Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Captain William B. Fletcher, Force Commander, Patrol Squadrons, French Waters
30th August, 1917.
My dear Fletcher,
I am in receipt of a number of reports from the Commanding Officers of destroyers, who have escorted the transport convoys into St. Nazaire, which in general indicate lack of confidence on their part as to the co-operation to be expected from the French in approaching the coast.
Before going any further with this letter, I must invite attention to the fact that it is a delicate matter and, above all things, I am anxious that no friction or hard feeling should be caused in any way with the French. I fully realise that conditions may not be perfect on the French Coast. We must, of course, make the best of the situation as it exists. However, I am writing merely to keep you informed of information as it reaches me in order that you can also keep me informed and thereby keep our points of view as nearly as possible together.
The destroyers show a lack of confidence in the certainty that they will be met by local pilots or patrol craft in sufficient time to give them necessary information concerning channels and mine fields, that is, the latest information of safe routes based on sweeping operations.
There is much less fear on their part of submarines than there is of mine fields, particularly off Bell Isle1 and the approaches to St. Nazaire. I, myself, am not so apprehensive about submarine attacks in the presence of efficient destroyer escort as I am of the danger of mine fields as they approach the coast.
As our troop convoys increase in number, we probably must expect a more or less determined effort on the part of the enemy to head us off with mines. We are getting evidences every day showing that information does leak through to Germany in some way as to the general movements of our troops.
I fully realise that the French sweeping forces are inadequate. MAGRUDER has sailed from home with ten sweepers, towing some motor boats which will be available to co-operate with them under your direction. If necessary, we will have to try to get some other ships and sweeping gear, although just at present I don’t know where such assistance could come from.
Whatever the situation is as regards sweeping forces, it is possible to meet the convoys at a safe distance off shore and give them such information as is available whether negative or positive, but we must arrange for this diplomatically.
I don’t know just what your situation is as regards St. Nazaire. That is, as to how closely you are in touch with conditions there. Perhaps it will be necessary for you to go down to St. Nazaire in order to ensure the co-operation which we desire.
I don’t wish to express any undue alarm, or to attempt in any way to issue any instructions to you from this distance. You are the man on the spot and I desire at all times to leave you entirely free to be governed by the circumstances which exist. As I said above, this is a rather delicate matter as far as our Allies are concerned, and hence this personal letter.
Lieut. Blakeslee2 is leaving for France on Friday to bring you some new codes. He has been sent over to my staff by the Department as Communications Officer and will visit our various stations in France in order to acquaint himself of the communication situation in addition to bringing you the code books in person. You will be enabled thereby to send any confidential communications you wish back to me.
I realise how difficult it is to keep one’s point of view straight when at a distance from the scene of action. The experience of the war has shown the impossibility of ensuring perfect co-ordination and understanding between forces at a distance by telegraph or cable or even by written communications. I suppose you know of the Liason [i.e., Liaison] service which has gradually grown up – particularly in the field. Each army headquarters carries a Liason officer from other army headquarters and this officer travels back and forth in order to improve co-ordination and clear up doubtful points and misinterpretations which may result by long distance written or wire communications.
The War Office here in London keep officers going back and forth to the Front for this very purpose and it has been surprising to find how much such a procedure has kept the atmosphere clear and improved the understanding between separated offices or forces.
I want to improve all I can the co-ordination between the destroyer force and your force, and between both forces and my office here in London. For this purpose as soon as Daniels can be spared from the staff at Queenstown, I am going to send him over to you for a week or so. He will be able to see all of your difficulties and talk them over with you and should be in a positon to come back here to us and explain them in a manner which we can never hope to do by letters.
I want you always to feel free if, in case you think there are any misunderstandings or any complicated questions which could be cleared up, to send one of your staff over here temporarily to talk with us directly. Don’t hesitate to come yourself if you think the occasion warrants it.
I think everything will gradually straighten itself out. It is not an easy task to work under the conditions we are working, that is, trying to fit in to a war which has been in progress for a long time and trying to co-ordinate with people who, after all, talk quite a different language and have different view points. However, that is the game we are up against and on the whole I think our forces abroad have played it so far in an admirable way.
I would be glad to hear from you from time to time in a personal way. I hope everything is progressing reasonably satisfactorily.
Very sincerely yours,
Source Note: TLS, DN-HC, William Pratt Papers. Sims’ signature is hand-written. Address below close: “Rear Admiral W. B. Fletcher, U.S.N./U. S. Patrol Squadron/Brest”.
Footnote 1: Belle Isle, a small island just off the Virginia coast near Richmond.
Footnote 2: Lt. Edward G. Blakeslee, the head of the Communications Section on Sims' staff.