Foreign Secretary Sir Arthur J. Balfour to British Ambassador to the United States Sir Cecil Spring Rice
C O P Y
FROM: Foreign Office.
TO: British Ambassador, Washington.
The Forces at present at disposal of British Admiralty are not adequate to protect shipping from submarine attack in the danger zone around the British Islands. Consequently shipping is being sunk at a greater rate than it is being replaced by new tonnage of British origin. The time will come when, if the present rate of loss continues, the available shipping apart from American contribution will be insufficient to bring to this country sufficient foodstuffs and other essentials, including oil fuel. The situation in regard to our allies France and Italy is much the same.
Consequently it is absolutely necessary to add to our forces as a first step, pending the adoption or completion of measures which will, it is hoped, eventually lead to the destruction of enemy submarines at a rate sufficient to ensure safety of our sea communications.
The United States is the only allied country in a position to help. The pressing need is for armed small craft of every kind available in the area where commerce concentrates near the British and French coasts. Destroyers, Submarines, Gunboats, Yachts, Trawlers and Tugs would all give invaluable help, and if sent in sufficient numbers would undoubtedly save a situation which is manifestly critical. But they are required now and in as great a number as possible. There is no time for delay. The present method of submarine attack is almost entirely by torpedo with the submarine submerged. The gun defence of merchant ships keeps the submarine below the surface but does no more: offensively against a submerged submarine it is useless and the large majority of the ships torpedoed never see the attacking submarine until the torpedo has hit the ship.
The present remedy is, therefore, to prevent the submarine from using its periscope for fear of attack by bomb or ram from small craft, and this method of defence for the shipping and offense against the submarine requires small craft in very large numbers.
The introduction of the convoy system, provided there are sufficient destroyers to form an adequate screen to the convoy, will it is hoped minimise losses when it is working, and the provision of new offensive measures is progressing; but for the next months there is only one safeguard, viz., the immediate addition of patrols of every small vessel that can possibly be sent to European waters.
30th June, 1917.
Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG45, Entry 517. The sentiments expressed here reflect the growing urgency felt in Britain and France to counter the German submarine menace and the pressing need for assistance from the United States Navy. The content of this telegram echoes the repeated messages VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, sent with increasing frequency to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels over the course of May and June. See, for example: Sims to Daniels, 20 June 1917. The British also put pressure on the United States Navy to send additional ships; see: John R. Jellicoe to Guy R. Gaunt, 29 June 1917. The repeated messages from Sims and the British seem to have finally had an effect, for, on the day after this cablegram was sent, 1 July, Daniels informed Sims that additional destroyers from the Pacific fleet would be transferred to European waters. See, Daniels to Sims, 1 July 1917, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.