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 4th, 1918.    

My dear Admiral,

     As I am about to leave this evening for the Mine Base, and will not be back before the mail leavers, and as there will not be time to read this letter before I leave I will have to dictate it and let it go without signature. I will however, follow it by a copy in which I will make any corrections or alterations that may be necessary.

     I have been wondering what you thought of my cable concerning the testimony given in the Maud Allen scandal case, by Captain Spencer I sent this cable because I was not sure how much of the testimony wo uld be sent over to our papers, and I wanted to make it clear that the Intelligence Department of the headquarters had had no knowledge of this matter whatever.1

     (note) on margin:-

     As you doubtless know, Admiral Mayo2 did not take me into his confidence in some matter when he was over here.

     In regard to the statement of this witness that Admiral Mayo and his secretary came to him and got the whole statement, I know knothing [i.e., nothing] except that it is known to a number of our people here that he was in communication with Pye.3 Captain Spencer was at one time an applicant for employment at headquarters, but we never had any idea of taking him on.

     I have been considerably embarrassed by requests for messages for Decoration Day, 4th. July and so forth. My embarrassment has been due to the fact that I have a hard time writing such thing I have no particular faculty in that direction.

     Some time ago the Columbia Grapha phone Company came to me with the information that they had made records of messages to the American people from Pershing, Marshall Joffre, Bishop Brent, Brand Whitlock. Also that they expected toget records from Clemenceau, General Foch, Mr. Lloyd-George, and so forth.4 If it had not been for the fact that Pershing gave them a record I should not have bothered with it, but I did not feel that I could let the Army get away with anything of that kind without making a try at it. It seemeed to me that what I should do under the circumstances was to give a message which I thought might be of some little use in carrying on the war. I therefore gave the message and sent by the last mail a set of the records of all of those mentioned above to Pratt.5 Perhaps you will hear this record of mine.

     When I received a request from the Secretary6 for a message to be sent in before the 8th June, and to be given out on the 4th July, I telegraphed a message on the same lines as the one I gave on the record.7 I hope this will be considered satisfactory. I cannot say that I am satisfied with it myself, but the truth about the matter is that I have no facility in making any record that is stated in general terms. I can do nothing but say something in which I believe.

     On top of the above request came your request for a message to be delivered to the midshipmen at Annapolis. I did the best I could with this, but I do not feel sure that it was the kind of a message that your had in mind. However, I telegraphed you what I believed would have been very useful to me if somebody had given me a similar message when I was about to leave the Academy. I am the more of this opinion as I am sure of the fact that for a considerable number of years after leaving the Academy my time was practically wasted in so far as learning the profession was concerned.

     After making a close study of the case, and satisfying myself as to the oil situation at Brest, we have decided to send about twelve destroyers to Queenstown to Brest to bring in the troop convoys that are arriving in France. This will undoubtedly be a more economical use of destroyers, as the distance they will have to steam will be approximately 1260 miles instead of 1460 from Queenstown. Moreover, they can in practically all cases be used to escort vessels off the coast when they go to meet the troop convoy coming in. They will thus be doing useful work nearly all of the time, whereas from Queenstown, on two legs of a triangle they will not be escorting.8

     Our chasers have arrived at Corfu, and we expect soon to have them at work and hope for some results. I believe that Leigh9 is about the best man we could have on this job. I hope to give you some good news of these vessels later. Also of the chasers that will soon be at work around the Channel and Irish Sea. We have made all the arrangements for taking over a small private yard close by Plymouth that will accommodate thirty or forty of these vessels, and other arrangements will be made in the Irish Sea.

     During the last month or so the British have been experimenting with a patrol extending across the Fair Island passage and of such a length that the submarines could not steam through it in one night. At first the vessels were too far apart to be effective, byt they gradually decreased the size of their operating squares. The Admiral in command – Tupper – reports that he had twenty two hunts[.]10 Two or three of these are probable successes, but they are not sure as yet. At all events, the German submarines find it too dangerous to use this passage any more and are now going around to the north of the Shetlands, giving those Islands a berth of about forty miles. This only has the effect at present of increasing the length of their outward and inward trip and thereby decreasing their operating time. However, it is an indication of what we will be able to do when the barrage is across and the submarines are forced to go through a comparatively narrow entrance. This of course assumes that the barrage will be effective, that is, that they will not be able to make holes through it.11

     About one-hundred-and-fifty vessels have been employed in this barrage consisting of trawlers, sloops and drifters, many of them fitted with the fist or other hydrophones. Occasionally, as they could be spared, they were assisted by a number of destroyers from the Grand Fleet, Sometimes as high as a dozen.

     During the last few weeks the number of submarines actually operating has been decreasing. Today’s report shows that there are only four U botas [i.e., boats] actually operating while five are on the way home. There are also six UB boats,12 but four of these may have been destroyed. The record for the month of May is ten submarines surely destroyed, of these two are U boats. There are four others that are probables, but we will not know about them until we find they have not returned to their base.

     Almost without exception we know where each boat is. Unfortunately, one of these exceptions was U-90. We had track of her while she was operating with other vessels near the mouth of the Channel. We knew that she developed an oil leak that left a streak behind her and that it therefore was dangerous for her to operate close in shore. The<n> she disappeared for a number of days, and it was believed that she was bound home. We know that she went out into the Atlantic and had the extraordinary good luck to come across a convoy in longitude 15 after the escort had left them in about longitude 12. Had we known or suspected that there was any submarine in that neighborhood the convoy would of course, have accompanied them beyond the danger. The U-62 that I previously reported operating in a square just east of the Azores was at that time known to be on her way home and we believed the coast to be clear.

     The day the PRESIDENT LINCOLNwas torpedoed I had an enthusiastic letter from Commander Foote, who is an old shipmate of mine, telling me about his vessel and how proud he was of them and how he had her organized.13 This apparently showed up in the way in which he got practically all of his people safely afloat in eighteen minutes. It is exceedingly to be regretted that we have lost this valuable ship, but I don’t think we should complain at losing only two of our transports in all the months that they have been operating.

     The Department’s cable in reference to transferring the main stations of our bombing force to the north end of the Channel is being looked into.14 We will be able to come to a decision about this within a very short time. Of course the advisability of this method depends upon the integrity of the opinions we get concerning the probable outcome on the Western Front. There is as yet no pessimism or discouragement on that score. Personally, the situation looks to me to be very serious. Possibly if I had a more intimate knowledge of the nature of operations on shore, particularly in the critical area, I would feel more comfortable about it. All hands seem to have confidence in the ability of General Foch to handle the situation.

     I saw today a photograph taken from an aeroplance of the entrance to Zeebrugge. Also photographs of the canal leading from Zeebrugge to Bruges. In this canal are a number of torpedo destroyers. They are immobilised because they cannot get out by the obstructions in the mouth of the channel leading to the sea. Behind the breadwater [i.e., breakwater] are half a dozen torpedo boats and four or five destroyers, and possibly a couple of submarines. They use this breakwater as a shelter, but are apparently not able to use the port of Bruges where their supply and fitting out station is. The Channel leading to Osten is not blocked and submarines can go in there, but it is believed that they do not do so, though the reason is not at present understood. However, apparently reliable information is to the effect that the channel between Ostend and Bruges is not practicable to either destroyers or submarines.15

     If all of the above information is correct it is apparent that the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend have resulted in denying to the Germans the use of the docks and their repair facilities at Bruges[.] All of these places, Zeebrugge, Bruges and Ostend are continually being bombed. This has been pretty successful. In the photograph I saw of Zeebrugge there was the wreck of a destroyer that was sunk by a bomb and also the hull of another vessel turned on its side close to the Mole. It was not possible to make out whether the latter was a destroyer or a submarine or some other vessel.

     There are continuous operations being carried out in the Channels leading out through the minefields from Heligoland to the North Sea. The Germans are kept continually sweeping and the British are laying mines nearly every night that the weather will permit. Occasionally a submarine gets out through one of these channels, but they always have to be accompanied by a very considerable force of mine sweepers, and supports. When our station at Killingholme is ready for operations, which will be pretty soon now, we will be able to embarrass these operations very considerably. The British do so already, but the addition of our force will make a considerable difference.

     I have received the telegram of information you sent concerning the operations of U-151 on our coast.16 She is apparently doing about what was predicted she would do. The information concerning her proposed movements was believed at the time to be fairly reliable. I hope that some of our boys in the submarines will have an opportunity to get a whack at this vessel.

     Converning [i.e., concerning] the submarines at the Azores I have good reasons to believe that Admiral Dunn and the submarine captains there, are unduly pessimistic about the condition of their boats.17 About the time that he reported their condition to us, Causey18 arrived here in London directly from the Azores. He is a man who, as you know, is perfectly familiar with these boats and who knows all about the diseases of submarines. He said that the boats were in as good condition as they every had been; that they were suffering from certain defects inherent in their design, but that for all he could see they could be operated for some months to come. However, there is no doubt that they are not very effective boats. One of their greatest defects is that they have not only a fixed periscope, but a very large one compared to those used over here. This handicaps them when they are on a hunt for a submarine that has a housing periscope with what is called a finger end. Our submarines on this side are being fitted with these small high powered periscopes, and I assume that our new boats will be similarly fitted.

     There can be no doubt that it would be better to send a number of “O” boats to the Azores to replace the boats now there, but this is not at all imperative.

Very sincerely yours,   

          WM S SIMS     

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Container 49. Addressed below close: “Admiral W. S. Benson, U.S/. Navy,/Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department,/Washington D.c.” This document is labeled as part of “Admiral Sims/Personal File.” and the identifiers “1/3/J” appear in the upper-right corner.

Footnote 1: Capt. Harold S. Spencer, a British and American dual citizen and officer in the British Army, claimed that German agents were enticing thousands of Britons into homosexual acts as a way to corrupt the British public. Maud Allen, a prominent actress who had a history of scandal, was included in the allegations, and later sued a British journal for libel. Spencer was found to be mentally ill and removed from the British Army. See: Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 3 June 1918.

Footnote 2: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Mayo investigated the allegations made by Spencer during a visit to Great Britain in the fall of 1917.

Footnote 3: Cmdr. William S. Pye, Fleet Tactical Officer, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 4: Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief, American Expeditionary Force; Joseph Joffre, Marshal of France and head of the Supreme War Council; Bishop Charles H. Brent, Chaplain General, American Expeditionary Forces; Brand Whitlock, United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Belgium, 1913-1917, and Ambassador to Belgium, 1919-1921; Prime Minister of France and Minister of War Georges Clemenceau; Gen. Ferdinand Foch, Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces; and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George. For more on the graphaphone recording, see: Sims to Lewis Bayly, 8 May 1918; and Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 20 May 1918.

Footnote 5: Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 6: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

Footnote 7: See: Sims to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 3 June 1918.

Footnote 9: Capt. Richard H. Leigh, an aide in the Operations Section of Sims’ staff.

Footnote 10: VAdm. Sir Reginald G. O. Tupper. Fair Isle is located to the north of Scotland.

Footnote 11: Sims here is referring to the Northern Mine Barrage, a massive undertaking designed to create a minefield that would block submarines from exiting the North Sea. See: Nathan C. Twining to Benson, 18 April 1918.

Footnote 12: Submarines used as minelayers.

Footnote 13: Cmdr. Percy W. Foote, Commander, PRESIDENT LINCOLN. Foote’s ship was torpedoed and sunk on 31 May, 1918. See: Pringle to Sims, 2 June 1918; Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 3 June 1918.

Footnote 14: See: Benson to Sims, 1 June 1918.

Footnote 15: For more on the attack on the Zeebrugge canal, which had been the target of a British raid on 22 and 23 April 1918, see: Sims to Benson, 17 May 1918; Sims to Benson, 19 May 1918; and Twining to Daniels, 21 May 1918.

Footnote 16: For more on the arrival of U-151 in American waters, see: Sims to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 15 May 1918.

Footnote 17: RAdm. Herbert O. Dunn, commander of the American detachment in the Azores Islands. For the boats stationed at Azores, see: Sims to Dunn, 18 May 1918.

Footnote 18: Lt. Cmdr. Lewis D. Causey. Causey’s exact position at this time is unknown, but in 1917 he commanded a submarine division of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and presumably he had been commanding submarines at the Azores before his transfer to London.