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.1918.

          Imagine my surprise when I really received a letter from you.1 You justly state that it has been a long time since you have written to me. You also state that it has been a long time since I have written to you. This latter statement is technically correct but hardly so when you consider that I have been sending you nearly every week a copy of my letter to the Admiral.2 There have been things of a very confidential nature, including an occasional criticism now and then, that I would have liked to write to you, but I have been refraining from doing so on your specific advice.

          However, there are certain items in your letter that I would like to notice. In the first place I think you deferred too long in going off for a month’s rest in Maine. A man in your position has no military right to let himself get within striking distance of breaking down nervously. I am afraid you did just that thing. I feel that in this job of mine it is up to me to take particular pains not to get run down. I must say however, that I have never been in the slightest danger of this. As you know I never cross any bridges. As you also know, I have a complete conviction that the man at the head of each one of the sub-divisions of the organization will do better than I could do myself. The consequence is that, to tell the truth, I am not the least bit overburdened with work and I have not the slightest intention of allowing myself to get into such a condition.

          Of course the liaison scheme is quite essential, and I intend to keep it up.3 Before long I will send over another officer to look into things generally. Old man Foote is probably a man of more ability than you would suppose from a first impression.4 He was with me on board the NEVADA and I had great confidence in his judgement to carry on his job as Ordnance officer. Of course he is working on a different stunt now but he has the supreme quality of being a perfectly square, fair, honest and indefatigable worker. It would of course be better for us on this side if Foote were more in touch with what we have been doing. In this respect Daniels5 did a very good stunt in getting the Secretary6 to understand more intimately what our job is like.

          I am not particularly interested in the shake up that there will be in the Fleet, beyond the fact that I hope that Wilson7 will be the successful candidate for Vice-Admiral and I hope you may find some other satisfactory billet for Gleaves.8

          While on this particular subject of a shake up I do sincerely hope that you people in the Navy Department will be so kind as to consult me before you send people over here in important positions. I have made this request to Admiral Benson in a recent letter.9 I have also recommended certain people for certain positions over here. Considering the responsibility that I bear, and the desirability of not increasing the strain of this responsibility, I think it is only ordinary decency, as well as military efficiency, that I should have at least a determining voice in the selection of these people. Bad mistakes have been made in this respect in the past, as you are of course aware, and it is extremely desirable that no more should be made in the future[.] See what you can do in order to get this thing straight!

          A case in point is my application to have Hughes sent to me for duty.10 He is just the kind of bucko first mate that is required for the position as Director of the large fleet of vessels that are taking supplies from England to France. Nothing but a man of his particular character would suit in this position. I know the position and I have applied for the man and it ought to be a foregone conclusion that I will get him quite independent of the desires of anybody that is sitting next to the dealer.

          You can search me as to the Department’s attitude with respect to Admiral Mayo!11 It is no less than a scandal that a young commander (King)12 should be sent over here to inspect these forces in all their details and render a report upon which recommendations will doubtless be made to the Navy Department. With all due respect to the commander-in-chief, it does not seem quite the right thing for a man to come over here and make a report on a subject upon which he can have only the very most general kind of information, that is to say, on the question of the air services over here. It is an exceedingly complicated piece of business, and with such a man as Cone at the head of it,13 the Department’s action in this respect should be based upon our recommendation and upon nothing else.

          It is for these reasons that I have asked to have this made either an independent command or else a command in which we will bear the responsibility of our own recommendations and will not have to carry on our work in accordance with the recommendations of somebody who makes a hurried trip to the dozens of different stations over here. Really this is a rotten piece of business.

          The festive Germans are being completely successful in the object for which they have sent submarines to the other side of the ocean. it is doing exactly what they wanted done. It is keeping anti-submarine forces on the other side, and it is furnishing material for the immense encouragement of the German population.14 In my letter to Admiral Benson that goes this week, I will enclose some extracts from German papers to show you what the Germans are claiming they are doing.15 They are doing all that is claimed in these newspaper articles, but they are doing a good deal.

          I note what you say concerning requests for the replacement of the gun boats. What we need more than anything else as of course you know is more destroyers. Actually American troops are congesting the camps at Southampton and elsewhere because we have not sufficient destroyers to convoy them across the channel as fast as we can carry them. If they are taken from other duty for this convoy service, we run the risk of losing several ships out of a convoy. While from a military point of view the detachment of these vessels might be justifiable it would not be justifiable from a political point of view.

          As for Lieutenant Salton Stall16 you will probably receive a cable concerning him before you get this letter. It is manifest that a man of his character would be useful to us over here. It should, however, be more manifest that I should have the authority to enrol men of a similar character who can do special stunts that we want done over here. I have made repeated applications for such men who can do just exactly what we want, and they have been consistently refused. Some change in policy concerning this should be made.

          In connection with this business of appointing a few of the expert men like those whom we need, is the question of the promotion of men who have done excellent stunts in the hazardous work of flying. We have made application for the promotion of a number of ensigns in the Flying Corps, and they have been consistently turned down with the exception of one ensign only who has done nothing at all except his regular duties in my headquarters. Of course you know that one of the greatest stimulants to exertion in war time is prompt recognition of gallant actions, and I should have the power to make this prompt recognition. At least if the Department insists upon keeping this authority the promotion should be made just as soon as a cablegram can be got back to me.

          I note particularly what you say about our present relations with out Allies, especially Great Britain, and also what you say about the difficulties there will be in maintaining the proper relations after the war is over. I have heard it frequently remarked over here that we will have no trouble in getting along with our Allies as longas the war lasts; that the trouble will come when the war is over. Everybody who understands the situation understands this perfectly well. There will have to be the greatest possible forebearance and cooperation to keep from the most serious economic clashes. I have had this so much in mind that I have recommended measures which would show our good faith in this respect before the war is ended. I was reprimanded in a very severe cable17 for making a suggestion which would have shown that we were willing to cooperate in this way. That was in respect of the repair of our destroyers on this side. I was accused of initiating a policy, when as a matter of fact, I simply suggested one. In the letter which I wrote after receiving the cable abovementioned I made a full explanation of the whole business.18 I defy anybody to refute the arguments in that letter and if you will refer to that letter you will see in the last paragraph I have pointed out that one of the causes of distrust of the United States on the part of the Allies and Neutrals over here is that the United States has not, up to the present time, issued any statement that the merchant vessels belonging to our allies and to neutrals that were commandeered when we came into the war will be returned to them after the war. If you want to pave the way for the maintenance of good relations after the war, we should announce now that these vessels will be returned.

          I have heard very representative people over here express great regret that the United States had, possibly unintentionally, assumed an attitude in respect of these vessels which would seem to indicate that they were striving for the maritime trade of the world after the war is over. This, to my mind, is a very serious matter and should be looked into carefully.

          Before this letter reaches you, you will know that Sir Eric Geddes is going to America to talk matters over with our Government.19 Lord Reading will be with him as well as some of the Sea Lords of the Admiralty.20 They will make propositions concerning the question of reciprocity in building, particularly the building program of military vessels. This will be the best possible opportunity for the United States to show that they are willing to cooperate in a way which will promote good relations. This will be establishing things on a 50-50 basis. This will indicate frankness in commercial endeavour.

          You may be quite sure that since the receipt of the Department’s cable of reprimand I have taken absolutely no part in all this business. The only reason I know about it is that it has recently been announced that Sir Eric Geddes is going to America with Lord Reading and the object of the visit was explained. Please do not accuse me again of initiating any policy. I did not even suggest the policy which will be put up to our Government. I had absolutely nothing whatever to do with it.

          I am glad to know that you have had an opportunity of meeting Lady Grant.21 She is really one of the most charming persons that I know, and I am delighted to head that she is going to pay Mrs.Sims a visit.22 They have been exchanging letters and they feel I am sure that they know each other quite well.

          I have no doubt that all you have to say concerning young Bill Pratt is strictly correct with the notable exception of your claim that all his good qualities are in imitation of yours. This I do not believe for a moment. However, I believe that under the wise training of his mother23 he will doubtless grow up to be a better man than you are. I am glad that he has reached his first birthday with success and has had the honor of having his small paw shaken by the redoubtable Teddy!24

          Do not let such a long time pass by without my having a letter from you. If you make up your mind to it I am sure you can find time to dictate a page or two from time to time. What I would like to have above all other things is your criticism of anything that you find being done on this side of which you do not approve. You need not bother to tell us that we are doing this that and the other satisfactorily. We will take that for granted as long as you do not reprimand us. But if you can give us from time to time the atmosphere and such criticisms as you hear, they will always be of great benefit.

          I am profoundly disgusted with the result of the selections. I cannot for the life of me conceive how any man who has considered at all the oath that he is required to take could vote for the promotion of some of the men who have been selected. I do not need to name them, but there are at least two who have demonstrated beyond the slightest doubt their total incapacity to perform the duties of the next higher grade. As I understand the conditions of selection require the officers to consider upon their merits all of the officers that are eligible for promotion. How any officers could have done this and left out men like you and Twining25 is something which I can not possibly conceive. It is of course true that the great bulk of the upper end of the Service are opposed to selection and I suppose we will not get the maximum benefit out of this service until half of these officers have been passed into the discard.

          Some time ago an extraordinary attack was made against the JUSTICIA. There were all sorts of stories published about it in the papers, but the facts were that she was being taken out with a strong escort, and was hit by a torpedo that was probably fired from a long range.26

          Unfortunately it hit her in the engine room and disabled her. There were six destroyers with her and she was joined by six more destroyers, six sloops, a number of trawlers and five tugs. The tugs could not tow her at more than a knot or so per hour as she was 32,000 tons. She had to be taken in through the northern channel to the Irish Sea. Unfortunately there were two submarines in that channel. These attacked her in succession. Notwithstanding the patrol by the eighteen or more vessels, they succeeded in torpedoing her two or three times. This was because she was to all intents and purposes an anchored vessel. This illustrates the fact that escort is of practically no use unless the convoy is working at considerable speed.

          Applying this experience to a convoy of a considerable number of vessels, I think you will agree that it would be impossible to protect such a convoy if it were anchored out at sea, or if it were not making more than a knot or so an hour. This being admitted, what chance do you think twelve destroyers would have in protecting a troop convoy that fell back on the Azores in accordance with the plan suggested by the Navy Department.27 It would be perfect meat for submarines. There is no protection that the Azores can afford. There is no harbor that a big ship can get into. The anchor spaces are very restricted. The gun or two that they have on shore would be no protection against a submarine operating below the surface. It was for these reasons that we advised against that part of the plan which consisted in turning back convoys to the Azores not to mention the fact that some of them would have to stay there until coal could be sent to bring them away.

          Another feature of the plan that we advised against was accepting as the premise of the plan the assumption that the British Navy would be able to notify us that a German battle cruiser had passed across the lines between Norway and the Shetland Islands. It is the opinion of the Admiralty that the probability is that they could not give this information. This I have always known through my discussions on this point with the principals of the Admiralty. The Admiralty has also stated it officially in response to an enquiry to to me of the result of the plan telegraphed to America.

          The objection to any plan based upon this premise is that as the plan is only to be put into operation after information of the exit of a battle cruiser has been obtained, it consequently follows that if the battle cruiser comes out without her presence being known the first intimation you will get will be the destruction of one or more convoys. You can imagine the effect of such a disaster on public opinion in America. Also the criticism of the plan which provided that you wait for a certain amount of destruction before the plan becomes operative.

          Another very serious objection to this part of the plan is that the disruption of the complicated convoy system would be very great and would mean the loss of a great deal of tonnage, the great bulk of which would otherwise arrive at its destination.

          Another serious objection is that the plan as suggested would be put in operation by any false alarm and would stay in operation for a considerable time until the alarm was known to be false.

          It follows from the above that if the Department is seriously apprehensive that a battle cruise may come out, the only sound means for the protection of the convoys, and the only sound means for the protection of the Navy Department against criticism in case of a disaster, is to send the battleships as escorts with the convoys from now on.

          If you can find any holes in the above arguments I should be very glad to have them. We are waiting for some news from the other side as to whether the Department intends to put this suggested plan into operation. If the Department does so it will of course accept a grave responsibility.

          I should think that in all cases of this kind it would be well, before suggesting an elaborate plan to ask us to suggest a plan. I can realise that it is difficult for the Department to change a plan which they have deliberately drawn up, but it would be no difficulty for us to change a plan if the one we drew up could be shown to be defective.

Very sincerely yours,             

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 78. Addressed below close: “Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.Navy./Office of Naval Operations,/Navy Department./Washington, D.C.”

Footnote 2: For example, See: Sims to William S. Benson, 10 August 1918.

Footnote 3: By “liaison scheme” Sims meant sending a member of his staff to serve temporarily with the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 4: Cmdr. Percy W. Foote. He commanded the troop transport President Lincoln.

Footnote 5: Cmdr. Joseph V. Daniels, who, before serving as liaison had been Sims’ representative to the destroyer flotilla at Queenstown.

Footnote 6: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

Footnote 7: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson who was commander of United States Naval Forces in France.

Footnote 8: RAdm. Albert T. Gleaves was then commander of the Cruiser and Transport Force.

Footnote 10: Presumably, Capt. Charles F. Hughes.

Footnote 11: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 12: Cmdr. Ernest J. King, an aide to Mayo.

Footnote 13: Capt. Hutchinson I. Cone, Commander, United Stations Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service.

Footnote 14: Given what Pratt wrote in his letter of 15 August, it is not likely he would have agreed with the former part of Sims’ statement.

Footnote 15: Presumably, Sims’ letter to Benson of 30 August, though there is no mention of the clippings in it.

Footnote 16: Pratt discussed Lt. John L. Saltonstall in his letter to Sims of 15 August.

Footnote 20: Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading, was the new ambassador to the United States.

Footnote 21: Mabel Brodrick Grant, wife of Adm. Sir William Lowther Grant, the British Commander-in-Chief in North America and the West Indies Station.

Footnote 22: Grant was based in Washington, D.C.; Sims’ wife, Anne Hitchcock Sims, lived in Newport, R.I.

Footnote 23: Louise Johnson Pratt.

Footnote 24: Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt.

Footnote 25: Sims’ chief of staff, Capt. Nathan C. Twining.

Footnote 26: For more on these stories and an extended discussion of the sinking of the Justicia, see: Sims to Benson and NYT, 21 August 1918.

Footnote 27: For this plan, see: Benson to Sims, 30 July 1918.

Tags