Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain William V. Pratt, Acting Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters





July 2, 1917.

Dear Sims:-...


     Through efforts on the part of Schofield1 and all of us, crystallized into definite shape, we have presented a clean cut outline of the policy which we deem it absolutely necessary to follow if this affair is to be brought to a successful conclusion.

     Briefly speaking it is this – To push the immediate construction of destroyers, submarines, and merchant ships, not only push what is contracted for but to devote every building energy to these ends and to the building up of the ship producing facilities;

     To carry out the design above outlined, we have recommended the abandonment for the present of all dreadnaught--battle-cruiser--and scout cruisers, except the (3) dreadnaughts almost completed.

     To further these plans the Navy is cooperating to its utmost with General Goethals2 who, as the head of the merchant ship building program, is a tower of strength. He has asked for a Naval Board of Advisors and it has been appointed. Admiral Benson3 is strong for it and every effort of his will be directed towards getting the Secretary to make a decision.

     We all feel that this must be done, though we realize that such a policy may leave us with our guard down in case of future complications. There, however, is where you come in, and we must trust to your good offices, in your diplomatic way, to make the situation safe for the future. That is the happy solution, and it is a solution which I hope from the bottom of my heart may be accomplished for the future well being of the entire Anglo-Saxon race. Whatever might be the outcome, even were a forced peace to result, England’s Fleet must never go elsewhere except to join our own, and such portion of it as we might need in future contingencies ought to be at our disposal. There must be no mistake about that.4 But willy-nilly we of us here who may have an iota of say in directing our policies, are turning every effort in the direction of a successful solution of this problem, leaving the future to take care of itself.


     In one of your earlier cables you expressed the desire that we should undertake the construction of great numbers of mines. Later, you cabled our mine was not so satisfactory and that the Admiralty did not desire it.5 You are by now in receipt of our later cable requesting a definite statement of policy. We, as I understand it, stand ready to undertake the construction of very excellent mines in great quantities, without interfering with our other efforts. The Admiralty expert, Commander Mock,6 (I think) has, so I am told, expressed his satisfaction with the mine. Personally I think the mine will play a great part in the ultimate solution of the war, and in the mine class, I put the torpedo, the depth bomb, and the aerial bomb (the greatest of all) as well as the mine true. About 30,000 tons of steel are being held up on the mine situation pending an ultimate decision.


(1) The North Sea

(2) The Adriatic

(3) Other Areas.

     It has always seemed to me, and in this I am not alone, that areas (1) and (2) were the offensive areas, and that, outside of these, the (3) class, other areas, were largely defensive in a broad strategic sense.

     England and the Allies have tried everything in (1) and (2) from the Fleet to a patrol of the surface and, as you said in your cables, a limited mines operation. If I may be pardoned for saying so, and though she has learned through hard experience, I think the cart has been put ahead of the horse. Two years ago when the Fleet contained the Germans High Sea Fleet, everyone said Mahan was vindicated, the silent pressure of the Fleet was to save the situation. That is just as true to-day as it was then – the silent pressure of the Fleet is there, but it is the conception of the strategic area in which it must operate to be effective, that is gumming the game. It has been borne home to me more and more when I compare the similar attitude of mind which exists in our own Fleet. To be effective, the powers that control the movements of our Fleet decided that it must come North on our own coast. There were several of us who said “NO” to that proposition, “the best results will be gained by sending it to the Pacific” or where it can drill fit to the minute at sea. The other side thought that a reasonable proximity to the scene of possible action was the first requisite. What I am trying to drive at is this – the Fleet, Admiralty’s or ours, is a strategic proposition. Its effect will be felt even if it does not attempt the physical control of the North Sea with its component members. If it in any way hampers the tactical utilities of those fighting agencies which can do a better local work in that region, then the local agencies must not be sacrificed to the Fleet, but the Fleet must adjust itself to the immediate need. The immediate need – THE MISSION – is the strongest possible offensive in the North Sea and the Adriatic, against the submarine.

     As it seems to be working out, the strongest offensive agency capable of effectively working against the submarine is the mine in some form – whether it be projected from a submarine, a destroyer, an aircraft, or whether it be planted in the water. Therefore when the Admiralty decides that certain areas cannot be mined because it will interfere with the operation of the High Sea Fleet, I say the Admiralty or whoever makes the decision, decides wrong, and I am going to stick to it like a stubborn mule. The North Sea and the Adriatic must be offensive mine areas, and the tactical disposition of the forces concerned must be such that the most mobility of action along the lines indicated be gained. With the barrage of mines by the thousands, with the areas inside that barrage filled with the friendly submarines operating in areas under orders, with the friendly aircraft operating against the land inside the barrage, and against the sea outside the barrage, with the patrol and escort outside the barrage, with the Fleet in general support outside, there is a general strategic plan.7 I do not accept as a valid excuse the statement that the Fleet must be in readiness to repel an attempt by major ships of the enemy to raid the East Coast. It is not sound under the circumstances, and the answer to it lies in your own submarines, or else you admit at once that the enemy submarines can do more than you can. It is a great mistake to attempt to make a tactical issue of the Fleet when its role will, at the beginning at least be strategical, and only when the local issue is forced by the minor units can you hope to draw the enemy to an action. I have talked to a great many men like Chase, Schofield, McKean,8 and they are in the main in agreement as to the soundness of the general strategy, and in the insistence that local tactics should never be allowed to cloud correct strategic conceptions.

     I don’t care whether you call me a fool or not. I have studied a thousand or more plans and schemes, as I must from the nature of the duty of the Board of which I am head, and more and more do I see that the aim of every good solution lies alone [i.e., along] the lines I have indicated. It is not my scheme. It, like the conference, represents the consensus of opinion on the subject, and the sounder the character of the men making the solutions, the nearer do they seem to approach to something like what I have tried to indicate above.


     You are all right in asking for all the officers and men. They ought to go and would were it a physical possibility to give them. There are many great demands – the yachts going abroad, the drifters, the number of Army transports which are coming under direct and complete Navy control, the necessity of preserving intact the skeleton of the structure of the Fleet so that it shall in no wise lose in efficiency, the putting into commission the huge number of small craft, and the reserve battleships (to be used to train up new personnel), the great increase in the numbers of officers needed in positions of responsibility on shore and the impossibility of turning some of these duties over to untrained inexperienced men, all make the greatest demand upon the trained personnel. We must not and cannot make the mistake England did in her first expeditionary Army. You know it is sound just as well as I. But the spirit is with you to give you all that can be spared, and if the staff asks for more, remember we are trying to do our best. After reading over all you had to say, and Emmet’s9 letter, I prepared the cable which put the number of reserves at one-fifth (Naval Reserves, untrained, but let us hope bright, useful men). You can whip them into shape. I hope the Admiral10 signed it. He said he would. I believe it is the best that can be done now. But remember the will is to give you all that can be spared, not only for your own use, but on the principle, which we all hold here, that a man gets the best training at the front. I have personally wanted to go with you the worst way. Chase and the others insist that this is my job, that I am giving a greater equivalent to the Government, and as you know that is our War College training.


     As you know, if this war is going to last, and it looks now as though it would some time longer, we have only just begin to bite into the apple. It appears to me that there is a crying need for more of our forces of the anti submarine and patrol type, not only for the British areas, but for the French coast, and the Mediterranean as well.

     We have established a nucleus now on the Irish coast. It is only a beginning I hope. We are all in accord on that. It should and will be increased, compatible to our home needs, and to the supply abroad of our forces at other points.

     As to our home needs, don’t for a moment get the idea, or let any of those around you get it, that we are here asleep at the switch, or are being fooled by Fritz [i.e., Germany]. We feel that Fritz sent the U-53 over here deliberately to impress us with what he intended to do to us, and would do to us, if we went into the war.11 He also might, at the very beginning, had that warning not been sufficient, sent over a few subs to strafe us. Undoubtedly there was a big war party that advocated it. But, and this is a big BUT, Fritz has learned that perhaps it won’t pay to stir a hornet’s nest up too much. He feels that if we are allowed to plod along without too much personal contact with this war, we will be slow getting underway, and moreover he dearly needs a future trade haven, when this war is over. Fritz is in a quandary, he hates us and would dearly love to strafe us. He hates us even more than he does England if that is possible, but unless it be in the last final burst of rage, it hardly seems possible that there will ever be many subs sent to this side. If they do come, our answer is a dragging one, for mines, off our principle ports, and a close search for possible bases with our coast guard in certain localities. These precautions, coupled with sufficient anti-submarine craft, of the general chaser or destroyer type, to give shipping an offing, is all we need on this side. I think every one on this side appreciates the situation.12

     Now, as to other needs abroad. We have sent Fletcher13 with seven yachts to a French port. A division of nine more yachts is fitting out to join him as soon as they can be made ready. They ought to be in shape very soon, perhaps by the end of this month. In addition, 12 menhaden fishermen are being fitted for service abroad. They are good boats. They ought to be ready soon. Orders are also out to get twelve submarines in shape for distant service. There is no question of the necessity of establishing an escort service on the coast of France, through the danger zone.

     It has been decided to send the five destroyers in the Philippines to European waters. They will be ready to start on August 1st. The twelve destroyers ordered to get ready for distant service are having their difficulties. It is doubtful if they could be gotten ready. It would be wise for you to lay down certain general requisites in the matter of type and armament for submarines which we ought to consider in any building program. As you are on the spot such recommendations would be of extreme value. About forty more yachts will become available for distant service through the commandeering bill which has just been passed. It would be some little time before they could get across owing, to a large extent, to a lack of guns. It is the intention to push them for distant service.

     There is also another locality where our efforts may be needed, that is in safeguarding shipping into the entrance of the Mediterranean. This may require a station at Gibraltar. Now, whether we should undertake operations in the Mediterranean is another question. I don’t know, but it might well be discussed.14 However, it appears to me that three positions outlined above come well within the scope of our future operations. If the ideas outlined above under strategic areas, were considered favorably, I am inclined to believe that our submarines could do good work in the North Sea Area, assisting the British submarines, but I think it would be the greatest mistake to splash them around indiscriminately.


     This is the general name we have given to the class of operations comprised under the head, individual ship protection self-contained. It has been gone into very thoroughly on this side, probably because it was the best effort we could make immediately. Schofield fathered it, and with his usual thoroughness, it has been beautifully done, as far as our resources would permit. The secret of the recent successes has been the fact that it was considered a major objective, and not one of the minor considerations. I am not blaming the English – they had so many other things to think about. It has, with them, not received the proper consideration it should as one of the best defensive anti-submarine defenses. The opinion I have formed from talks with British officers seems to be this: their attitude toward the subject is this – “Oh, any old gun will do to keep the submarines under.” That is not enough. You have got to make the submarine realize that he runs a very considerable danger in attacking a ship, even if he be submerged, provided he can be detected. This requires the most painstaking efforts along the following lines: Lookouts, guns, care of guns, adequate guns crews, competent petty officers for each crew, an efficient control for each armed guard on each ship, a central control at the Department which regulates the assignment of guns and crews, the proper decentralizing of this central control, through the District Commandants, in order to secure efficient administration, and last but not least a proper supervision and inspection system. This supervision system requires a report from the armed guard commander for each voyage. This report is sent to Washington. The officer brings it himself. If there are glaring faults discovered, a Board of Investigation is ordered. At certain times the ship and Armed Guards are inspected by a competent officer. Plunkett does the inspection and you can bet it is done. His inspection and the reports submitted do not stop at the Armed Guards. They go intimately into Company methods, ship discipline, loading discharge, and a thousand things all having a bearing on getting CARGOES ACROSS SAFELY AND AT SPEED...

One of the inside secrets of getting results is this. Our central office in the Department is in constant touch with the WAR Risk Bureau, under the Treasury Department. They have agreed not to give insurance, to cancel insurance, at the call of this Central Office. What is the result. One of the companies say, does not want to incur a certain expense, which we consider necessary for the safety of the ship, our agent wires to Washington, we call up Treasury, stating case and requesting cancellation of insurance. Done. Owners gets busy and come through. Another case, and this is authentic. Armed Guard Commander reports captain as inefficient. Result. Communicate to Commerce and Labor. License canceled, after we have refused to furnish guns or guards to any ship employing that man as captain. Get Me. That is the stuff that gets results.

     Another thing. The petty officer of the SILVER SHELL sinks a submarine. The petty officer of the MORENI puts up as pretty a fight as one wants to see. Result. If the facts are authenticated those men will probably be recommended for commissions.

     Schofield is the father of the scheme and he deserves an unlimited amount of credit. It is not perfect, but it is systematically done, and it is bringing home the results. I do not see the same attention to these details on the part of British ships. I am not blaming anybody. I understand perfectly why all this should appear to be of minor importance to the Allies. It was up to the first of February last, but it must be taken seriously now. PUSH IT...


     In some of your cables15 and in Emmet’s letter, the need for liason officers is touched upon. That is granted. I believe the bureaus have sent representatives over to get in touch. Of course this does not fully comply with the object of your cables, but if the increase in your personnel is actually given you, then you will have a force to work with composed of some very fit men, even if taken from the Naval Reserves.16

     The various naval attaches from the Allied countries while the best of that particular type, do not quite fill the position which I think should be filled by some representative from the other side, especially from England. It does seem to me that we would get closer in touch if we had over here in this office a representative of the Admiralty General Staff. We ought to be able to talk to him every day. He is to fill us with their point of view, and we to fill him with ours. He should, be a man able to speak with certainty as to the point of view which is held in the Admiralty. If we are at fault, he can correct it. If we have any ideas that are worth considering he will glean them. You on that side of the water represent us, but the Admiralty is <not> represented over here in the way I mean. This country represents a great military reserve which is marshalling its powers to take the offensive. As your history will tell you, Wellington laid great stress in his reserves, and Wellington was one of the few men of history, who, in addition to being a master tactician, was also a master of policy and strategy. Those are rare qualities to combine in one man. I feel that we do not get enough of THE POINT OF VIEW OVER THERE, and moreover I want to know what the point of view of a man from over there will be when he comes over here.

     You cannot in cables give an altogether clear conception of the big point of view. We know when you want a thing, because you ask, but the underlying motives, and the reasons why, and especially the British point of view which actuated you, we lose. And that has a big influence on the results of the individual requests you make. It may be all wrong, if so we want to find it out, but there has been done a vast amount of thinking on the general plan of campaign, right in this office and many general decisions which we believe are being made we would like very much to have presented at close range. You know the American characteristic, which is “Show me” and you know it well enough to realize that it is not sufficient, much as we regard and highly as we respect the Admiralty decisions, to absolutely accept them without close scrutiny. Neither is it a wise thing to do it, for the point of view of the man somewhat removed from the scene of strife, while it may not be of great value, is still a point of view, and it may contain food for much thought. Especially is this apt to be true in the consideration of the broader schemes. And it must be definitely realized that while we may have very little actual contact, at present, on a big scale at sea, yet as a reserve force of power in the future, we may have a weighty part to play, and the general decisions and schemes concern us vastly. Therefore I say, we must be in touch with the Admiralty’s policy, not after the manner of a man who has something to show to an inquisitive child, but after the manner of two men respecting each other’s ability, and wishing each to give and to learn from the other...


     After dint of working on the subject, in conjunction with the General Staff of the Army, the conclusion has been arrived at that the Transport Service of the Army must be under complete Naval control. So, to that end there has been a big effort to get into the transport service some of the interned German orphans we fell heir to.17 That is going through, I believe. Through the insistence of Secretary Baker,18 who by the way is one very big man, this bill will be signed by the President, we have every reason to believe. This immediately puts a strain on the Naval personnel, but it is one we believe we should assume. It also helps to explain why it is so difficult to meet your demands in the way of trained personnel. As our Transport and Convoy system stands today it is a cumbersome affair, and the putting of the right ships under Naval control is going to vastly simplify the situation, to say nothing of safeguarding it. The ships we have taken over will be able, without strain, to put the entire Army raised, over on to the shores of France in something less than a year. Submarines or no submarines, you can rest assured that Army will be there in less than one year, and with it from 5000 to 10,000 trained aviators...


     In your cables you have insisted upon the necessity of adopting what you call convoy. Your assumption that merchant shipping should be escorted through the danger zone is absolutely correct. There has been no dissent there. Also what you insist, upon the impracticability of escorting individual ships through, is correct. The only difference lies in the details of the scheme. As I understand it, the Admiralty favors a convoy across all the way. Why? There are no raiders, if so then the High Sea Patrol ought to settle that. If it is to control the merchant ship across, and see to it that he arrives at the proper rendezvous, that of course is another matter, but it does seem to me that this matter ought to be arranged in a simpler manner, and in a way which ought not to interfere with the ability of the individual ship to make its best time to the point of rendezvous. You also eliminate the waste effort of assembling the different parts of the convoy, if the steady stream of shipping is kept up. What you are trying to arrive at is escort through the danger zone, in bulk and en toto, in a manner which will interfere least with the other duties falling to the lot of the vessels used for escort purposes. I think that can be arranged in another way. If the Admiralty were to appoint a certain number of days a week during which, at certain hours, they would guarantee the escort through the danger zone in bulk of merchant shipping, and if in addition they would predict for a say a week ahead the different rendezvous shipping bound for certain ports should arrive at, together with the hour of arrival, then the matter is in their hands. If long on escort ships, they could make the arrivals three times a week. If short they could cut it in two...

     The forces which I have mentioned as available soon have already been listed under the head ESTABLISHMENT OF STATIONS ABROAD. In addition to those spoken of we have placed contracts for some 360 of the 110-foot chaser type. This does not mean that all those ships will be sent abroad, but it is well for you to know what we are doing in the matter of trying to accelerate things, and if the urgent needs are presented clearly and frankly enough, we stand ready to do everything in our power to help the united cause. The deliveries of the 110-foot chasers should be coming along shortly perhaps in another month...


     A cable was sent to you the other day as you remember, asking you to outline the character and extent of operations in the air which our naval air forces might at some near time be called upon to undertake in the service of Allied operations. It is necessary to know this in order to make the proper estimates of numbers of craft and personnel to ask Congress to appropriate for. These air craft abroad must be additional to the units considered necessary to retain in the United States and with the Fleet.

     As you perhaps know from seeing it in our papers, there is being made by the Army a very decided drive at a huge increase in the flying force for the land. There are some 600,000,000 of dollars being asked for. I am personally heartily in favor of an intensive drive in this direction by the land forces, for to me it seems the line of least resistance their efforts can take. Moreover, it is the one effort which can be intensified most rapidly and it is essentially adaptable to the qualities of our newly enrolled personnel.

     It is, however, essential that we know the relations which are supposed to exist abroad, between the sea fliers and the land fliers, and the scope of their individual efforts. Would our sea fliers be asked to undertake land operations, perhaps against naval bases, or would their efforts be confined to the anti-submarine and patrol efforts at sea? This is asked because the papers print news from time to time of the efforts the British sea fliers are making on land, and if such an effort were to be asked of us it would be well to be prepared in the matter of machines and instruction of personnel.

     Moreover, with such a concentrated drive on the part of the Army for material, it behooves the Navy to have its plans laid else it will be driven out of the market.

. . . .Poor old Chase died last Sunday night (June 24) suddenly. His heart gave out. He went to sleep in his bed and never awoke. I feel his loss keenly, as I have always regarded him as one of the rightest thinkers this Navy ever produced. He had the faculty of the broad gauge of being able to visualize events. Moreover, I was personally very fond of him, for his kindliness of nature and charity towards other was a lesson to all of us. He cannot be replaced. The Admiral has directed me to temporarily look out for his desk until he chooses his successor...

Source Note: TDS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, box 78.

Footnote 1: Cmdr. Frank H. Schofield.

Footnote 2: Maj. Gen. George Washington Goethals, General Manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

Footnote 3: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 4: In light of the devastation wrought by U-boats, Britain urged the United States to abandon construction on large capital ships and focus on building as many anti-submarine craft as possible. American officers, however, feared that if the Allies fell and the United States had to face the German High Seas Fleet alone, they would need large numbers of the biggest ships then in existence. Col. Edward M. House, an unofficial advisor and close friend to President Woodrow Wilson, suggested at one point that Britain offer to exchange capital ships for anti-submarine craft on a ton-for-ton basis. See: Northcliffe to War Cabinet, 5 July 1917.

Footnote 5: In fact, the British government requested 50,000 mines from the U.S. on 30 June. See: Northcliffe to War Cabinet, 5 July 1917.

Footnote 6: Lt. Cmdr. Herbert O. Mock, Assistant to Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes.

Footnote 7: Albeit reluctantly. the Royal Navy eventually agreed to construction of the North Sea Mine Barrage. Historians continue to debate whether the North Sea Mine Barrage had a significant impact on the German U-boat fleet, or whether its sizable costs were justified. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I: 438-441; Anglo-American Naval Relations: 365-394.

Footnote 8: Capt. Volney O. Chase served as Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations until his sudden death from a heart attack on 24 June 1917. Capt. Josiah S. McKean was employed in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 9: Lt. Robert R.M. Emmet, temporarily attached to Bureau of Navigation. Emmet strongly supported Sims and was critical of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Benson for failing to provide naval forces in Europe with adequate support. His letter to Pratt has not been found, although it is possible this refers to an earlier letter Emmet wrote to Sims, which Sims might have forwarded to Pratt. See: Emmet to Sims, 22 June 1917.

Footnote 10: This likely refers to Benson.

Footnote 12: Sims strongly agreed with Pratt that U.S. forces should be focused exclusively on Europe, and that the United States itself was under no real threat from U-boat attacks. In fact, German U-boats did operate in American waters during the last six months of the war, though their impact on the overall conflict proved negligible. Six U-boats traveled across the Atlantic to strike at ships leaving U.S. ports, sinking just over 165,000 tons and claiming over 200 lives. Pratt was correct that these raids were more acts of desperation than a genuine threat to turn the tide of the war. William Bell Clark, When the U-Boats Came to America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1920).

Footnote 13: Capt. William B. Fletcher, Force Commander, Special Patrol Squadron.

Footnote 14: American naval forces arrived in the Mediterranean on 16 August 1917 and operated there for the rest of the war. For a summary of U.S. naval activity in the Mediterranean, see, Still, Crisis at Sea: 478-504.

Footnote 15: See: Sims to Daniels, 1 July 1917.

Footnote 16: While never openly hostile to reservists, Sims had his doubts about them, and much preferred regular naval officers for ship commands. He complained several times to Daniels that it was extremely dangerous to have too many inexperienced reservists in a war zone. See: Sims to Palmer, 11 June 1917; also, Still, Crisis at Sea: 193-194.

Footnote 17: See, Navy Department (Operations) to Capt. Benjamin C. Bryan, 31 March 1917, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517. See also: Benson to Daniels, 2 June 1917.

Footnote 18: Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.