Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Destroyers Operating from British Bases, to Anne Hitchcock Sims

[Extract]

Admiralty House,

Queenstown.1

May 18, 1917

Dear Nani:

This has been another busy but very interesting day. This morning at ten I had all the captains onboard the division flagship to explain the nature of their work and tell them how I wanted it carried out. Then Admiral Bayly and I went to the Conyngham (Alfred Johnston’s ship) to arrange about some “splinter mattresses” for the protection of the bridge – to decide on the plan for the protection of the bridges of all our destroyers.2 Then we went to visit a “mystery” ship, that is, a merchant ship fitted with concealed guns and torpedoes for attacking submarines that attack her under the impression that she is common merchantman.3 After that I attended to some business in connection with the men’s club house we intend to build.4 Then tea at 5 and a bit of a rest before dinner.

But I forgot to tell you about the beginning of the day. We have breakfast at 9 in the English fashion. . . . After breakfast Babby went off at once to visit some of the destroyers, and the Admiral, Miss Voysey, his niece, and I made the tour of the gardens and visited the flowergardens, kitchen gardens, greenhouses, etc.5. . . They are absolutely devoted to each other. He is a man of about 60, of medium height – and slender. . . He is a very cultivated and well read man and a very able Admiral, but an eccentric character. I have not asked anybody any questions about him, but as far as I know he has no wife or children and never had any.6 He fairly hates any parade or show or function.  Has never had his photo published and never will. A prominent London paper asked for a photo of him and me shaking hands, and he told us of his reply, which was very amusing. He has a keen sense of humor and a whimsical turn of mind. As the French say: Il sait le mot pour rire.7 As soon as he gets to know you a bit, he unbends and becomes the most companionable of men. He is the kind of man I would like to live near so that I could see as much of him as possible- and you know there are only few men I care much to be with. He is cynical about many things. He apparently cares little or nothing about what people think of him. Today he he wore a more than threadbare uniform, a pair of boots shapeless and cracked at the side and the lace on his sleeves was nearly in tatters and brown with age. . . He is brusk and sometimes rude in manner and speech, but he is really allheart, and those who know him are very fond of him. I make the guess that he gives nearly everything away to the poor. He allows half a dozen cows of very poor people to pasture in part of the admiralty grounds. He gives the poor (and Queenstown is very poor) nearly all the product of his kitchen gardens.  His affection for his niece is very touching, and she is worthy of it; for she is a very admirable woman. She appears about 30 or less and is very pretty and attractive.  She is a little scrap of a woman and girlish in appearance but a strong and “masterful” character, as the Admiral says. She is devoted to her uncle. She not only manages his big house, but has organized the town and directed its war work – a difficult task, as Ireland is very anti-British. She has shamed them into doing something. Some time ago she got some of the ladies to subscribe about ₤30 to provide the crews of submarine victims (and many are landed here) with coffee, bread, tobacco, etc., when they were landed and before leaving for the regular stations at Liverpool. A party of 68 landed on the day I arrived here, and as she gave a dinner for the captains that Evening, she had to call upon the vice president to look out for them. The latter was such a fine lady that she kicked up a row about it, said the relief organization was not necessary, etc. In this she was supported by several other ladies. The Admiral at once took a hand, sent their subscriptions back to them, disbanded the organization and he and Miss V. now attended to the refugees themselves. The next day another party was brought in and the Admiral and Miss V. attended to them in person – served them with coffee, etc. had a chat with each of them, and helped wash the dishes and put them away. You would find Miss Voysey a woman after your own heart. She has a great admiration for the fine things in character and courage – and so has the Admiral, though he frowns down on any show of emotion over the deeds and sufferings of this war. He says we must accept everything with a stout back and not waste energy by giving away to our feelings. He fairly loves his competent captains, especially those who have the nerve to command the “mystery” ships.

     Last night his niece asked him to tell of the wireless message he received from one of his most successful captains who had won many honors. This captains ship had been torpedoed in a fight with a submarine. He sent this signal “am slowly sinking. Goodbye: I did my best.”8 This was related in the most matter of fact way, and without any comment but I could see that the Admiral shut his teeth hard and his cheeks twitched for a moment; and then he went on to talk of something else, and soon was chatting and making fun. As for me, I could not have spoken at all for some minutes. He says that this war is vastly improving human character.

     At dinner tonight there was one other guest a Captain Marks.9 He is 66, and has gray hair and a white beard. He was a Rear Admiral on the retired list when the war broke out. He applied for active service and is now in command of a “mystery” ship.  He has sunk a number of submarines and has been decorated for bravery and skill. He cruises looking for a fight with submarines for 8 days and in port 4.

     It is impossible to overestimate the spirit of these people.  Also their gratitude for our coming into the war.

And these wretched Irish are traitorously Anti-British and anti civilization! They say it is not their war. They are ignorant beyond comprehension.10

I am very glad to be of service in this cause – and so, I am sure, are you. This will help you through the trials of moving to a new house. I hope it did not tire you too much, and that you are comfortable.

Good night, my darling

     Your loving Will.

Source Note: ALS, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers.

Footnote 1: This header is printed on the top right on each page of the document.

Footnote 2: Arriving in Queenstown Royal Navy Officers pointed out that the bridges of the United States Destroyers proved vulnerable to the warfare and weather seen in the waters surrounding the British Isles.  While more extensive improvements, (such as enclosing the partially open bridge,) would wait months until the destroyers put into dry dock for overhaul, immediate measures such as the application of splinter mattresses prepared the ship for service. Splinter mattresses fortified the bridge against shrapnel or flying debris resulting from gun and torpedo fire. The mattresses could also be detached as emergency floatation devices if the ship was in danger of sinking. Still, Crisis at Sea: 310-311. John Wilber Jenkins, Our Navy’s Part In the Great War (New York; John Eggers 1919), 25.

Footnote 3: Also known as Q-ships, the Q short for Queenstown, decoy ships, or special service ships, “mystery” ships were warships disguised as merchant vessels that lured submarines to the surface and engaged them at close range.  By the time the United States entered the conflict, the reinstitution of unrestricted submarine warfare and higher German awareness of their methods caused mystery ships to decline in effectiveness. Still, Crisis at Sea: 475.

Footnote 4: Admiral Sims, believed strongly in the need of a men’s club to provide recreation for the men.  After leasing a building and adjacent lots on the Queenstown waterfront, the club opened on August 25. 1917. It was operated by the crew of the destroyer tender Melville and funded by sales of ship stores, as well as proceeds from the club’s restaurants and canteens. The club would continue to be a focus of Sims and the future ranking American at Queenstown, Captain Joel Pringle. Still, Crisis at Sea: 250-251.

Footnote 5: Babby is John V. Babcock, Sims’s assistant, the Admiral is Vice Admiral Lewis Bayly (Title), his niece Violet Mary Annesley Voysey.

Footnote 6: On his letter of 21 May to Anne Sims, Sims reported that Admiral Bayly had a wife, whom he had recently divorced, reportedly after she had a lengthy problem with drugs. Bayly’s wife was a Voysey, and Bayly’s niece, Violet came from her family. William Sims to Anne Sims, 21 May 1917, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 9.

Footnote 7: A French idiom that directly translates to “He knows the word for laugh,” but is a French idiom that suggests Bayly is a pleasant person to be around.

Footnote 8: The story refers to the sinking of HMS Farnsborough under Cmdr Gordon Campbell.  U-83 torpedoed the Farnsborough, a Q-Ship, on 17 February 1917.  The U-boat surfaced and Campbell’s vessel sunk the attacker with her guns. Following the demise of the submarine, Farnsborough was left sinking, and Campbell sent a wireless message, “Q5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you good-bye.”  In the left margin of this document, Sims provides the correct ending of the story “I am glad to say that help came in time and his brave captain was saved and his ship brought in.  He now has another and is carrying on the same dangerous work.  When Bill and Ethan (and the girls) get old enough to understand, we will tell them about these brave men.” Newbolt, Naval Operations Vol. IV: 357-358.

Footnote 9: John Locke Marx, then commanding the Q-Ship H.M.S. Aubrieta (Q13).  Marx had reached the rank of Admiral on the retired list, but accepted a temporary rank of commander in the Royal Navy Reserves early in the war, serving as a temporary Captain at the time of the letter.

Footnote 10: Sims was critical of the Irish, particularly Irish Republicans and their main political arm Sinn Fein. This strained relationship continued even after the Americans departed from Queenstown and resulted in controversy first when Sims published attacks on Sinn Fein in his memoir of the war “The Victory at Sea,” and again when on 7 June 1921, in London he attacked the Irish Republicans’ American supporters in his infamous “Jackass Speech,” calling them “asses,” and tarring them as anti-American culpable in the deaths of American sailors. The remarks caused a short uproar in Washington, and a longer lasting tension between the Admiral and Irish-Americans. In “Victory at Sea” Sims justifies his criticisms of Irish Republicans by referring to their poor treatment of American sailors.  While it is true American personnel and Sinn Fein supporters had a hostile relationship, particular in the summer and fall of 1917, Sims dismal view of the Irish is apparent in this letter before any incidents between the groups occurred.  Sims, Victory at Sea: 69; and Morison, Admiral Sims: 482.

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