Rear Admiral Albert P. Niblack, Commander, Patrol Forces Based at Gibraltar, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters
U. S/ NAVAL FORCES OPERATING IN EUROPEAN WATERS.
Patrol Squadron Based on Gibraltar.
U.S.S. DECATUR Flagship.
30 July, 1918.
In reply to your letter of July 15th,1 as to the critical attitude of the force here, towards Headquarters, and towards myself, I understand what the trouble is perfectly.
When Destroyer Division “C” arrived here on October 13th, 1917, from the Philippines, there was a shake-up of officers on the station. Admiral Wilson2 left on October 23rd, and Stark|3| gave up the command of the Flotilla on October 31st, The CHAUNCEY was lost on November 19th.4 When I arrived here November 25th, Hussey was S.O.P.,5 and had just finished the Court of Inquiry on the loss of the CHAUNCEY. He advised me to communicate to the Flotilla officers a part of the findings of the Court of Inquiry, as he was under the impression that they were inclined to be pretty slack.
One of the first steps I took was, to begin the operations for a large naval base here, and the first thing I ran into was that the Flotilla had practical possession of the Sea Plane Shed, and were inclined to regard themselves as the most important part of the force. The Paymaster of the Flotilla (Hodapp),6 had been very aggressive in looking out for the interests of the Flotilla, and when I began to pry the Flotilla loose from the Sea Plane Shed, to give all the ships equal benefit, of all the facilities here, I found that Hodapp was inclined to loyally support me in every way. The others were inclined to regard my actions as an infringement on their rights, lack of sympathy with them, and a failure on my part to appreciate their importance. I apparently got in very bad with the Captains in my endeavor to equalize the interests of all, and when the time came to send Thomson, Stewart and Amsden, North, I was very glad. The remaning commanding officer, (Hansen)7 who for some reason was not taken, turned out to be the best of the bunch. I had known him in the Fleet when he was on the SOUTH CAROLINA, and I am sure that he had no sympathy with anything but the efficiency of this station as a whole.
One source of irritation to me, has been the correspondence which Stark has carried on with the individual destroyer officers here, and nearly everyone of them have informed me, from time to time, as to what the policy was to be until I was I was forced to take the attitude that destroyers officers would have to depend upon orders from Headquarters, and that I could not be expected to influence the choice of duty for them.
From the start, the Flotilla officers made their social headquarters in a charming household here, in which the father was an invalid, and the mother of Italian origin and with three young daughters, two of whom are in society here, The mother and daughters are charming, and the only way I got in bad was through the numerous complaints of other officers as to the loose conversation which went on at the house with regard to movement of ships. I had two or three letters from officers telling me they believed the lady to be a German spy, and they claimed that she sent letters to Spain, etc.etc. McClure,8 was very indignant with Stewart when he turned over command of the DECATUR to him, for spending the last evening in social enjoyment at this house. I have merely cautioned officers to be on their guard against giving any information, and have taken no social stand toward the lady and her daughters, except that I myself, have avoided accepting her hospitality. She is very sweet and agreeable ( I refer to the mother) but she is a social climber and is always trying to put something over. The officers who have been warm friends of these people ( and I see no reason why they should not be) and are very sore on me for being so haughty.
Now that is about all there is to my lack of sympathy with the officers down here, or with any of my subordinates.
I understand that Queenstown, Vice-Admiral Bayly,9 does not see Commanding officers until the day after they get in. I understand that at Brest very few of the officers have occasion to see Admiral Wilson. I see every commanding officer the minute he arrives, and he gets everything we have got on the place, as soon as we can get it to him. There does not exist, among the Ocean Escorts, any of the spirit you indicate, and in the Mediterranean escort ships there are a number of commanders who feel uncomfortable in commanding yachts and older gunboats, with no chance to do glorious service in the active destroyer force North, because they see that the yachts North are commanded by young lieutenants and Reserve officers, some of them have done too much growling, xxx but I have advised them all to stand by this station and they would all eventually wear diamonds, because I have always had great faith that Gibraltar would eventually get a look-in. There has been some feeling among officers on shore here over the failure to get any additional compensation. Being paid in British money with the pound worth only seventeen pesetas, instead of twenty-five, and square-face gin two dollars a bottle, has made some of them feel as if they would like to join in a “bread riot” somewhere.10 Of course Headquarters is not responsible for the “high cost of living” but some people always blame the “higher-ups.”
I have always felt that the officers of the Destroyer Flotilla here, have each one carried a little hammer North, in their grip-sacks, but with most of them I was so glad to see them go that I have been willing to get the eventual flare-back I am now getting. This does not apply to all of course, as I have some friends among the number.
The destroyers have been on the “danger zone” escort work and of course, been in and out more than the others. I am sure that Emrich, McClure and Hansen11 have been loyal supporters of mine, and my policy here, while looking out for the interests of all.
Operations started off by refusing to give me a Chief-of-Staff. I have been intending all along to take Asserson12 as an assistant to Base Commander, and practically Chief-of-Staff. That will do away with the complaint that there is no one between me and the commanding officers of the various vessels, to whom the younger officers can go with their minor troubles. My present staff i[s] very young, relatively, and what you say as to the impression of a lack of sympathy is perfectly justifiable, but I feel that the officers here are solidly back of me, and firendly [i.e., friendly] to a degree. The main trouble all along has been that I have not had a Chief-of-Staff, and a larger Staff, and that I have tended to too many details myself, but no one will let go quicker than I will to an officer under me who shows me that he is on the job.
There is always a lot of gossip that goes floating around and I believe that where there is smoke there is some fire. This is a very small community and I have had to be very much on my guard in little things, often to the exclusion of more important things, simply on account of the mixed nationalities here, jealousy, spite and the restricted area in which we all live. When Asserson comes I will redistribute some of the duties, and give more attention to things for which I have not previously had time. I appreciate the spirit in which your letter is written and reply in the same spirit. I am not as sensitive as you are, and altho I have had lots of reasons to get sore in the last couple of years, I have not let it get under my skin too deeply.13
Very sincerely yours
A. P. Niblack.
Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Container 24. Identifiers “1/5/C/HJ” appear in the upper-right corner in a ladder.
Footnote 1: See: Sims to Niblack, 15 July 1918.
Footnote 2: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces in France.
Footnote 3: Lt. Cmdr. Harold R. Stark, a member of the Secretarial and Personnel Section of Sims’ staff.
Footnote 4: A British merchant ship collided with Chauncey, causing the latter to sink and killing 21 men aboard. See: Niblack to Sims, 27 November 1917.
Footnote 5: Cmdr. Charles L. Hussey, commanding officer, Birmingham (Cruiser). S.O.P. refers to Senior Officer Present.
Footnote 6: Lt. John P.D. Hodapp, Passed Assistant Paymaster.
Footnote 7: Lt. Cmdr. Thaddeus A. Thomson, Jr. had been reassigned to Sims’ staff. Lt. Ralph R. Stewart previously commanded the DECATUR. Lt. William F. Amsden had previously commanded the Barry. Lt. Carl L. Hansen commanded the Chattanooga.
Footnote 8: Lt. Cmdr. Harry A. McClure assumed command of DECATUR on 1 February 1918.
Footnote 9: Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly, R.N., Commander-in-Chief, Coast of Ireland.
Footnote 10: The peseta was a form of Spanish currency (since replaced by the Euro). The officers’ frustration stems from the fact that Gibraltar was under British control, and their pay while stationed there was in the British pound. Any time they left the very small British-controlled area, however, local purchases had to be made in Spanish currency, and the British pound had a less favorable exchange rate than the American dollar.
Footnote 11: Lt. Cmdr. Roy P. Emrich, Commander, Barry.
Footnote 12: Capt. William C. Asserson became an aide on Niblack’s staff.
Footnote 13: Sims and Niblack had been roommates at the Naval Academy, but their friendship had become strained in 1902 after Sims relieved Niblack as inspector of target practice. Their relationship soured further shortly after this letter, and after the war Sims attempted to sabotage Niblack’s career. Still, Crisis at Sea: 47-48.