Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Alfred C. W. Harmsworth, First Viscount Northcliffe, to Imperial War Cabinet

[Washington, D.C.]

Paraphrase of telegram dated 5/7/17 from Lord Northcliffe for Prime Minister, each Member of War Cabinet, First Lord of Admiralty and all concerned.1

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IMPORTANT.    Though beyond my instructions, I cannot refrain from reporting current American opinion on naval matters.

          Our alleged inactivity in dealing with submarines hampers our work as much as question of Ireland.2 Both in New York and here members of Government, general public and relations of officers of new army I am constantly interrogated about progress of submarine destruction. Optimist statements as given to Associated Press Correspondents in London on July 4th merely confuse and do harm.3

          All observers of war foresee that if American army, supplies, aeroplanes, food, railway material, are to be available on Western Front, they will create fresh demands for shipping, and note that losses exceed replacements so greatly that it is possible that necessary tonnage may not exist when all is ready here to intervene militarily with effect.

          Secondly, naval observers point out three possible policies to end or lessen losses, all or one of which must be pursued with utmost vigour. First policy, build special unsinkable monitors and other necessary craft to enter zone outside enemy harbours and attack fleet and forts, with assistance of aircraft, while effort is made to blockade exits of enemy battle fleet. Then, under cover of capital ships, establishment of mine barriers which cannot be swept. Suggested this policy would, if feasible and carried out at Zeebrugge and all German ports combined with barrier to exclude submarines from Baltic, be completely effective. It is asked, has Admiralty considered any such scheme? If so, can they submit it to Navy Department?

          Second policy: by continuous nets, each mesh of which at all depths carry a mine, to block northern exit North Sea, or alternatively by continuous wall of mines at either end North Sea.

          Third policy: to devote shipbuilding capacity of both countries in much greater proportion to producing convoying or patrolling craft suitably armed with howitzer type of guns, depth charges, etc., with which to control lane down which all trade is directed. Most important these or any other plans should be discussed promptly and fully by Admiralty with American Navy.

          Thirdly, Chief of Navy Dept. is reluctant to devote labour and material to inshore monitor of patrolling or convoying craft which will delay any part of capital ship programme, on ground that if war ends in compromise that leaves German Fleet intact or in defeat of Allies, danger to U.S. so great that utmost battleship and battlecruiser strength would be necessary in view of possible S. Atlantic and Pacific developments. Suggested this labour and material could be released by British offering latest type of battleships of battle-cruisers in exchange tone [i.e., ton] for tone against anti-submarine product of labour, etc., so displaced from capital ship programme here.4

          Very big depth charge and mine policy adopted last week, first open sign of naval initiative and very important to acknowledge this suitably.5 While verbally favouring enterprise, Navy Dept. is really waiting for Admiralty to lead the way to formulate any forward strategy. “Scientific American” is dealing with subject; will cable date of article.6

          On June 30 order was given for mines and depth charges 50,000 each, as no doubt you are aware. These supposed to be made and given free to British Government.

          Submarine question mentioned at every interview I have had with President and members of his Cabinet.7

NORTHCLIFFE.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517. Northcliffe was head of a British war mission to the United States. The Imperial War Cabinet was the British Empire’s wartime coordinating body. It was composed of leaders from the British dominion governments and India.

Footnote 1: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Sir Edward Carson was First Lord of the Admiralty, though he was succeeded by Sir Eric Geddes on 17 July 1917.

Footnote 2: Britain’s refusal to grant Ireland its independence was unpopular with many Americans.

Footnote 3: See: Associated Press, “Submarine Sinkings Smallest In WeeksRichmond Times Dispatch, July 5, 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress, accessed 1 July 2017.

Footnote 4: This idea had been proposed earlier by President Woodrow Wilson’s friend and advisor, Col. Edward M. House, to British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour when Balfour was visiting the United States during an earlier mission. See: Arthur J. Balfour to A. Robert Cecil, 14 May 1917. Northcliffe met with House while en route to Washington. House to Wilson, 27 June and 29 June 1917, Wilson Papers, 43: 24, 44. In a later interview with another British official, Sir William Wiseman, Wilson indicated he had no interest in pursuing such a plan. Ibid., 174.

Footnote 5: As seen later in this letter, Northcliffe is referring to an order for 50,000 mines and depth charges.

Footnote 6: Northcliffe is presumably referring to several articles run in Scientific American during the summer of 1917 under the general heading, “The Submarine Problem.” Scientific American, vol. 116, number 25 (June 23, 1917), 614; 616-17; number 26 (June 30, 1917), 644.

Footnote 7: With Northcliffe’s report is an undated document to which someone later added “Admiralty Comments,” which appears below. The editor Anglo-American Naval Relations gives the author as First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe and the date as “c. 10 July 1917.” Anglo-American Naval Relations, 85.

As the transport of troops is mentioned it is necessary to give a reminder of the fact that between the commencement of the War and the 31st March 1917 the British Navy has safe-guarded the transport overseas of ten and a half million troops from the attacks of both surface vessels and submarines, together with their equipment, munitions, stores and a large proportion of their feed.

The loss incurred amounted to less than 1,000 lives.

This not inconsiderable achievement is very apt to be forgotten as is the fact that the work itself is the principal factor which has handicapped the Navy in every direction when an offensive is planned.

The ever-increasing demand on the resources of the Navy are shown by the fact that the number of vessels working from Portsmouth alone to supply the needs of the Army had more than doubled between June 1916 and June 1917 and the number of fast craft required to safe-guard these vessels on passages had similarly more than doubled. The same figures apply to other cross channel passages to at least an equal extent.

The “alleged inactivity” of the Navy in dealing with submarines exists only in the imagination of those not acquainted with the facts.

There are certainly more submarines now, but the means of dealing with them have increased very considerably and are increasing, otherwise the losses would have been far greater. The resources of the U.S.N. are being added to those of the British and Allied Navies.

FIRSTLY:-

The construction of unsinkable monitors in the numbers required would take the steel and labour which is essential for the construction of merchant vessels, tankers, destroyers and anti-submarine craft. Monitors capable of withstanding the gunfire of modern forts and capital ships would require heavier armour than has yet been used in warship construction, and the manufacture of the armour plates, ordnance and ships themselves would occupy from 18 moths to 2 years.

The number of large merchant vessels or old Men of War required to block the German Fleet into North Sea harbours is approximately 220.

Experience of blocking passages in a strong tideway show that the operations is most difficult and that gaps are certain.

Submarines would not be kept in by these means and a passage would be cleared for heavy ships after a short time.

No mine barrier that cannot be swept has yet been devised. Many ideas of this nature have been put forward but no practical scheme has been evolved.

The establishment of mine barriers and their protection by capital ships necessitates a number of modern destroyers which is far in excess of the numbers in the U.S. and British Navies and supposing the increased numbers required could be built the trained personnel to man them could not be provided.

Schemes of the class mentioned put forward by Naval Officers have been constantly considered and Admiral Sims has seen them and professional seamen have in addition wasted much valuable time in considering further impracticable schemes put forward by landsmen.

SECONDLY:-

It is impracticable to block the northern exit from the North Sea by mine nets owing to the weather conditions and wave motion. This opinion is based on the experience gained since the War commenced. The wave motion in Dover Straits was sufficient to chafe through heavy links of chain cable in a few weeks during winter gales. On account of the great depth and higher waves the conditions in the North Sea are worse.

It must not be forgotten also that no net or mine barrier is efficient against submarines unless there are sufficient surface craft patrolling the barrier to force the submarine to dive into it. The distance from Scotland to Norway is 240 miles and the number of small craft necessary to maintain an efficient patrol on this line would be at least 150 in addition to those required for its maintenance supposing the scheme to be practicable.

Howitzers and also devices for projecting depth charges are being manufactured in large quantities for patrol vessels and merchant vessels. Ship building capacity is carefully allotted according to the various types of vessels required an undue proportion cannot be devoted to one type of vessel at the expense of equally important vessels without disaster.

THIRDLY:-

The obvious course if for Great Britain to guarantee naval assistance to the U.S.A. after the War. Great Britain cannot exchange modern battleships or battle cruisers for ant-submarine craft while the German Fleet remains intact.

With regard to the construction of large number of mines in the U.S.A. it is most desirable that they should be of the H. type and not the Elia type. Plans of the H type have been sent to the U.S.A.

Finally, Admiral Sims and his staff are in daily personal contact with the First Sea Lord and Naval Staff and meetings at which all kinds of plans are discussed take place frequently. DNA, RG 45, Item 517.