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 Captain Benton C. Decker, United States Naval Attaché at Madrid

London, S.W.       

July 17th, 1917.

My dear Decker,

     Yours of June 11th, and June 22nd, have just been passed over to me from Naval Attache’s Office. MacDougall is now absent with the Grand Fleet and will not be back for a month so I am answering some of your questions.1

     I am in command of all naval forces operating in European Waters. Therefore all questions of the distribution of ships and the desirability of forces in different places should be sent through me so that we will not get our wires crossed.2

     I think I have a pretty good grasp of the whole situation. I know that conditions on the North Coast of Spain and the west coast of France are what you call “trying.” I understand the importance of the ore trade from Spain and the coal trade to France and Italy.3 I know that a number of ships have been lost in this traffic, but the percentage of ships that are lost in that area is not so great as the percentage of the much greater number of ships that come into the vital area between the North of Scotland and Brest.

     The anti-submarine campaign will be lost or won according to our success in diminishing the total amount of destruction by the submarines. It is therefore apparent that we must keep this destruction down to the smallest possible limits in the vital area.

     Eight converted yachts under Captain Fletcher have arrived on the coast of France, Ten more will be there before very long.4 In addition a second patrol squadron of eighteen vessels, compressing trawlers, and so forth, will follow then to the coast of France.

     Admiral Wilson is sailing very soon with three scouts with eight gun boats including the YANKTON.5 The gun boats are of the MARRIETTA and PEDUCAH classes and include the SACREMENTO. These will base on Gibraltar and will be used to escort convoys off the coast where they will be turned over to a cruiser and make a wide sweep to the Channel where they will be met and escorted in by a destroyer.

     It may be possible a bit later to send five coal burning destroyers to the coast of France. The hope of the anti-submarine campaign is, in my opinion, based upon the convoy system. From sixteen to twenty vessels will leave in each convoy, two each week from Hampton Roads, one each week from New York and one each week from the Canadian provinces. There will doubtless be others.

     We have taken over the safe-guarding of one of these convoys per week. In addition we will convoy in our troops and their supplies. About twenty troop and supply transports have already been convoyed in.

     Everybody realizes now, and they have realized since the beginning of the war, that fundamentally it would be better if you could destroy the wasps’ nest rather than chase the wasps after they are out.

     If anybody could review the situation and suggest a scheme which will appear practicable to the men who have had extended experience during this war, he would be received with open arms. The North Sea is very thoroughly mined within the arc of a circle swept from Heligoland with a radius of about 120 miles. Between thirty and forty thousand mines have been laid, and are being added to at about the rate of 5000 a week. (month in pencil).6

     As far as concerns the submarine campaign, all that is necessary to keep it up at its present rate is for the Germans to succeed in finding a small hole through which something less than two submarines a day can get out and two submarines can get in.

     The minefield extends to the limits of the neutral waters of Denmark and Holland. These neutral waters have not been violated. You can easily see why, particularly in reference to Holland. She is between the devil and the deep sea. If she is forced into war against the Allies it menas about 800,000 men added to the German Forces on the Western Front.

     You may rest assured that, basing my action upon the most complete information that I can get ( and it is all open to me ) I will do the very best I can to help out in putting down the submarine menace.

     As I said before this will depend upon the success of the convoy system. The absolutely requires every destroyer that we can lay our hands on with a sufficient radius of action. Every destroyer both British and American is now being used used to the limit, even including those that are necessarily attached to the Grand Fleet. These handle convoys in the northern end of the North Sea.

     This letter will be sent to you by the first safe conveyance through the British Admiralty.

     I hope you are remaining as cheerful as possible.

                                        Very sincerely yours,

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Container 22. Addressed below close, "Captain Benton C. Decker, U.S.N./Naval Attache/American Embassy/Villa Victoria/San Sebastian, Spain."

Footnote 1: Capt. William D MacDougall, American Naval Attaché at London.

Footnote 2: Sims thought little of MacDougall’s abilities and attempted to replace him or take his duties. See: Sims to Pratt, 6 July 1917.

Footnote 3: There was an acute shortage of coal in France in 1917 as the fuel, imported from Great Britain over submarine infested waters, was used for both civilian and military consumption. Still, Crisis at Sea: 186.

Footnote 4: Capt. William B. Fletcher, Commander, Special Patrol Squadron.

Footnote 5: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson.

Footnote 6: The Bight was mined by the British in the Spring and Summer of 1917 to prevent German submarines, based in the Bight, from entering the North Sea.  The minefield was ineffective.  As an effective countermeasure the Germans marked several small channels for the egress of their submarines, and constantly swept those channels. Newbolt, Naval Operations Vol. V: 199-120.

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