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 21st.1918.
My dear Admiral,
I enclose you herewith copy of a letter which explains itself.
It seems to me that whenever an editorial is published of the kind to which this letter refers, that it should be replied to in order to set the editors right and head them off from making similar criticisms which must necessarily be based upon very incomplete and incorrect information.
There is nothing particular to report by this mail that has not been sent in the official form. I believe the decisions reached about mining in the Mediterranean will prove quite satisfactory.1 I expect this to be approved by the Allied War Council. We were surprised to find both the French and British opposed to a barrage across from Sicily to Cape Bon. This was put in the agenda by the French themselves, but they have evidently changed their mind after discussing the difficulty of getting convoys back and forth through the proposed gate.
Very sincerely yours,
W. S. Sims
Admiral W.S.Benson. U.S.Navy,
Chief of Naval Operations,
The NEW YORK TIMES.
New York, U.S.A.
The Supreme War Council of the Allies has decided that our safety requires troops to be sent to France at a certain rate. Concerned in this decision are also Marshall Foch and General Pershing.2 This decision having been rendered, it was the duty of the Naval War Council and of the Admiralties of the Allies to afford the best possible means of protecting these troops and their supplies and the vessels carrying them. On the success of these operations depends probably the independent existence of at least some of the allied nations. Certainly the war could not be won unless the operations proved to be successful. It is therefore fair to assume that the officials concerned have given this matter very earnest consideration.
One of the chief elements in the success of these operations is the support of the people of the allied countries. The great sacrifices of life and treasure necessary to carry them out could not be made against public opinion. This public opinion could not be maintained if there was a certain measure of distrust of the responsible officials.
It will therefore, I believe, be apparent that any one who does anything to decrease the people’s trust in these officials, thereby accepts a very grave responsibility.
The above is a preface to certain comments that I think it necessary to make upon your editorial “CONVOY FOR RETURNING TRANSPORTS” which appeared in the NEW YORK TIMES of, I believe, July 26th.3
My chief comment is that your editorial is necessarily based upon very incomplete information as to the facts underlying the decisions of the Army and Navy authorities in reference to the passage of troop and other convoys, because many of these facts could not be divulged without giving valuable information to the enemy.
It would seem that this patent fact alone should have been enough to cause your naval editor to refrain from condemning the responsible officials and thereby decreasing the public trust in them.
As a matter of fact nearly all of the direct statements and inferences in your editorial are mistaken.
You seem to have assumed that cruisers sent with troop convoys afford them protection against submarines. This is a mistake. Cruisers are not sent with the convoys for this purpose, but only to protect them in their passage across the middle Atlantic in case a German raider should be at sea. Not only do these cruisers afford no anti-submarine protection to the convoy, but it is always the practice for the cruiser to leave the convoy as soon as it is joined by the destroyer escort from this side. This leaves one more ship less to protect. In the case of our cruisers, they return to the United States as soon as the convoy is joined by the destroyers. In the case of British cruisers, they leave the convoy and proceed full speed to a British port as soon as the destroyers join.
You have stated that I have declared that enemy submarines do not operate in flotillas against convoys of troop transports or merchantmen, because experience has shown that the submarines cannot break through the line of warships except at great risk to themselves. I may have stated that it is dangerous for submarines to attack a convoy that is heavily escorted, but I did not say that this was the reason that submarines do not operate in flotillas against convoys or single ships. The reason is quite a different one. Submarines never operate except singly, whether against convoys or against single ships, and this for the simple reason that to do so would subject them to the very grave risk of destroying each other. Allied submarines are always on the hunt for German submarines. It is therefore essential that both the German and the allied submarines operate as units, and that each be assigned to well defined areas so that friendly submarines may not even come in sight of each other. All submarines on either side must feel safe in firing at any submarine that is sighted. It is for this reason that all submarines upon all occasions operate singly.
While your article does not say so, it implies that the Germans have available a great many submarines to operate against allied shipping. Even if you did not imply this, by unconsciously exaggerating the danger of torpedo attack, I would have felt justified in assuming that you believed so, because I have questioned a great many Americans immediately after their arrival on this side as to their estimate of the number of submarines they believe are usually operating to the westward of the British Isles. I have never heard an estimate of less than fifty or sixty and it has frequently been as high as a hundred or so. As a matter of fact the average number of submarines operating to the westward of the British Isles throughout this summer has been nine or ten. At the present time there are no more than six or seven. It is therefore easy to see that if these should be concentrated in one or two flotillas that the chance of these flotillas even sighting a troop convoy would be very small indeed.
The above to show you that your idea that “in the case of single ships risk there is little or none, and it pays the U-boats to operate in twos or three or greater numbers” is completely in error.
You have evidently assumed that the JUSTICIA was sent out on her return voyage unescorted, and that this is the practice in the case of empty transports. This is of course not true. Much that has been published in the papers as to the attack on the JUSTICIA is absurdly incorrect. This has not been corrected for obvious reasons. The JUSTICIA was a very valuable ship and she was being escorted off the coast outside of the known position of submarines, following the practice with all such vessels. She was probably hit by a shot fired from a long range. The torpedoing of a ship in this manner is always possible no matter what the strength of the escort may be. Submarines do not like to waste torpedoes, but when the danger of attacking through a strong escort is great, they sometimes take the chance of firing a long shot which will pass through a convoy and have a fair chance of hitting one of the vessels. Many vessels have been torpedoed in this way. There is no possibility of preventing it until such time as the number of destroyers available are very much increased. Unfortunately the JUSTICIA was hit in the engine room and her motive power entirely disabled. This placed her practically in the position of a vessel that was anchored at sea. She was joined by five tugs but they could not tow her more than a mile or so an hour. She was escorted at this time by six destroyers and a number of trawlers. She was joined very shortly afterwards by six more destroyers and six sloops. The latter are really destroyers of a slower speed. With all of this escort about her, but with her practical immobility she could not be successfully protected against the attack of submarines, though a hundred depth charges were dropped from time to time to keep the submarines away. At no time was she attacked by more than one submarine at a time. She had to be brought in through the comparatively narrow Northern Channel to the Irish Sea and there were unfortunately two submarines in that channel. These attacked her as she was being brought in. There were three submarines in all that made separate attacks against her, and one of these was destroyed by the escort and the majority of the crew captured.
It would of course be advantageous if troop transports as well as mercantile transports, both loaded and empty, could be escorted all the way across the Atlantic. You doubtless had this in mind when you stated that “The convoy system must be so improved and regulated that returning carriers shall have the advantage of it.” This assumes that this result would be achieved by improvement and regulation. As a matter of fact it would be a physical impossibility to give any transports, whether loaded or empty, protection against submarines all the way across the Atlantic. Destroyers cannot steam so far at the necessary speed, even in fair weather, even if there were enough for this service.
It follows that if the flow of troops is to be based upon “safety first” very few could be despatched, because there are submarines off our coast, off the European coast, and sometimes at various points of the ocean between the two. Therefore, if the flow of troops is to be kept up, we must necessarily take the risk of torpedo attack at nearly any point of their voyage. The best that can be done is to protect against a possible raider by sending a cruiser with the transport until they are joined by destroyers on this side, where the danger of submarine attack is of course much greater than in any other area.
You are,however, of the opinion that in order to add to the protection of empty transports, they should not sail with troops quite so often and no more records will be broken for the present.” This of course assumes that your editor has the information necessary for deciding whether the military situation would justify slowing down the flow of troops, and also the military knowledge for forming a correct judgment based upon this information. I am quite willing to believe that he has this military knowledge, but I can assure you that the information in question is known only to the Supreme War Council and the responsible military commanders.
As for the empty transports going out, they are afforded the same kind of protection as those that come in through the European area, except that they do not have a cruiser with them on their way back.
This however, as above explained, has no bearing upon the danger of being torpedoed. All empty transports returning home are escorted by destroyers in the same way as those coming in. The distance they are escorted out or escorted in depends upon the steaming radius of the destroyer and upon the known positions of submarines. Habitually the destroyers that bring in a troop convoy are the ones which have just escorted off the coast a convoy of empty transports.
The above items of information will show you how very sadly mistaken your naval editor has been in this editorial. It is not remarkable that he should have been so mistaken, because it would not be wise to publish all of the details of how convoys are handled in order to supply the press with this information; but the point I wish particularly to make is that your naval editor, and in fact the controlling directors of the paper, should know that you cannot be in the possession of sufficient information upon all these points to give useful advice to the responsible officials, much less to condemn them and decrease the public confidence in their efficiency.
I beg you to believe that I am not writing this letter at all in a captious spirit, but from a sense of duty in pointing out to you how very damaging such editorials are to the conduct of the war.
Very sincerely yours,
Wm S Sims
Commanding U.S.Naval Forces
Operating in European Waters.
<P.S. Needless to say, this letter is not to be published.>
<Wm S S>
Source Note: LTS, DLC-MSS, William S. Benson Papers, Box 9.
Footnote 1: Sims hoped for a mine barrage from Cape Bon to Sicily, and he initially received support from the Navy Department for this operation. However, difficulties later forced the U.S. to abandon the idea before work could begin. Halpern, Naval War in the Mediterranean: 508-520. See: Sims to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 26 July, 1918.
Footnote 2: Gen. Ferdinand J. M. Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, and Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief, American Expeditionary Forces.
Footnote 3: Sims is referring to the following statement published in the New York Times: “An experienced Captain, who has been at the transport service practically since the war began in August, 1914, said yesterday: ‘The loss of the JUSTICIA may put an end to the senseless methods of allowing American and British transports to travel without escort westbound.’” See: “JUSTICIA Sunk in 24-Hour Fight with Submarines,” New York Times, 25 July 1918.