Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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WWI

CONVOY FOR RETURNING TRANSPORTS

     The British transport Justicia, torpedoed and sunk off the north coast of Ireland, was one of a small group of giant ships that have been carrying three or four regiments at a time to the other side, and the Germans will make a clean sweep if the survivors are not better protected on the western passage. Loaded with troops and guarded by swift destroyers and cruisers, the great transports are almost immune from attack when they head for a French or British port. Sir Eric Geddes said recently in some remarks in the House of Commons that since the convoy system was adopted 85,000 ships had been taken across with very few losses. Admiral SIMS1 has declared that the enemy submarines do not operate in flotillas against convoyed ships, whether transports or merchantmen, because the Germans have learned by experience that they cannot break through the line of warships -- at least the risk is too great to make the attempt worth while. But when the enemy has to deal with an empty ship returning for more troops and trusting to her speed the case is different. Risk there is little or none, and it pays the U-boat to operate in twos or threes or greater numbers.

     The report of the sinking of the Justicia, while incomplete and somewhat obscure, discloses repeated and finally successful attack on the big ship by several submarines. In turn the Antilles, President Lincoln, Covington, Moldavia, and Dwinsk were torpedoed, and the American and British navies failed to profit by the lesson. We now know that all the larger transports are marked for destruction, and quick destruction; on the theory that so long as they are not accompanied by war craft on the western passage there is no risk in lying in wait for them, success depending only on the employment of submarine units.

     The Allies cannot afford to have any more of these great transports sent to the bottom. Recently three of them left New York in thirty-eight hours, carrying, it may be assumed, 30,000 men. The enemy knows that he is well nigh powerless to interfere with these eastbound ships proceeding at high speed and closely guarded by warships of even greater speed. But if he can torpedo them on the return voyage, when they are escorted for a day and then instructed to run for American ports, he will keep the sea with relays of submarines until there is not another Justicia afloat.

     The reasons for the failure of the allied navies to furnish convoy during the last six months are clear enough. A million men had to be disembarked on the other side without losing a day. The warships raced to France or England with loaded transports and speeded back again to convoy other ships freighted with troops waiting at the pier. Empty ships, which did not seem to count for much in the schedule in comparison with needed troops, had to get back as best they could. Six of them have now failed to run the gauntlet. It is true that the million men (1,200,000 altogether) have been ferried over and that we can breathe a little easier; but still another million, and perhaps millions more must be landed in France.

     Therefore a halt should be called on turning empty transports loose on the Atlantic and wishing them “the best of luck.” The convoy system must be so improved and regulated that returning carriers shall have the advantage of it. That means, of course, that transports will not sail with troops quite so often and no more records will be broken for the present. Fortunately, the Allies can now afford to relax from the strain of crowding men on ships and rushing them across the Atlantic. The pace must be slower if it is to be made hazardous for the U-boats to attack returning transports. A higher valuation should be placed upon the leviathans. It takes a long time to build them.

Source Note: Printed, New York Times, 26 July 1918. This article stirred controversy and resulted in a stern rebuke to the editors from Sims. See: Sims to Adm. William S. Benson and New York Times, 21 August 1918.

Footnote 1: VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters.

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