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

Office Vice Admiral, commanding

U.S.Destroyer Forces,

European Waters.

Letter No. 9.

LONDON,   June 29, 1917.

From:     Commander U.S.Naval Forces operating in European


To:       Secretary of the Navy (Operations).

Subject:  General report concerning military situation.

     1.   I feel that there is little to add to my recent cable despatches which, in view of the importance of the time element, have been made full and detailed.

     2.   To sum up my despatches briefly, I would repeat that I consider that the military situation is very grave indeed on account of the success of the enemy submarine campaign.

          If the shipping losses continue as they have during the past four months, it is submitted that the Allies will be forced to dire straits indeed, if they will not actually be forced into an unsatisfactory peace.

          The present rate of destruction is very much greater thanthe rate of building, and the shortage of tonnage is already so great that the efficiency of the naval forces is already reduced by lack of oil. Orders have just been given to use three-fifths speed, except in cases of emergency.

          This simply means that the enemy is winning the war.

     3.   My reasons for being so insistent in my cable despatches have been because of my conviction that measures of co-operation which we may take will be inefficient if they are not put into operation immediately, that is, within a month. There is every reason to believe that the maximum enemy submarine effort will occur between now and the first of November, reaching its height probably during the latter part of July, if not earlier.

     4.   There is certainly no sovereign solution for the submarine menace except through well established methods of warfare based upon fundamental military principles.

     5.   It is submitted that the cardinal military principle of concentration of effort is at present being pursued by the enemy and not by the Allies.

     6.   We are dispersing our forces while the enemy is concentrating his. The enemy’s submarine mission is and must continue to be, the destruction of merchant shipping. The limitations of submarines and the distances over which they must operate prevent them from attacking our naval forces, that is, anti-submarine craft. They cannot afford to engage anti-submarine craft with guns; they must use torpedoes. If they should do so to any considerable extent their limited supply would greatly reduce their period of operation away from base, and the number of merchantmen they could destroy. Their object is to avoid contact with anti-submarine craft. This they can almost always do, as the submarine can see the surface craft at many times the distance the surface craft can see a periscope, particularly one less than two inches in diameter.

          Moreover, the submarine greatly fears the anti-submarine craft because of the great danger of the depth charges. Our tactics <s>hould <t>herefore be such as to force the submarine to incur this danger in order to get within range of merchantmen.

     7.   It, therefore, seems to go without question that the only course for us to pursue is to revert to the ancient practice of convoy. This will be purely an offensive measure because if we concentrate our shipping into convoys and protect it with our naval forces, we will thereby force the enemy in order to carry outhis mission to encounter naval forces, which are not embarrassed with valuable cargoes, and which are a great danger to the submarine. At present out naval forces are wearing down their personnel and material in an attempted combination of escorting single ships, when they can be picked up, and also of attempting to seek and offensively engage an enemy whose object is to avoid such encounters. With the convoy system, the conditions will be reversed. Although the enemy may easily know when our convoys sail, he can never know the course they will pursue or the route of approach to their destinations. Our escorting forces will thus be able to work on a deliberate pre-arranged plan, preserving their oil supplies and energy, while the enemy will be forced to disperse his forces and seek us. In a wor<d>, the handicabp we now labor under will be shifted to the enemy; we will have adopted the essential principle of concentration while the enemy will lose it.

     8.   The most careful and thorough study of the convoy system made by the British Admiralty shows clearly that while we may have some losses under this system, owing to lack of adequate number of anti-submarine craft, they nevertheless will not be critical as they are at present.

     9.   I again submit that if the Allied campaign is to be viewed as a whole, t<h>ere is no necessity for any high sea protection on our own coast. The submarine as a type of war vessel possesses no unusual characteristics different <from> those of other naval craft, with the single exception of its ability to submerge for a limited time. The difficulty of maintaining distant bases is the same for the submarine as it is for other craft. As long as we maintain control of the sea as far as surface craft are concerned, there can be no fear of the enemy establishing submarine bases in the Western Hemisphere.

     10.  To take an extreme illustration, if the enemy could be led or forced into diverting part of his submarine effort to the United States coast, or to any other area distant from the critical area surrounding the coast of France and the United Kingdom, the anti-submarine campaign would at once be won. The enemy labors under severe difficulties in carrying out his campaign even in this restricted area, owing to the material limitations and the distances they must operate from their bases, through extremely dangerous localities. The extent of the United States coast line and the distances between its principal commercial ports preclude the possibility of any submarine effort in that part of the world except limited operations of diversion designed to affect public opinion, and thereby hold our forces from the vital field of action.

     11.  The difficulties confronting the convoy system are, of course, considerable. They are primarily involved in the widely dispersed ports of origin of merchant shipping; the difficulty of communication by cable; the time involved by communications by mail; and the difficulties of obtaining a co-operation and co-ordination between Allied governments.

          As reported by cable despatch, the British Government has definitely reached the decision to put the convoy system into operation as far as its ability goes. Convoys from Hampton Roads, Canada, Mediterranean, and Scandinavian count[r]ies are already in operation. Convoys from New York will be put in operation as soon as ships are available. The British Navy is already strained beyond its capacity, and I therefore urgently recommend that we co-operate at least to the extent of handling convoys from New York.

     12.  The dangers to convoys from high sea raiders is remote, but, of course, must be provided against, and hence the necessity for escorting cruisers or reserve battleships. The necessity is even greater, however, for anti-submairne craft in the submarine war zone.

     13.  As stated in my despatches, the arming of merchantmen is not a solution of the submarine menace, it serves the single purpose of forcing the submarine to use torpedoes instead of guns and bombs. The facts that men-of-war cannot proceed safely at sea without escort, and that in the Queenstown avenue of approach alone in the past six weeks there have been thirty armed merchantmen sunk, without having seen the submarine at all before the attack, seems to be conclusive evidence. A great mass of other evidence and war experience could be collected in support of the above.

     14.  The week ending June 19 has been one of great submarine activity. Evidence indicates that fifteen to nineteen of the largest and latest submarines have been operating, of which ten to thirteen were operating in the critical area to the west and south west of the British Isles. The above numbers are exclusive of the smaller and earlier type of submarines and submarines carrying mines along. Two submarines are working to the westward of the Straits of Gibraltar. A feature of the week was the sinking of ships as far west as 19 degrees. Three merchant ships convoys are en route from Hampton Roads, the last one, consisting of eighteen ships, having sailed on the 19th of June. One hundred and sixteen moored mines have been swept up during the week.

          Twenty-two reports of encounters with enemy submarine in waters surrounding the United Kingdom have been reported during the week – three by destroyers, two by cruisers, two by mystery ships, one by French gunboat, three by submarines, nine by auxiliary patrol vessels, one by sea plane, and one by merchant vessel.

          There is attached copy of report of operations by anti-submarine craft base<d> on Queenstown.1

Wm S. Sims.       

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517. Someone has corrected typographical errors in the original by writing over the errors in pencil, often making it impossible to determine the original text. These emendations are indicated by angle brackets.

Footnote 1: The report is no longer with this copy.