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 Captain William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations

April 29th. 1918.

My dear Pratt,

          I am enclosing you herewith, as usual, copy of my letter to Admiral Benson.1 There is no specific point in this to which I want to particularly call your attention, except this question of the criticisms that have been appearing in the ARMY AND NAVY REGISTER, the NEW YORK TRIBUNE, and I believe, the WASHINGTON POST, concerning the cooperation of our naval forces on this side with our allies.2

          A letter just received from Reuterdahl informs me that the man who inspired these criticisms was Conolly – the correspondent, who is one of the wildest types of Irishmen and who promptly came to loggerheads with all hands over here.3 He behaved in such a manner at Queenstown that it was quite impossible for the British officers to associate with him. On his return from Queenstown he created a scene in my office and that was the last I heard of him.

          I was so much impressed with the undesirability of men of this stamp getting loose abroad that I at once wrote a letter to the Secretary4 who gave him a letter of introduction, and explained Conolly’s conduct and how objectionable it was, and I contrasted this conduct with the admirable behavior of men like Mr.Ralph Paine, Mr.Sheehan, Mr.Whitaker and Mr.Macfarlane,5 who have been well received everywhere and who are doing excellent service in writing up accounts of the Navy’s doings. Reuterdahl also tells me that Paine told him that Connolly had been denouncing the whole naval establishment over here before a whole lot of people in the Press Club in Washington.

          I believe I sent you copies of the letters that I have written to the NEW YORK TRIBUNE and to the ARMY & NAVY REGISTER,6 pointing out to them that the articles in question are wholly mistaken both as to direct and implied statements. It seems to me however, that immediately an article of this kind appears, the Navy Department should take it up and see it promptly and energetically refuted. The Department is thoroughly informed as to conditions at the base at Queenstown and other places and these conditions, I believe, meet with their approval. If so, it seems that some action should have been taken to protect the Navy Department from this very damaging criticism and also to protect me, that is, to prevent my authority being diminished.

          I think we are beginning to do good work on this side in the way of passing over stuff for publicity concerning the Navy. In this respect the army has us beaten to a frazzle. They have attached to General Pershing’s7 headquarters a number of excellent men who get out the right kind of dope and keep a supply going to America. As you know, the Department has always declined to let us do the same thing. I think this is to be regretted. The Navy, I understand, stands well with the American public, but I can readily understand how much interest the public has in everything that the Navy does over here. There are all sorts of incidents that are occurring which might just as well be written up in such a way as to retain the whole of the interest without giving any information which would be of any possible use to the enemy. Such incidents are liable to occur very frequently in the future, and the American public ought to be kept informed.8

          In this same connection it is also to be regretted that this should not be done pictorially. It is being done for the armies and navies of the allies by competent artists. These pictures will be of great historic value in the future. I do not know that anything like this is being done for our side. Certainly there is nothing that I know of in this line that is being done for the Navy. Is this not a bad mistake?

          Why should the Navy not allow some competent artist to come over here and make the necessary illustrations of events. This would cost the Department nothing whatever. These men could be enrolled and turned loose. It was proposed at one time to enrol and supply us with a certain number of moving picture men. That was not necessary because we have the official moving picture men already here to take such pictures, but we have no artists engaged on this work. Why should not Reuterdahl be authorised to go aborad under exactly the same terms as the correspondents mentioned above were authorised. All that is required is to give him permission to come over and give him a formal letter of introduction to me from the Secretary or Admiral Benson stating that he is to be given the necessary facilities for carrying on his work.9

          You will understand of course that if it is understood in certain quarters that I make this recommendation, it is likely to be declined. But, if the recommendation or suggestion should be made by you, offen your own bat you could likely put it across. Give it a think and see what you can do about it.

          I have no doubt you were much interested in the affair in connection with the attempt to block the harbor of Zeebrugge and Ostend.10 I would have been glad to let you know something about this before, but I did not know about it myself. Naturally, affairs of that kind are not discussed outside of the Board of the Admiralty except with those directly concerned, and as I am not a member of the Board, I was in ignorance of the plan. This is only one of constantly recurring examples of how much I am necessarily cut out of by not being a member of the Board. Unfortunately, the Department, or the Government, seem to consider that what the British Government was trying to do was to accord me an honor – something of the same kind as though they had offered me a decoration. They never had any such idea at all. They proposed that I be made a member of the Board of the Admiralty so as to give me the very valuable opportunity of being present at all the discussion of both policy and operations.11 As it is I come in individual contact only with some of the members of the Board.

          I feel quite sure that the First Lord’s12 idea was also that it would be of possible benefit to them to have the views of a foreign officer on various things that come up. I should like very much to have expressed some opinions about the arrangements for the Zeebrugge affair because I think that an analysis of our experience at Santiago and the Japanese experience at Port Arthur13 would have shown that in all blocking operations there should be a reserve of blocking ships at least as strong as the ones that took part in the first operation. This with the object of repeating immediately the first operation with the benefit of the mistakes made therein. I think it is clearly apparent now that if additional blocking ships had been ready to drive in, either the same night, or the following night, both ports could have been completely blocked. However, though I do not think Zeebrugge will remain blocked for any length of time, the expedition was carried out in such a gallant manner that I am sure it has had a very marked effect on the morale of all of the Allies.

          It is becoming apparent that we will need a few more first class men on this side. In correspondence with General Pershing it has become apparent that his staff is considerably embarrassed by a perfectly natural but very considerable lack of ordinary nautical knowledge. He has therefore written me requesting that I assign an officer to his staff to assist his people in this important and complicated business of convoy and handling of troop and supply ships.14

          Following the recommendation of the General Board, Cone15 is going ahead with the very considerable expansion of the Air Service behind the Western Front. This will eventually require a personnel of about 5000 men in a number of stations. Manifestly this is a large and important job, and the administration, discipline, and so forth, should be in the hands of a good man.

          We will want very soon also a good man for similar work in Italy.

          Therefore, when we ask for them we should get them promptly and they should be the type of men that we request. This will not be a case where it would be proper to reply that officers are not available, particularly in view of the fact that there is constant boast on the other side that there are 28,000 officers and 330,000 men in the Navy. We have about one-tenth of the officers and one-tenth of the men on this side, the only side where there is any war.

          Of course you know that many of the ships on this side have not got anything like a war complement. I have long since explained the lamentable condition of the yachts which have one line officer and the rest of them reserves. This condition of affairs constitutes a continuous risk of discrediting the Navy Department if any future disaster can be traced to this condition of affairs.

          You know of course that they propose to cut down the complement of regular commissioned officersof destroyers from five to three; that they also propose to cut down the commissioned complement of the dreadnoughts that are in the Grand Fleet to the same plane as though they remained at home without the slightest possibility of ever getting into war.

          All this is a matter of paper policy that has been laid down in the Department, Is it not time to recognise that there is a real man sized war going on over here and change your policy to suit these war conditions?

          We still get rumours on this side of all sorts of changes in the Navy Department, in the Fleet, and over here. I have written and expressed my opinion to Admiral Benson on the subject of the rumoured possibility of an officer being sent over here to command the destroyers – to take the destroyers out from under the British command and handle them as an American command.16 I understand from the Department’s endorsement that was placedon this proposition when it first turned up that the Department itself does not approve of this scheme. What I am afraid of is that political influence may be brought to bear in favor of somebody who wants a job over here that I may have foistered upon me a very unsatisfactory man backed up with very unsatisfactory orders. Can you not find the time to write me a few lines and give me the straight tip on this subject?17

          Did it ever occur to you that it is a very advisable thing to relieve as much as possible the mind of a man who bears a heavy responsibility, from all sorts of petty anxieties.If you will keep this in mind I think you will see the desirability of keeping me informed not only of actual facts and occurrences, but also of such rumours as may be flying around. It is actually the case that the bulk of the information we have on this side as to what people are doing, and thinking about on the other side, comes to us quite unofficially by people that are coming over to this side. Could not somebody be detailed to write me letters somewhat similar to those that I write to Admiral Benson so as to keep me informed as to what people are thinking about, talking about, and doing in Washington. It seems to me that this is a matter of very considerable importance.18

Very sincerely yours,             

Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.Navy,

     Office of Operations,

          Navy Dept.

               Washington.D.C.

P.S. What do you think of this clipping?19 Isn’t it a peach? What’s the matter with the U.S.censorship? Cheer up!

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 78.

Footnote 1: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations. For the letter that Sims refers to herein, see: Sims to Benson, 16 April 1918.

Footnote 2: For an example of these articles critical of Sims’ command, see: Army and Navy Register, 16 March 1918.

Footnote 3: Henry Reuterdahl, famed nautical artist (and close personal friend of Sims), and James B. Connolly.

Footnote 4: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. Sims’ letter to Daniels has not been located.

Footnote 5: Henry Sheehan, Atlantic Monthly, Herman Whitaker, Oakland Tribune, and Peter Clarke MacFarlane, Saturday Evening Post.

Footnote 6: For the latter, see: Sims to John E. Jenks, 8 April 1918. Sims’ letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune, Ogden Mills Reid, has not been found.

Footnote 7: Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 8: Judging from the number of press trips arranged by Secretary of the Navy Daniels for journalists wishing to report on the U.S. Navy in Europe, Sims’ charge that the Navy was doing too little, may be overstated. DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers.

Footnote 9: Art featuring the U.S. Navy in World War I was done, including works by Henry Reuterdahl, though most of it—with the exception of the famous recruiting posters--appeared after the war. See, for example, “World War I Art Featuring the U.S. Navy,” https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-i/imagery/wwi-art.html.

Footnote 10: On 23 April 1918, the Royal Navy launched the Zeebrugge Raid in an attempt to block the Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge. The British intended to sink obsolete ships in the canal entrance in order to prevent German U-boats and light shipping based there from leaving the port. Led by Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, Commander, Dover Patrol, the Royal Navy initially tried to launch the raid on 2 April 1918, but it was cancelled at the last moment, after the wind direction changed and made it impossible to lay a smokescreen to cover the ships. On the following attempt on 23 April, the Royal Navy also initiated a concurrent attack on Ostend. Two of three blockships were scuttled in the narrowest part of the Bruges Canal and one of two submarines rammed the viaduct linking the shore and the mole in order to trap the German garrison. The blockships were sunk in the wrong place and after a few days the Germans had opened the canal to submarines at high tide. Peter Kendall,The Zeebrugge Raid 1918: The Finest Feat of Arms (Brimscombe Port: Spellmount, 2009).

Footnote 11: For the reason Sims was not permitted to become an honorary member of the British Board of Admiralty, see: Diary of Josephus Daniels, 31 January 1918.

Footnote 12: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss.

Footnote 13: Sims is referring to the battles of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish-American War and the battle of Port Arthur, which opened the Russo-Japanese War.

Footnote 14: Actually, it was Sims who proposed assigning a naval officer to join Pershing’s staff. See: Sims to Pershing, 13 April 1918.

Footnote 15: Capt. Hutchinson I. Cone, Commander, United States Naval Aviation Forces.

Footnote 17: Sims got his wish. See: Benson to Sims, 6 May 1918.

Footnote 18: Pratt continued to write Sims letters of this kind.

Footnote 19: The clipping referred to is no longer with the document.

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