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 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels



Vice Admiral Commanding,


20th June, 1917.


From:     Vice Admiral Sims, U.S.N.

To:       Secretary of Navy, (Operation).

Subject:      General report concerning submarine situation in European waters.

Enclosures:        Two (Confidential).1

     1.   The situation has been fully covered by cable dispatch.2

     2.   The military situation presented by the enemy submarine campaign is not only serious but critical. The number of enemy submarines operating is increasing and the areas covered are likewise increasing, while our forces are remaining about the same.

          As repeatedly reported by cable dispatch, the conviction cannot be escaped that the issue of the war will depend upon the safety of our lines of communication as affected by the submarine campaign.3 The critical area is, therefore, located and must remain in the waters surrounding the United Kingdom, and primarily in the approaches to the English Channel and Irish Sea through which the vast majority of commerce passes..

     3.   The necessity for withdrawing eighteen destroyers from the dangerous submarine zone included in the Queenstown area (which now extends as far west as 17<°> 30<'>) has produced a very serious state of affairs in the last few days. But ten destroyers and ten sloops, only six of each are available for sea duty at the same time, remain to cover this large and critical sea area. The Admiralty daily provides this station with a list of specially valuable cargoes which are expected on the succeeding day to cross the 15th meridian in this area. All cargoes designated as being “specially valuable” must be escorted either entirely to their destination or within a safe distance of it. When there are sufficient vessels in the patrol areas, “valuable” cargoes can be picked up and passed along to the eastward from one square to another, but when the number of patrol vessels is greatly reduced, as at present, such a course becomes impossible, and it is a case of escorting as many cargoes as practicable well inside the Irish Sea.

          During the last two days, all ships in the area have been thus engaged in inward bound escort duty, leaving all shipping entirely unprotected. Owing to the size of the area over which submarines are able to operate, and the available number of ships, it is practically impossible to disregard shipping and operate against submarines themselves. The number of submarines in the area are generally made known by the position of the ships which they attack or sink. However, if a destroyer is diverted from escort duty and sent to the last reported position of the submarine, she has no means whatever of telling in what direction the submarine has gone and where he is liable to appear the next time. It is, therefore, apparent that our campaign against the submarine is indeed unsatisfactory; it’s value being measured primarily by the number of ships which we can escort in one day over distances of at least 250 miles. This is a very small percentage of the number of valuable cargoes entering the area per diem.

     4.   The outstanding fact which cannot be escaped is that we are not succeeding, or in other words the enemy’s campaign is proving successful.

     5.   There seems to be but two courses open to us which promise success:

          First: A sufficiently large number of anti-submarine craft to keep the dangerous areas patrolled and at the same time escort or pass along through patrol squares all valuable cargoes.

          Second: To put into force immediately and radically a system of assembling all shipping at various centrally located positions and bring them in as large convoys, each convoy escorted through the submarine zones by an ample number of anti-submarine craft.

          At present time, two of our own destroyers are incapacitated by material casualties,– The Rowan, whose hull structure forward has shown serious weakness and must be strengthened; the Jenkins in dry dock owing to injuries received in collision.3

     6.   It is manifest that the enemy’s Mission must be solely the destruction of shipping. The inherent limitations of the submarines forbid his operating extensively against the anti-submarine craft. It is, therefore, apparent that he avoids and will continue to avoid contact with our anti-submarine craft.

          Whatever course we adopt, it must be designed to force the enemy to encounter our anti-submarine craft in carrying out his mission against shipping. That is, make him actually fight for every merchant he attacks. The size of the area over which he is able to operate entirely precludes our running him down and operating against him extensively, when his object is to avoid contact. We, therefore, must force the enemy to come to us in order to succeed.

     7.   The British Navy is strained to the limit in providing sufficient vessels to meet the situation which confront them.4 Only about seventy destroyers are now left with the Grand Fleet and these, as previously reported, are constantly being employed in patrol and convoy duty in surrounding waters to the Grand Fleet base, and are, therefore, not in constant readiness for any emergency. A large number of destroyers are also required to oppose raids on channel ports, to convoy the large amount of shipping, carrying troops and supplies across the channel, to convoy hospital ships and supplies to and from Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, and numerous other duties.

          In fact, the further I investigate the general military situation it becomes more and more surprising to find the degree of assistance which Great Britain has found it necessary to render to the various Allies, and the large areas over which her military and naval forces are scattered.

     8.   As reported by cable dispatch, it would seem that the maximum protection we can give our own coast should be concentrated in the area in which the enemy is operating and must continue to operate or fail. I fully realize the shortsightedness of public opinion and it’s effect on the distribution of our forces, but the fact remains that we could well afford to strip our coast of seagoing protection and concentrate it all in the critical area on this side of the ocean. Our campaign must be offensive. Our coastal protection should be located where it will afford real protection, that is, in the field in which the enemy attacks us.

          It is quite possible, and in fact it has been a source of surprise that it has not occurred to date, that the enemy will send one or perhaps two or three submarines to operate on our coast for a brief period for the mere purpose of agitating public opinion and influencing us to hold forces in home waters. All evidence indicates clearly, however, that such a course would be primarily a diversion and a temporary one. It would be impracticable for submarines to find and use a base or maintain themselves over such distances; but if the Allied situation is to be viewed in it’s entirety, it is manifest that even if the enemy should actually be forced to divert his efforts to other fields, such as our own coast, the situation, even if our coast had inadequate protection, could not be critical. The enemy must concentrate his efforts. If dispersed, his Mission cannot be accomplished. Our efforts must be concentrated and aimed at defeating or dispersing enemy effort.

          Considering the great extent of our coast line, the geographical dispersion of our principal ports, and the relative percentage of Allied essential shipping originating from each and all, it is apparent that if enemy effort should be diverted in that direction, shipping losses would promptly fall far below the present critical figures; the enemy campaign would at once be defeated.

          The shipping in question is Allied shipping essential to Allied military success, not the relatively small amount of shipping under our flag considered alone.

          Shipping now comes from Africa, Australia, South America, Caribbean, Spain, Mediterranean, in addition to the United States and Canada. The enemy, is, therefore, constrained in order to accomplish his Mission to concentrate his efforts in the waters surrounding France and the United Kingdom where all lines of communications must focus.

     9.   It is, for the above reasons, that I have so urgently requested large increases of United States naval anti-submarine craft in these waters.

          Destroyers are, of course, the best and most successful anti-submarine craft, but their numbers, even if all United States destroyers were sent, would not meet the demand of the situation. It is, therefore, necessary to send any character of armed craft which can reach these waters. Speed is, of course, a desirable characteristic, but if speed cannot be obtained, it should not be allowed to interfere with the most important characteristic of all, that is, numbers of craft. If the enemy can be forced to divert his attention to anti-submarine craft which will not be embarrassed by valuable cargos, the campaign will at once be won. The submarine has many limitations, the principle of which are relatively small numbers, distance which it must operate from its base, lack of defensive power, and limited armament. Against anti-submarine craft, the submarine could not depend upon his guns. He would be forced to use his torpedoes against relatively small targets: hence his operating time away from base would be greatly reduced, owing to the few number of torpedoes which are carried.

     10.  Any craft whatever which is or can be impressed into service, armed and with radio, will be invaluable. Tugs, yachts, fishing vessels, small gunboats, towed if necessary by reserve battleships, cruisers, auxiliary or any available ships within striking distance of this coast. The situation calls for numbers practically regardless of any other characteristics except guns and radio.

     11.  There is forwarded here with a small chart which should be treated very confidentially, showing the situation existing at 4 p.m. today in the area which is covered by the force based in Queenstown.5 The area extends as far out to sea as may be necessary, and up the Irish Sea to Liverpool. As will be seen, there are but four ships on patrol duty, necessarily widely dispersed. All the other ships have come in from their patrol areas to the westward with valuable cargoes. If no submarines are known to be in the Irish Sea, the escorts will drop their convoys about the position shown south og [i.e., of] Wexford; escorts from these returning to their patrols. This is, of course, an unusual situation on account of the sudden withdrawal of today of eighteen United States destroyers who are leaving tomorrow on about a two thousand mile cruise to meet and escort troop ships.6 However, the situation is typical of what will continue as long as destroyers are absent probably more than a fortnight. It is also a typical situation which existed in this area before our destroyers arrived. There are, in fact, more ships available today than there was a month ago. Of course it must be borne in mind that the submarine pressure has gradually been increasing.

     12.  There is also forwarded here with a brief outline of events which have occurred in this area during the past week. It is reasonably certain now that the O'Brien destroyed the submarine mentioned. She was escorting a valuable ship when the two periscopes, of the submarine were observed about eight hundred yards of her bow.7 She altered course immediately, headed for it, and increased to full speed. The periscopes were again seen about a minute later about one hundred vards [i.e., yards] dead ahead, the submarine having apparently attempted to avoid the O'Brien and torpedo her escort astern of her. From the last position cited, the submarine apparently started to dive and must have barely escaped being rammed. The lookout on the top observed her hull distinctly alongside the O'Brien and gradually disappearing as she proceeded downward, on almost exactly the opposite course to the O'Brien. A depth charge was dropped when the submarine was under the after deckhouse and although the O'Brien was making twenty knots by this time, less than three minutes after the submarine had been sighted, the explosion of the depth charge gave the ship a very severe shaking. The O'Brien circled over the spot but saw no evidence of damage. A British destroyer passing over the same spot nearly three hours later found and reported large patches of strong smelling oil. The Cushing on the following morning passes the same area and also reported a large amount of oil. This incident occurred just off the Queenstown entrance and was unfortunately one of those cases the exact results of which cannot be determined.8

     13.  Night before last excellent work was performed by the Nicholson and Sampson. The Nicholson was patrolling in the Trippe’s approximate position shown on the chart when a ship was torpedoed and sunk immediately in about 17<°>-30<'>. At the same time the Sampson was in about 51<°>-30<'> and 12<°>. and a ship was torpedoed well to the south–westward of her. Both the Sampson and Nicholson succeeded in locating the survivors from these two ships in their boats and subsequently bringing them to port. Thirty eight men off one ship were picked up by the Nicholson in one leaky boat so small that there was not room to move.

          The Jenkins today, while escorting a specially valuable ship, sighted a submarine periscope about eight hundred yards on her beam. Both the Jenkins and her escort headed straight for the submarine, and their action was so prompt that the intended attack was frustrated and the submarine not again seen.

     14.  It is urgently recommended that manufacture of largest sized depth charges similar to those now being used by our destroyers be undertaken and expedited with all despatch. The depth charges furnished by the Bureau <of> Ordnance are not only too small but are unsatisfactory in design. It is very undesirable to include anything of the nature of a buoy with a depth charge, the line becomes jammed, the mechanism fouled, and the depth charge is too slow in handling and sinking. The depth charge installed on our destroyers are satisfactory in every respect. They never fail to function can be released instantly from the bridge by hydraulic control to the stern, from where the<y> are dropped, and their explosive effect is very pronounced. In fact in three cases in which our destroyers have dropped them at a speed of twenty knots, the ship has experienced a very severe s<h>ock but no damage was done. It is important that the release, sinking, and explosion of the depth charges be as rapid as possible. It is also important that depth charges constructed at home should be similar to those here, in order that the fittings now installed can be utilized. At present, our destroyers are carrying no spare depth charges, which may prove a very serious matter at any time while they are operating at any distance from the base An attempt is being made to provide spare charges for them, but the manufacturing situation in the field, as in the case of all other munitions, is strained severely.

     15.  I assumed command of the station, hoisting my flag at 8:30 a.m. on the 18th inst. and will continue in command while the British Vice Admiral and Commander-in–Chief9 is absent on five days leave, the first leave he has had in nearly two years. My taking over the command was suggested by the Commander-in–Chief himself and made with approval of the Admiralty.10 I am, of course, continuing his policies, and am not entering at all into administrative disciplinary matters with British force<s>, although their movements and operations are under my direction and full control. Although my duties in London were very pressing, I was prompted to accept the command on account of the effect it must have upon the relations existing between British and American forces.

     16.  I am grateful indeed to be able to report that not only has no friction whatever between British and American forces existed, but that the two forces have merged together as one force in every respect. I am confident in stating that the degree of co-operation and the excellent relations with which British and American forces have joined Forces in this area is unprecedented in the history of Allied operations.

     17.  I trust the department has taken action to relieve the personnel situation as reported by cable despatches. I was forced to assume the authority to exchange commissioned as well as enlisted personnel as demanded by the situation. It is difficult to convey either by cable or letter the severe demands which are being placed upon the personnel of our forces. It has been found entirely necessary that commanding officers and navigators or next senior officer should not stand the regular watch with the younger watch officers. Those two officers must be available for calls at all times and particularly at night. Their action upon important despatches must be obtained. The remaining officers not only stand watch but must also attend to their other duties which often takes them from their watch on the bridge to the engine room where repairs or overhauling is in operation. Opportunity of attacking [the] enemy occur so <seldom and at> such unexpected times that the officer must be usually alert eve[r]ey moment, and our destroyers have repeatedly just missed being hit by torpedoes fired from unseen submarines. As the Commander-in–Chief has impressed upon all officers, they are playing with death the moment they clear the boom defences. The only safe assumption which they can act under is that they are under observation always by a submarine. If they do not adopt this assumption they are able to find themselves not only observed but under attack at the most unexpected time. The Winslow, four nights ago, ran across a submarine in the dark and haze and although her personnel were apparently on their guard, she nevertheless lost slight of the submarine before any action could be taken. This is cited merely as an example of how quickly opportunities present themselves and are lost.

     18.  I wish to again urge necessity for greatly increasing the staff under my command. It is wholly impossible for me to keep myself fully acquainted with the situation without an increased staff. The lack of an experienced Chief of Staff with whom I am thoroughly acquainted suited to the peculiar existent conditions, has been a great embarrassment. The need for at least one experienced representative in the Operations Department of the Admiralty has been pressing and becomes more important daily. The time and attention of all officers in the Admiralty are fully taken up with pressing daily war duties. They cannot keep me fully informed of the problems which may affect me, both owing to lack of time and also to lack of knowledge of what I need. My information is, therefore, chiefly confined to very important questions which require m[y] action and to that which I deliberately seek.

     19.  I trust that my dispatches and reports are making the situation and it’s demands full clear to the Department. If there is any doubt or misunderstanding in any degree or respect I hope the Department will indicate promptl[y] wherein further information is required.

     20.  The consequences of failure or partial failure of the Allied cause which we have joined are of such far reaching character, that I am deepl<y> concerned in insuring that the part played by our Country shall stand every test of analysis before the bar of history. The situation at present is exceedingly grave. If sufficient United States naval forces can be thrown into the balance at the present critical time and place, there is little doubt but that early success will be assured.


Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. There is an identifying number “5” in the upper right-hand corner of the first page. Someone added handwritten degree and minute symbols, and added letters where missing or corrected typographical errors. Where the editors have included these emendations, they have indicated them by angle brackets.

Footnote 1: The enclosures are no longer with this document.

Footnote 2: Presumably, Sims was referring to his other cables to Daniels of this date.

Footnote 3: On the collision involving Jenkins, see: Diary of Joseph K. Taussig, 14 June 1917.

Footnote 4: On the same day as this cable, Sims received a cable from the British Admiralty informing him that it was “impossible” dispatch destroyers from the British Grand Fleet to Queenstown because of “extensive offensive operations” in “Northern Waters at present.” DNA, RG 45, Entry 517.

Footnote 5: This chart has not been found.

Footnote 6: These troop transports were carrying the first sizable detachment of American soldiers to France. See: Daniels to Albert Gleaves, 29 May 1917.

Footnote 7: In the ship’s war diary, Lt. Cmdr. Charles A. Blakely reported that O’Brien was escorting S.S. Elysia when it sighted a periscope “1000 yards” off its starboard bow. DNA, RG 45, Entry 520.

Footnote 8: There is no evidence that O’Brien sank a submarine and, in fact, in its war diary Blakely reported that although he believed the ship had sunk or damaged the U-boat, there was “no conclusive evidence” to “justify” this conclusion. Ibid.

Footnote 9: In a letter to his wife of this date, Sims discussed the promotion of VAdm. Lewis Bayly to “Commander-in-Chief in Ireland,” writing that it was a “public recognition of the value of his services, and it has smoothed away all the difficulties with the [British] Admiralty.” Sims added that the promotion “astonished” many in the British Navy who “used to say before the war that ‘Bayly should be put in an iron cage and fed on raw beef and turned loose on the enemy when war broke out.’” DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, container 9.

Footnote 10: Sims wrote to his wife that First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe believed that Sims taking temporary command at Queenstown would “have a good effect both here and in America, and also in France.” Sims added that he believed that “never before had a foreign admiral’s flag been hoisted over a British naval station, or a foreign admiral ever before commanded British naval forces. It will make something of a sensation, I fancy.” He added that in Queenstown there was a rumor that the change of command was not temporary but that Bayly was “gone for good, and that America has taken over the government of Ireland and will free her from the oppression of the British[.]” Another rumor was that Bayly and Sims had “quarreled” and Bayly “went away in disgust.” None of these rumors, of course, were true.