Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Rear Admiral Albert P. Niblack, Commander, United States Patrol Squadron Based at Gibraltar
May 23rd. 1918.
My dear Nibs,
Your recent letter just received and I note what you say concerning the difficulties at Gibraltar.1 I can assure you that I realize them very thoroughly and they will be rectified just as soon as it is possible to do so.
The Navy Department has supplied me with a paper alibi which prevented me from sending three destroyers to the Mediterranean to co-operate with the chasers in hunting the submarines at the neck of the bottle where they come in and out.2 The destroyer program is dreadfully behind time. According to really official predictions, we should have actually over here between thirty and forty destroyers now, and we will probably not get more than sixty or seventy before the end of the year. We were to have twenty Ford boats per month after June, and now we are informed that we will get twenty only before the end of the year
The necessity for faster destroyers in the Mediterranean to assist the convoys is painfully apparent, but they are simply not available. The fifty odd troop ships that are now coming in, not counting the great number of supply ships, or the four or five big vessels that are running independently,inside a month for the round trip, are straining all our destroyers up here to the utmost. Actually vessels ready to sail for America have to lose time in port waiting for escorts to take them through the zone. The number of destroyers escorting merchant convoys have been cut down away below the safety mark, so much so that the submarines no longer fear to attack them. When the convoys were much less numerous we were able to supply enough destroyers to make it so dangerous that the submarines practically abandoned attacks on convoys and went into inland waters to operate on stragglers, split up convoys, and vessels bound for rendezvous ports. It is since we have been obliged to reduce these escorts that the submarines have now moved out and are attacking the convoys. Of three of them that came in in one day all were successfully attacked. On top of this I am informed that the Department expects me to further reduce the escorts supplied merchant vessels in order to make the safety of the troops absolute. This is what I call a paper alibi. We all know that it is not possible to make any convoy absolutely safe.
The above to show you what we are up against.
I think that something could be done to see that ships are coaled on the other side so as to require as little as possible on this side. We have been insisting upon this for many years, so to speak, but the trouble is we have not sufficient authority over these vessels.
As for chasers, we know from experience that they are very unsafe as escorts for convoys. They are all right as long as the sea remains smooth, but when it comes on a bit of a blow, although the chasers are perfectly safe as regards sea worthiness, they cannot make speed enough to keep up with even a slow convoy, and this places the convoy in great danger. We have therefore forbidden anybody to use them for this purpose. Moreover, they have been specially designed for hunting submarines in connection with destroyers, and naturally, they should be so employed in those waters where all of the submarines must pass in order to get at their prey. It may be that when all of the chasers are over here, it will be advantageous to assign some of them to Gibraltar for hunting purposes.
Very sincerely yours,
Rear Admiral A.P.Niblack, U.S.N.
There is one other subject that I want to try and clear up. Two or three times you have telegraphed for authority to do certain things, for example, to transfer officers, without giving any reasons why it should be done. We have in most cases telegraphed back asking for your reasons. I don’t want you to think that we do this because we are the least bit touchy about things being done without specific authority. That is not the reason at all. It is that we are acting under very stringent general orders from Washington, particularly on this business of the transfer of officers. They have been after me several times about it. The consequence is that I need reasons why you want officers transferred so that I can explain to the Department when they find fault with me. Therefore, in future when you want to do anything please do not economise on cables but give me the whole song and dance so that I will be in a position promptly to explain matters to the Department if they wish it.
Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 79.
Footnote 1: See: Niblack to Sims, 21 May 1918.
Footnote 2: For more on the destroyer orders from the Navy Department and Sims’ dissatisfaction, see: William S. Benson to Sims, 13 May 1918, and Sims to Benson, 16 May 1918.