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 Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations

June 14th. 1918.   

My dear Admiral,

          By the last mail I sent you an unsigned letter, as I had to leave for the North before it could be completed. I have sent you a duplicate with some trifling corrections and additions.1

          My visit to the North was a very satisfactory one. As usually happens, I was surprised to find how little I realized of the extent of the installations at Inverness and Invergordon. Of course I knew from correspondence and from conferences with Murfin and Strauss2 just what was going on, but I did not have a mental picture of the completeness and extent of these installations. I really wish you could see them and realise as I did what an excellent stunt has been done. The installation in general and the organization was pretty well completed by Murfin, who is by the way, a very valuable man.

          I am sure you would not care to read any detailed description of these installations but I may tell you in a word that they are not only exceedingly well carried out, but that the business management in testing and assembling the mines appears to be everything that is to be desired.

          I visited one of the mine layers – the CANONICUS – commanded by Commander Johnson,3 and went over her installation. There is no doubt that she is a bit of a surprise to the mine layers over on this side. Vessels of her displacement usually carry three hundred mines while this vessel has over eight hundred on board. These can all be dropped at their regular intervals with the vessel going at 12-knots. This is accomplished by means of six elevators that bring the mines from the lower decks to the launching rollers on the upper mine deck.

          While coming from Invergordon, I stopped at our naval hospital at Strathpeffer and found it not only one of the most delightful spots imaginable as regards scenery but everything in the two large hotels and the baths that have been taken over seem to be arranged with all of the up-to-the-minute surgical appliances imaginable. As far as my knowledge in such things go it seemdd satisfactory in all respects.

          Incidentally, I may say that the establishment of a similar hospital at Edinburgh is well under way.

          I arrived at Invergordon on the afternoon of the evening on which our mine layers went out to lay their first batch of mines. The first mines arrived at the stations about ten days before my visit. They had all been taken out of the ships, all tested in shops, re-assembled and put back on board. The vessels successfully laid 47 miles of mines on their first trip. Weather permitting they expect to be able to make a similar trip each week. When all of the mine layers have arrived they will be able to lay sixty miles on mines of each trip. About 3% exploded when dropped. Strauss reports that the defect has been located and will be corrected.

          While on the subject of mines I may say that the British are having rather heart-breaking experiences with laying mines in area“B”, that is, the area between our part of the barrage and the Orkneys.4 There has been something the matter with the depth gear. Many of the mines were found to be too near the surface. They should become innocuous when this happens, but it was found that they were not. They are testing the whole area by means of what are called “skimming sweeps,” that is a sweep which goes down a certain distance to make sure that no mines are too near the surface. They have found a good many mines that are too near the surface, and in almost all cases when the sweep catches these, it explodes them, thereby destroying the sweep and causing vexatious delay. They are of course investigating the whole matter. As to whether they will be able to correct the defects of their mines so as to make it safe for the Grand Fleet to pass over this area, remains to be seen.

          While I was up North I spent a day in the Grand Fleet. While on board the NEW YORK about quarters time in the morning I was invited to inspect the crew. I was specially invited to observe very carefully and see if I could find anything whatever to criticise in the uniform of the men. The skipper and Rodman5 were so cocky about it that I really did endeavour to find something to criticise but entirely without success. It would be impossible to conceive a better looking set of men or better dressed set of men. A few days afterwards this was confirmed by Admiral Wemyss6 on a visit to the Grand Fleet. He also inspected the crew and expressed the same opinion. He also said that it was noticeable to him that our men were distinctly taller than the British seamen. I had not noticed this and it has never struck me that this is true. Possibly the youth and slenderness of our men may have conveyed this impression.

          One of the British captains said he would not <have> believed a man-of-war could be kept in the condition in which he found the NEW YORK.

          After having inspected the NEW YORK, the Captain invited me to go round the ship on the various decks and also to visit the engine room. I have never seen a ship that was so spotless as this, not excluding the famous NEVADA which I recently commanded. Rodman and the Captain took me through the engine room and they invited me to point out if I could find a single leak in any packing, joint, etc. I tried to find such a defect, but was not able to do so. Subsequently I went aboard the other ships and while I did not go about them so thoroughly, still I saw enough to convince me that they are all in excellent condition. I took advantage of the occasion on all of these vessels to ask the Commanding Officer to send the men aft on the quarter deck in order that I might tell them the reputation which they have been largely instrumental in making for the American Navy in the minds of our Allies on this side without exception. The reputation of these ships has gone throughout Europe.

          When they first arrived on this side they, I think without exception, expressed the opinion that it would be quite impossible to keep the machinery in readiness at all times unless they had the usual overhaul period which we were accustomed to in time of peace. They have learned since then, that not only is it perfectly possible to carry out all current overhauling while on four hours notice, but that the actual result is that the vessels are maintained in a better steaming readiness than they were in our peace days. This was something which practically none of our officers would have believed possible, yet it is done daily. Boilers and so forth are overhauled without difficulty. Moreover, when something occurs which requires overhauling of a longer period, it is now found that by making what you might call a war effort, it can be done in much less time. I have in mind one of the vessels estimating that it would take 72 hours at the least to take down, repair and put up a certain section of some pipe. The engineers’ force was invited to try for a record as to time. They were first to make out a program as to how the work should be done, based upon what is commonly called business management, then prepare all the material and tools and then say “go” and go at it. They completed the repair in 18 hours.

          The day I arrived in the Grand Fleet our squadron was due to go out for target practice and I therefore had the pleasure of seeing them get under way and be conducted out of harbor to the practice ground which was just outside the narrow barrier. Unfortunately, the weather came on too hazy to get the target at sufficient distance.

          As for the spirit of our vessels it would be difficult to imagine anything more satisfactory. All hands seemed to be intensely interested in their duties, and the best possible feeling prevails throughout the whole of the Grand Fleet[.]

          While on my visit to the Grand Fleet I dined with the Commander-in-Chief7 and with all of the Vice Admirals and some of the Rear Admirals of the Fleet and in this re-union the cordiality of the relations between the British and our people was markedly accentuated.

          As for the spirit of cooperation shown it is only necessary to say that when our squadron is out on duty, escorting,and so forth, the the rear-admirals in command of the covering forces of cruisers, and so forth, who are all senior to our rear admiral, cheerfully accept the orders of the latter as being in command of the battleships, which must necessarily control the movements of the covering forces.

          It is this condition of affairs which induced the Commander-in Chief to request that Admiral Rodman be given the“local rank” of a Vice Admiral. I still think it would be very advisable that this should be done if the Department can see its way clear to do it.

          All hands in our squadron were enthusiastic over the benefit they have received from the convoy operations which they carry out in succession. They will receive similar experience in protecting the mine layers. On the first trip of the latter, their protecting force was the opposite number to our squadron, that is the squadron of Vice-Admiral Evans Thomas.8

          The recent decision by Palmer concerning the personnel of the battleships, was, as I understand it, that they should be treated in respect of personnel just the same as any other of the battleships of the Atlantic fleet.9 He based this decision upon the policy of Operations. I had not known that this was Operations policy. If so, I would invite attention to what I believe to be the necessity of doing everything that we can to keep up the efficiency of these battleships. As you doubtless know, the acute crisis now on the Western Front has caused great anxiety in this country and there is unusual apprehension that the Germans may make a strike at sea. It is therefore unnecessary to say that we should leave nothing undone which will increase the efficiency of these vessels.

          Lieut.Commander Davy who was sent over here recently by the Bureau of Navigation, has visited all of our stations except Gibraltar and has submitted a very interesting report.10 He has gone home with a copy of this report and the original will be forwarded by the next mail. This report merits a very careful examination. It is a fine performance and contains much useful information.

          I have had long interviews with Mr.Sherman, Mr.Bacon and Mr.Raymond11 and with General Atterbury’s12 right hand man in transportation. Mr.Raymond expects to leave within a few days for America, and I am sure you will find that he will bring you very useful information. We are trying to perfect an organization over here which will ensure the minimum delay in the turn around of vessels. I am not yet able to say that we quite see our way clear to the nature of this organization but I am sure that with all of the talent and experience now placed at our disposal that we will be able to work it out. In the meantime, however, things are vastly better now than they were a number of months ago.

          I am sending you a telegram today giving in brief the essential conclusions of the Allied Naval Council that met on the 11th.and 12th. inst.13 I am also sending you a special telegram concerning a special conference between the naval representatives of Great Britain, France and America and Sir Eric Geddes14 over the very regrettable attitude of Italy in all questions upon which we are trying to bring about efficient co-ordination.15 This has gotten to such a degree that it makes our naval conferences more or less of a farce in so far as concerns such essential questions as unity of command and unity of effort in the Mediterranean. It is recognised of course, that France and Gt.Britain hold the whip hand over Italy if they choose to exercise it. They can bring unlimited pressure to bear upon her, as she is dependent upon them for practically all of her coal and a great deal of her military supply. It is thoroughly recognised, however, that it would be dangerous to to exercise this pressure in too great a degree, because anything in the nature of an ultimatum might have the effect of taking Italy out of the war altogether. It would seem however, that it is very desirable that the Governments whose representatives were concerned in this special conference should bring some diplomatic pressure to bear on Italy to induce them to co-operate fully. It would seem at least that our Government should express their displeasure over the attitude of Italy in this respect.

          It is hardly necessary to say that we are still very anxious over the outcome on the Western Front. I do not pretend to know enough about land warfare or the peculiar conditions of the terrain in the theatre of operations to make my opinion of any use whatever. That of course, as you know, does not prevent a fellow from expressing his opinion. To me, the situation appears distinctly dangerous. I may say however, that this opinion is not extensively shared by those who are most closely associated with the French. Admiral Wemyss has recently been in Paris and he reports the French quite optimistic. Cone16 arrived in London for a conference yesterday, and he also reports the same condition. He also states that they are taking the wise precaution of removing their archives from Paris and removing certain war manufacturers and so forth.

          Cone came up from Paris with the object of attending a conference between General Patrick, who is General Pershing’s new Chief of Air Staff.17 General Patrick was sent by General Pershing to discuss the advisability of all air activities being placed under one head. His idea seems to be that all of the air activities in the Dunkirk area that are now under the direction of Admiral Keyes18 at Dover and all of our bombing section designed to operate in the same area, (principally with land machines on account of the peculiar conditions) should be placed under a common head who would be in control of all of the air activities of the Western Front.

          I explained to General Patrick that the air activities above referred to were essentially a part of the anti-submarine campaign; that the work of these air forces is co-ordinated with that of the floating forces (monitors, and so forth) under Admiral Keyes and that they are now devoting their attention to as continuous a bombing of Bruges and so forth, as conditions will permit with the view of decreasing the submarine menace, particularly of the small boats that base on Zeebrugge and Ostend. I therefore explained to General Patrick that the decision in a matter of that kind would have to be made by agreement between the Supreme Command of the armies on the Western Front and the Admiralties concerned.

          I expressed the opinion that if, for example, it should be decided by the Supreme War Council that it would be to the interests of the Allied Cause to suspend temporarily the operations in the Dunkirk area that I believe an agreement as to the common use of all of the sea forces in an emergency would readily be reached.

          I am sorry to say that Admiral Wilson19 still gives me considerable anxiety from time to time through an apparent indisposition to cooperate, or rather through an apparent indisposition to put difficulties in the way of cooperation. As I have said before, I cannot bring myself to believe that there could be anything deliberate in such conduct. It seems to be more a question of petulance of temper and immaturity of disposition. He seems to act at times with the temper and impatience of a boy. Recently we sent him an order to report upon the necessity of supplying Catholic chaplains at his different bases, including the air stations. He replied that he could not carry out the order as regards the latter as they were not under him.

          Cone will be sent to take up the whole matter with Wilson in the effort to reach a satisfactory situation <solution.>

          In an effort to avoid a condition of affairs which could not be overlooked, I am writing him a letter, of which I enclose you a copy.20 I had hoped that he had seen the light and would cooperate cordially with us. It appears that he has not done so. I am in hopes that this last letter may bring about an understanding on these points and avoid further difficulty. Manifestly, if this disposition should continue, and should be accentuated, something will have to be done to remove the difficulty. It exists in all my forces in this particular case alone.

Always very sincerely yours,      

Source Note: LT, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 49. Following the close, the letter is addressed, “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.N./Chief of Naval Operations./Navy Department./Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: For the original, unsigned letter, see: Sims to Benson, 4 June 1918. The revised duplicate that Sims mentions has not been located.

Footnote 2: RAdm. Joseph Strauss, Commander, Mine Force, Atlantic Fleet, and Capt. Orin G. Murfin, Strauss’ Aide.

Footnote 3: Thomas L. Johnson.

Footnote 4: For a cartographical representation of the different areas of the Northern Mine Barrage, see the maps section for April 1918.

Footnote 5: Capt. Edward L. Beach, Commanding Officer, NEW YORK, and RAdm. Hugh Rodman, Commander, Battleship Division Nine.

Footnote 6: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss.

Footnote 7: Adm. Sir David Beatty.

Footnote 8: Sir Hugh Evans-Thomas, Commander, Fifth Battle Squadron, Grand Fleet.

Footnote 9: RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. For Palmer’s policy regarding the rotation of officers to and from sea duty, see: Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 3 June 1918.

Footnote 10: Charles G. Davy, a member of the Detail Office in the Bureau of Navigation. For more on his mission with the Destroyer Force, see: Palmer to Sims, 26 March 1918. Davy’s final report has not been located.

Footnote 11: L. H. Shearman, a member of the staff of Raymond B. Stevens, Vice-Chairman, United States Shipping Board and United States Representative, Allied Maritime Transport Council, Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bacon, U. S. N. R. F., and Henry H. Raymond, Commissioner, United States Shipping Board. For more on the efforts of these men in coordinating Allied shipping, see: Sims to Henry B. Wilson, 27 May and 31 May 1918.

Footnote 12: Brig. Gen. William W. Atterbury, Director-General of Transportation, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 13: See: Sims to Benson, 15 June 1918.

Footnote 14: First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Eric Geddes.

Footnote 15: This cablegram has not been located.

Footnote 16: Capt. Hutchinson I. Cone, Commander United States Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service.

Footnote 17: Brig. Gen. Mason Patrick, and Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 18: VAdm. Sir Roger J. B. Keyes.

Footnote 19: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces in France.

Footnote 20: The original letter from Sims to Wilson has not been located, and the copy that Sims mentions herein is no longer with this letter.

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