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

February 15th. 1918.

My dear Admiral,

          I arrived back from the visit to Italy just a few hours before the mail left so there was no opportunity to write you any account of the visit.1

          It was a rather curious experience, that of being in a country where opinion is so sharply divided as to the war, and where it is perfectly evident that political considerations have at least as great a force as military ones.

          You will receive by this mail an account of the conference that was held and the personnel that attended it.2 All the French representatives were from the French fleet in the Mediterranean and the French vessels operating with the Italians. They were headed by Rear Admiral Ratyé3 - a very clever man. I had a long talk with him and also with Admiral de Bon4 as we passed through Paris on the way down, and as we passed through on the way back. They both told me the same story as to the general attitude of the Italian Government, particularly the Italian Ministry of Marine. This attitude, in a word, is that the Italians are now, and always have been, distinctly opposed to any energetic naval action in the Adriatic. Admiral Rayté told me that when war was first declared the question of attacking the Austrian submarine bases in the Adriatic was discussed in the French fleet. As Italy was not then an ally, there was a certain hesitancy for fear she would go over to the Central Powers and the French would find themselves opposed by the combined Austrian and Italian fleets.

          But when Italy finally went into the war, the French immediately assumed that, in view of their great superiority of naval force, that the Austrian Adriatic coast would be placed under sharp attack. But as soon as this was proposed to the Italians, it immediately met with a determined opposition. I do not pretend to understand all of the springs behind this opposition, but it would seem that what is in the back of the Italian mind is the condition of affairs after the war is over.

          Generally speaking, the Italian aristocracy is very distinctly pro-German, and have undoubtedly been assisting in the propaganda that has done so much to undermine the Italian morale. There are of course some notable exceptions. On the other hand, the people of Italy are pro-Ally. They hate and despise the aristocracy. They do not include in this hatred the Royal family. It must be admitted that the position of these pro-German people is, to say the least, an uncomfortable one. Much of their commercial relations have been with the Central Powers. They have either invested their money in those countries, or in companies in Italy that are controlled by German and Austrian financiers.

          It is easy, therefore, to see that these people think once about the war and twice about the position their personal affairs will be in after the war is over.

          To complicate this situation they all feel that they are to a certain extent in the grip of England, as they cannot get along without her coal and the assistance they get from British commerce.

          I think it is also true that Italy is not at all pleased that the United States is actually in the war. That is, it would seem that they would have preferred that we should give all of the material assistance possible without actually being a military ally. It is a little difficult to account for this feeling except upon the assumption that they dread the influence of America in European politics. It is of course generally recognized that the question of a compromise peace or of continuing the war to a successful conclusion lies largely, if not chiefly, in the hands of President Wilson.5 It is generally acknowledged that his position and his ability makes him a deciding factor. While this is admitted, it is perfectly evident that the situation is not enjoyed by these people. Of course I have talked over all this situation with the British as well as with the French. Sir Eric Geddes, the First Lord [of the Admiralty], made the trip down to Italy with us and attended the conference, and then went on to a visit further south. I do not know for sure just where, but I think to Egypt and Palestine. He did say that his mission was largely one of transportation.

          Of course I talked over all these matters with Admiral Calthorpe,6 who is in command of the anti-submarine activities in the Mediterranean. He has the same explanation to make of the disinclination of the Italians to allow aggressive measures to be taken in the Adriatic. It is frankly acknowledged that the Italians are not willing to trust either the French or British to take possession of the Dalmatian Islands. They seem to be in great dread lest some such measure should be taken and that they should thereby be deprived of some of the future influence in the Balkans.

          Without going into details, I may say that the plan proposed by the British Admiral was to establish in the straits of Otranto a surface barrage consisting of areas to be patrolled, respectively, by submarines, by destroyers, by lines of patrol boats supported by destroyers, and by lines of drifters. This barrage to extend in latitude for a distance of about 140 miles. All boats suitable for the purpose to be fitted with the most efficient type of hydrophones. Incidentally, the British report very gratifying success with the towing hydrophone that has been experimented with at Malta. The idea is to have a barrage of such a width that no submarine can pass through it in one night, and must therefore consequently be exposed to attack before she can reach the open sea. It is hoped that the vessels fitted with these hydrophones will get track of any submarine attempting to come through the barrage and that they will be able to follow her until daylight from which time she will be continuously pursued.

          Part of the scheme is also to establish on the Adriatic shore of Italy, position-finding hydrophones of, I believe, the “K” type. It is hoped that these will signal the approximate position of a submarine even before she reaches the northern limit of the barrage. In addition to the above the French and Italians wish to establish across the Straits of Otranto a torpedo net. This is called the Franco-Italian net. It is made of light wire with large meshes. Each section of the net carries two torpedoes with explosive charges of about 80 lbs. if I remember correctly. The sections of nets are held in vertical position by two large buoys at each end and by a certain number of smaller buoys along the top. The upper edge of the net is about eight meters below the surface. The ends of the net are not secured to the buoys, but their supporting lines pass over a shive on the buoys and are held in place by a weight. The idea is that if a submarine strikes one of these sections the lines holding the upper corners will run through the shives and allow the net to fold back against the hull and thus explode the torpedoes. 22 miles of this net have been constructed and the rest will be gotten out as soon as possible.

          Admiral Calthorpe believes that the Austrians will not be willing to accept the danger of passing this barrage and the net without making an attempt to destroy it. The cruiser forces under the British and Italians will be held in readiness to oppose these operations, and it is hoped that the result of such operations will be to bring on a more or less general engagement.

          The estimate of the situation of which I cabled you the decisions,7 was shown to the senior officers of all of the nations represented, and the matter was discussed to a certain extent. I had of course to acknowledge that this estimate of the situation was based upon such detailed information, concerning the defenses of the Dalmatian Islands, etc. as was available to us in London. They offered to supply us with information up to date on all of these subjects, and did so, and we agreed to make a re-study of the situation to see whether this information would change any of our conclusions. The whole question is now being taken up by the combined Admiralty and American Planning sections, and will be discussed at the next meeting of the Allied naval council.

          Under the advice of the Ambassador,8 who knows the Italians well, I refrained from expressing my opinion of their attitude as I should have been inclined to do. I therefore prefaced my remarks about our proposition with the statement that I understood the necessity of maintaining the Italian fleet at its maximum strength; that I understood the great importance of preventing any bombardment of the Italian coast on account of the effect it would have on the morale, etc.etc. and then stated that I presented the estimate of the Italian situation in view of the fact that I believed that my Government would be prepared to render a certain amount of assistance in battleships and so forth, at such a time as it was considered practicable and desirable to take aggressive action against the Dalmatian coast. I informed them that the decisions of the estimate had been telegraphed to Washington, but that a reply had not yet been received.

          All this was very well received, and the Italian authorities expressed their appreciation and said that they would go into the matter very thoroughly, and that is where it rests at present. I may say, however, that I am not hopeful that they will decide upon the kind of an offensive that we should like to see carried out.

          I believe they do not want anybody to make any aggression against the Austrian bases except themselves, and I do not think they intend to do so until they are practically sure they can do so with success, and particularly without much material loss.

          There is one interesting feature about the situation in the Adriatic which may or may not be of importance, according to whether it is a fake or not. However, there is no doubt about the fact that along the 1st.or 2nd.February an Austrian aeroplane landed in Italy and voluntarily surrendered the machine and the three passengers. The following is the yarn they spun: They stated that the crews in the Austrian vessels off Catarro had mutinied and gotten possession of the vessels and that they proposed to put the officers on shore and take the vessels to Italy and surrender them. Some of the Hungarian members of the crew were not in accord with the Austrian members and gave the scheme away to the Admiral. The latter sent an ultimatum to the mutineers giving them three hours in which to surrender upon pain of being fired on by the shore batteries and also being attacked by the German submarine in harbor. The three principal ringleaders knowing that they would probably be hanged, seized an aeroplane and fled to Italy, taking the Admiral’s manifesto with them. They recommended that the Italian Admiralty cause lithograph copies of this manifesto to be printed in large numbers and dropped into the Austrian lines on the Italian Front. This information was given to me by some of the French officers at home and was confirmed by similar information received from the British and from Train.9

          One encouraging feature of the situation is the projected activity against Austrian submarine bases, of the undoubtedly competent Italian air force. I had a long talk with the officer in charge of this and was much impressed by him.10 He showed me what they had available and what was coming out in the immediate future, and explained to me briefly the method that they proposed to adopt. Briefly, this is to bomb the submarine bases, particularly Pola and Catarro, continuously every day with a relatively small number of planes (about twenty), rather than to make heavy attacks at much longer intervals. This will be night bombing. They have offered us two stations in the northern part of the Adriatic which they state are completely equipped and require only the personnel. I have recommended that these be accepted. Both are within bombing distance of Pola.

          I was disgusted with the statements made by both the Italians and the French as to what they believed to be the capabilities of destroyers. They actually stated that they did not believe that vessels could remain on the barrage in the winter weather of the Adriatic! A statement was made that “to keep four destroyers operating in the designated area on the projected barrage, would require a force of 24 destroyers in all”. This got on my nerves and I proceeded to explain the amount of work that is now being done by both the British and American destroyers in the north off the western shores of the British Isles in seas and gales of wind, the like of which are seldom encountered in the Mediterranean. I gave them figures as to the relative amount of time spent at sea and in port. I do not know whether this impressed them very seriously or not, but I felt the necessity of getting it off my chest.

          On the whole I believe that the visit did a lot of good. It was perfectly apparent that the Italian national pride was gratified by having a large part<y> of foreign officers pay them a visit. Somebody said that they had complained of not having received any visits to speak of except from the Red Cross and the Y.M.C.A. There is no doubt whatever that the Italians, both in official and private life, were very much gratified by the visit – not to mention the Americans. I wish you could have gone down there when you were here.11 All these European people are much impressed by military rank.

          In this connection, I wish to say that I am even more impressed by the value of the services of Commander Train than I was before I went there. From all hands I received undisputed evidence of the fine relations he has been able to establish there and the very efficient work he has been able to do. He has been an applicant to go into the destroyer flotillas. That I can quite understand. But I think it would be a mistake to move him from there. Moreover, I think it will have a very good effect if he should be designated as my representative there in the same way that Jackson is at Paris.12

          The following are a few incidental items that I think should be mentioned, outside of those that are reported each week in the weekly summary of events.

          I am sending forward by this mail a copy of the correspondence between Admiral Beatty and the Admiralty proposing that Rodman be given the temporary rank of Vice Admiral.13 Admiral Beatty’s letter and the endorsement of the Deputy 1st.Sea Lord,14 make it entirely clear why it is considered advisable that this be done. I do not know how it is to be accomplished but it seems to me that this would be desirable.

          The first I heard of this was when the 1st.Sea Lord handed me the correspondence on this subject.15

          I wish to say that Rodman’s handling of the situation seems to me to have been admirable. He is certainly persona grata with everybody and is spoken of in the highest terms not only by the British but by all of our people who come in contact with him.

          As far as I am concerned, he has cooperated with me in every possible way. He says he believes in centralized control and all he requires is to know what we want done and he will do his best to carry it out. This he does although he tells me that he came over here without any orders at all, even verbal ones; that all he had was a paper giving him routes and rendezvous, and so forth. He had no orders to report to me and has never done so, but things are going along just as well as though he had.

          I assume that probably a slip was made and the orders referred to were not issued.

          In this connection there seems to have been a few occasions when things got a bit muddled through officers coming over here on certain duties without any orders to report to me in any way. Some time ago an officer by the name of Tobin16 passed through here bound for France to report to somebody for duty as a censor. He came into the office to see some of the staff about transportation, and it was suggested to him that it might be well for him to call on me as a matter of courtesy. This he did and explained to me the mission on which he had been sent.

          Another case which I think should be gone into pretty thoroughly is that of the officers who were sent over here recently to take part in the counter espionage services in France.17 As the situation thereby created is more or less complicated, I have had Twining draw up a memorandum on the subject, which is enclosed herewith.18 I believe this makes it perfectly clear what a muddle these people have gotten into. By following the memorandum down item by item, with the attached cables, the confusion will be clearly shown.

          Particular attention is invited to the fact that one of the officers referred to was arrested as soon as he got into France; that another one was declared to be wholly unfit for his duties by the Chief of the expedition, who requested that he be sent home; and that the Chief of the expedition was not only at outs with the members of his party but that he apparently resisted cooperation with the officers already on duty in France.

          In particular reference to the latter point, attention is invited to the copy of the memorandum of February 6th. prepared by Commander Sayles for Commander Roys, who was in Paris at the time with Amundsen.19 This shows a very regrettable state of affairs.

          Also see the letter of February 4th. from Commander Sayles to Lieut.Commander Stevenson which shows all of the elements of such friction as to probably render the usefulness of these officers quite nil.20 It would seem as though the selection of these officers was mistaken from all points of view. Certainly it would seem entirely apparent that Stevenson is not a fit man to take over any work of this kind.

          Another case was that of Captain Hough, who called upon me yesterday and showed me his orders, which directed him to report to Rear Admiral Wilson for duty.21 Of course we furnished him transportation, etc. as though he had been ordered to report to me. I assume that these incidents are due to mistakes caused by the rush of business in the Department.

          There are a number of enlisted men now employed in Europe as couriers. While these men are doubtless admirable in their grades, still in view of the fact that all couriers employed in Europe by any of the nations are commissioned officers, I think it would be well to take this matter under consideration and see if we cannot employ similar officers for our Service.

          I have received from Admiral Gleaves22 a personal letter thanking me for something I did for him in the way of transmitting some money to a nephew of his on this side. In this letter he says: “I hope to get over on the other side within the next few weeks, but it is difficult to get away.” Admiral Gleaves does not explain why he wishes to come over here. I cannot see any possible utility of his coming. I think it would be regrettable to have any more large ships come in than are absolutely necessary, and I do not see that there is any information on this side that he needs that we cannot give him by correspondence.

          There has been for some time persistent rumours that I was likely to be replaced or superseded in this position. It has been currently reported that Admiral Mayo23 has been insisting that, now that a considerable force has been sent to this side, he should be assigned to the command of it.

          I do not know what there may be in these rumours, but I think that you will recognise that in case Admiral Mayo should be sent over here that my position would become impossible. While I am willing to cooperate in any way to bring this war to a successful conclusion, still I do not think that under the circumstances outlined above, it would be useful for me to remain here after I had been superseded by a senior.

          Perhaps the chances of personal difficulties could best be avoided by making the forces over here a separate command. But of course if no such personal difficulty arises, or is likely to arise, that would not be necessary, as this force now is, for all practicable purposes a separate command...24

                   Very sincerely yours,

                        /s/ Wm.S. SIMS

|fn9:Lt. Cmdr. Charles R. Train, United States Naval Attaché in Rome. The news that Sims reports herein is of the Cattaro Mutiny, which took place 1-3 February 1918. Sparked by poor rations and treatment by the officers in command at Cattaro (Kotor), mutiny broke out in several Austro-Hungarian naval units in the Fifth Fleet stationed there. Emboldened by their initial success, the leaders of the revolt-Franz Rasch, Mate Brničević, Antun Grabar, and Jerko Šižgorić-adopted a larger political agenda that included demands for an immediate general peace, Austrian independence from Germany, and the democratization of the Empire. Despite spreading to nearly 40 vessels at the base, the mutiny failed to spread further, particularly as the officers and commander of the Austro-Hungarian naval forces at Cattaro, Kontreadmiral Alexander Hansa remained firm and united in opposing the mutiny. Following a short and successful skirmish against the mutineers-backed by the arrival of the loyal Third Fleet and coastal artillery forces-were defeated and forced to surrender. As a result, about 800 sailor were arrested and imprisoned, dozen court-martialed, and the four leaders executed. Although the veracity of the story relayed by Sims of three mutineers arriving in Ital via airplane cannot be definitively ascertained, it is unlikely that this occurred. For more on the Cattaro Mutiny, see, Paul G. Halpern, “The Cattaro Mutiny, 1918,” in Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective, (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 54-79.|

Source Note: LTS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 23. Following the close, the letter is addressed, “Admiral W.S. Benson, U.S.Navy,/Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department,/Washington.D.C.”

Footnote 1: Sims here is referring to a meeting of the Allied Naval Council and that he attended in Rome on 8 and 9 February.

Footnote 3: Jean Étienne Charles Marcel Ratyé.

Footnote 4: Adm. Ferdinand Jean Jacques de Bon, Chief of the General Staff, French Navy.

Footnote 5: United States President Woodrow Wilson.

Footnote 6: VAdm. Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Forces.

Footnote 7: See, “The Otranto Barrage” (No. xxv of Agenda. British Memorandum giving the Proposals of the British Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean), Report of the Commission which met in Rome on February 8th and 9th 1918, Enclosure II, PRO, Adm 137/836.

Footnote 10: Col. Valentino Mario Maurizio Moris, General Director for Aeronautics, Ministry of War, and Commander, Corpo Aeronautico Miltare.

Footnote 11: Benson had traveled to England and France in November and December 1917 as the official representative of the United States Navy for the House Commission.

Footnote 12: Capt. Richard H. Jackson served as the American Naval Representative at the Ministry of Marine in Paris.

Footnote 13: Adm. Sir David Beatty, Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, and Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commander, Battleship Division Nine. The letter Sims references herein has not been located.

Footnote 14: VAdm. Sir Herbert L. Heath. Heath also served as Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel.

Footnote 15: Adm. Sir Rosslyn E. Wemyss.

Footnote 16: Lt. (jg) Robert G. Tobin.

Footnote 17: The particulars of the situation that Sims references herein are uncertain. In mid-January, a counter-espionage service within the Intelligence Division had been established in France with Cmdr. William R. Sayles, formerly the United States Naval Attaché in Paris, assigned to be the service’s head. Lt. Cmdr. William L. Stevenson had been appointed the Chief of the expedition Sims discusses here, although the names or the other officers have not been identified.

Footnote 18: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ Chief of Staff. The memorandum that Sims refers to herein is no longer with this document, and has not been subsequently located.

Footnote 19: Sayles’ 6 February memorandum to Lt. Cmdr. John H. Roys, Sims’ liaison officer with British Naval Intelligence, has not been located. As Sims notes above, Roys had assigned to accompany the celebrated Norwegian explore Roald E.G. Amundsen (who become the first man to reach the South Pole, in 1911) on a visit to Britain and France as a guest of the United States.

Footnote 20: This document has not been located.

Footnote 21: Henry H. Hough and Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces in France. Hough had just been appointed the District Commander for Brest.

Footnote 22: RAdm. Albert Gleaves, Commander, Cruiser and Transport Force.

Footnote 23: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 24: Following this paragraph is a new letter dated 18 February 1918, likely due to the fact that Sims chose to compile the two letters in a single large dispatch for the next available mail service. As the two letters are not connected except by being a part of the same mailed document, they have been split so that they may appear in the context of the days on which they were written. Sims' letter to Benson of the 18th, has not been found.