Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, to Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commander, Atlantic Fleet

1st Endorsement.

Navy Department.

Aug.4,1917.

From:     Chief of Naval Operations

To:       Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet.

Subject:       Destroyer Force – Force and Flotilla commanders.

     1.  In replying to the attached letter,1the Office of Operations deems it necessary to make a clear exposition of its policy with respect to the units in question.

     2.  To begin with, there is established a general organization of the various units composing the Fleet. This organization is based on the primary war use of our Fleet used as a whole against another hostile fleet. Of this organization the dreadnought is the backbone and all other units are assistants. This in general characterizes the attitude of our Naval Forces towards another naval force which it hopes to meet in Fleet action on the high seas. This organization is so arranged that it must work satisfactorily in peace, for training and administrative purposes, and it is hoped that, in so far as foresight can arrange, it will fit the conditions arising out of war.

     3.  But it has rarely happened war is so waged that an organization, even though it be highly efficient in peace, does not suffer certain knocks and adjustments in war. The task assignments rendered necessary by war operations frequently conflict with the paper organization. While every effort must be and will be made to harmonize the two, realizing that in the ultimate encounter of fleet with fleet, the basic organization will be the ground work for fleet strategy and tactics, yet the ever present immediate problems must and will be met in an efficient manner. Under such circumstances, technicalities must be sacrificed to the realities of the moment, and sometimes paper organization must give way to more pressing immediate arrangements.

     4.  The present war is one of identically the character indicated in the last sentence of paragraph 3, instead of the main fighting units of the Fleet being in the immediate foreground, there are for the present a reserve force while the minor units, especially the destroyers, are on the fighting line. This attitude has been force[d] upon us by the submarine warfare, Policy and grand strategy for the present dictate the location and uses of the main units of the Fleet – the lesser but more active function of tactics being the role of the minor units.

     5.  Moreover, this war has assumed such a character that the immediate problem to be solved is the solution of the submarine menace. In fact now it is the main problem. The main offensive factor in this solution is the destroyer.
Therefore, for the moment, the operations of this type of war craft must be given the right of way, in the interests of efficiency and to subdue a menace which if not adequately met may end the war without the main fleet having been in action.

     6.  Therefore, in view of the above, and with an eye to conditions which might arise later, the Office of Operations prepared its letter of July 3, 1917, which is quoted below:

“From:  Chief of Naval Operations.

 To: Commander U.S.Naval Forces Operating in European Waters.

 Subject: Assignment of U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters to Atlantic Fleet.

 1.  The U.S.Naval Forces operating in European Waters are  hereby assigned to duty with the Atlantic Fleet.

 2. The Force Commander will continue to communicate direct with the Department as heretofore.

 3. Keep the Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet informed of the employment of the forces under your command and submit to the Commander in Chief such reports as may be necessary and required by him to enable him to supervise the readiness of material and personnel, to perform their proper functions in the event of fleet operations.

(Sgn.) W.S. Benson.”         

7.  In view of the firm belief of this Office, as expressed in paragraph 5 of this letter, it cannot be seen how the approval of paragraph 3 of the original letter of the Commander in Chief would strengthen the position of the officer now commanding our forces in European waters. It might in fact tend to depreciate his position in the eyes of our Allies, a thing most earnestly to be avoided just at present. It would only introduce another element in the flow of instructions, a thing which Operations distinctly desires to avoid now, as it is clearly indicated in paragraph 2 of its letter of July 3. It, however, just as clearly wishes it understood that the instant the separated forces join, it then believes the task missions may change, and the destroyer force fit them into its logical place in the Fleet. In this case, Vice Admiral Sims would be the logical commander of the Destroyer Force, acting directly under the Commander in Chief, and our communications would be directly to the Commander in Chief, and not to the officer commanding our forces in European Waters as is now our practice.

8.   In this connection it is deemed well to invite the Commander in Chief’s attention to the similarity in the status of the two officers, the one commanding the Pacific Fleet, and the one commanding our forces in Europe, and to the similarity in the instructions issued to these tw[o] officers by this Office in its letters of July 3, 1917, copies of which are in the possession of the Commander in Chief. This Office is firmly of the opinion, under the present conditions, that, were it a question between the two, it is of more importance now to preserve the integrity and dignity of our forces in Europe than in the Pacific or South Atlantic. This Office also feels that, in the interest of international policies and Allie[d] objectives, it must not relax its hold upon the general situation, or limit its inherent right to deal directly with the forces in question if it is deemed expedient to do so. The assignment of Vice Admiral Sims2 as Commander of Destroyer Force first and second as Senior Officer Present in European waters is a step in this direction, and does distinctly make the present more important duty, subordinate to a duty which is less important now.

9.   Referring to the recommendation in paragraph 4, of the Commander in Chief’s letter, it is recognized that the officers therein mentioned are officers of worth and great experience in the handling of destroyer units. They are eminently fitted to command flotillas when such flotillas operate with the Fleet. It is well to bear the names of these officers in mind for possible future assignments when the Destroyer Force so works with the Fleet but it must also be borne in mind that the Destroyer Force has now a prime taks [i.e., task] apart from its Fleet tank, and that no change in the present organization should be contemplated, unless such a change can be clearly shown to be an efficient change and in the interests of the solution of the immediate main problem. Before such changes were inaugurated the view of the officer now handling these forces in European waters would be sought.

10.  Referring to paragraph 5. The need of more destroyer tenders is recognized and it is the policy of this Office to immediately find and fit out three such craft. When they are selected their names will be supplied to the Commander in Chief.

11.  Referring to paragraph 6. The need of flotilla flagships when the Destroyer Force works with the Fleet, is recognized. The BIRMINGHAM, CHESTER and SALEM , while fitting weel [i.e., well] into the paper organization and useful for peace training, are not well adapted for war operations with the Destroyer Force. There are no fit flotilla flagships in the Navy, and unless some exchange can be arranged with the British Admiralty whereby we can have turned over to us three of their latest and best light cruisers of about 4,000 tons displacement, and thirty knots speed, it would seem useless to put a flotilla commander in any other craft than in one of our latest and best destroyers.

12.  The return of this correspondence is requested.

W.S.BENSON.        

Source Note: LTS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Box 413.

Footnote 2: VAdm. William S. Sims, whose official title was Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters.

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