Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Forces Operating in European Waters, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels
January 9, 1918.
From: Force Commander.
To: Secretary of the Navy, (Operations)
Subject: Expansion of work on French Coast.
Enclosure: (a) Sketch of present and future traffic.1
1. The following resume of work on the French Coast is forwarded for the information of the Department. Particular attention is invited to enclosure (a), giving a graphic representation of the additional work imposed on our forces in the opening of the ports on the Gironde river to the entry of troops and supplies. Thus far our naval activities have been confined to Brest and St.Nazaire. The Army has now begun to use Bordeaux (and adjacent ports) which greatly increases the work of the forces, and makes urgent demand for more destroyers. Every effort will be made to keep our present naval forces working at maximum capacity and to employ them in the most effective manner practicable.
Supplies for U.S. Army.
At the present time all Army supplies are coming in the regular organized convoys bound for England. The Hampton Roads convoys and the Sydney [Nova Scotia] convoys are met by Queenstown destroyers and our supply ships are carried by these destroyers into Brest. The New York convoys which contain many of our storeships, are met by British destroyers, and, as the convoy passes Brest, French and U.S. Forces intercept the convoy and detach our storeships and ships bound for French Atlantic ports. The contact by the French vessels has frequently vessels has frequently been faulty, and in some instances the convoys have been missed altogether. In one or two other cases the convoys were met only by the U.S. vessels (who were junior) taking charge of the situation and proceeding toward the position of the convoy. To improve conditions we are trying to arrange to have U.S. destroyers meet all New York convoys but I think the best we can do at present is to meet alternate convoys and we will still have to rely on the French and MAY expect some of the same failures that we have had in the past. Practically speaking, all of our supply ships arrive in Brest, and then join the coastal convoy to St. Nazaire, Nantes, La Pallice and Bordeaux. At this costal convoy is a daily convoy and consists of an average of some 10 ships, it is evident that it requires a large number of escorting vessels to provide adequate escort. Our older yachts augment the French Forces in furnishing escort as far as St. Nazaire. From St. Nazaire to Bordeaux the escort is French. All of these convoys are weakly escorted, the average number of escorting vessels being not greater than two or three, - a wholly inadequate number considering that the convoy must be in column the greater part of the distance in order to pass through swept channels. This convoy was recently attacked south of Brest and 4 ships sunk.2 The escort consisted of 2 U.S. yachts. There has been recently established a slow convoy out of Verdon (south of Gironde River). This convoy is now averaging six or seven vessels each week and is under French escort entirely. The escort consists of not more than two vessels. This is wholly inadequate for proper protection of our empty ships.
From the foregoing it will be seen that the question of supplies is thoroughly satisfactory up to the point of arrival at Brest. From Brest to Bordeaux and again to the westward conditions should be improved by adding more escorting vessels.
The incoming protection of troop transports has been fairly satisfactory. With the number of destroyers available and the other work in hand it has never been possible to furnish as large a destroyer escort to troop convoys as one would like. It has been desirable to confine troop arrivals to St. Nazaire and Brest partly on account of the radius of destroyers, partly as these harbors have several entrances and are better swept, and partly to facilitate offshore escort, which must be provided by our ships based on France. Recently we have had a request to escort troops to Bordeaux, as the Army have a large camp there with facilities for handling troops.3 This will put a heavy tax on our resources, and I am in hopes that we can avoid using this port, or at least, until more destroyers are available. The Army have been very insistent on using Bordeaux, however. I doubt if the Queenstown destroyers can make the complete trip without having to stop on the French coast for oil (which is very scarce). These large valuable transports, if taken to Bordeaux, would be a long way from our base at Brest and consequently put a heavy tax on the small number of ships available for offshore escort work.
Coal Trade Convoy.
We have at the present time fifteen ships in the coal trade, of which four are U.S. naval vessels. This number of ships is not sufficient to furnish the coal now required for our Army, and, with the growth of the army, additional vessels will have to be placed in the trade. The convoy is a daily one consisting of from 10 – 30 vessels which crosses the Channel at night under the escort of about two or three trawlers or slow yachts. Why these convoys have not been attacked oftener is not known. The escort is wholly inadequate. The most reasonable explanation is that a part of the immunity is due to controlling the sailings – that is, holding them up for a day or two if necessary when submarine activity is very marked. Further, the ships in this trade are very small ones and it is possible that the submarines are saving their torpedoes for more important ships. In any event, the [few] losses of ships in this trade are due more to enemy inaction than to any offensive action on our part, and this must continue until more ships are available for escorting purposes.
Supply Convoy from Swansea.
A large quantity of supplies for our Army will come from England and enter France through Atlantic Coastports. The ships will load at Swansea Walls [i.e., Wales] and come down the West Coast of England and cross in the regular coal trade convoys. These convoys are open to attack as previously stated, for while they MAY consist of 30 or more ships, they rarely have more than two or three escorting vessels. Furthermore, these convoys are not formed as are Atlantic convoys, but sail more or less indiscriminately so that the convoy MAY cover an area of some 50 square miles, while crossing the Channel. This is the convoy on which we will be dependent for bringing our supplies across from England.
It is probable that when our crossChannel steamers become available it will be necessary to establish a cross Channel Service from Portland to Cherbourg for carrying our troops. This will require additional destroyers for escorts, and additional trawlers to keep Cherbourg open. We can rely on the British to keep Portland open. Unfortunately we have been unable to get the supply convoy running from Portland to Cherbourg, principally owing to the lack of unloading facilities at Cherbourg. These shorter ocean routes are a great economy in shipping, but much time is lost in unloading at ports where there are poor facilities.
Oiling Facilities and Repair Facilities.
Repair facilities are wholly inadequate all along the French Coast. There is lack of labor and lack of material. We will eventually have to man Navy Yards, take over docks and so forth in order to keep up our forces. Repair ships alone will not be adequate. We will have to develop greatly the meagre oiling facilities along the French coast. This work has been taken in hand and will go forward. At present it is impossible to oil a group of six destroyers anywhere on the French coast in reasonable time. One group sent to Brest took about a day and a half to partly fill with oil.
Mine sweeping on the French Coast is inadequate. The immediate approaches to Brest are now being swept and our trawlers are working on the approaches to St. Nazaire. Up to the present time the approaches to Quiberon Bay have not been regularly swept and channels have been closed until other channels could be opened. With the increased work into the Gironde River, sweeping forces in that area will have to be greatly increased. Any vessels suitable for mine sweeping will be useful. The French have very few vessels to assist us in the work of sweeping.
Delays on French Coast.
With the forces at present available and with the meagre assistance that can be given us by the French it is evident that there will have to be more or less delay in our storeships and empty transports on the French Coast. With one exception this delay has not been excessive so far. It is hoped shortly tosail regular convoys out of Quiberon every 8 or 9 days. A definite schedule will enable the Army to arrange discharging of vessels to better advantage. The use of Bordeaux for troop transports, however, would add either delay or more risk to Transports. We are trying to restrict the Army to using Bordeaux for supplies only for the present. If this can [be] effected our troop transports should not be delayed more than at present, but there MAY be some additional delay to our storeships and necessarily additional risk due to the longer voyage and weakness of coastal escort.
It is evident from the foregoing summary that a large number of additional destroyers, mine sweepers, etc. can be used to advantage on the French coast. It is the present policy to send to the French coast every ship that joins the U.S. naval forces in European Waters. The U.S.S. MAY has been sent from Gibraltar to Brest, and all the yachts now en route will be sent to the French coast. Until our forces are increased we must accept delays that are necessary to permit the most effective use of our limited forces.
WM. S. SIMS.
Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Box 339. Identifying marks at the top of the page are as follows: “11-4-6”; “01-6110”; and, in columnar fashion, “C/E/J/1/3”.
Footnote 1: This enclosure is no longer with this document.
Footnote 2: On 6 January, four ships, including the American tanker Harry Luckenbach were sunk in the Bay of Biscay by German U-boat U-93.
Footnote 3: See: Office of Chief of Naval Operations to Sims, 8 January 1918.