaggerack is also being gradually made very uncomfortable for them. In addition to the six hundred and fifty mines that were laid east of the Skaw some time ago, mining operations are being carried out as continuously as weather conditions will permit. Three times within about the last ten days attempts have been made to raid the Skaggerack clean down to the Belt by light cruisers with twenty destroyers passing in close along the opposite shores arriving off the Belt at daylight and sweeping it through the middle of the Skaggerack to capture or destroy any enemy vessels they may encounter. Three times these operations have been prevented by dense fog. Last night it succeeded and did considerable damage. I do not know the details at this writing, beyond the fact that they sank eight trawlers and had no casualties. These expeditions take place under a covering force of battleships, battle cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers.1

     I am sorry to say that the British will be very considerably behind in laying the barrage from the Shetland across to the eastward. They have had such trouble with their deep mines that they hesitated to plant a field over which the Grand Fleet would have to pass.2

     According to a report that I have received of experiments carried out with our mines all assembled, their trouble has been approximately the same kind. The danger to them is that mines whose anchor gear fails and permits them to go to or near the surface, and which should automatically become innocuous do not always do so. They estimate about 2% become dangerous. Of course every effort is now being made to rectify these defects. They may be rectified in principle. That is a modification may satisfy everybody that if the bit of machinery is properly made it will always be safe. But the trouble is that there are the inevitable defects in both manufacture and material which may cause some essential part to stick and cause the mine to fail to become innocuous. I am informed that this is the history of all mines.

     It was ascertained the other day through the very remarkable British Secret Service that a submarine had gone to the Western coast of Ireland on a special mission. It subsequently developed that this was to land a German Agent. He has since been arrested and brought to London. He is a deserter from an Irish regiment of the British Army, one of the men suborned by Casement.3 Just what he was to do in Ireland is not definitely known. He will doubtless be shot. The submarine that landed him was the same one that landed Casement.

     With reference to my note in a former letter to the effect that we prepared ourselves to send a certain number of enlisted men to the Western Front if it should be necessary,4 this matter was laid before the French Ministry of Marine and the Military authorities, and I received the following message through Captain Jackson:5

     “Vice Admiral de Bon and General Foch consider that present circumstances do not call for the presence at the Front of this force, since they have at hand all forces needed. If such condition should arise, General Foch will certainly call upon Admiral Sims and will accept offer. General Foch thanks Admiral Sims most warmly for this new promise of the ardor with which the United States participates in the war.”6

     We could have sent about 7000 men without any let up on our present activities except the temporary suspension of certain building operations at air stations. I never really thought that these men could do much at the Front, but I had an idea that the moral effect would be considerable if they were sent.

     Two officers have reported here from General Pershing to discuss the question of the use of additional French ports that will soon be necessary to handle the supplies that will be coming in to France. They recognise that no channel ports can be used at this time, on account of the congestion caused by sending over troops and supplies for the Western offensive, but suggest that as the port of Marseilles now handles only about 50% of the amount of freight it handled in time of peace, that certain supply ships can be sent there to discharge. It has been pointed out that if these were ships selected for having considerable speed, and if they were loaded with supplies, the loss of which would not be serious, such as grain, and so forth, for animals, they would be willing to accept the risk of sending them through the Mediterranean with such escort as could be provided either in or out of convoy. The matter is now being discussed between General Pershing’s officers and my people.7

     It is agreeable to be able to report that all of our negotiations with the army are being carried out in entire harmony. In a recent letter from General Pershing, he says:-

     “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 relative to this expedition.”

     Of course you know by this time that our troops are being brigaded with the British and French on the Western Front.8 It is impossible to exaggerate the good effect that this has had. Quite as good an effect as the similar policy on the part of the Navy Dept. in using our naval forces over here in the same way.

     In this connection I note a very unfavorable and damaging criticism both of me and of the Navy Department in reference to this particular subject. I have a clipping from the NEW YORK TRIBUNE of March 21st. This is either copied from or inspired by the same source as a similar article that appeared in the ARMY AND NAVY REGISTER of March 16th, page 338. I have no copy of the Register at hand, but the following is the quotation from the NEW YORK TRIBUNE:-

“U.S.SAILORS ABROAD WANT OWN COMMANDER.

.......

OFFICERS DISSATISFIED BECAUSE BRITON HAS

CHARGE OF DESTROYER FLEET.

.......

(Staff Correspondent).

     Washington, March 20. American Naval Officers are dissatisfied because a British officer, Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, is the local commander where the United States destroyer fleet makes its headquarters in Europe and directs all the American as well as the British units operating from that point.

     Strong representations are being made to Secretary of the Navy Daniels9 that an American naval officer of flag rank should be sent to take command, and that the destroyers should not be under British direction.

     While the number of American destroyers abroad was small, it is argued, it was logical that they should work as a part of the British organization. Now that the United States fleet has reached considerable proportions and includes some of the latest and best destroyers, naval officers feel the time has arrived for complete American operation.

     Vice Admiral William S.Sims has jurisdiction over all American craft operating in British and French waters, but he is located in London as a representative of the Chief of Naval Operations and has little to do with the actual direction of the fleet, which is left to Admiral Bayly.”

     This to me is a very serious matter. It appears to be an attempt to drag down the system which I have been at such pains to establish here. It would moreover, in my opinion, so endanger the relations which I have been able to establish with the British, that in case anything like that should prevail it would be apparent to me that my usefulness on this side was practically at an end.

     It is a pity that whoever inspires such things should not realize how heavy the responsibility of this command is and how very considerable is the strain. If they did so realize it, I am sure they would not be willing to add to my burdens.

     I should be very much obliged indeed if you would let me know what there is in this apparently insidious campaign. I feel so strongly on the subject, that I would consider it a great favor if you could reassure me by cable.

     You know the conditions that now exist at Queenstown. You know how very delicate the situation was and continues. You can readily understand, I am sure, how anxious I am that this should not be imperipled. It has been repeatedly rumoured, generally in private letters, that Admiral Eberle10 is to be sent here to take command of the destroyers operating in Queenstown.

     There are few officers in the Navy for whose general ability and character I have more respect than I have for Eberle. He is an excellent man in a great many respects. I may say however, that I do not think there is any officer in the Navy who knows Eberle’s methods of administration, and so forth, as well as I do. This for the simple reason that I followed him in command of the North Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla. This experience showed me that his ideas on this subject are as different from mine as it would be possible to imagine. There is no similarity between the two at all. I should consider it a great misfortune if he should be sent over for that particular command – so great a misfortune that I consider it my duty to invite special attention to it.

     A personal letter has recently been received by one of my staff from one of the officers in command of one of our submarines on this side. To me it is very gratifying to read the opinion this young officer has of our vessels; his comparison of their efficiency with that of other similar boats is very gratifying. I am sure you will be glad to read it. The quotations from this letter are as follows:-

     “Except for periscopes, the boats are in pretty good shape, but periscopes keep us out of the running. We can only see a submarine on the surface at 2500 yards. The L-10 has two low power periscopes you know. The other day we saw a destroyer on the surface through the periscope, having no idea that she saw us, but we got a peach of depth bombing before we could get up.11

     If we had good periscopes these boats would be as good as any in the world for this duty. They dive easily, are quick turning, are in good working condition, and have excellent listening devices. We don’t see why the English boats have not obtained C tubes. I am very enthusiastic about them.

     The old batteries are holding out pretty well. I got 2 1/2 hours the other day at the three hour rate and several days we have been submerged for about 16 hours – gravity around 1200.

     The old sixth Division is showing up strong. As you know the L-11 and L-10 made the trip alone and could have started right back. Our only spare part since leaving Newport has been one spray valve. I have always said that 9/10ths of our engine trouble was personnel and I feel like raising it a tenth. My only argument in favor of a four cycle engine is the fact that they are more fool-proof – and with so many new boats coming along we will get an awfully green crowd of artificers.

     This experience has been a wonderful thing for our “submarine service. The following points have been especially brought out.

1. Need of comfortable officers quarters.

2. Voice tube from bridge to C.T.12

3. Running at low speeds – 1 1/2 knots for hours – pulling 100 amperes.

4. Navigation and keeping patrol station.

5. The need of a deep sea rounding machine. The British boats have them. We use our anchor when necessary. It works fine, too.

6. Proper menu for submarine trips.

7. Toilet. We never use our toilet. We use buckets in the engine room – half full of fuel oil. They are O.K. too.

8. Crash diving. We can get under in about 40 seconds from service cruising condition.

9. Bridges. We all have good bridges.

10. A reliable magnetic compass is essential. The gyro compass always goes bad.

11. Engine running – we never run over 340 R.P.M. and ordinary speed is 320. A lot of our trouble was due to too high cruising speed. We usually run on both engines.

12. Charge air banks to 1500 instead of 2000and save the compressors.

13. Torpedo work – keeping torpedoes ready for firing has been very valuable. We always run with our tube open.

14. Making approaches. Captain Nasmith, R.N.,13has taken us in hand and it is safe to say that we knew nothing about approaches when we came over here. We get the benefit of a lot of mighty hard lessons that it has taken the British years to learn.

The above are a few things that just came to my mind.

    In regard to your plan of concerted action between destroyers and submarines, I agreed with it until I got depth bombed. The trouble is that it would be awfully hard to get out of the way and keep communications open without telling Fritz all about it. If a merchant ship is around they will fire on any submarine, even though destroyers are around. We have no recognition signals for merchant ships.

     Wright14 followed a Hun submerged the other day for over an hour and then lost him. Fritz knew he was being followed and I suppose he speeded up – or may have run dead slow. The same thing would probably happen in any case. They have submerged speed and can run very quietly. You should see them submerged. They just drop.

     Everything is running along smoothly with us. Some of the boats are having minor troubles but the 9-10-11 are doing their trick regularly and would not be surprised if some one slipped a pill to Fritz before long.15 The Huns are dammed elusive game, however.”

     I believe we are going to have trouble over the laying of the North Sea barrage. The British mines have turned out to be more unreliable than any of us had reason to expect. I think I mentioned in a recent letter that when they began laying the deep minefield a number of mines failed to take their proper depth. Under these conditions they should have become innocuous automatically. Some of them fail to do so and a sloop was mined in consequence.

     They have now begun dragging the field with a sweep that goes down just 35 feet. This would miss all the deep mine fields but catch all those that had not operated properly. In a recently operation of this kind they dragged up four mines in the first mile and four more in the second mile-and-a-half. More serious still, all of these mines except one , were exploded by the sweep, showing that the safety apparatus had not operated. They are now re-examining all mechanism to see what it is under actual conditions that makes a mine that was supposed to be safe fail to operate. This will of course delay their part of the operation to an extent which cannot now be predicted.

     The whole subject of the laying of the minefield will be taken up for discussion at the naval council tomorrow, to determine certain questions as to whether to lay the minefield full breadth as they go along from one side to the other, or whether to lay a single line of mines all the way across followed by a second line all the way across declaring the area barred to shipping before commencing to lay the first line.16

     I believe the operation of laying the mines will be also delayed by the necessity of maintaining on their present service a great number of cruisers that they had intended to transform into mine layers. This necessity has arisen in connection with the apprehension as to a raid of the [German] High Sea Fleet for the purpose of a serious raid on the coast.

     Of course it is understood that a regular invasion of England would not be possible as long as the Grand Fleet remains undefeated, but the apprehension arises from the fact that in the opinion of certain military authorities it would be possible for the Germans to make a raid on the coast of England in very considerable force with the object of destroying railroad connections, munition plants, and so forth, and so forth, before the raiding force could be defeated and captured. The point is that the Germans might decide to send such a raiding force, thoroughly equipped with destructive material, with the idea of doing this damage but without any idea of being able to save the force. I have heard the opinion expressed that 80,000 men suddenly landed in an unexpected point on the east or south coast could reach London and all of the railroad centres concentrated there, before it could be arrested by a concentration of the forces remaining in England. There has not been this apprehension in the past because it was considered that the forces maintained in England at the different points where a landing might be made, were sufficient to prevent it. But, since the crisis on the Western Front has arisen many of these troops have been sent to France. The original organization remains, but have been skeletonized by taking out a certain proportion of the troops. In the first ten days after the offensive began 200,000 tropps were sent across the Channel, and they have been going across in considerable numbers ever since.

     In a recent telegram it was stated that I probably did not realize the difficulties of the Department in answering the various requests for reinforcements in the way of cruisers, and so forth, and so forth.17 Let me assure you I do thoroughly realize these difficulties but I believe that the Department would want me to transmit to them such requests as were made for assistance on the chance that conditions may have changed sufficiently to make it possible to accord these requests.

Very sincerely yours,             

P.S.

     April 18th.    Referring to the question of the northern barrage, plans are being formed for certain mining operations in the Channel in case the worst comes to the worst on the Western Front. That is, in case the British army has to fall back and leave Dunkirk and other channel ports in the hands of the enemy. If this should become necessary it will of course occupy the mine layers assigned to the northern barrage, and will of course occasion considerable delay.

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS-William S. Sims Papers, Box 49. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.Navy./Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department./Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: Sims is referring to the preparations for a raid on the German naval base at Zeebrugge, Belgium. The British intended to attack the coastal fortifications and to sink aged cruisers filled with concrete across the narrow channel the Germans were using to dock their submarines. The operation was delayed by fog, but finally took place on April 23, but failed to accomplish the goal of “corking” the channel for more than a few week. Hough, The Great War At Sea: 315-316.

Footnote 3: Roger D. Casement was an Irish nationalist leader.

Footnote 5: Capt. Richard H. Jackson, United States Navy Staff Representative in Paris.

Footnote 6: French Gen. Ferdinand J.M. Foch, Supreme Allied Commander and Adm. Ferdiand de Bon, Chief of French Noval Staff. See: Jackson’s Memorandum of 3 April 1918.

Footnote 7: General John J. Pershing, U.S.A., Commander, American Expeditionary Forces. See: Sims to Pershing, 13 April 1918.

Footnote 8: The German Spring Offensive of March 1918, exhausted British and French infantry reserves. To meet with the needs of the emergency, the United States released limited numbers of soldiers to serve on the front with British and French forces for the duration of the emergency. Donald Smythe, Pershing: General of the Armies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 100-4.

Footnote 9: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

Footnote 10: Capt. Edward W. Eberle, Commandant of the United States Naval Academy.

Footnote 11: Handwritten interlineation: “efficient, housing, ‘finger-tip’ periscopes will be installed.”

Footnote 12: The “C.T.” is a reference to the sailor who is operating the C-Tube listening device.

Footnote 13: Capt. Martin Eric Dunbar-Nasmith, R.N.

Footnote 14: Lt. Cmdr. George B. Wright.

Footnote 15: This is a reference to the hunting of submarines and the use of depth charges against them.

Footnote 16: Handwritten interlineation: “The latter was practically decided this morning.”

Footnote 17: See: Benson to Sims, 16 April 1918.