Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Destroyers Operating from British Bases, to Rear Admiral Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation

1st.May 1917.

My dear Palmer,

     I have been up against it too hard to be able to write you the letter that I had been intending to write ever since I arrived.

     You have doubtless seen the cables that I have been sending in. They must have surprised you as much as their necessity surprised me. Until I arrived here and the Admiralty laid the cards on the table and showed me their full working maps of the submarine campaign, I did not realize how serious the situation really is. There is nothing that I could do to accentuate what I have said in the cables. Each week that has passed has shown the situation to be, on the whole, more serious, until it finally culminated in one week in a rate of destruction of shipping of nearly a million tons a month.1 You can do a little sum and convince yourself that if this is not checked, the Allies could not win – or at least, could not win within any reasonable space of time.

     It is for this reason that I have been advocating the sending to this side of every available destroyer capable of reaching the coast of Ireland, and as many patrol boats in addition, as possible.

     I am afraid, of course, that this would appear extravagant, and I have no doubt that it did, but I hope that now our people have had a talk with the British and French Commissions, they will realize that my accounts have not been in any degree exaggerated.

     Of course, the Allies will need all of the shipping that it is possible to supply them in the future, but the point is, that if the submarine menace is not checked in the immediate future, this may be too late.

     I am delighted to know that in addition to Taussig’s division, six more boats are to leave in a few days and six more somewhat later with their supply and auxiliary vessels. This force will certainly have considerable effect.2 I have been insisting also that this force should remain as a unit based on the port nearest the activities of the submarines, and that it should not be cut up and spread all over the Allied countries. I am therefore naturally much pleased that they have been put under my general command so that they may be as self-sustaining as possible as regards both supplies and repairs.3 This latter feature is of importance on account of the great strain that has now been brought both on repairs and supplies in the British Isles.

     I had made all preparations to meet Taussig’s force at Queenstown when I unfortunately received an invitation to go to Windsor this afternoon and remain until tomorrow.4 However, I will go later and have a yarn with the gang.

     The Vice Admiral in command at Queenstown was brought to London to confer over the situation and I had a consultation with him in the presence of the First Sea Lord.5 I have been warned that this official is a peculiarly difficult one to get along with, but I have been assured that upon the first sign of any friction that would interfere with efficiency, the cause will be removed.

     Of course, I have had conferences with the French Rear-Admiral who is the Naval Attaché here, and I am glad to say that he entirely agrees with my view as to our Force remaining concentrated in some particular area.6

     A few days ago, Sayles came on from Paris to bring me word that the French Minister of Marine, Admiral Lacaze, wished to have a consultation with me on the general submarine situation.7 I could not go down at the time because of important negotiations that were going on here, but I propose to do so as soon as possible. Admiral Jellicoe is going down and he wanted me to “happen” to be in Paris at the same time. He proposed going in a week or so, but I was informed today that he is going almost immediately. Perhaps it will be necessary for me to go also and defer the trip to Queenstown.8 The point is that we want to prevent if possible, any question of sentiment dividing our Destroyer Force and separating the bulk of it from its repair and supply facilities.

     Of course, you have seen all of the various criticism which have been inflicted upon the Admiralty for its lack of success in opposing the submarines. They are now building types of vessels and supplying them with types of guns that are specially designed for this opposition. Their method of bringing in shipping is, and has been, up to the present time, based upon dispersion. This has not been very successful because of the practical difficulties of communicating with incoming vessels in order to warn them away from the most dangerous areas.

     When I first came I made enquiries as to the possibilities of convoys for merchant vessels. There were of course, various opinions upon this point but they were not based upon any systematic study. I asked that such a study be made and it has just been completed. I was shown this study the day before yesterday and it appeared to me to be entirely practicable. Yesterday, there was a great Conference at the Admiralty in which the Prime Minister took part, and I was informed to-day that the convoy for merchant vessels has been accepted in principle.9 Last night I happened to be present at a dinner of only eight men, including Mr.Lloyd George, Lord Milne and Sir Edward Carson, the First Lord. They all expressed their belief in the question of convoy.10 This question is very attractive to the public because they imagine that the British Navy is without limits and that all vessels can be adequately convoyed. They do not know that there are not enough available vessels in the British Navy to carry out this work, and they will require some assistance from us. Of course, if convoy is adopted it means that the Cruisers now trying to catch the occasional raider will be diverted to this purpose.

     Within a few days an experimental convoy will leave Gibraltar for England and this will give us some more reliable data.11

     The opinion has been expressed here in England that no very adequate means is possible for opposing the submarines. We know by experience, that any particular area that is patrolled by destroyers is practically immune, but of course, there are not, and never can be, enough destroyers for this purpose. The submarine can be driven out of inclosed area and to operate much farther from the coast and therefore where incoming vessels are less closely converged; but, there are those who believe that the question of commerce in war will not be adequately solved until a class of vessels are built that will be practically immune to the attack of submarines.

     These would be of about the same character of design as the monitors that have been built for operations against the coast of Belgium. That is to say, the under-body of the vessels would include on each side a very large bulb to be filled with water or fuel oil, the latter separated from the main body of the ship by two vertical bulkheads and cargo space of the vessel to be numerously sub-divided by transverse bulkhead. They are talking of building a dozen such vessels, each with a carrying capacity of 40,000 tons of grain. It is estimated by the Constructors that it would require at least six torpedo heads on one side to sink such a vessel.12

     These are only a few of the things that I would like to write you about. However, everything important I have had to say has been contained in the numerous cablegrams.

     Needless to say, my reception on this side has been everything that could be desired and every facility has been placed at my disposal for getting information. I have been given information, for example, about submarines, of the very most confidential character, but of course, I am not a specialist in either engineering or naval construction or <modern details of> marine gunnery, and that is why I have been recommending that experts in all these specialties be sent over here to get information, now that everything is wide open. There is work here for many men, but with three or four good experts we could unload more information in a few months than you could otherwise get in a decade.13

     As soon as I was appointed to the command of the Destroyer Forces on this side I at once applied for a Chief of Staff and another Aide, and I hope that these will be accorded me without delay, because I believe that the Department will see the necessity of my having their assistance.14

     We are remaining as cheerful as possible under the circumstances and I hope that the same may be said of the gang at the Department.

very sincerely yours,


P.S. Please present my respects to Secretary Daniels and say for me that I am deeply sensible of the honor of this important command.

     I hope the necessity of sending extra officers and men is appreciated. The work will be very strenuous, especially for officers, and we should be able to keep full complements, especially of officers. The British boats carry more officers than ours – assuming ours have but four.15

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 77. Addressed before opening: “Rear-Admiral L.C.Palmer,/Chief of Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department,/Washington D.C.” There is a handwritten note at the top of the first page that says “File,” so this may have been a copy retained by Sims for his personal file. The words and letter in angle brackets were handwritten in the margins as interlineations.

Footnote 1: That was the week ending 22 April 1917. See: Sims to Josephus Daniels, 27 April 1917. Sims’ alarm had an effect in Washington. On 2 May the General Board of the Navy reported to Daniels that “sub-marine warfare [situation was] critical & action must be taken at once” and that “destroyers, trawlers, mines, tugs &c” be sent overseas “at once.” 2 May 1917, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, Roll 1.

Footnote 2: Sims wrote a note in the margin here that reads: “I have just heard that 18 more are coming over or 36 in all. That is great stuff and will surely have a marked effect upon the Hun Subs.”

Footnote 4: Sims was invited to meet King George V of England on 2 May. Sims described his visit in a letter to his wife of the same day. He wrote that he had “a fine time” and had “a long talk with the king after dinner— more than half an hour.” Sims added:

He is a real sailor and very well informed. We smoked cigarettes and discussed all features of the submarine campaign just like two naval officers. He is a fluent and energetic talker and has very unusual vivacity — much more like a Frenchman than an Englishman[.] Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 2 May 1917, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers.

Footnote 5: VAdm. Sir Lewis Bayly. Commander, Coast of Ireland, and First Lord of the Admiralty Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe. For more on this meeting, see: Sims to Joseph K. Taussig, 29 April 1917.

Footnote 6: Adm. Maurice-Henri Baron Mercier de Lostende.

Footnote 7: Cmdr. William R. Sayles and Adm. Marie-Jean-Lucien Lacaze. For more on this request, see: Sayles to Daniels, 28 April 1917.

Footnote 8: Sims sent a cable reporting on his meeting with Jellicoe and the French naval leadership from France on 5 May 1917. See: Sims to Navy Department, 5 May 1917.

Footnote 10: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George; Alfred Milner, First Viscount Milner, a member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet; Sir Edward H. Carson, First Lord of the British Admiralty. To his wife, Sims gave a fuller description of this meeting, writing:

Lloyd George said he and the First Lord (Carson) had been discussing it with the Admiralty today and that he was much in favor of it. And, turning to me, he said: “You are responsible for this.” Let us hope that it proves successful! Sims to Anne Hitchcock Sims, 30 April 1917, DLC-MSS, Sims Papers.

Footnote 11: This first experimental convoy of merchant vessels left Gibraltar on 10 May, and arrived safely in England on 22 May. Halpern, Naval History of World War I: 360.

Footnote 12: No evidence has been found that such vessels were ever built.

Footnote 14: On 30 April, Sims sent a request for Capt. William V. Pratt to be sent to London as Sims’ Chief of Staff and several other officers to be sent to him as aides. Naval Investigation, 1: 206.

Footnote 15: For more on the additional need for officers. See: John V. Babcock to Daniels, 4 May 1917.