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

U.S. NAVAL FORCES OPERATING IN EUROPEAN WATERS

U.S.S. MELVILLE, FLAGSHIP.

TELEPHONE, VICTORIA, 9110                 30, GROSVENOR GARDENS, 

CABLE ADDRESS, “SIMSADUS”                        LONDON, S.W.1.

REFERENCE No.                               August 10th.1918.

My dear Admiral,

          I have just received your second cable about the measures proposed in case the German battle cruisers come out.1 I will take this up at once with the Admiralty,2 and will of course telegraph the answers to the questions you ask.

          It seems to me that there is only one vital decision to make in solving this problem, and that is as to whether or not it should be based upon the assumption that we will get warning of the battle cruisers coming out or as to whether we will not get warning. In the latter case our first intimation will be an attack on the convoys.

          An examination of the Planning Section’s estimate, to which you refer,3 will show that it is really based upon the assumption that we would probably not get the information. At all events, it seems to me that any problem of this kind should, in the interests of safety, be based upon the worst that the enemy can do.

          I have never thought it very probable that the German battle cruisers would come out to attack convoys, because I do not think it would pay them, as I have always understood that whether they win or lose they would want to be in possession of their fleet in as great a force as possible when they come to the peace negotiations. This statement was made within two weeks after war was declared in 1914. It may not have been authoritative, but it was made by the officials of the German Embassy who were in Newport at the time and was promptly reported in Newport by one of the retainers.

          As to whether we would be likely to get warning of the exit of a battle cruiser, I have often talked this over with the officials of the Admiralty, and it was discussed recently at one of the morning conferences. It was agreed then that the probability is that a battle cruiser could get out without being detected. Also that if she was detected she would not continue on the way out, though we would not be sure of this, and of course the proposed plan would have to be carried out.

          In the estimate made by our Planning Section, it was assumed that a battle cruiser attempting to get out would not only be preceded by submarine scouts to make sure she was unobserved, but submarines would be stationed off the entrance to the anchorages of the Grand Fleet and other detachments so as to be able to tell by the movements of the latter whether or not the exit had been discovered.

          Considering the distance across the North Sea, the position of the Grand Fleet on the western shores of the North Sea, the proportion of bad weather and fog, and the limitations as to the use of oil, it does not seem to me at all likely that the attempted exit of a battle cruiser would be discovered. It therefore seems to me that it would be only ordinary prudence to base any plan for the protection of our troop convoys upon the assumption that we will not know of the exit of the cruiser until an attack has been made.

          Some of the people in the Admiralty have expressed the opinion that a battle cruiser coming out for this purpose could not remain out long, and would almost surely be detected upon attempting to return. I have always dissented from this opinion, and in our last discussion of the subject it was apparent that the Admiralty officials now think it more than likely that the battle cruisers would not go out without having a certain amount of coal in vessels that had been despatched for that purpose.

          It has always seemed to me that by the expenditure of a sufficient amount of money, coal could be cleared from almost any country for perfectly innocent ports, and arrangements made to divert the cargo and anchor it in many places where it could be used and where there would be very small chance of its detection. I should expect a battle cruiser once out to have facilities for re-coaling at least for a considerable time. This would of course be a serious matter – so serious that it would seem that the plan should be based upon this assumption.

          Of course if a battle cruiser did go out, and we had no warning of her, the chances of her finding a convoy out in the Atlantic would be small. It is assumed that she would not search for a convoy close to the European coast where convoys converge towards their ports. This would be too dangerous a proceeding, as she could hardly cruise in these waters without being detected, and in that case she would be in great danger of being run down by British battle cruisers, particularly if one or more destroyers got contact with her and kept contact.

          It is therefore assumed that she would take to mid-Atlantic or appear off our coast where there are no battle cruisers. The chance of encountering a convoy in mid-Atlantic would of course be small. If we knew she had just left the North Sea, we could take measures to protect the convoys, but if we did not get this warning, we would probably lose some one or more convoys before the necessary measures could be taken.4

          It is for this reason that I have always advocated our battleships being used for the ocean escorts of our troop convoys. While I have never been particularly apprehensive as to battle cruisers coming out, I was always apprehensive that a raider might come out carrying one or more guns heavier than those of our cruiser escorts.

          I recognise, of course, the reasons why it is not desirable to employ our battleships in escorting, but the point I make is this, viz., if the Department is seriously apprehensive that battle cruisers will eventually come out, it seems to me that the only measure of safety is to take preventative measures before they come out – this upon the assumption that we will not know of their passing the line between Scotland and Norway.

          As you know by my recent cables, I have been placed in a very embarrassing position by this business of decorations. I have explained this as clearly as I could in a cable I sent the other day.5 I have based the gist of this cable upon the assumption that my Government authorized our officers to accept decorations, and that this authorization was officially communicated to the head of this Government6 by this Government’s diplomatic representative in Washington, and that if the head of this Government presented me in person with a decoration, I would have no right to offer personal objection to the acceptance of the decoration.

          As a private citizen I would have this right, but as a representative of one of the military services of our Government, it seems to me that to decline personally to receive the decoration would be an affront to the Government offering it. At all events, it would be an exceedingly bad measure of anti-propaganda.

          Considering all the measures that have been taken, particularly recently, to bring about a cordial understanding and a proper feeling between the peoples of the two countries, it would seem that this could largely be defeated by a representative of one of the military services personally declining a decoration offered by one of the Governments with whom we are cooperating, and official[l]y authorized by his own Government.

          The point about this matter which is sometimes lost sight of is this: that these decorations are considered as a compliment to the Service that the recipient represents. This is shown by the fact that between the European Governments these decorations are often given to men who simply represent their Governments on occasions of official functions. In such cases the decoriation could not, of course, be considered as personal. It is a pity that the law did not specify just what decorations our government wished our officers to accept.

          Mr.Padgett of the Naval Committee7 has asked me to send a message to the Secretary of the Navy8 about once a week stating the movements of the Committee. He informs me that an arrangement was made with the Secretary by which such messages would be repeated to the families of the thirteen members that are in the party.

          The Committee has been shown every possible attention by the British Government. They left this afternoon for France and will go from Paris to Italy and thence to the western bases in France. They are very enthusiastic in their expressions of appreciation of what the British Government has done for them, and they seem very much pleased with their observations of our bases as far as they have visited them. They are particularly pleased with the conditions that they found at Queenstown.9 They particularly appreciate the relations that have been established with the British authorities there, and are much impressed with Admiral Bayly.10 On leaving Queenstown they stopped over night in Dublin and spent one day and one night there. They were received by Lord French11 and shown every civility.

          As I told you last week, the Assistant Secretary12 left for Paris intending to go on very soon to Rome. He seems equally well impressed with what he has seen of the forces on this side. He made friends at once with Sir Eric Geddes,13 and the two of them have been discussing various matters. Sir Eric Geddes stated in a bit of a speech he made at a luncheon given by the Admiralty to the members of the Naval Committee, that he had been discussing with the Assistant Secretary the question of a new type of escort vessel, and that he intended to take this matter up with the Assistant Secretary when he returns to England from his visit to the Continent. I do not know the details of this proposed type, but, generally speaking, it is to be a vessel of considerably greater size than a destroyer with a speed of about 25 knots, and with sufficient radius and sea keeping qualities to be able to accompany a convoy across the ocean.14

          As I told you in a special letter which I wrote to you by the last mail,15 I do not intend to be involved in any such recommendations, except through the usual channels of the Navy Department.

          I enclose here with a letter recently received from the Ministry of Shipping, asking me for my support in persuading our Government to consent to their troop transports that we chartered from the British being allowed to operate without having a motor boat on board of sufficient power to tow all the other boats.16 I do not propose to take any part in this, or to express any opinion. It seems to me that it is something which should be handled exclusively on the other side. However, there can be little doubt that some of the arguments presented in this letter are sound, particularly as to the usefulness of amotor boat for towing in case a transport were torpedoed.

          I received a visit the other day from Commander Berry. Before his arrival on this side I received a telegram from the Secretary saying that he was ordered to the MANLEY, and accordingly sent orders to meet him when he arrived at Liverpool. When he came to see me a couple of days ago he told me that he had had nothing whatever to do with the issuing of the order that he was to go to the MANLEY. His written orders specified that he was to report to me for duty. He stated that he personally saw that these written orders were issued in that way. Of course he understood that an order from the Secretary of the Navy that gave definite orders would be understood as an order that had been inspired by him, and that this would place him in a false position as regards his reputation in the Service.

          As this is of course true, I telegraphed (at his request) the circumstances to Washington, and asked that the telegraphic orders be revoked so that he could report to me for duty. The MANLEY will probably not be ready for service until about the middle of October.17

          The question of planting surface mines from the eastern extremity of area “C” in the northern barrage,18 across the three miles of Norway’s territorial waters, is still under negotiation.19 A favorable answer has been received asking for certain information. The Admiralty recognises of course that the barrage would be of practically no use if a three mile gap remained on the Norwegian coast. They are therefore bringing pressure to bear on Norway to plant mines in this three mile strip so as to oblige Germany to abandon its use, as Germany does not seem disposed to do so on the request already made by Norway.

          We also hope that the gap between the western end of our area (area “A”) and the Orkneys will be closed by surface mines. This will of course be a great deal more than an inconvenience in handling the great Norwegian convoy. By obliging vessels to go through the Pentland Firth , and through the passage through the Orkneys just north of the Pentland Firth, very considerable delays will be caused. The reason of this is that a passage through the Firth cannot be made by the slow ships of the convoy except with a favorable tide. Moreover, it cannot be used in heavy weather and it cannot be sued in fog. The same applies to the passage through the Orkneys, though to a less degree. The result of this is that by reason of the delays it will be necessary to very considerably increase the amount of tonnage allocated to the Norwegian trade in order to fulfil the obligations of the British Government to supply a certain amount of coal, and so forth, and to receive from Norway certain essential supplies, some of them minerals unobtainable elsewhere.

          The final solution may be that they will close area “B” up to within a few miles of the Orkneys so as to leave a narrow north and south passage past the barrier. I am pressing for a definite conclusion on this matter, and will telegraph the result.

          The reputation made by our soldiers and marines has greatly increased the morale of all the allied armies and, doubtless, has correspondingly decreased that of the enemy’s forces.

Very sincerely yours,             

Wm S Sims                         

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS. William S. Benson Papers, box 84. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.Navy,/Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department./Washington. D.C.” This letter is written on stationary so that the material on the top of the first page is printed down to the date. This same printed material appears at the top of each of the letter’s seven pages. There is stamped at the top of the first page: “W. V. PRATT.” Pratt was the assistant Chief of Naval Operations and Sims sent him copies of his letters to Benson. There is another handwritten note at the top of the first page which reads: “Return to CNO.”

Footnote 3: The estimate is in the American Planning Section in London’s memorandum entitled “Battle-Cruiser Raid.” It is published in American Naval Planning Section London: 213-23.

Footnote 4: In the right margin opposite the first sentence of this paragraph some has written “OK.” In the left margin opposite the final sentence of the paragraph that same person wrote: “on the contrary I think [they?] has quite accurate Knowledge of routes & sailing dates.”

Footnote 5: See, Sims to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 4 August 1918, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. Sims gives an almost identical summary of the situation regarding decorations in a letter to his wife. See: Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 3 August 1918.

Footnote 6: That is, the British government.

Footnote 7: Lemuel P. Padgett from Tennessee who was chairman of the Naval Committee.

Footnote 8: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

Footnote 9: Queenstown (present-day Cobh, Ireland) was where a number of the U.S. destroyers were based.

Footnote 10: Adm. Lewis Bayly, R.N.

Footnote 11: John D. P. French, First Earl of Ypres, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Footnote 12: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Footnote 13: Geddes was First Lord of the Admiralty.

Footnote 14: There is no evidence that Roosevelt pursued this idea once he returned to the United States in late September. Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: 369-71.

Footnote 15: Sims’ “special letter” has not been found.

Footnote 16: The letter, dated 3 August 1918 signed by E. J. Foley of the Ministry of Shipping, is with Sims’ letter in the Benson Papers, DLC-MSS.

Footnote 17: Cmdr. Robert L. Berry did end up commanding the U.S. destroyer MANLEY. Supplement to the Navy List: 25.

Footnote 18: For a map showing the different areas comprising the northern mine barrage, see: Illustrations for June 1918.

Footnote 19: For more on the negotiations with Norway, see: Sims to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 10 August 1918.

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