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Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations




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

REFERENCE No.                             August 30th.1918.

My dear Admiral,

          I have been anxious for a long time about the ultimate result of the barrage upon which we were expending so great an effort and such a great amount of money in the North Sea. From my previous letter1 you know that the British had such bad luck with their deep sea mines in area “B”, that is, the area between the western extremity of our field and the Orkneys, that they were obliged to abandon the original project of planting these mines in that area.2 You may remember that they blew up a ship on them, that many of them countermined each other, and that many came up near the surface without being rendered innocuous as they should have been. The final result was that it was demonstrated that the area would be too dangerous to put any deep draft vessels over, and the mines already laid were eventually swept up.

          This minefield was to have been laid within seven miles of the Orkneys, that is, leaving a passage of seven miles between the Orkneys and the western end of the minefield. I have been trying for a long while to get the Admiralty definitely to decide to mine this area with surface and deep mines all the way to the Orkneys. While most of them agree that this should be done, provided we should succeed in closing the neutral waters between the eastern end of the minefield and the coast of Norway, still there were many difficulties in the way of handling the convoy and there was some embarrassment to the manoeuvres of the Grand Fleet. As a result of numerous discussions it was finally decided by the British that they would mine area “B” up to within ten miles of the Orkneys and that in this strip of ten miles between the western end of the minefield and the Orkneys there would be neither surface nor deep mines. I took the attitude that this would render the minefield of very little value; that as soon as the submarines discovered this passage they could pass it without any particular danger to themselves. I therefore said that if that decision was maintained I should recommend to my Government that all of our mining be discontinued and the effort be diverted to the Mediterranean. This had the immediate effect of causing the matter to be re-discussed. The Chief of Operations3 was sent to consult the Commander-in-Chief,4 who was I believe responsible for the decision just mentioned. The result was that an agreement has now been reached to mine area “B” to within ten miles of the Orkneys, to send the convoys hereafter through West Way Firth and Pentland Firth and thence across north of the barrage; to declare area “B” mined all the way to the Orkneys and then if it was found that any submarines passed through the ten mile gap, that this was to be mined with both surface and deep mines, thus closing the whole of the North Sea between Norway and the Orkneys. Of course this is on the assumption that the neutral waters along the Norwegian coast will be effectively closed. This proposition seemed to me fair and I accordingly withdrew my objection.

          As for the Norwegian neutral waters, the negotiations between the British Government and Norway are now proceeding and it looks as though the matter would be settled very soon, perhaps before this letter reaches you.5

          The British take the attitude that their experience shows that it is quite futile to attempt to stop the passage of submarines through all these neutral waters by patrol vessels and that therefore Norway should put down mines. I think it would be well if our Government took the same attitude.

          Unfortunately, we are still having trouble with our mines. In one of the earlier batches laid there were about 4% of premature explosions. Modifications were made to correct this, but the result was that there was between 14 and 17% of explosions. A subsequent modification reduced the explosions somewhat. In the last batch of mines laid there were 11% of premature explosions but the report stated that they believed they knew the cause and could remove the defect. Of course, these percentages are only those of mines that were heard to explode. We do not know how many have exploded since. We therefore do not know that the barrage is effective.6 Within a few days British and American mine laying vessels operating together will lay six lines of surface mines across area “B” to the ten mile limit. The area will not be declared at once, and this may catch a number of submarines that are now passing across area “B”. Subsequently the whole of area “B” will be declared mined, though the ten mile gap will be left until it is shown that the submarines are using it or until it is shown that they can pass across area “C” or area “A” without damage, as may possibly be the case if our mines have exploded to a greater extent than we now know. If we succeed in finding out what the trouble is with the mines, and if it turns out that the field already laid is not as effective as it should be, it can be reinforced by lines of mines laid to the northward of the limits originally declared. This will not endanger neutral shipping as all commerce in that area is now under complete control.

          We are putting forth all of our efforts to get something out of the submarine chasers. We are collecting all the experience from the bases where they are used and sending it to the other bases. We have also gotten out series of instructions based upon the experience derived to date. We hope that we will soon be able to show results, but all hands are becoming more or less sceptical. This is not because the listening devices do not work with a reasonable amount of success, but because it does not result in getting the submarine. All of those who are intimately connected with this work, and the reports of hunts show that the trouble is in the lack of nautical experience on the part of the personnel. I am afraid that if this lack of success continues it will discredit our Navy to a very considerable extent. If we can make a success of destroying submarines with these chasers it would put a feather in the Navy’s cap. Assuming that success is possible, it is evident that there is no service being performed by officers afloat that is more important than this, because a certain percentage of success following all cases in which we are able to track submarines, would certainly put them out of business. It is for this reason that I have recommended that experienced officers be sent to control the operations of each one of the chaser hunting units.

          We are still awaiting the Department’s decision as to the plan suggested for protecting our convoys against German battle cruisers in case they come out.7 It has seemed to me that the plan suggested by the Department was manifestly a good one provided we assume that the premise on which is was based was sound, that is, that the British Navy would be able to notify us when a German battle cruiser had passed the line between Norway and the Orkneys. There is, however, in my opinion, one rather serious objection to the plan and that is, the provision that certain convoys would fall back on the Azores. There is no protection of any kind for vessels of deep draft at the Azores and the experience of the JUSTICIA shows that a convoy that is practically stationary as was the case with the JUSTICIA, cannot be adequately protected by any reasonable number of escorting vessels.8 The JUSTICIA was in convoy when she received a torpedo abreast of her engine room. This entirely disabled her machinery, so that five tugs could not tow her more than a knot or so an hour. There were six destroyers with her and she was joined by six others and six sloops and a number of trawlers. She had to be towed in to the North Channel to the Irish Sea and unfortunately there were in that Channel two submarines which attacked her successfully in succession notwithstanding the number of escorting vessels about her and notwithstanding the fact that these vessels dropped over a hundred depth charges to keep the submarines away. This is simply to illustrate how impossible it would be to protect a convoy that had fallen back upon the Azores in case it were attacked by a submarine.

          Another objection which suggests itself is that the plan would cause great confusion in convoys; would very seriously handicap the flow of supplies into Europe, and would probably require the despatch of coal vessels to re-coal ports, at least of the convoys that have been turned back. There is also of course the suggestion that if the putting in operation of the plan depended upon receiving information of the exit of a battle cruiser, it follows that the plan would be put in operation on every false alarm that might be given.

          Personally, I have never been particularly apprehensive that the battle cruisers would come out, but if it is considered that this risk should not be taken, it seems to me that the only safe way is to take the measures of protection before the cruiser comes out by sending the battleships as convoys with all of our troops.

          The Assistant Secretary9 returned to London the other day from Paris. He seemed to be particularly incensed against Captain Jackson.10 He did not tell me why, and I knew nothing about his condition of mind on this subject, until he handed me a telegram which he wished sent to the Department recommending that Jackson be withdrawn immediately. I asked him what the hurry was and he said that every day that Jackson was there he was doing harm. He did not explain further. He has now gone to the Grand Fleet and will probably visit Inverness and Invergordon.

          Incidentally, he told Captain Twining that he was very much put out because Congressman Thompson11 went to the Grand Fleet on the same train that he went on. He did not speak to me about it, so that no explanations were made. The circumstances were that the Secretary arrived here on the morning of one day and left the same evening for the Fleet. The day before Senator Thompson came in to me with a letter of introduction from the Secretary of the Navy12 asking me to extend the usual facilities and courtesies to him. He asked particularly to go to the Grand Fleet. He could only accomplish this and catch his steamer for home by going on the same train that the Secretary went on, so that the incident could not have been avoided except by declining to procure permission for the Senator to visit the Fleet.

          It is to be regretted that a mistake was made in the matter of decorations.13 If the law had provided that authority was granted to accept the purely war decorations, like the D.S.O., Croix de Guerre, etc. all difficulties would have been avoided, but since it specifically stated that any officers and enlisted men were authorised to receive any decorations and medals and as these decorations were given admittedly as an expression of good will towards the country, and as they were presented without consultation with the recipeints, and with official knowledge on the part of the donors with <that> our Government approved, it followed that it left the recipients no alternative but to accept the decorations, on pain of committing an act of grave discourtesy towards the Government of the donors. At the time of this writing I have not yet received the letter mentioned in your cablegram on the subject.14

Very sincerely yours,   

Wm S Sims          

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, William S. Benson Papers, Box 7. This letter is printed on stationary, and the heading material appears at the top of each subsequent page. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson. U.S.Navy./Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department./Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: Sims letter to Benson that discusses the North Sea Mine Barrage has not been found. For more on the subject, see: Planning Division 27 July 1918. For a diagram of the areas of the barrage, see: Maps for April 1918.

Footnote 3: This probably refers to Capt. Charles P.R. Coode, R.N., Director of Naval Operations.

Footnote 4: Adm. Sir David Beatty, R.N., Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet. 

Footnote 5: For more on this, see: Sims to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 10 August 1918; and Schoenfeld to Embassy, 28 August 1918.

Footnote 7: On the sinking of the Justicia, see: Sims to Benson, 21 August 1918.

Footnote 9: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Footnote 10: Capt. Richard H. Jackson, United States Staff Representative, Paris. Sims also tried to get Jackson removed, but Benson refused to do so. Jackson was eventually reassigned as naval attaché in Paris. Still, Crisis at Sea: 52.

Footnote 11: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ chief of staff, and Senator William H. Thompson of Kansas. For more on Thompson’s visit to Europe, see: Henry B. Wilson to Sims, 4 August 1918. 

Footnote 12: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  

Footnote 13: For more on naval officers accepting decorations from foreign governments, see: Sims to Sims, 3 August 1918; Sims to Benson, 10 August 1918; and Benson to Sims, 31 August 1918.

Footnote 14: A cablegram from Benson to Sims, which discusses the decorations episode and mentions a letter, has not been found.