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Memorandum from Sir Colville A. R. Barclay, Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of Great Britain in Washington, D. C.

<July 1, 1917>              



     Shipping is at the present time being sunk in the danger zone round the British Isles at a rate which exceeds that at which new tonnage of British origin can be turned out. It is to be foreseen that, if losses continue on the present scale, the available tonnage, leaving America’s contribution out of account, will ultimately be inadequate to secure the United Kingdom a sufficiency of food stuffs, oil fuel and other essentials.

     France and Italy are in a very similar position.

     Under the present methods of operation adopted by the enemy submarines, attacks are made almost exclusively by torpedo. The submarine itself remains submerged and is rarely seen unless and until the ship has actually been struck by a torpedo.1

     The guns carried by merchant vessels serve to keep the submarines below the surface, but are useless against them when submerged.

     The expectation is entertained that the convoy system, when in working order and provided that sufficient destroyers are available to form an effective screen, will serve to minimise losses. Progress is also being made with the introduction of new offensive measures, which will it is hoped ultimately result in the destruction of enemy submarines at a rate sufficient to secure the safety of sea communications with the British Isles.

     But the method at present in use, viz., the employment of armed small craft in an attempt to prevent the submarines from using their periscopes for fear of an attack by ram or bomb, offers the only remedy for the next few months. The success of this method obviously depends on small craft being available in very large numbers and the critical character of the present situation is due to the fact that the forces of this nature at the disposal of the British Admiralty are not at present adequate for the work of protecting shipping in the danger zone.

     It is therefore of the utmost urgency that additional armed small craft should be made available for use in the area near the British and French coasts where the commercial routes converge. Invaluable assistance could be rendered, not only by destroyers, gun-boats and submarines, but also by trawlers, yachts and tugs. But these are needed immediately and, if sent in as large numbers as possible, would, it is hoped, save what is manifestly a critical situation.2

     The United States is the only allied country able to afford assistance of this kind, and you should lay the situation outlined above before the United States Government, emphasising its serious and urgent nature.


July 1, 1917. 

Source Note: TLS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517.

Footnote 1: Barclay’s intelligence on submarine tactics is mistaken. In fact, U-boats only carried a small number of torpedoes – a submarine commander might start a voyage with only five at his disposal – and they were hesitant to use them. The preferred tactic at this stage of the war was to surface and use gunfire to destroy a ship or compel its surrender. Once the Allies began convoying, U-boats were forced to rely more on torpedoes. Spector, At War at Sea: 106-107; Still, Crisis at Sea: 362.

Footnote 2: The United States also suffered from a shortage of smaller anti-submarine craft, and upon entering the war it scrambled to supply Britain and France as quickly as possible. The vessels sent over included hastily-constructed wooden subchasasers, converted yachts, gunboats, and tugs for minesweeping. Once convoying became the primary means of combatting the submarine, commanders diverted the best vessels they had to escort duty, and only the oldest and least functional were used for patrol work. One historian of the American effort in World War I concludes that “Americans warships operating in European waters ranged from modern to obsolete,” but adds that “regardless of their age and their unsuitability for the work, they performed creditably.” Still, Crisis at Sea: 311-331.

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