Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations
My dear Admiral,
In the first place let me say that our Planning Section, combined with that of the British Admiralty, is I am convinced, having a very beneficial effect. Of course this is a matter that has to be handled very cautiously. You will understand this when I explain that the officers of our Planning Section have had a very much more thorough training in this kind of work than the corresponding British officers have had. They have taken the initiative in making a number of estimates of situations on various problems. They are now taking these up with the Planning Section of the British Admiralty so that the final conclusion of the combined sections will be the only one presented to the governing officials of the Admiralty.
I have had perfectly convincing evidences that these estimates are exerting a very marked influence upon the various members of the Admiralty. One of the principal officers of the Admiralty, who is always present at the morning conferences, told me personally that he was in entire sympathy with studies of this kind with a view to establishing general principles to guide us in the conduct of the naval part of the war. Of course I have to be very careful about insisting upon these things and it is much better done through some member of the Admiralty who is in sympathy with the scheme.
The paper on the PSYCHOLOGY OF THE SITUATION, that is, the paper explaining how the enemy has beaten us hands down by attacking the morale of the allied countries, is having a particularly marked effect.
There is nothing particularly new in the tactics of the submarine. Some time ago there were an unusual number of submarines that came out and they are now on the way back. No less than ten of them were bound in towards the Skaggerack last night. Very few of them have attempted to use the Channel lately, and all of the passages through the Heligoland Bight are now either blocked or considered by the enemy too dangerous to risk submarines therein. A UB Submarine was blwon [i.e., blown] up on March 10th, in the mine barrage in the Dover Straits; No survivors; Her log book was receovered [i.e., recovered] from the wreckage.
They have been making very determined efforts to break through this barrage, as it is much more advantageous for them to use it than the Skaggerack. This is for the reason that they cannot go out through the Skaggerack without being seen as they pass through the Belt, and they must pass the minefield off the Skaw coming out. They probably know the minefields are there, but if they go out on the surface they are reported and chased and if they go out submerged they run the risk of the mines. To show how much they desire to clear the passages out through the Heligoland Bight, I may say that during the last week or so they have been attempting to drag a passage with barrier breakers, sweepers, destroyers, trawlers, and so forth. backed up by the 4th. Battle Squadron, and accompanied by all of the battle cruisers. Yesterday, they came out from Heligoland with this force and with a vessel carrying aeroplanes. The latter for the purpose of searching for the position of mines. The British sent a force to oppose them, and this might have brought on a very considerable action, had it not been that bad weather and fog obliged the enemy to abandon the enterprise and retreat behind Heligoland.
Generally,speaking, the submarineshave been operating lately in the Irish Sea and the passages leading thereto and in the Channel. Their tactics seem to be to wait until convoys split up at the entrance of the Channel, and then attack the sections, or any ship which may become separated or which branches off to go into a port. This would seem to be a demonstration that they cannot hope for an equal amount of success by attacking the convoys in the open sea. Heavy weather does not seem to prevent them making successful attacks so that they can carry out operations against convoys whenever they choose to. As showing that they are not particularly embarrassed by heavy weather, I may state that the CALGARIAN was torpedoed at the northern entrance to the Irish Sea while it was blowing between 7 or 8.
All of the above points to the fact that what is needed more than anything else now is war against the submarine itself. This is thoroughly realized by the Admiralty . The difficulty is to find the vessels which can be spared for this operation. Convoys of many ships are not being brought in with,in some cases, but five or six destroyers, which is manifestly insufficient to give reasonable protection. There have of course, been propositions to let the convoys come in without any escort and send all the destroyers to attack the submarines. This of course would be a dangerous procedure because it frequently happens that there are many submarines that are known to be out but whose positions are not known. So while we might chase those whose positions are known, those that are still free might do a great deal of damage in the way of destroying ships. As an example of this state of affairs, I may mention that three or four days ago, when there were a considerable number of submarines out, there were seven of them that were known out in the Atlantic that had not been located within the last thirty hours. Today there are only six or seven submarines in the Atlantic and two UB boats.
It is thoroughly realised that what is needed, indeed more than anything else, is war against the submarine. It is hoped that this will be successful when there are enough vessels to carry it out and when they are all fitted with the latest listening devices. In the meantime however, a number of 30-knot destroyers are being transferred from several stations on the east coast of England and Scotland in order to constitute two hunting squadrons in the Irish Sea, which is the most serious danger point. These two squadrons will be based on ports of opposite sides of the sea and about half way up its length. They will co-ordinate their work with that of four American destroyers that are now engaged in this same work and they will of course, be under the command of one man. When efforts like this can be increased we will then have high hopes, not perhaps of destroying all the submarines, but of destroying enough of them to break down their morale.
There is evidence already that this morale is very considerably shaken. As the 1st.Lord stated in the House the other day, every submarine commander who goes out on a cruise, knows that the chances of his being destroyed is about one in five.
One of the danger points is of course, the Mediterranean. This will become very serious indeed if the extensively advertised blow at the Western Front is nothing but camouflage to conceal a blow that is to be struck either in Italy or in the Balkans. If the latter should prove the case, the submarine menace in the Mediterranean would be very serious indeed. This whole matter will be discussed before the Allied Naval Council and it is very probable that the discussion will result in a recommendation to very considerably increase hunting operations against the submarine in the Mediterranean. This decision will include some of our submarine chasers, which are particularly adapted for work in the lower end of the Adriatic.
The question of hospital units on this side is being worked out, I believe, very satisfactorily by Dr.Bogert and Dr.Thompson. Bogert thoroughly realizes that we do not want to go beyond probable necessities in this matter, and he has been very conservative in all of his estimates. He believes that there is a disposition to send over quite a number of full hospital units of 500 beds if they should be recommended. This is probably based upon the number of naval men that are on this side without due consideration of the fact that they are scattered in a great many places, and that in many of these places hospital facilities for all, or at least a considerable part of our forces, are available.
As for the hospital ships, they could not be used economically with the American forces exclusively unless they should be used to evacuate the wounded from France when our <army> men begin to be engaged. In the meantime, as I cabled, they would be useful for service as ambulance ships in connection with our battleships and the vessels of the Grand Fleet, thus releasing tonnage which could be usefully employed.
As far as we can see we have nothing particular to fear from the present type of cruising submarines that are out. These are the ones of the Deutschland class, which have a relatively slow speed. They are not nearly so efficient as the ordinary U boats. I have enquired particularly as to the record of the operations of these boats, and I can find almost no instance where they have attacked vessels with their torpedoes. It is certain that there is no instance in which they have even approached and tried to attack a convoy. I think this is readily understood when we consider that these boats are very slow and very poor divers and that they keep away from a convoy for fear she may be accompanied with a highspeed vessel that can attack them with depth charges – either a destroyer or a PQ boat , that they could not see until they made a tolerably close approach. (Note a PQ Boat is a “P” boat that has had her upper works built up to resemble a small coast steamer. They have 18 knots speed, a very strong ramming bow, and a considerable number of depth charges. They have been very successful in both ramming and bombing submarines).
Of course the tactics of a cruising submarine that has a higher speed on the surface, and that may be presumed to be a more rapid diver, might be more dangerous to convoys, but I must say that I have never been able to work up any serious apprehension in this regard.
Our destroyers are now being fitted, as fast as they come up for overhaul, to carry all the way from twentyfour to forty depth charges, dependent upon the position of the after gun. Thiswill enable us to very seriously menace any submarine that is sighted within a mile or so, by encircling him with a very considerable number of depth charges, so that he will have to have very good luck indeed if some of these do not explode very near him.
As you know the 110 ft. boats have turned out to be better sea boats than anybody believed they would be. This means only that they are apparently able to stand any kind of a sea, but it does not mean that they are able to make any progress in a sea that is at all considerable. This makes them very useful as patrol boats or as members of hunting squadrons, but their limitations are such as regards speed, in any considerable weather, that they could not be used for convoys.
As a result of the conference that was held in Rome it was decided to ask the allied Naval Council at its next meeting, which will be March 12th. and 13th. to recommend the dispositions that should be made of these chasers that are coming over. It was pointed out that as one of the greatest danger points in submarines is now inthe Mediterranean, that it would probably be well to send a certain number there of those which first arrive. I was asked if I would agree tp [i.e., to] this, and I replied that I understood that both Great Britain, France and Italy were agreed to this, and that personally I was also in agreement, but that I thought that in all such cases the recommendation should come from the Allied Council, if there was time to place the question before that body. I took this attitude because it is my understanding that this is one of the important functions of the Inter-Allied Naval Council, that is, to recommend the distribution of the allied anti-submarine forces that in the opinion of the Council, will have the maximum effect in opposition to submarines.
Of course I know that in the past, and I suspect even at present, pressure is frequently brought to bear through diplomatic channels to have anti-submarine vessels of various types assigned to this or that country. Of course, it might be dangerous for any particular government to decide upon the employment of these boats in accordance with such recommendations. It therefore seems to me that the best possible resistence [i.e., resistance] to such recommendations is the statement that one of the principal duties of the Inter-Allied Naval Council is to advise the respective governments upon just this particular point.
While at the present writing the details have not yet been all worked out, I think I can assure you that the British Admiralty is in entire agreement with our proposition that American anti-submarine craft that are based on French ports should have their overhaul and docking done in British yards .|15| This will avoid the necessity of either taking over or building up a section of a repair plant in France. This would be particularly difficult because the coal would have to be sent from England, the material would have to be sent from England, and the labor would have to be sent from the United States.
I hope to be able to telegraph you very soon that the above arrangement for repair in British yards has been completed.
If you should have the time to look into the reports that will be forwarded by this mail of an attack made by three American destroyers upon a British submarine, I can promise you that you will be much entertained. It was a very spirited and very well carried out attack on the part of the American destroyers, and their action was so efficient as to make it entirely certain that if it had been an enemy submarine she would inevitably have been destroyed. On the other hand, the manoeuvre of the British submarine in saving his boat was admirable in all respects. As a result of being bombed with depth charges, he came to the surface at an angle of more than 45° and had to blow his tanks to right himself, open his hatches and make recognition signals. In the meantime, he was being fired at by three destroyers, but fortunately no one was hurt. Some of his superstructure was shot away, and one shell dished the pressure hull but no other damage was done. Admiral Bayly very properly complimented both the destroyer captains and the submarine because it was perfectly evident that if it had been an enemy submarine she would have been captured or destroyed, and because the captain of the submarine and his crew, acted with great coolness in sticking to their station and carrying out their orders with the vessel inclined at more than 45°.
There is nothing very definite that can be
settled <said> about the Russian situation either at Petrograd or at Mourmansk. The Admiralty was very desirous that the British, French and American flags should be represented there for the influence that it might have in that part of Russia. I do not think it would require the services of one of our vessels for a long time, but of course that is more or less conjecture.
In regard to your telegram about protecting the vessels laying the mines in the barrage, it of course, goes without saying that all of the vessels engaged in this work must be protected against the possible interference by enemy forces. This is now the common practice on both sides.
Referring to your telegram about the desirability of keeping the Russian battleships in the Baltic and Black Sea, from falling into the hands of the enemy, this has been the subject of continuous preoccupation on the part of the Admiralty. They have agents on the spot who have been standing by to perform this service, either through “agreement” with the Russian officials or through the action of their own people. Just what the method employed would be, will depend upon circumstances; but you may be sure that they will not pass into the hands of the enemy in a condition to perform service if it can possibly be prevented.
Great difficulty has been experienced in the North Sea, and particularly in the Dover Straits, in keeping mines in position. More or less continuous and very heavy weather has dragged some mines out of place and worn out the fastenings of others, so that a very considerable number have become adrift. This applies to the German mines as well as the British, in that neighborhood and in the south end of the North Sea. It is simply an illustration as to the difficulty of maintaining an effective minefield in these areas.
It is an interesting fact that about the beginning of the intensive submarine campaign, the Germans habitually reported the amount of tonnage sunk as about 15% greater than the actual sinkings. This excess has been gradually increasing until they are now reporting the sinkings 75% in excess of what they actually are.
This is undoubtedly for the effect it will have in keeping up the morale of the German people, who are beginning to get impatient because the promisesas to the finishing of the war by the submarine campaign have not been carried out.
We are informed that there are a number of ships in Italy and a number of ships in France that have been in port many months, ostensibly undergoing repairs. In the former country there are said to be six vessels perfectly capable of carrying troops and in the latter country about twenty vessels. It has been suggested that if the United States should call upon these countries for those vessels for the purpose of getting troops and supplies over to the two countries concerned, that we might be able to break them out.
It has been difficult to get any accurate information as to the number and actual condition of these vessels. A British agent is now on atour of all the French ports to collect this information by actual observation.
It seems to me from the various articles in the British Press, which I take pains to read, and from various remarks in Parliament and also the general trend of opinion of people of various classes that I meet, that the British people are becoming convinced that a mistake has been made in concealing from their own population the seriousness of the shipping situation. I know they have proposed
twice to the Allies that the figures of shipping losses, and so forth be published. The difficulty now is that the French object. I have seen a very energetic telegram from Clemenceau objecting to the publication of these figures on account of the alleged effect it would have upon the morale of the French. It is believed that a statement of more or less discouraging conditions would be depressing to the French while the same statement would stiffen up the backbone of the British. However, this may be, the decision at present apparently is not to publish these figures.
Let me refer again to the question of publishing the presence of American battleships with the Grand Fleet. It is known in the British Admiralty that the presence of these vessels was reported to Germany very shortly after they arrived. Many thousands of people have seen them and recognise them by their peculiar masts. There is no doubt whatever that the British authorities very earnestly desire that the presence of these ships should be published to the world in order that this may have the desired effect upon the morale of the man on the street. Of course you know that there is very considerable anxiety as to whether the working and agricultural populations of the British Islands will not show dangerous manifestations of war weariness in the immediate future. The whole question of the best measures to be taken to buck up the morale of these people is now under earnest discussion. Lord Northcliffe has been placed in charge of the propaganda in belligerent countries, and the editor of the DAILY CHRONICLE is to look out for neutral countries. I heard this subject discussed yesterday by these two gentlemen and also by Mr.Rickey who is an American engaged in this same work. There can be no doubt at all as to the seriousness of the situation and as to the anxiety of the British on this subject. It would seem to me therefore that we might lend a hand to the extent of publishing the presence of our battleships with the Grand Fleet.
Yesterday, at the morning conference at the Admiralty, I was informed that a telegram had been received from Vice Admiral Grant at Gibraltar stating that he proposed to intercept the Spanish steamer “RENA VICTORIA EUGENIA” and take from her a person known to be in the service of Germany; that he had designated the BAINBRIDGE for that service there being no other suitable vessel at the station, as the British destroyers were absent on convoy; that Admiral Niblack invited attention to the fact that it would be a violation of international law to take a person from a neutral ship on the high seas. The matter was discussed at the Admiralty and it was explained that the practice has been, at least during the second half of the war, to bring neutral ships into port for the examination of her cargo when they were under suspicion and if any enemy agents were found on board to arrest them while the ship was in port. The Admiralty therefore sent the following telegram to Admiral Grant at Gibraltar:-
“Usual practice is to bring ship in for examination and then discover enemy subject. It is not desirable to remove passengers from neutral ships on the high seas. Until matter has been discussed U.S.A.vessels should not be employed on this service pending further instructions”.
This means that our vessels are not to be employed in intercepting neutral vessels and bringing them into port, much less taking passengers from them on the high seas. It is not at all likely that any similar instance will recur.
I am not without some anxiety as to the success of our naval liaison between the Allied Military council and the Allied Naval Council. At present each country is represented by a naval officer, and in all cases this naval officer is simply the naval attache or the naval representative in Paris. The First Lord is of the opinion that this form of liaison, that is, by a sort of Naval Committee of the above mentioned officers is a clumsy expedient. It was proposed that a single naval officer of such distinction and extended experience as to be acceptable in this capacity, would be more satisfactory in advising the military council on such naval questions as might come up for consideration. Jellicoe’s name was suggested, but nothing has yet come of it. Recently I received a letter from Jackson stating that he had been informed of the above fact by the British representative in Paris and expressing opinion that he did not think it advisable to have a single representative of this kind and the British representative concurred in this opinion. I asked for information on this subject at the Admiralty, and was informed that nothing of the kind was contemplated at present, and that in all probability the suggestion above referred to would not be pursued.
This necessarily brings up the question of the competence of our representative in Paris. Jackson is, as you know, a naval officer of average ability, but has not the necessary training for a position of this kind. It is eminently a place to be occupied by an able officer who has made a study of naval warfare at our college. Independent of this, for some reason or other, Jackson is unpopular with practically all of our people who come in contact with him. I do not know just why this should be, but I do know it to be a fact. Personally, I like Jackson and as far as I know he has always done his best most loyally, but this does not alter the fact that he is not a satisfactory man in that position. I think we should have a live wire. I would suggest Captain Yates Stirling, whose competence and knowledge of warfare is now being wasted in command of a transport. I understand that he is not in favor with the Secretary of the Navy, but I think is [i.e., in] a great war like this the Secretary would not oppose his appointment on this account. If however, he is not available, I would suggest a man of the same type and training. <*See note attached at end.>
The other day Doctors Cannon and Moore, representatives of the Anti-Saloon League of America, presented a letter of introduction from the Secretary, specifying that they were seeking first hand information as to the condition of the naval and military forces on this side, in special reference to the use or abuse of alcohol. They seem to be men having reasonable and not extreme views on this subject. I am giving them letters of introduction that will facilitate carrying their investigations out at all of our bases.
Some of their ideas were however, a little disquieting. They made the familiar argument that strong representations should be made to the Allied Governments that they were not justified in using any grain to make either malt or distilled liquers while we were being called upon to make sacrifices in order to supply grain for this purpose and for feeding the populations.
I tried to make it clear to these gentlemen, that although I sympathized entirely with all movements that have to do with a decrease in the consumption of alcohol, the great majority of the working population of this country, and certainly the vast majority of those in Latin countries, regard a certain amount of alcoholic drink, usually in the form of wines and ales, as a food. This being the case, their opinion on this subject could only by changed through a long period of education, as has been given in the United States.
But I pointed out that in the meantime, this opinion being in the minds of the working population, was a fact of great importance in connection with this war. The importance of the fact is due to the more or less dangerous condition of mind of the working populations in question. There is real anxiety as to whether these working populations behind the armies will hold out, that is, as to whether the war weariness and the intense desire for peace will not cause them to force their governments to make a compromise peace before a victory has been attained. This being the case I expressed the opinion that it would be an exceedingly dangerous and perhaps fatal move on the part of the allied countries to use the power given the Government authorities during war, to wholly prevent the use of alcohol in these countries.
The two gentlemen above referred to seemed really to see the force of this argument, and they expressed themselves as earnestly in favor of doing anything that was possible to end the war by a victory. I explained to them that the abuse of alcohol by the naval personnel on this side, is less than I have ever known it to be under any other conditions of naval service with which I am conversant. I am not able to make any statement in reference to the personnel of the army, though I understand and believe that the same condition pertains with them.
Mr.Forest M.Towl, who has been in consultation with the Admiralty in reference to the advisability of an oil pipe line from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth, has completed his negotiations and has made an agreement with the Admiralty, by which they will furnish the labor for laying the line, except certain expert labor from the United States; that they will supply the pumping machinery, and so forth. The Admiralty expresses in a letter to Mr.Towl, their high appreciation of his services. The line will be capable of pumping a hundred tons of fuel oil per hour, which will entirely obviate the transfer of oil to the vessels of the Grand Fleet and those operating in the North Sea. Mr.Towl leaves on the first available steamer, and will probably be in America as soon as this letter.
He believes that if the labor situation in England would permit them to carry out their share of this work now projected, the line could be in operation by the latter part of July. It is of course a great pity that this could not have been under way months ago.
Very sincerely yours,
In addition to being our U.S.Naval Representative in connection with the supreme allied military conference, many other important duties are gradually developing for the officer in this position. He is also my direct point of contact with General Pershing and has a large organization in France, and the demands for co-ordination with the army are growing daily. Questions arise as to destination of troop and supply ships, arrangement of convoys, delays of ships in ports, and on many other subjects. Jackson is in London today in connection with the meeting of the Supremem Allied Military conference, which is to be held here during the latter part of the week. I understand that a number of questions are coming up which will probably involve the joint discussion and consideration between the military and the naval conference.