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




August 30th. 1917.

My dear Pratt,

          In our weekly letter of this week, you will find a brief account of the arrival of Admiral Mayo on this side.1 Almost since the time I arrived here I have been suggesting and recommending that a number of officers be sent over to go into the situation, to work with the Admiralty, and dig out the information that is now wide open. It never occurred to me that Admiral Mayo might think of coming over but that of course is the best thing that could have happened. It is difficult for me to explain how much this means to the people over here. He is more than welcome, both he and his staff, and he is now in conference with the Admiralty.2

          I joined him at Liverpool, after a visit to Queenstown. Everything went well on the passage. He was joined by four destroyers and escorted in. He got in on Sunday night, came on Monday morning to the wharf, alongside of which was a special train with Admiral de Chair3 and three officers to meet him. He was received in fine style with a large guard of honour and escorted to the train. We arrived at London at 2.30 p.m. where he was met at the station by Admiral Jellicoe and a number of the officers at the Admiralty and also by the Ambassador and some of the members of the Embassy. He is quartered at the Carlton Hotel, where I have been staying. That night we had a dinner in his apartments which included all of his gang and all of the people here, and you may be sure we chewed the rag very considerably.

          The next day we went to the Admiralty, called on the First Lord, Sir Eric Geddes, and then on Admiral Jellicoe,4 and proceeded at once to the General Staff room for an examination of the situation in reference to the famous digging out policy, blockade policy and so forth.

          I find that the party that came over knew practically nothing about the real shipping situation as set forth repeatedly in my cables. Nor did they know anything to speak of of the reply that had been sent back in reference to schemes that had been proposed. They were surprised to find that the Fleet estimate of the situation, which they recommended should be sent over here for comment, had not been received.

          Pye5 has been very busy collecting all the available information and has it sorted out by subjects ready for the Admiral.

          The conference at the Admiralty was between the British Admiralty authorities, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet,6 Admiral Mayo and myself. They took up a number of things for consideration and as a result the Admiral is sending a cable today.7 This discussion was of course only preliminary to those that will take place when the Conference meets on September 4th. France, Italy and Russia will be represented.

          The Conference above referred to occupied all of the forenoon. At 1.30 we all went to lunch at the First Lord’s house where Admiral Jellicoe was present and a number of the Admiralty officials. In the afternoon there was an exposition of the status of the schemes of digging out tactics and so forth.8 I think I may safely say that it is a revelation to Admiral Mayo and his people to see what sort of a problem this would be. All of the confidential charts were shown that specified the position of all of the land and sea defences of the German Coast, including the mines that had been planted by both sides for a hundred miles out. It is really astonishing the number of shore batteries that are scattered along the coast surrounding Heligoland.

          As you know, this Island [i.e., Heligoand] is nothing but a rock sticking up out of the water, the sides of which are actually perpendicular. There is only a small piece of land at the Southern end on which there are a few houses. As far as is at present known it is defended by the most powerful guns in turrets and by a great number of heavy monitors in pits.

          It would take too long to give you an account of the result of the studies of the Admiralty War Board as to what would be required to take this place. And, having taken it, to proceed to block the high sea Fleet in port and to erect barriers, and maintain them, that would keep the submarine in.

          Heligoland is only from twenty to thirty miles from the neighbouring stations that surround it on the South and East. It could therefore be bombed from aeroplanes with unerring accuracy any night that was not foggy. These large planes could leave from the numerous surrounding stations, and would of course vastly outnumber any planes that the British could bring to bear from the sea in opposition. Moreover, as you doubtless know, aeroplanes cannot effectively oppose other aeroplanes at night, for the very simple reason that they cannot see them.

          From the above it is apparent that, even assuming that Heligoland is now twice as heavily armed as the present information shows, and even supposing the Germans should present it, fully supplied, to the Allies, it would be wholly impossible to hold it, let alone maintain any floating forces in its neighbourhood.

          Needless to say, no aggression in the way of blocking German ports or building barrages could be carried out in the neighborhood of Heligoland unless the Allies did hold it.

          I believe that it is entirely apparent <that,> in order to block the ports, it would require the Lord knows how many specially constructed concrete hulks partially filled with concrete. These would have to be laid within easy range of the powerful batteries that surround the only available positions. It is also apparent that after laying such a concrete barrage, from one shoal to another a channel could be dug around through the shoals in a very short time by the modern powerful suction dredgers, which we may assume that the Germans have many of.

          I have not heard Admiral Mayo express any definite opinion about the advisability of these projects, but I feel quite sure that he will conclude that they are not practicable. In all studies of this kind it should never be forgotten that a partial success will not do. Nothing but complete success would be any good to the Allies. Any barrages that are put down must be maintained by floating forces that are not more than twenty miles away from the numerous aeroplane stations above mentioned. You may imagine how long it would take under such circumstances to disable or destroy all the vessels so engaged.

          Such a procedure would be playing the game that, you may be sure, the Germans have been praying that the Allies would attempt – in order to give the former the opportunity to put into operation the attrition project formulated by Von Tirpitz.9

          The question of sending over the four dreadnaughts that have been asked for by the British Government has been discussed to a certain extent, but without arriving at any definite conclusion.10 You know what I think about the soundness of the policy of the “dis-integration” of the Fleet. You know that I cannot see that there is any question of dis-integration in advancing a detachment between the main fleet and the enemy, particularly when the enemy is contained. In case the logistics of the situation would permit our Fleet to come over to this side, it could not be used effectively as a unit. This for the simple reason that it is not anything like a balanced fleet. It could not even cruise in comparative safety because it has not the auxiliary forces that are necessary to protect it.

          The only effective co-operation with the British Fleet would be to use the forces present to make up an homogenous fighting unit.

          To carry out any combined operations would absolutely require that vessels of the same class, whether British or American, would have to operate together. Nobody could call this a disintegration of our Fleet.11

          Nobody can prophecy what is going to be the outcome of this war. You know approximately what conditions are like in Russia.12 You know that if she gives way entirely it will release tremendous forces to be brought against the Western Front. There were no less than one hundred and twentynine German and Austrian divisions on the Eastern Front until a comparatively recent date.

          If these should be brought to bear upon the Western Front it might <not> be possible to stand, particularly as the air forces of the two sides are apparently pretty evenly balanced.

          France is, as you know, war weary, and there is no telling how near she may be to the breaking point. Let us suppose that the Allies lose the war. In that case what would be the position of the United States when it became known that the Allies had asked for reinforcements of their battle fleet and that America had declined for a reason believed to be unsound? The superiority of the British Fleet over the German is much less than is generally supposed. The figures were laid on the table yesterday and showed a proportion of twentyfour to nineteen dreadnaughts, with a great superiority in the matter of destroyers that the Germans could bring to bear at any particular time of their own selection.

          As stated in my recent cables, it will be necessary before the end of the year to put five British pre-dreadnaughts out of commission, and replace them, in the South-east part of England by a force of a less number of dreadnaughts taken from the Grand Fleet.

          Let us suppose that an action takes place and that the Germans should succeed in drawing the British Fleet over a submarine trap and damaging it to such an extent that the reinforcements would be essential to success. Where would we be in the light of history when it became knownthat we had declined reinforcements that might readily have turned the scale of battle. This is a matter for very earnest consideration. In my opinion not to comply with the expressed requirements of the Allies in the present situation is to take a very grave and very unnecessary risk of our fair reputation among nations.

          I have just received a letter from the big boss addressed to me and Admiral Gleaves in reference to the convoy business.13 I would like you to convey my very sincere congratulations to the man who concocted this letter. It certainly is a peach of a diplomatic production. It is all right in every respect in that it keeps the operations of the convoy in so few hands that the danger of information getting out is a minimum.

          I would like to invite special attention to the summaries of the War Diaries that go forward by this mail. They cover the period from August 19th. to 26th.14 If you will read these carefully you will see that the troop convoy concern fell into dire confusion not far off the coast of France. There was supposed to be an attack by a submarine. As you doubtless know, there are many such attacks reported when none exist. However, the destroyers take no chances. They steam full speed toward anything in the water that looks suspicious and if necessary drop a depth charge. In this particular case this was done, whereupon the convoy itself went wild. All hands opened fire with their guns in all sorts of directions. Many of the shots fell dangerously near to the destroyers, though a little reflection would have shown that there was no use firing at anything a few hundred yards from a destroyer, at least while the destroyer was not firing at it. But much worse than all, when the alarm came, the convoy scattered in all directions and were an absolute menace to the destroyers. Worse even than this, they did not scatter in any particular manner, but higgledy-piggledy. In one case three transports went off in one direction where they were protected for a time by only one destroyer.15

          It is of course difficult to arrange co-ordination between the convoy and the escorting forces, but this can be managed provided the convoy remains intact as a formation. Generally speaking, the escorting destroyers, when they join, request the convoy commander to leave them free to manoeuvre as their experience has shown to be the best for the protection of the convoy. They can do this successfully. Different escorting commanders have done this in different ways. Nobody knows at present what is the best way, though all of those so far employed seem to be reasonably sound.

          I have directed that the various escort commanders get together and discuss the various plans that have been used, compare experiences, and draw up a tentative doctrine of the best method of protecting convoys of different sizes and those that are in different formations.

          This will be accomplished as soon as possible, and thereafter the tentative doctrine will be adhered to until such time as experience shows that a change is desirable. This change will then be applied to a new tentative doctrine which will be adhered to and so forth. You know the process.

          But the point I wish to accentuate is that in order that this or any other method may be successfully applied it is necessary to know that the convoy will remain together. You will recognize that this is wholly essential, and instructions should be given accordingly.

          While an examination of the War Diaries in question will show that the manoeuvre under consideration was practically a total failure, and while the attention of the Convoy commander should be drawn to this conclusion, I do not think it would be proper under the circumstances to apply any disciplinary measures, because they are all new at the game and it may be that general instructions of the nature above indicated have not been given. There is no doubt that the management of convoys and escorts will improve as time goes on.

          Still a propos of convoys, we were in considerable anxiety yesterday due to the fact that a pretty heavy gale sprang up and made such a sea that the destroyers could not make way against it and meet certain convoys that were coming in. In fact some of these convoys had to heave to, I am glad to say, however, that as soon as the weather improved the destroyers joined the convoys and they are now all proceeding on their route. There are five of them at the present time either coming in or going out through the danger zone. I believe that in one case only our three ships separated from their convoy.

This is an example of what we may expect whenever severe gales come on during the coming fall and winter. This little experience will be of value to all concerned.

     During my recent visit to Queenstown I found everything as satisfactory as it could possibly be imagined in so far as concerns our relations with the British Authorities there. It is not too much to say that they are delighted both with our destroyers and with their personnel. The destroyer people swear by Admiral Bayly and he admires and likes them all. He sees them very often as they go to the Admiralty House frequently for dinner or to play tennis or a kind of cricket in which he and his niece always join.16 Incidentally, the latter is one of the most attractive young ladies of my acquaintance. She runs the house for him and pretty much runs him as well as<and> about all of the relief activities of Queenstown and its neighbourhood.

     I rather anticipated that the work of patrolling and convoying would become monotonous and that our fellows would grow a bit stale. This has not been the case in any degree. On the contrary I should say that they are now more enthusiastic than they have been. They do not find the work at all monotonous. This is shown by the fact that officers on the DIXIE and MELVILLE17 are always asking for opportunities to go out and the fellows on the destroyers decline to give them this opportunity at the expense of remaining in port.

     When I went to Queenstown I took Ancrum and Blakeslee18 with me. The former was seized with the old Flotilla fever and asked my permission to remain behind and go out on one of the destroyers that formed part of a convoy escort. I fancy he will get what experience he needs as he struck the gale of wind above referred to. As you know, old man Ancrum is an outdoor man and does not like to handle papers and so forth and he wants an opportunity to command a destroyer. He will doubtless get the opportunity soon, as we are beginning to develop casualties in the way of sickness caused by bad weather. 

Berrien is very much delighted with his job.19

     In this connection I am very glad to learn that some spare officers are being sent out to take the place of people who may break down temporarily.

     As you doubtless know, Admiral Mayo’s staff is what you might call a standardized staff, in that they seem to lay great stress upon everything being standard. There are standard organizations for vessels of various classes and standard this and that. Whether this is a good thing, or whether it delays progress, I am not prepared to state; but this point is an important one, and that is that no person can be sure that an organization which has been worked out in time of peace is going to be the right one to use under peculiar conditions in time of war.

     I have not examined closely the organization in question, but I do know this that the necessities of the work that the destroyers are doing now have absolutely necessitated certain features of the organization which would be distinctly dangerous to abandon in favour of any organization that had been gotten up without this experience.

     There is another very essential point and that is the relations which now have been established between our forces and the British Admiralty. I do not now remember whether I ever told you much about the details of this, and perhaps I had better give you an idea of how delicate the situation was.

     When I first arrived, and when it was decided that a destroyer force would be sent over here, Admiral Jellicoe expressed to me grave concern as to whether we would be able to get along with the Vice Admiral in command at Queenstown.20 He had, and still has, a reputation of being very difficult, and was supposed to have it in for all Americans because, when he was Naval Attache in Washington, he was practically fired at the request of our people. Before I had visited Queenstown he was ordered down to the Admiralty to talk over the matter of co-ordination.

For a long time he had been at outs with the Admiralty. It is not necessary to go into reasons why, but this had gotten to such a stage that the anti-submarine people in the Admiralty no longer corresponded with him nor he with them, though he had vastly more experience in this line than the people in the Admiralty who had come in with the advent of Admiral Jellicoe.

     Moreover, the estrangement was such that Admiral Bayly would not ask for the men he needed at Queenstown and would not ask for the detachment of men who were totally unsuited to the work.

     He did not tell me anything of this. He never even mentioned it. But I learned it from the remarkable young woman whom Admiral Bayly calls “the niece”. When Admiral Bayly came to the Admiralty I was invited of course to meet him in Admiral Jellicoe’s office. On that occasion he was as rude to me as one man can well be to another. He was apparently deeply incensed at having been sent for. I do not know what they had been saying to him. When he had gone Admiral Jellicoe apologized to me, and said that he would remove the Admiral if I thought it was necessary. Of course I said that I was quite sure it would not be necessary; that I did not know what the cause of the friction was but I believed I could find out and indicate how it could be corrected.

     Shortly afterwards I went to Queenstown. The Admiral received me very nicely but without enthusiasm. After about three days it became apparent that he quite approved of me. The neice told me subsequently that he had “walked around me” for three days and finally told her “that man is on the square”. Directly afterwards it is not too much to say that we became really sincere friends and this friendship has been increased as time goes on.

When I returned from this visit I went to Admiral Jellicoe with the full knowledge of all the causes of friction and I said that it would be impossible for us to successfully co-operate with the British Admiralty unless they could be removed. At my instigation, Admiral Jellicoe, who is an old friend of Admiral Bayly’s, wrote him a nice personal letter in which he wondered that the Admiral had not been on leave in two years and suggested that he seek an early opportunity to go. I said that I thought it essential that the Rear Admiral who had the direction at the Admiralty of the anti-submarine campaign should write the Admiral a letter requesting permission to visit him for the purpose of benefitting by his experience. The Admiral in question strongly objected at first but upon my insisting that this was war and that personal feelings should have no place in its conduct, he consented to go and did go. I explained to Admiral Jellicoe that the Flag Captain at Queenstown had always been a thorn in Admiral Bayly’s side and he should be exchanged. Also that two officers of his staff were quite useless and should also be removed. This was done and the officers that Admiral Bayly wanted were sent to him.

I also invited attention to the fact that officers serving in other similar stations, and who were junior to Admiral Bayly had been made Commanders-in-Chief while he had received no recognition for his valuable services at Queenstown. Admiral Jellicoe said that he would be glad to see him made Commander-in-Chief (this is not a rank but a distinction which carries greater pay and allowances with it) but that when he had proposed it to the Board of the Admiralty they were unanimous against it. I asked permission to see the First Lord, Sir Edward Carson, on the subject. When I explained it to the latter he agreed that it should be done and he did it the same day. Since that time there has been no trouble on either side.

I regard Admiral Bayly as one of the ablest naval officers with whom I am acquainted in any Navy. The experience that he has had in handling the forces at Queenstown is wholly invaluable. I recognise that he has a peculiar character. He is peculiar in this respect in that he has difficulty doing business with people that he does not like. With those that he does like he is one of the most agreeable men to serve with.

I have told you all this to accentuate what I referred to more briefly in a previous letter, and that is, that I am apprehensive lest anything should be done to disturb the relations which now exist.21

I have referred above to the very natural disposition on the part of Admiral Mayo’s staff to have things standard. I recognise of course that that they are not standard at Queenstown. In this respect, namely, that such an organization in time of peace would be commanded by a Rear-Admiral and that the sub-divisions of the force would be commanded by Captains and so forth and so forth. If this should be done it might upset the whole band waggon.22 The situation is a peculiar one and it is so eminently satisfactory and so efficient that it would not be well to interfere with it.

In regard to the organization,I have, as you know, from my official reports, organized the forces in divisions of six, and have put the doctrine in operation again so that it may be applied if in the future it should become necessary.

But of course you will understand that this organization to which I have just referred cannot be used at all for the present work in which the destroyers are engaged. They are required in bunches of various numbers to perform various services and these bunches can seldom be the same, and this for the simple reason that the forces must be used to the best advantage. Those that have to go the longest distances must be selected in accordance with their ability. Those which have steamed for five hundred hours must have their five days in port for washing out their boilers, and those which have reached a certain period of general service must have their ten days overhaul. From this you will see that there is a constant interchange of duties that are necessitated by the situation.

We have recently received a telegram to send home the body of a man who was unfortunately drowned in Queenstown. We could not do so because his body was not found until after ten days and it could not be embalmed and was therefore buried. There was another similar case occurred in France – an aviator who was killed.

Although we have had most astonishing good luck so far we cannot expect to get through this war without some casualties. If these should be considerable it would be materially impossible to comply with the Department’s order. This is because embalming is very little practiced in this country and the proper kind of coffins would have to be built.

In this connection I may say that when the war was in its early stages bodies were frequently sent home to their own country but this has long been entirely abandoned. The Admiralty has issued an order that no bodies of enlisted men shall be sent anywhere if it involves transportation by water. This applies even to transportation across the Irish Sea from Ireland to England or vice versa.

I think this matter should be seriously considered with a view to complying with the practice of the Allies in this respect.

I am enclosing you herewith a paper called “THE GAME OF DOCKETS”.23 This is a skit that was written by some of the British officers and circulated in the Admiralty. The terms which refer to the papers in question are not the same as ours, but you will readily recognise what they are. I think you will see that in this respect the practice of passing the buck is knownhere, and probably in all other countries.

I hope you are remaining cheerful under your many burdens. I hope to get good news of your family in your next communication.

Very sincerely yours,   

Wm S Sims     

P.S. I have still another growl to inflict upon you and that is in connection with the not inconsiderable and very disagreeable articles which appear from time to time in the United States Press giving my alledged opinion on various subjects, and claiming that these are derived from my official reports. It is unnecessary to explain how embarrassing that sort of thing is from a man in my position. The people over here cannot but conclude that the opinions printed in our Press, with the statement that they came from my official reports, are true. I enclose a clipping from some ST.LOUIS paper giving one of these articles sent out from Washington by the international News Service. Just glance over it and see what are supposed to be my opinions on the anti-submarine campaign. Couldn’t something be done to prevent such articles being published? Could it not be arranged that correspondents who write such articles should pass them to the Censor?


Source Note: TLS, DN-HC, William V. Pratt Papers. This letter is printed on stationary, with the heading centered at the top of each page, and “TELEPHONE, VICTORIA 9110 30 GROSVENOR GARDENS,/CABLE ADDRESS, “SIMSADUS” LONDON, S.W. I./REFERENCE No…………………” likewise appearing on the left and right margins of every page. From page 2 onward, the page numbers appear centered just above the text. Address below close: “Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.N./Navy Department,/Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 2: For more on Mayo’s visit, see: Mayo to Josephus Daniels, 30 August 1917.

Footnote 3: RAdm. Sir Dudley S. De Chair.

Footnote 4: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 5: Cmdr. William S. Pye, Fleet Intelligence Officer, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 6: Adm. Sir David Beatty, Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet.

Footnote 8: “Digging out tactics” refers to efforts to go on offense against submarines and strike at their bases. The hope was to root out the submarines and destroy them before they could put to sea against Allied shipping.

Footnote 9: Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office and a prominent German military strategist.

Footnote 10: See: Sims to Daniels, 21 July 1917.

Footnote 11: For more on the Navy Department’s concerns about the “disintegration” of the fleet, and Sims’ counter-arguments, see: Sims to Daniels, 16 July 1917.

Footnote 12: In March 1917, Tsar Nicolas II abdicated the throne of Russia, and a provisional government assumed control under the direction of the Duma, a popularly-elected assembly. Tensions continued to mount, however, and the Bolsheviks grew in power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. In November, they overthrew the Duma and instituted a Marxist government in St. Petersburg, plunging Russia into over 70 years of Communist rule. Among the new government’s first acts was to make a separate peace with Germany. Strachan, The First World War: 238-242, 260-265.

Footnote 13: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 14: These documents have not been found.

Footnote 16: RAdm. Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander, Southern Ireland, and his niece, Miss Violet Voysey.

Footnote 17: Both ships were destroyer tenders.

Footnote 18: Lt. Cmdr. William Ancrum and Lt. Edward G. Blakeslee, both aides on Sims’ staff.

Footnote 19: Lt. Cmdr. Frank D. Berrien, newly-appointed commanding officer of the destroyer Nicholson.

Footnote 20: Bayly.

Footnote 21: It is unclear which of his letters Sims is referring to.

Footnote 22: Sims is concerned with the possibility that Cmdr. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle might be replaced as the commanding office of the Destroyer Flotillas. Normally, such a command would have gone to an admiral. See: Sims to Pringle, 3 September 1917.

Footnote 23: This humorous document outlines the rules of a “game” whereby a large bureaucracy avoids doing anything productive. The object of the game is to “prevent unnecessary action, and to keep the staff employed in interesting and harmless work.” Rules include:

"(1) The docket should not be charged direct to anyone who can take action.

(2) The docket may be marked to any number of Departments for their remarks and anyone receiving it may add other Departments.

(3) In minuting, it is desirable to ignore the main question and to emphasize some side issue or raise some new point."

Departments gain points by passing the docket around without actually doing anything. The department originating the docket “loses” if any action is taken. “THE GAME OF DOCKETS,” DN-HC, William V. Pratt Papers, Box 1.

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