Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations
February 28th. 1918.
My dear Admiral,
There has not been anything of particular interest this week. The items of official routine are contained as usual in the weekly letter.
Mr.R.P.Stevens, the American Representative of the Allied Merchant Transportation Council, turned up a few days ago, but after a day or so in London he went off to France. He has been provided with quarters next to the Embassy so he is handy to get at at any time. My intercourse with him has been very pleasant. We will establish closer relations with him and his staff and help him in every way possible.
Professor Durand, and old shipmate of mine, and Professor H.Bumstead turned up and explained what they were here for. It seems to me a most excellent idea to have two competent scientific men practically attached to the Intelligence Department. We have given them office room in our own building, and they have agreed that we shall all cooperate completely in the question of handling the scientific information they collect both here and in Paris. We will help them collect information and they will also help us. They will give us access to all that they find, so that we may take advantage of it if necessary here.
Regarding the question of the change in the method of handling convoys from the other side, as indicated by your recent cablegram, I think this is in a fair way of being satisfactorily arranged. When I took up the matter for discussion at the Admiralty, they said at once that what you proposed was just what they wanted to do. But, they seemed to be under the impression that Washington had not wanted it arranged this way. There was some confusion in their minds that had been caused by some previous arrangement by which all information from the Admiralty reached you through Gaunt. However, we will try and untangle this now, but all hands here agree that what you propose is perfectly correct in principle.
While they were agreed in principle they were not quite sure as to just how the change should be made and just where the official should be stationed, and just who should issue the official orders for the handling of the convoy. They were perfectly willing apparently to arrange this thing any way satisfactory to us. The immediate result was that they proposed to send a cablegram to Capt. Welles to go down to Washington and discuss the whole matter with your people and then inform the Admiralty as to just what they wanted.
When things had reached this stage, which was the next day after the receipt of your cablegram, there was laid on the table, at the morning council, a telegram from Admiral Grant asking instructions as to how he should manage the convoys in case there was a raider turn up on the other side, or words to that effect.
This brought out the fact that Admiral Grant considered himself responsible for the handling of the convoys. This therefore brought on a discussion of the soundness of the whole organization. I took the ground that the general direction of convoys, as to their dates of sailings, etc., etc., should necessarily be decided on the side of the ocean where the convoys arrived and had to make their way through the danger zone. But it was at once agreed that in case a certain measure of a danger of transfer to the other side it might necessitate instant decisions being taken, and that for this purpose there should be complete co-ordination between the forces available on the other side. I expressed the opinion that to have a man in Halifax who considered himself responsible, to have another man in New York who was actually issuing orders to handle the convoys, and to have our Department in Washington that was vitally concerned – that this combination contained all of the possible elements for a confusion of misunderstandings. I further said that it seems to me that one of two things was entirely essential, either that Admiral Grant should be entirely relieved of any responsibility of the handling of the convoys, or else that he should take up his permanent residence in Washington where he could be in daily conference with the Department. Also, that there should be at the Department, the officer who actually did the daily work in handling the convoys, that is to say, Captain Welles.
The result of these observations were that the 1st.Sea Lord asked me if I would make the tentative draft of a cablegram for him to send to you asking your opinion on the above matter. It was decided however, to first wait the answer from Captain Welles as a result of his conference with the Department before sending the above mentioned telegram. We are still awaiting this answer and expect it any day.
At all events, the whole matter is now thoroughly up for decision, and I feel quite sure it will be decided this time upon sound lines.
I have received a letter from Commander Taussig giving a copy of the request he made to the Department for a ten day shake down cruise in Guantanamo, also the Department’s reply disapproving this request, at least for the present. I have written to Taussig and explained to him that under present circumstances it is not so much a question of the degree of proficiency in gunnery when the new destroyers arrive on this side, as it is the mere presence of the destroyers here for service in escorting and in hunting squadrons, and that I entirely disagree with his view that a couple of weeks should be wasted in a shake down cruise.
There is a more or less continuous discussion between our side and that of the British on this question of the oil supply for the fleet. I was asked today my professional opinion as to whether I thought that a three months margin of supply for the Grand Fleet was sufficient. What the Admiralty wanted was for me to confirm their opinion that they ought to have a three months supply. I was the more willing to do this, because I have always felt that a three months supply was not very safe. It has always appeared to me that this placed the Allies in a rather dangerous position provided the enemy has enough fuel to take advantage of it. If the latter is the case and the enemy was aware of the situation, he could easily embarrass us not only considerably, but dangerously, by movements which would oblige the Grand Fleet to do more steaming than the fuel reserve could support.
I of course do not pretend to be accurately informed on all the figures of this very complicated oil situation, but I am sure there is certain features of it which are not readily understood by all concerned. I judge this from the fact that I was considerably surprised the first time my attention was specifically called to it. This feature is the very considerable amount of transportation that has to be carried out after the oil arrives on this side. This is due to the fact that there are not enough tanks in any place to supply the demand that may come upon it, and it usually does. Oil has therefore constantly to be transferred from one place to another. When oilers arrive on this side they are often obliged to discharge their oil not where it is most needed, but where it can be done with the least danger of being sunk by submarines. This has subsequently to be transported in oilers of a different class to the places where it is needed. Not a Little of the loss is caused by attacks during this secondary transportation. There is lost altogether upon an average of 80,000 tons of oil per month, and approximately the same amount of oil tonnage.
The whole oil situation as regards the Fleet, has been under discussion continuously now for about a month between Foley and Thomas and the corresponding men of the Admiralty. I had hope that Mr.Stevens would remain here in London after his arrival so that he could take this matter up also. It will all be placed before him when he comes back and settles down.
It cannot be said that the submarine situation is encouraging. Very considerable progress has been made in rendering the Channel difficult of passage. A much smaller number of submarines have passed through recently than heretofore. The passages that have been dug out through the minefield surrounding Heligoland are pretty well blocked. The enemy has lost so severely there in torpedo boats, sweepers and submarines, that he is now very chary. The mining of the various passages is going on continuously, and the corresponding dragging on the other side. Within the last two or three weeks the submarines have been concentrating their efforts in the Irish Sea and in the Channel. Measures are now being taken to increase as rapidly as possible the hunting squadrons for diminishing this danger. Two hunting squadrons, composed of four 30-knot destroyers each are to be transferred for service, based on a port of Ireland about half way up the Irish Sea. A number of trawlers will also be employed. Two hunting squadrons are now working the Channel and two more are about ready to operate. Leigh is co-operating with the Admiralty officials in this matter. This morning I had a long talk with the 1st.Sea Lord on his subject and expressed the opinion that radical and even somewhat risky measures were justified to render this channel of the Irish Sea practically untenable to submarines. At the same time I presented to him for discussion by the Admiralty Planning Staff, an estimate of this particular situation that was drawn up by our Planning staff.
These two planning bodies are working together continuously and, I believe, with very good results[.] Our people have certainly drawn up a number of very able estimates, and Admiral Wemyss has gladly placed these before his people so that eventually the two planning bodies can get together and make a joint decision for the benefit of the Admiralty.
Of course you know that it is one thing to make an estimate of the situation which is absolutely sound from a military point of view, and it is another thing to get it adopted by the Allies. In my last letter I tried to make this point plain in reference to the difficulty of getting any really effective action in the Adriatic. The same thing applies to a certain extent in this part of the field of operations. There is also of course the more or less great reluctance to change the existing order of things. It would seem, for example, that the anti-submarine campaign in the Channel, the Straits of Dover, and the eastern or south-eastern shores of England, should be under the control of one man. This may yet be brought about but it will involve the upsetting of the commands of stations which have remained the same for generations and generations. One of the big commands is Chatham, another is Plymouth, and so forth, and so forth. I have no doubt, however, that when there are vessels enough to organize a very considerable number of hunting squadrons, they must necessarily be put under one head.
A Mr.Ralph Paine is returning to the United States very soon. He has visited Queenstown twice, and has gone out on our vessels both from there, and, I believe, from Brest. He has been so successful in ingratiating himself with the British Navy, that he has visited their vessels and stations, and been entertained by the Admirals in command. He has written a number of articles about our Navy, that are now appearing I believe, in the Saturday Evening Post. He is a high class man, and I think it will be interesting to ask him something about his experiences. I believe he intends to publish a book about the activities of our Navy when he returns.
A day or so ago, Mr.Pollen called upon me and told me of his experiences at Queenstown, from whence he has just returned from a visit. He is most enthusiastic about conditions that he found there. He is, as you know, a man who has been well acquainted with the personnel of the British Navy for many years. He, as well as many other people, expressed their surprise that we have been able to get along with the Admiral who has such a reputation for being difficult in intercourse with his fellows. This is due to a certain extent to the relations which I was able to establish there on my first visit, and maintained on subsequent visits. This very able Admiral apparently took a shine at me and we have been fast friends ever since.
But the continuance of our good relations without friction of any kind, though it has often been threatened, are due exclusively to the very remarkable ability in this line, of Captain Pringle. The situation is a very curious one and remains at all times a rather delicate one. It is very fortunate indeed for us to have the services of a man like Pringle. It would take pages to explain to you just how he has been able to smooth out certain difficulties that have arisen, but he has been able to do so in a very masterly manner. He is really one of the ablest officers in this respect that I have ever had to do with. He has ingratiated himself with Admiral Bayly to such an extent, and has been such a material help to him, that I sometimes doubt whether the Admiral could continue to hold down the position without such assistance. The trouble is that Admiral Bayly has been under a continuous strain since nearly the beginning of the war. It is one of those strains that never let up. He never knows at what hour of the day or night there may come an S.O.S. call that will need immediate attention. He also has on his back the responsibility of taking prompt and drastic political action in case the troubles of Ireland break out. It is this latter feature which is so worrying.
I am telling you all this to try and make it clear that it would be a very grave mistake to make any change in conditions as they now exist at Queenstown. I do not know that any such changes are contemplated, but I always assume that there are a number of people that are applicants for duty over here.
A very unfortunate incident occurred here in London last night. Lieutenant Commander Briscoe, who is to be Cone’s General Manager, at Pauillac, Ensign Lande and Chief Quartermaster Miller, all of the Reserves, had their original orders with my endorsement and their transportation vouchers stolen from the Savoy Hotel. I at once informed the Admiralty Secret Service so that they might prevent anybody using these documents to pass across into France. I hope we will be able to recover the documents and that nothing unpleasant will come of the incident. The trouble was due to inexperience on the part of these officers in not keeping such documents always on their person. They were absent from the hotel but one hour and a half at lunch and the papers were gone when they returned.
I regret to say that your son has had bad luck on the coast of France through the grounding of the yacht he commanded. The Court of Enquiry recommended further proceedings and the result of the Court Martial was a recommendation that he lose five numbers. I have not yet seen the reports and do not know the circumstances, but, unless there was some palpable neglect I think it is rather a mistake to hold young officers responsible for an error of judgement in time of war. The danger is that it will render officers having similar commands too cautious to permit them to carry out their duties as they should be carried out. I have always believed that not only in war, but in training for war, officers in command of vessels of this character should be encouraged to take reasonable risks when there is a military object to be accomplished.
Commander Wilson Brown turned up here a few days ago, and is now giving the various members of the staff, the benefit of his experiences. This acting as a liaison officer is of great value in clearing away numerous misunderstandings mostly of an unimportant nature. He will be transferred to Queenstown and will take his regular turn at a command. Unfortunately, there will be no vacancies in commands for a considerable time, because through a delay in the completion of the first of the destroyers to come out, we were asked to send home a dozen or more captains and nucleus crews before they were ready for them and we are now requested not to send any more until we get further notice which it is expected will be about July or August.
We expect to benefit greatly by the information that Babcock|29| will doubtless bring back to us about all sorts of requirements in the Department. I think it will be seen on both sides of the ocean that a trip of this kind is of great value.
Very sincerely yours,