Rear Admiral Albert P. Niblack, United States Patrol Squadron Based at Gibraltar, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters
U.S. NAVAL FORCES OPERATING IN EUROPEAN WATERS,
PATROL SQUADRONS BASED ON GIBRALTAR,
U.S.S. DECATUR, FLAGSHIP.
18 March, 1918.
I enclose a daily disposition sheet, which shows the <momentary> disposition of the Forces based on Gibraltar, except that it does not include those that are for the moment in British ports.1 In other words, it only includes ships that are en route or about to start, for instance, the CHESTER, BIRMINGHAM, MANNING, and ALGONQUIN are not shown on this list. You will notice that ships at the bottom under refitting and boiler cleaning, that nine of our ships are under repairs. As a matter of fact, yesterday afternoon the ARTEMIS got in and immediately went under repairs for having salted her boilers, and her engines being out of line. The only ship that is under legitimate overhaul is the SENECA. The MARIETTA is being given an overhaul –or refit- prior to going to the Azores, but it is in advance of the regular period that had been allotted her. What I want to call attention to is, that all four destroyers are laid up. The DALE came in with one engine disabled, the BARRY’S condensers are leaking and she salted her boilers, the DECATUR is cleaning boilers, and the BAINBRIDGE has disabled her steering gear. There are only two other destroyers here, the British NORTHESK and PARTHIAN, both of them are out. The WENONAH is in drydock on account of her shafting, and the MACHIAS has serious boiler trouble, the MARRIETTA’S dynamos will not be ready until March 30th, and the DRUID is having new boilers. That is quite a sick-list,-one-third of the Force laid up. The PADUCAH is going to get an entirely new bottom when she refits, and in course of time a good many of the ships will be rebuilt, especially the destroyers. They were condemned in the Philippines <as being> unsafe to go out of sight of land, but since then have made over thirty thousand miles. Every time they go out I feel a bit anxious until they get in again. The French have three submarines here that are continually under repairs, and it is very difficult to ever get them out.
I am not complaining. I am simply telling you, as you already know, that we have a lot of junk here that has to be continuously rebuilt to keep it going. Day before yesterday we got an S.O.S. from the NASHVILLE, coming from Genoa, that her Convoy had been attacked and the Guide Ship sunk. Last night the YANKTON and OSSIPPE, with the Bizerta Convoy, were kept busy all night by a submarine sinking two of the Convoy. There is nothing here to send out to help them, as everything that can wiggle is in the escort business. The immunity of ships is largely due to the absence of submarines. This Bizerta Convoy is only making six knots and the submarine follows along, picking them off whenever she gets a chance.
We are hard pressed here for additional officers to take the place of those that are being taken out constantly. We ought to have twelve or fifteen Reserve Officers here to take their places.
I enclose a plan which was sent me for destroying submarines, you will note that it says, “To be burned when read.” I enclose also, a copy of a letter which shows the difficulties experienced with mail, and the reason why most of our correspondence is conducted by cable. If the Supply Officer of the navy yard New York, does not know where our ships are, the remedy is to do business by cable <or not at all.>
It seems to me that everybody is in a hurry to get the ships of Divn. 4 and 5, of the Patrol Squadron down to three line officers and four reserve officers. It is pretty bad business to be taking so many regular officers out of seagoing ships for shore duty, but I suppose there is no help for it. I intend to detach Lieutenant Wicks from the SACREMENTO as one of the five officers to go ashore to the Aviation Stations in France but Galebraith2 insists that he has not yet had time to break in his reserve officers, and I agree with him. The DALE, DECATUR, BARRY and BAINBRIDGE are sacredly regarded as destroyers, and I am not allowed to touch the officers aboard them.3 None of them have fired a torpedo for so long, that my classification of them is that they have a gun, propeller, and depth charges and are in the same class as all the other ships here. They have no more relation to a modern destroyer than a Coast Guard vessel has. How service on board them can have any relation to regular destroyer duty is beyond me. If service on them is not calculated to spoil an officer for regular destroyer duty, then I am sadly mistaken. If your man Stark could forget these four lame ducks down here, and not have all the officers aboard of them on his mind as his own special personal pets he wouldn’t get my goat as hard as he does.
I wanted to send an officer from the MARRIETTA as one of the five Aviation Officers but the officer to go is named Grosskoppf4 and that name bars him from going to France, and the order that I must not touch officers on the destroyers bars me from exchanging Grosskoppf for an officer on a destroyer who is well fitted to go to France because he has lived abroad all his life (Sterling).5 John Edie6 I understand, has applied to have the four destroyers sent from here to Marseilles. I dont know of any four better officers than the Commanding Officers of these four torpedo craft, and that is the only thing that prevents me from being willing to wish them onto anybody.
Except for the Western Front the only chance of an Allied initiative is in the Mediterranean, and I am trying to build up a Base here that can stand the strain of a sudden large increase in force. Unfortunately it is difficult to build up where there is this endless change in officers and men, and I part with these bunches of regular line officers of the Navy with many misgivings. I hope Operations will be satisfied now, for we are about down to bed rock, even on a peace time basis. In case any body gets sick on any of these ships, we will send them to sea entirely too short handed.
I don’t know what I am going to do for officers to fill up the complement of the DRUID when she gets her new boilers. When the WHEELING gets here I am going to take her Executive Officer to command one of the yachts that will fall vacant. Commander Pope7 of the SURVEYOR has been very bad off and I do not think will last.
Later: 20 March, 1918. The NASHVILLE got in this morning with the Genoa Convoy and we are having a court of inquiry tomorrow on her losing a ship. We will have one officer on the court. When the YANKTON gets in there will be a court of inquiry also, as she lost three ships in her Bizerta Convoy. We will also have an officer a member of this court.
Not hearing from London about substituting Grosskoppf for Sterling. Lieutenant Fuller8 will be the only one to go North by the SACREMENTO for aviation duty.
Very sincerely yours,
Source Note: LTS, DLC-MSS, William Sims, Box 76. Document reference: “WHW-18.”
Footnote 1: The disposition sheet referred to was not attached.
Footnote 2: Lt. Zeno W. Wicks and Cmdr. William W. Galbraith, Commander, Sacramento.
Footnote 3: Niblack is referring to four vessels of the “dirty five” (so named because they were older, coal-burning, destroyers): Chauncey, Barry, Baunbridge, and Dale. The fifth was the Decatur, Niblack's flagship. This squadron of destroyers from the Asiatic Fleet was commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Harold R. Stark. Initially planned to be used in the Adriatic if the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary (which it eventually did), these destroyers remained based at Gibraltar and provided excellent service as escort vessels in the Mediterranean; Sims, Victory at Sea, 161-162.
Footnote 4: Lt. Homer L. Grosskoppf was unable to go to France because Niblack feared his ethnic German heritage would result in him being accused of espionage.
Footnote 5: Lt. Theodore W. Sterling.
Footnote 6: Capt. John R. Edie was a member of the staff of Cmdr. William R. Sayles, United States Naval Attaché at Paris.
Footnote 7: Cmdr. Ralph E. Pope, Commander, Surveyor.
Footnote 8: Lt. George C. Fuller.