Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Destroyers Operating from British Bases, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels

[London] 11th May 1917.

From: Rear Admiral W.S.Sims.

To:   Secretary of the Navy (Operations).

SUBJECT:- CONCERNING MILITARY SITUATION AND ARRIVAL OF 8th.

DESTROYER DIVISION IN BRITISH WATERS.

1. The 8th. Destroyer Division, under command of Commander J.K.Taussig, arrived Queenstown in excellent condition. They had attempted a sea speed of 15 knots, but during about half of the passage were forced to slow to 12 on account of heavy beam seas and water coming aboard. The division stopped on route a total of ten hours for repairs to main condenser of WAINWRIGHT.1

2. An interesting feature in connection with their arrival Is the report that their sailing appeared in Berlin newspapers about four days before their arrival, and also that a field of mines was planted immediately off entrance to Queenstown the day before their arrival. These were the first mines in the immediate vicinity of Queenstown during the previous three months.

3. The Division was met, as per previous arrangement, by British Destroyer and escorted into the harbour through a swept channel.2

4. In view of the historical nature of the arrival of the first American Naval Forces, an official moving picture photographer was sent from the War Office General Staff, London and photographs taken of their arrival and the reception of the officers on shore, as a matter of official record. I shall endeavour to obtain a copy of this film for the Department’s official records.3

5. On arrival in harbour, our Destroyers commenced oiling immediately and the Commanding Officers went ashore and paid official calls to Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commanding British Naval Forces, the General Commanding Military Forces, and the American Consul.4 At the Consulate they were welcomed by the Lord Mayors of Cork and of Queenstown.5 On the following day, the Commanding Officers returned the call of the Lord Mayor of Cork in that city.

6. I am pleased to be able to report the excellent impression given by our officers and the ships and crews under their command. Contact with British Officers made it evident that, owing to their system of specialization, their officers are not as familiar as our officers, with all details of the material with which they work. This apparently results in their being much more dependant upon Navy Yard assistance. Our ships made no demands of consequence, upon the Navy Yard facilities after arrival, in spite of the length of their passage under adverse conditions. The Commander of the Division, when questioned by the Vice Admiral as to when his vessels would be ready for duty, reported that he should be ready that night, as soon as the ships were re-fueled.6 This apparently was a considerable surprise to the Vice Admiral, who then gave four days before taking up active work.

7. The vessels themselves caused a great deal of complimentary comment, and, contrary to expectations, were found to be well equipped for their prospective duty, with the single essential exception of “depth charges”. The Dockyard authorities immediately commenced installation of the latter.7

8. It is a matter of particular note that our vessels in approaching the Harbour created less stern wake and bow wave than the British Destroyer accompanying them. Our officers reported that in coming through the war zone the wake and bow wave of the British Destroyer leading them was very prominent, while on the contrary it was difficult to make out our own vessels.

9. The principal deficiencies in equipment noted so far are:-

(a) An anti-aircraft gun on each destroyer, mounted  aft,

(b) Life rafts as reported by cable, and

(c) Reserve of ammunition.

It is vitally important that spare propellers should be forwarded at the earliest moment. The Engineering Department of the Admiralty here report that the “mortality” of destroyer propellers has been very severe. Spare line and tail shafting8 is now kept on hand for all British Destroyers, and the Engineering Dept. reports that on numerous occasions in the past, the services of vessels would have been lost for very much longer periods of time than actually proved necessary, had it not been for the reserve of shafting on hand. In the absence of spare shafting, it frequently occurs that the stern of a ship can be repaired after damage by mines, grounding or other accidents, considerably quicker than new shafting can be manufactured and supplied.

10. Speaking generally, the impression made by our officers and ships has caused very favourable comment both at their base and in the Admiralty.

11. The Naval Dockyard at Queenstown had practically been abandoned for Naval purposes for some years prior to the outbreak of the war. Its equipment and facilities are therefore very limited. It has a dry dock ample for destroyers, but Liverpool and other repair stations, are within easy striking distance. The British use Berehaven as an advanced base, as it saves a round trip of approximately 150 miles to Queenstown from the destroyer operating area. This is a very important consideration for forces operating to the Westward and Southward of Ireland, not only on account of fuel saved, but also affording more time for rest by the personnel and more opportunity for overhauling. The harbour of Berehaven is defended by nets and shore fortifications and the Admiralty will keep small oilers there, supplied with oil from the main tanks at Queenstown and other locations. All vessels, of course, periodically return to Queenstown for more extended rest and necessary dockyard repairs. A hospital ship will be placed at our disposal at Berehaven.

12. I have considered it vitally important, and in this decision am in complete agreement with both the French and British Admiralties, that our destroyer forces should not only remain concentrated and operate together but, what is more important, that they should remain essential mobile. The destroyer is by far the greatest enemy of the submarine; and I am particularly anxious that our forces should be used to the greatest possible effect in assisting in putting down the enemy submarine campaign. I am prompted in this decision not only because it is manifestly the most effective assistance which we can render at this time to the common cause, but also for the secondary reason that such a course is certain to be productive of the greatest distinction for the U.S.Naval service.

It is therefore my aim, as reported to the Department, to keep our forces, to the extreme possible degree, independant of any shore station, in order that the entire force with its mobile base can be moved at will and follow the centre of enemy submarine pressure.

13. As reported by cable dispatch, the situation remains critical,owing primarily to the enemy submarine campaign.9 The question at issue is, and must remain, the control of our lines of communication. It is of course true that the primary naval mission should always be the destruction of the enemy’s fleet, but this must not blind us to the fact that its destructions may often not be an effective form of pressure in itself, but merely a means to an end.

The only apparent solution to the submarine issue lies in numbers of anti-submarine craft with a view to sufficiently dispersing the enemy submarine effort so that shipping losses will be reduced below the critical point.

14. From the point of view as seen here, and not being fully aware of the Department situation, it is strongly recommended that all of our heavy naval forces, not actually operating against the enemy, be kept in the highest possible state of material repair for distant service, in order that their use, if the opportunity should occur, will not in any way be delayed.

This opportunity may offer at a comparatively early date if negotiations now under way with reference to Norway should result in the entry of that country into the war on the side of the Allies (with the neutrality of Sweden assured),10 and the consequent establishment of a base on the southern coast of Norway with a view to holding the straits and denying their use to German raiders and submarines, and also facilitating allied operations in the Baltic.

The undesirability, from our own point of view, in breaking up the organization of our fleet is fully realised. It seems absolutely necessary however, not to view our forces as an entity in themselves but rather as an integral part of the combined Allied naval forces. From this point of view it would seem essential that we should be prepared to so divide and dispose our forces that they will furnish the maximum possible effect upon the actual situation as a whole.11

15. Numerous propositions are made to the British Admiralty that have for their object the closing of the North Sea or the German ports against the ingress or egress of submarines. These are presented by all classes of people, including members of Parliament.12

They are, generally speaking, of two classes, namely, mines or nets, or both. I have gone over this whole matter with the First Sea Lord and those members of the Admiralty Board who are specially charged with the practical details of such matters.

16. As may well be imagined, this whole subject has been given the most earnest consideration, as it is of course realised that if submarines could be kept from coming out, the whole problem would at once be solved.

17. As a result of this consideration many schemes have been tried. The following is a brief summary of those tried and the difficulties encountered.

18. It has been found that no net will stop a submarine if it is securely anchored at each end. The submarines are fitted with net cutters on the bow and sides, housing periscopes, and strong steel guys from the bow to the tower.

19. But even those not so fitted can steam through a net unless one end is held by a trawler fitted with a winch for slacking off the anchor line.

20. Nets have been fitted with numerous small mines which will blow a hole through a submarine’s side, but as soon as the nature and location of such nets were known, the submarines made a practice of approaching with the periscope out until the surface buoys were sighted, then rising to the surface, running over the buoys, and immediately diving again. An attempt is being made to so fit the buoys that contact with them will explode the mines immediately below.

21. There has been great difficulty in maintaining nets and mines in place. Gales frequently sweep out both, and the enemy mine sweepers are constantly at work destroying them.

22. In some places neither mines nor nets are effective on account of the strong tides. This is particularly the case between the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

23. Mines and nets are very extensively used in the attempt to prevent the ingress and egress of submarines from German Ports and to embarrass their movements, and also in attempting to prevent their passage through the Channel. I have been shown the working charts and have had the various efforts explained to me by Admiral Jellicoe.

24. Generally speaking, the areaenclosed within a line running first N N W, then north, from Texal Island,13 thence in a curve to the eastward to a point north of Horn Reef,14 contains numerous lines and fields of mines. Within this area there are at least thirty thousand mines, and additional ones are being laid at the rate of three thousand a month. The field is now being extended to the Westward and Northward from Texal Island to Broken Bank.15(See chart of The British Islands and North Sea). Some submarines are known to have been destroyed by these mines, but they do not know how many. Some have also been destroyed in the channel; but the difficulty of the problem will be recognised from the fact that the comparatively narrow Dover Strait is not now completely closed to the passage of submarines.

25. This latter illustrates the difficulty of closing such a wide gap as the northern entrance to the North Sea from Kinnard Head16 to Norway. On this line of about 280 miles there is from 80 to over 100 fathoms of water. The number of patrol boats necessary to watch these nets would be very great.

26. As for protecting such a long line, or any line of considerable length, it is of course, physically impossible to do so effectively, and this for the fundamental reason that the defense is stretched out in a long and locally weak line, while the enemy can concentrate an attack at any point of it, destroy the patrol vessels and drag out some sections of the mines or net, thus permitting the passage of any number of submarines.

27. This can be done in as many places as desired and as often as may be necessary, whether the barrier is nets or mines; and it is because of this fundamental principle of a concentrated attack against a point of a necessarily dispersed force that no such barrier can ever be sufficiently effective to prevent the passage of all the submarines the enemy wishes to send out.

28. This is the gist of the whole matter – the physical impossibility of a dispersed force successfully resisting a locally concentrated attack.

(a) Enemy cruiser of considerable gun power can make a hole in any patrol of barrier.

(b) The patrol vessels must retire before such a force, thus permitting a section of mines or nets to be dragged out, and thus defeating the object of the barrier.

(c) It has of course, been proposed to guard a barrier with heavy vessels. This is what Germany hopes Great Britain will do, thus exposing them to torpedo attack and permitting their policy of attrition to be carried out. The British [i.e., German] vessels would also be exposed to similar attack, but the British cannot successfully compete with Germany in torpedo warfare, particularly near the bases of the latter.

      I cannot too strongly emphasize the fact that during nearly three years of actual warfare this whole question has been the most serious subject of consideration by the British Admiralty, and that many schemes of the nature of those in question have been thoroughly discussed, and these considered practicable – those which do not violate a fundamental principle – have been, or are now being, tried and extended; but the point is that no barrier can be completely effective; and, unfortunately, a barrier, or system of barriers, such as mines, etc., needs only to be slightly ineffective to permit continuous passage without much loss of submarines.

29. It is in view of the above and of the large amount of supporting evidence obtained that I have so urgently recommended that our primary military effort should be concentrated in getting the maximum number of anti-submarine craft of all description into the enemy’s main area of activity.

Nets, barriers,and similar methods can never be entirely effective but only palliative. The submarine must always be opposed in its field of action, and the most effective opposition discovered to date is numbers of anti-submarine craft.

The difficulty at the present time is lack of such craft.

W.S. Sims     

Source Note: TLS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517.

Footnote 1: On the arrival of this destroyer division at Queenstown, see: Diary of Commander Joseph K. Taussig, 3 May 1917. As seen in a note at that document, there is some question as to the destroyer that had to make repairs.

Footnote 2: H.M.S. Mary Rose.

Footnote 3: This film can be viewed at the Imperial War Museum, in London, England. “The Arrive of the advanced guard,” Imperial War Museum, Accessed 25 April 2017, http://film.iwmcollections.org.uk/record/index/47297/3872?stillsgrid_47297_3872_s_e_Record_page_media_stillsgrid_interval=5&stillsgrid_47297_3872_s_e_Record_page_media_stillsgrid_page=8.

Footnote 4: Brig. Gen. St. John; Wesley Frost. For a fuller account of these proceedings, see: Frost to Robert Lansing, 8 May 1917.

Footnote 5: The Lord Mayor of Cork was Thomas C. Butterfield; it was the Resident Magistrate of Queenstown, Walter Callan, who greeted them. Taussig, Queenstown Patrol: 21.

Footnote 6: On Taussig’s statement, which has been rendered variously including “we are ready now,” see: Diary of Joseph K. Taussig, 4 June 1917.

Footnote 7: The installation of depth charge apparatus is noted in Taussig’s diary entry of 6 May 1917, RNW, Joseph K. Taussig Papers, Mss. Coll. 97, Naval Historical Collection. He later wrote that “most of us had not even heard that there were such things.” Taussig, “Destroyer Experiences,” 45. The depth charges were placed on the stern and were released by a hydraulic system operated from the bridge. Ibid. According to Seaman Charles Blackford who served on McDougal, another destroyer in Taussig’s division, that vessel was in service for over a month in the war zone without depth charges. Blackford, Torpedoboat Sailor: 85.

Footnote 8: The line shaft was the main propeller shaft on a destroyer; the tail shaft was the short section extending through the stern tube that carried the propeller.

Footnote 10: Norway never declared war on Germany though it has been called a “neutral ally” of the Allied Powers. International Encyclopedia of World War I, “Norway.”

Footnote 11: Sims was advocating a departure from the principles of Alfred Thayer Mahan that had guided principles of the United States Navy since Mahan published his influential sea-power studies in the 1890s. Still, Crisis at Sea: 8.

Footnote 12: This and succeeding paragraphs were a reply to: Daniels to Sims, 11 May 1917. Also, see: Alexander L. Duff to Dudley De Chair, 13 May 1917.

Footnote 13: That is, Texel Island, which is just off the coast of the Netherlands and is part of that nation.

Footnote 14: Horns Rev (also known as Horns Reef) is a shallow area in the eastern North Sea, about 10 miles off the westernmost point of Denmark.

Footnote 15: Broken Bank is just off Lowenstoft, England.

Footnote 16: That is, Kinnaird Head, which is on the east coast of Scotland.

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