Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels

 

Office Vice Admiral, Commanding

U.S.Destroyer Forces,   

European Waters.     

Letter No. 27.

LONDON, July 16, 1917.

     From: Vice-Admiral Sims.

     To: Secretary of the Navy.

Subject: Concerning Policy of U.S.Naval co-operation in war, and allied subjects.

1.  The Department’s cablegram quoting a letter which had been addressed to the Secretary of State1 concerning naval policy in relation to the present war, was received on July 10th.

    In view of the nature of certain parts of the policy set forth therein, I wish to indicate the general policy which has heretofore governed my recommendations.

2.  I have assumed that our mission was to promote the maximum co-operation with the allies in defeating a common enemy.2

   All of my dispatches and recommendations have been based on the firm conviction that the above mission could and would be accomplished, and that hence such questions as the possibility of post-war situations, or of all or part of the Allies being defeated and America being left alone, were not given consideration, - in fact, I cannot see how we could enter into this war wholeheartedly if such considerations were allowed to diminish in any way the chances of allied success.

3.  The first course open to us which naturally occurs to mind is that we should look upon our service as part of the combined allied service, of which the British Grand Fleet is the main body, and all other allied naval forces disposed throughout the world as necessary branches thereof.

   This conception views our battleship fleet as a support or reserve of the Allied main body (the British Grand Fleet) and would lead to utilising our other forces to fill in weak s pots of, and to strengthen, allied lines, both offensively and defensively wherever necessary.

   Such a course might be viewed as a disintegration of our fleet, and it is only natural, therefore, that hesitation and caution should be felt in its adoption.

4.  I have felt, however, that it was possible to accomplish our mission without in any way involving the so-called disintergration of our fleet as a whole.

   In the first instance I have assumed that our aim would be to project, or prepare to project, our maximum force against the enemy offensively.

5.  An estimate of the situation shows clearly that the enemy is depending for success upon breaking down the Allies’ lines of communications by virtue of the submarine campaign.

   A necessary part of such a plan is to direct strength from the main fleet and from antisubmarine operations by such means as coastal raids, threats of landing operations, air raids and attacks on hospital ships, which last necessitates destroyer escort for such vessels.

   The submarine campaign itself, while it is of necessity concentrated primarily on the most vital lines of communication, is nevertheless carried out in such a manner as to lead the Allies to disperse, and not concentrate, their inadequate antisubmarine Forces.

   The Allies are, of course, forced to contemplate at all times, and hence provide against, the possibility of another main fleet action.

6.  A study of the submarine situation, the number of submarines available to the enemy, and the necessary lines of theallies’ communications for both Army and Navy, as well as civil needs, shows clearly that the enemy must direct his main effort in certain restricted areas.

   These areas, as has repeatedly been reported, are included approximately in a circle drawn from about Ushant3 to the north of Scotland. The most effective field for enemy activity is, of course, close in to the Irish Sea and Channel approaches, where all lines must focus.

   But, as stated above, the enemy also attacks occasionally well out to sea and in other dispersed areas with a view of scattering the limited anti-submarine forces available.

   It therefore seems manifest that the war not only is, but must remain in, European waters, in so far as success or failure is concerned.4

7.  Speaking generally, but disregarding for the moment the question of logistics, our course of action in order to throw our main strength against the enemy would be to move all of our forces, including the battleship fleet, into the war area.

8.  In view of the nature of the present sea warfare as effected by the submarine, such a movement by the battleships would necessitate a large force of light craft, - much larger than our peace establishment provides. In addition to all destroyers, adequate protection of the fleet would require all other available light craft in the service, or which could be commandeered and put into service, - that is, submarines, armed tugs, trawlers, yachts, torpedo boats, revenue cutters, mine layers and mine sweepers, and in fact any type of small craft which could be used as protective or offensive screens.

9.  In view of the shipping situation, as affected by the submarine campaign, it has been impossible to date to see in what way our battleships could be supplied in case they were sent into the war area. This refers particularly to oil-burning vessels. It would therefore seem unwise to recommend such a movement until we could see clearly far enough ahead to ensure the safety of the lines of communication which such a force would require.

10. It is to be observed, however, that even in case the decision were made to move the battleships into the war area, it would unavoidably be greatly delayed both in getting together the necessary screening forces and also in getting such craft across the Atlantic.

   In the meantime, and while awaiting a decision as to the movements of the battleship fleet, the submarine campaign has become so intensive, and the available anti-submarine craft have been so inadequate to meet it, that the necessity for increasing the anti-submarine forces in the war area to the maximum possible extent has become imperative.

11. As long, therefore, as the enemy fleet is contained by the stronger British Fleet in a position of readiness, it would not seem a disintegration of our fleet to advance into the war area all the light craft of every description which would necessarily have to accompany the fleet in case it should be needed in this area.

   Such movements of the light craft would not in any way separate them strategically from the battleships, as they would be operating between the enemy and our own main body and based in a position to fall back as the main body approached, or to meet it at any appointed place. This advance of light forces, strategically, would mean no delay whatever to our own heavy forces, should the time come for their entry into the active war zone.

12. Another very important consideration is the fact that, pending the movement of the battleships themselves, all of the light forces would be gaining valuable war experience and would be the better prepared for operations of any nature in the future, either in connection with the fleet itself or independently.

   It is also considered that it would not constitute a disintergration of our Fleet to advance into the war zone, in co-operation with the British Grand Fleet or for other duty, certain units of our Battleship Fleet. These would merely constitute units advanced for the purposes of enemy defeat, and which would always be in a position to fall back on the main part of our Fleet, or to join it as it approached the war zone.

   It is for this reason I recommended, on July 7th, 1917,5 that all coal-burning dreadnaughts be kept in readiness for distant service in case their juncture with the Grand Fl eet might be deemed advisable in connection with unexpected enemy developments.

   It would, of course, be preferable to advance the entire Fleet, provided adequate lines of communication could be established to ensure their efficient operation. At the present time there is a sufficient coal supply in England to supply our coal burning dreadnaughts, but the oil would be a very difficult problem as it must be brought in through the submarine zone.

   When notified that the CHESTER, BIRMINGHAM, and SALEM were available for duty in the war area, I recommended, after consultation with the Admiralty, that they join the British Light Cruiser Squadrons in the North Sea,6 where there is always a constant demand for more ships, especially to oppose enemy raiding and other operations aimed at dispersing the Allied sea forces.

   In view of the Department’s references to the Gibraltar situation, and also in consideration of the sea-keeping qualities of the 7 gun boats of the SACREMENTO class, it was recommended that they be based on Gibraltar for duty in assisting to escort convoys clear of the Straits, and particularly as this would release some British destroyers which are urgently needed in critical areas to the northward.

13. The Department’s policy, as contained in its letter to the Secretary of State, refers in the first statement to an adequate defense of our own home waters. It would seem to be sound reasoning that the most effective defense which can be afforded to our own home waters is an offensive campaign against the enemy which threatens those waters. Or in other words, that the place for protection of home waters is the place in which protection is necessary, - that is, where the enemy is operating and must continue to operate in force.

   As has been stated in numerous despatches, it is considered the home waters are threatened solely in the submarine zone, - in fact are bein<g> attacked solely in that zone, and must continue to be attacked therein if the enemy is to succeed against us as well as against the European Entente.

   The number of available enemy submarines is not unlimited, and the difficulties of obtaining and maintaining bases are fully as difficult for submarines as for surface craft.

   The difficulties experienced by enemy submarines en route and in operating as far from their bases as they do now are prodigious.

   Operations on our coast without a base are impracticable, except by very limited numbers for brief periods, purely as diversions.

   In view of our distance from enemy home bases, the extent of our coast line, and the distances between our principle ports, it is a safe assumption that if we could induce the enemy to shift the submarine war area to our coasts his defeat would be assured, and his present success would be diminished more than in proportion to the number of submarines he diverted from the more accessible area where commerce necessarily focuses.

14. The Department’s policy refers to willingness to extend hearty co-operation to the Allies and to discuss plans for joint operations, and also to its readiness to consider any plans which may be submitted by the joint allied Admiralties.

15. I submit that it is impossible to carry out this co-operation, to discuss plans with the various Admiralties, except in one way, - and that is, to establish what might be termed an advance headquarters in the war area composed of Department representatives upon whose recommendations the Department can depend.

   I refer to exactly the same procedure as is now carried out in the army, - that is, the General Headquarters in the field being the advance headquarters of the War Department at home, and the advance headquarters must of necessity be left a certain area of discretion and freedom of action as concerns the details of the measures necessitated by the military situation as they arise.

16. The time element is one of the most vital of all elements which enter into military warfare, and hence delays in communications by written reports, together with the necessity for secrecy, render it very difficult to discuss plans at long range. The enemy secret service has proved itself to be of extraordinary efficiency.

   Moreover, I believe it to be very unsafe to depend upon discussion of military plans by cable, as well as by letter. The necessary inadequacy of written or cable communications needs no discussion. The opportunities for misunderstandings are great. It is difficult to be sure that one has expressed clearly one’s meaning in writing, and hence phrases in a letter are very liable to misinterpretations They cannot explain themselves.

17. One of the greatest military difficulties of this war, and perhaps of all Allied wars, has been the difficulty of co-ordination and co-operation in military effort. I am aware of a great mass of information in this connection which it is practically impossible to impart except by personal discussion.

   It is unquestionable that efficiency would be greatly improved if any one of the Allies, - Italy, France, England or the United States, were selected to direct all operations, the others merely keeping the one selected fully informed of their resources available, and submitting to complete control and direction in regard to the utilization of these resources.

18. If the above considerations are granted, it then becomes necessary to decide as to the best location in which to establish such advanced Headquarters or what might be called an advance branch war council at the front, - that is, an advanced branch upon whose advice and decisions the War Council itself largely depends.

   I fully realize the pressure and the influences which must have been brought to bear upon the Department from all of the Allies, and from various and perhaps conflicting sources.

   I also realise that my position here in England renders me open to suspicion that I may be unduly influenced by the British viewpoint of the war. It should be unnecessary to state, however, that I have done everything within my ability to maintain a broad viewpoint with the above stated mission constantly in mind.

19. From the naval point of view it would seem evident that London is the best and most central location in the war area for what I have termed above the Advanced Branch of our Naval War Council.

   The British Navy, on account of its size alone, is bearing the brunt of the naval war, and hence all naval information concerning the war therefore reaches and centres in London.

   It will be quite possible for all of our advanced headquarters staff, or parts or divisions thereof, to visit Paris and other Allied Admiralties at any time.

   I wish to make it quite clear that up to date is has been wholly impossible for me, with one military aide, to perform all of the functions of such an advanced branch of the Department.

   As stated in my dispatches, it has been evident for some time that I have been approaching a state in which it would be physically impossible to hadle the work without an increase of staff.

   The present state of affairs is such that it is quite within the range of possibility for serious errors to occur which may involve disaster for our ships, due to the physical impossibility of handling the administrative and other work with the thoroughness which is essential to safety.

20. I consider that a very minimum staff which would be required is approximately as follows.7 More officers could well be employed with resulting increase of efficiency:-

(1.) One Chief of Staff, who would be free to carry on a continuous estimate of the situation, based upon all necessary information. He would be given the freedom of the Operations Department of the British and French Admiralties.

(2) An officer, preferably of the rank of Commander, for duties in connection with shipping and convoy, to handle all the numerous communications in relation to the movements of American shipping, particularly military shipping, and laso [i.e., also] other shipping carrying American troops.

(3) An officer, at least a Lieut.-Commander, for duties in connection with Anti-Submarine Division operations in order to insure perfect co-opetation [i.e., cooperation] i n that field of work between our Service and other Allied Services.

(4) An officer of all [a]round ability and discretion for duties in connection with general military intelligence. He should be in constant touch with the Secret Service Departments of the Admiralties in order to insure that all military intelligence which in any way affects the Navy Department or our Forces, is properly and promptly acted upon.

(5) At least two Lieutenants or Lieutenant-Commanders of the line in my own office in connection with general administrative questions in addition to the one now available. The necessity for these additional officers is imperative.

(6) One communication officer to take general charge of codes and communications both with the Department at home, the Allied Admiralties and with the various bases of our Forces in the <w>ar area. (At present Queenstown, Brest, Bordeaux, St. Nazaire, London and paris).

(7) A Paymaster, to have complete charge of all financial matters connected with our naval organisation abroad. This officer should be in addition to Paymaster Tobey8 who is performing necessary and invaluable service on my staff in connection with all logistical questions.

W.S. Sims 

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 2: The United States was not formal member of the Allies, but rather an associated power, as it wished to maintain its independence in decision-making and the use of military forces. Although it desired an Allied victory, the Wilson Administration also had markedly different ideas about what the outcome should be, with the president committed to a goal of a non-punitive final peace. The staunchly pro-British Sims was far more focused on insuring an Allied victory. Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: 417-418; Still, Crisis at Sea: 69-72; Beckett, The Great War: 123-124.

Footnote 3: An island in the English Channel.

Footnote 4: Sims’ confidence that American shores were safe was not entirely accurate. 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. That said, they had no impact on the outcome of the war, and were mainly used in this way out of desperation by the German High Command. William Bell Clark, When the U-Boats Came to America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1920).

Footnote 5: See: Sims to Daniels, 7 July 1917.

Footnote 6: The Department did not follow Sims’ recommendation, instead sending Birmingham and Chester to Gibraltar and Salem to Key West. Raymond A. Mann, DANFS.

Footnote 7: Sims was never fully satisfied with the size of his staff, which was, in part, a reflection of his lack of appreciation for the Navy Department’s numerous other obligations. Nevertheless, but the end of the war Sims' staff boasted 962 personnel, both civilian and military. Still, Crisis at Sea: 35.

Footnote 8: Paymaster Eugene C. Tobey,  Assistant to the United States Naval Attaché at London .

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