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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. 4.

LONDON, June 15, 1917.

From: Vice Admiral Sims.

To  : Secretary of the Navy (Operations).

Subject: General Report concerning Destroyer Force, British Waters.

     1.   The military situation and its requirements have been fully covered by cable dispatch, confirmation copies of which have been forwarded.1

     2.   Our Forces based on Queenstown continue operations as previously reported. Their programme has now been changed to five days out and three days in, which will result in better care of machinery and hence greater reliability of service.

          A considerable share of the time on duty is now spent in escorting the most valuable ships through the danger zone. Prior to the arrival of our forces it was impracticable to meet the demands of the offensive campaign against submarines, and also to escort all valuable cargoes.2 The larger the force the more the valuable cargoes which can be escorted.

          As far as possible the escorting is done in relays, as previously reported,3 thereby not leaving any areas without patrol craft. Valuable cargoes are escorted by a single destroyer, but many specially valuable ones require two and sometimes three escorts, and it is apparent that it is very difficult to handle such escorting duty and maintain any prearranged programme of patrol.

     3.   Six submarines were sighted and reported in Queenstown area by incoming vessels in one day during the past week. The demand of the moment is more anti-submarine craft, particularly destroyers. It seems manifest that if the enemy submarine campaign is to be effective it must reach its crisis during the present summer months with their long days and relatively good weather. If the maximum enemy effort is postponed until the coming of long nights and bad weather in the fall, the campaign can hardly succeed.

     4.   I earnestly hope that the department will greatly enlarge our anti-submarine forces in these waters with the minimum possible delay. On the assumption that the submarine campaign is the critical issue, we cannot send too many forces. The greater number we send the greater will be our contribution toward enemy defeat.

     5.   I wish to again urge the importance of the time element. Every indication points to the Fact that the heaviest enemy submarine pressure will be exerted during the present summer months, and hence all steps in opposition thereto must, if they are to be effective, be taken immediately.

     6.   As our army and naval forces and our mercantile shipping abroad increases, the demands on the anti-submarine forces for convoy duty on this side will be greatly increased at the sacrifice of the offensive campaign against the submarine. As previously reported,4 the majority of our troop and supply ships for armies in France will approach the European coast well outside of the dangerous parts of the submarine zone, - that is, outside of the areas in which submarine activity has been the most intense and in which it must continue if it is to be primarily directed against merchant shipping. This fact will, of course, not remove the necessity for meeting and escorting the troop and supply ships, and hence the strictly offensive campaign against the submarine will suffer severely.

          Another equally serious phase of this problem is that mercantile shipping and its demands for convoy must continue in the main submarine areas through which it now necessarily passes. The fact that our military and merchant lines of supply will not be in the same areas will greatly complicate the convoy problem. Admiral Jellicoe5 stated today that it is now impossible to insure safe escort for both fuel and food cargoes. One of two must suffer.

          British anti-submarine forces have worked under the same difficulties throughout the war. It has many times been necessary to divert practically all destroyers in different areas for sole purpose of escorting transports and other valuable ships, thereby leaving other shipping unprotected.

     7.   I would suggest that even if future development should demand the presence of our battleship fleet or other heavy forces, the destroyers and anti-submarine craft are better located on this side of the Atlantic than in home waters. They will always be able to proceed to the westward over much shorter distances to join any forces before they reach dangerous submarine areas.

     8.   Considerable discussion has been heard, although it has never been presented officially by the Admiralty, that the potential force of our fleet would be greater if based on this side of the Atlantic, even if it did not actually join the British Grand Fleet.

          It is known that it took a minimum of three months to repair damages to the German High Seas Fleet after the Battle of Jutland,6 and, in case of second “Jutland” battle, this would, of course, afford ample time for our fleet to reinforce the British fleet, if necessary.

          It is true, however, that, providing difficulties of supply did not prevent the presence of our Fleet within a few days’ striking distance of the North Sea, it would undoubtedly greatly change the present plans of the enemy main fleet, in case they did contemplate further high sea actions. In other words, there is some opinion in what might be called unofficial circles that the mere presence of our fleet within a few days’ striking distance of the probable theatre of any high sea actions would greatly embarrass the enemy.7

          Except in one of my first cablegrams,8 I have not mentioned the above considerations in dispatches or reports, because, as stated above, they have not been discussed officially; and as the submarine campaign is at present the vital issue, and also as I am not aware of the Department’s policy or plans regarding any forces except those now under my command, I have not thought proper to discuss such subjects upon my own responsibility. The fact cannot be overlooked, however, that sound strategy calls for the concentration of our maximum forces as close as practicable to the probable theatre of war, provided they can be supplied there without requiring the services of tonnage now vitally necessary.

     9.   In view of the uncertain possibilities of the future, I consider it very important that the Department should acquaint me as fully as possible with its policy and plans in regards to possible future developments.9

     10.  It is very important that as much advance information should be given as possible as to the character and numbers of prospective U.S. Forces for European waters. This is necessary in order that arrangements as to supply and bases can be made in ample time

          The situation concerning fuel oil and other supplies is far from satisfactory, and sudden demands may cause very serious embarras[s]ment.

     11.  Relations with British officials and between our forces and British forces continue excellent and highly satisfactory. The remark is frequently heard in our forces at Queenstown that they look upon Vice-Admiral Bayly, Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Station, as one of their own Admirals;10 and I know that the Admiral himself regards our Captains and Ships very highly,--the former as capable and efficient, and the latter as well constructed and well equipped.

          The Vice Admiral commanding Queenstown has been requested (and has been supplied with) 20 copies of the lecture entitled “Military Character”, delivered to the civilian naval volunteers in the summer of 1916.11 These were requested in order that one copy might be sent to each British destroyer and sloop based on Queenstown. This incident is noted as an additional evidence of the good feeling that exists between the two navies.

     12.  The MELVILLE is performing excellent service,12 and the spirit displayed by her officers and men is admirable. I am in receipt of numerous expressions of appreciation of her services from both the British and our own destroyer officers. Since her arrival in Queenstown, the Navy Yard has been called upon but once for assistance in any repairs to our vessels. An example of excellent work by the MELVILLE is the case of the PAULDING which had a wrecked blower engine in the forward fire-room. In two days the MELVILLE installed a reciprocating engine drive to the blower, which will perform satisfactory service until a new blower engine can be received from home.

     Immediately upon arrival of destroyers from patrol duty, representatives of all departments of the MELVILLE go aboard, in order to expedite all repairs or other assistance which is needed or can be given. Repair gangs from MELVILLE are at work on the destroyers both night and day, not only performing work which might be considered beyond the capacity of the destroyer personnel, but also for the purpose of assisting them in order to afford them more opportunities for rest and to expedite the work. In addition to repair and supply work, the MELVILLE also maintains a permanent beach patrol, relieving the destroyers of this duty. The patrol is well organized and performing efficient service.

     13.  The conditions ashore in Queenstown are not all that could be desired, on account of the number and character of saloons and other public places, and also the unsettled conditions in Ireland which may have existed throughout the war. In fact, disloyalty to the Allied Cause is unfortunately very prevalent, particularly in southern Ireland. No real difficulties have been encountered on shore to date. The general conduct of the men has been on the whole satisfactory.

          The Men’s Club has already been put in operation on shore,13 and is maintained by personnel of the MELVILLE, under control of the commanding officer of the MELVILLE.14 An old moving picture hall was taken over, and has been cleaned, painted and decorated by the MELVILLE men. A contract has been made with a large building firm in London to build an addition to this hall, in which will be located beds, baths and a kitchen. There are practically no desirable sleeping accommodations in Queenstown for our men, and in view of the importance to their morale to encourage them to get ashore the short time they are in port, I consider that the Men’s Club when it is in full operation, will be a real military asset. About four thousand pounds have been contributed by American business men of London for the building and maintenance of this Club.

          Arrangements are being made to purchase a moving picture machine, and also to obtain a special film service from London.

     14. The Flag Officer of the MELVILLE,15 in addition to performing usual Flag Office duties, acts as a general service headquarters. Considerable clerical work for the destroyers is accomplished there, and many other duties in connection with the proper routine of correspondence and general questions of administration. The destroyers are keeping correct muster rolls and other valuable papers on the MELVILLE while on patrol duty, as this will prevent their loss in case of serious casualties at sea.

     15.  There is an urgent need on the MELVILLE and particularly in the Flag Office, for a larger force of yeomen who are competent stenographers. At present there are no yeomen available for the Flag Office who can take short-hand.

     16. An example of the co-operation existing between our forces was the action of the British Vice Admiral, during the past week, in assembling all available British and American officers on the MELVILLE, to hear the oral report of Commander Campbell, R.N., commanding one of the British Special Service ships, and who has now accomplished the destruction of four enemy submarines.16

     17.  It is, of course, chiefly a matter of chance if a destroyer succeeds in coming to decisive action with a submarine. The destroyer is the submarine’s worst enemy on account of her speed, sea-going qualities, gun power and depth charges, and hence submarines do not willingly allow a destroyer to approach within decisive range of them. For this reason, it is entirely impossible to estimate the importance of the work performed by destroyers. It is probable that for every submarine sighted by a destroyer there are many submarines that sight destroyers and avoid them by submerging, and hence the value of the destroyer operations in confusing , frustrating, and complicating the enemy submarine’s operations is beyond estimation.

     18.  Our ships are doing exceptionally well in radio and other signal work considering the short time they have been using entirely different codes and methods than those they were familiar and experienced with in our service.

     19. It is considered very important to have available as soon as possible a new code for communications between this office and the Department. Navy codes or ciphers thereof should not be used. The need is for codes prepared by coding specialists, and more of the nature of those used by commercial companies which are economical of code groups and at the same time adapted to lengthy and complicated messages. Owing to the importance of the time element it is necessary to transmit long messages by cable and not by mails.17

W.S. Sims

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 1: See: Sims to Daniels, two letters of 14 June 1917, and Sims’ addendum to the reports of that date.

Footnote 2: By “offensive campaign” Sims meant destroyers patrolling an assigned zone. See, for example, Diary of Joseph K. Taussig, 14, 15, 17, 18, and 19 May. As seen in Diary of Joseph K. Taussig, 10 June, there were real questions about whether this patrolling served any real purpose. The number of German submarines destroyed certainly called into question how effective this strategy was.

Footnote 3: See: Sims to Daniels, 8 June 1917.

Footnote 5: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 6: The naval Battle of Jutland took place 31 May and 1 June 1916.

Footnote 7: Despite what Sims wrote here, the Atlantic Fleet continued to be based on the east coast of the United States.

Footnote 8: See: Sims to Daniels, 14 April 1917. Although this was probably not the full discussion Sims desired.

Footnote 10: VAdm. Sir. Lewis Bayly.

Footnote 11: A copy of Sims’ lecture can be found in Benjamin F. Armstrong, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).

Footnote 12: Melville was a destroyer tender.

Footnote 13: For more on this “Men’s Club,” see: John V. Babcock to Reginald E. Gillmor, 21 May 1917 and Still, Crisis at Sea, 250-51.

Footnote 14: Cmdr. Henry B. Price.

Footnote 15: Cmdr. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle.

Footnote 16: Cmdr. Gordon Campbell. For more on Campbell’s exploits, see: Diary of Joseph K. Taussig, 12 May 1917.

Footnote 17: Sims also sent an addendum to this report, see: Sims to Daniels, 15 June 1917.