Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels

15th November 1917.

From:  Force Commander.

To:    Secretary of the Navy (Operations)

Subject:  General Report.

       I. ENEMY SUBMARINE ACTIVITIES.

       During week ending 5 November from seven to eleven large enemy submarines were operating away from their base of which from four to eight were actually operating at any one time in the Atlantic.

       One submarine is operating in the Arctic and one in the vicinity of Cape Verde Islands. The last named torpedoed two Brazillian steamers at anchor off St. Vincent on 2nd November.1

       The new cruiser type submarine which has now been away from her base for nine weeks, is still at work on the north-west coast of Africa. Her operations have been met by diversion of traffic, particularly convoys from Dakar and also a French submarine force is searching for her. It has been <i>mpossible so far to estimate her maximum speed as the maximum speed of any she has attacked on the furface [i.e., surface] to date has been twelve knots.2

          Activity in the North Atlantic Waters was small, in fact practically none in open waters. The principal activity was on the Yorkshire Coast of.England, in the Irish Sea and in the English Channel

          The following table gives particulars of the enemy activities:-

 

AREA           Average No.           AREA        Average no.

               of s/ms in                        of s/ms in area

               area per day                      per day.

North Sea S.       _              Irish Sea and      1

of 53°30'          4              Bristol Channel

N.W. of Ireland   1 – 2           English Channel

                                  and approaches    2 – 2

 

S.W. of Ireland    1              Bay of Biscay     1 – 2

Atlantic          2 – 3

Decrease in the past fortnight of the number of enemy submarines operating at sea has been marked. Definite evidence as to the underlying cause of this phase of the submarine campaign is, of course, lacking. The most reasonable explanation is that the intensified efforts put forward in October could not be maintained. As has frequently been discussed in these reports the submarine, as a type, is subject to even more material limitations than surface craft, and this furnished at least one fact on which to base our estimates of enemy’s submarine capabilities.

At one time during the month of October it was estimated that the enemy was employing fully 60% of his seagoing submarines – a condition which manifestly could not be maintained. Intelligence information during the past fortnight indicates that an unusually large number of seagoing submarines have left their bases and returned in a few days without having reached their operating grounds, no doubt due to hasty repairs and an attempt to force them beyond their material capabilities. The personnel situation must be equally, if not more, serious to the enemy than it is to us with new construction coming on. The enemy faces the necessity of either utilizing inexperienced personnel or transferring experienced personnel from older craft to the new. With the winter coming on and the ice problem in the Baltic, the enemy will certainly be greatly restricted in training new personnel at sea.3

  Evidence indicates that large seagoing submarines have recently been escaping through the Channel in spite of efforts to intercept them. This means, of course, a great saving to them in fuel expenditure.

Reports of eleven encounters with enemy submarines have been received as follows:

2 by destroyers              

2 by submarines (enemy submarines torpedoed in both cases)

3 by auxiliary patrol

1 by aircraft

1 by service ship

2 by merchant vessels.

     There is forwarded herewith report concerning submarine activity obtained by a staff representative at the French Ministry of Marine.4

MINELAYING BY SUBMARINES.

The week’s experience with submarine mine laying again confirms the fact that the enemy is scattering his mines very much more widely than heretofore. This new policy entails much more work for sweepers, but whether the risks to shipping will prove greater than, or even as great, as when passing through thickly mined areas that can be swept more thoroughly is an open question.

Evidence indicates that the enemy is now using a delay release on his mines which involves as much as a four day interval between the time of laying and the release of the mine. The principal activity was experienced off the south-east coast of England, off Beachy Head and the Needles. Fifty-six mines During the same week the French report that eighteen mines were discovered on their coast and that no ships were injured or destroyed by mines.

3. CONVOY STATISTICS

There is forwarded herewith table of statistics concerning mercantile vessels in organized convoy to November 3rd.

4.  DESTROYER FORCE BASED ON QUEENSTOWN.

MEDICAL STAFF FOR TRAINING BARRACKS.

As reported by cable, there is on board the DIXIE a complete medical field outfit except tentage for 1,000 men, this being in addition to the DIXIE’S medical equipment. This outfit being available for use at the Training Barracks no medical supplies were asked for. If, however, it is desired that this outfit be retained for other contingencies, the necessary medical supplies and equipment sufficient for handling 1,000 men should be furnished from the United States.

While there are a number of medical officers now serving in the flotilla whose services could be utilized in connection with the barracks, all these officers are young and inexperienced and therefore, as the senior medical officers of the MELVILLE and DIXIE are both fully occupied, it is considered necessary to send from the United States at least one senior medical officer of experience for duty in connection with the barracks.5

SHAW: BURROWS and AMMEN.

Destroyers continue their overhaul periods as previously reported. The SHAW, BURROWS and AMMEN are at present at Cammell Lairds Liverpool.6

BENHAM.

The BENHAM is still experiencing delays in connection with her turbines. It is hoped that she will be ready for duty by 15 November.

BALCH and DOWNES.

By direction of Admiral Benson, the BALCH and DOWNES which accompanied the HUNTINGTON and ST. LOUIS will be retained with the European forces. The WALKE and PERKINS will be sent home in their stead.

LEAVE PARTIES.

Leave parties are being sent to London from the MELVILLE and DIXIE and also from the destroyers under overhaul at Liverpool.

NEWSPAPER CORRESPONDENTS.

Two newspaper correspondents have rece<n>tly arrived from the United States with various letters of recommendation. By arrangement with the Admiralty these gentlemen were allowed to proceed to Queenstown and actually take passage at sea on destroyers.

Mr. Connolly, the writer, has just finished a similar tour in the flotilla and a number of his articles will be forwarded to the Department as soon as possible for censorship before release. They will be submitted to the British Admiralty Censor before being sent.7

5.  FORCES BASED ON FRENCH COAST.

Copies of reports of operations of the forces based on the French coast for week ending 2 November together with certain other reports are forwarded herewith. Also report of availability of vessels.

The French Ministry of Marine reports a marked increase in mine laying on the French Coast during week ending November 4, mines particularly having been located in the channels north and south of Brest harbor. Evidence indicates that at least two submarines, probably each equipped with eighteen mines, made a tour of the west coast of France within this period and it is probably one of these which sank the ALCEDO.8

Admiral Wilson is planning to organize a mine sweeping squadron and place it under command of an experienced officer of our own force. He plans to station this squadron inthe vicinity of Quiberon Bay for the purpose of clearing the passage for storeships to and from St. Nazaire. This officer will in no way supercede the naval port officer at St. Nazaire, but as senior U.S.Naval officer in the vicinity he will act as direct representative of Admiral Wilson and will exercise general supervision over all naval vessels in that vicinity.

It is believed that the only reliable means of guaranteeing safety to our troop and troop supply ships from mines is to place the problem in the hands of our own forces. The French apparently rely largely for their mine information upon observations made by aircraft. The French forces available to date have not been sufficient to maintain daily sweeping operations. Every effort will be put forward to ensure a channel clear of mines immediately preceding the arrival of each convoy.9

6. FORCE BASED ON GIBRALTAR.

There is forwarded herewith report of operations received from Gibraltar dated 27th October.

Rear Admiral Niblack arrived in London November 12th and will depart for Gibraltar about the 16th instant.10

7. FORCES BASED ON AZORES.

Copy of a report dated October 10 submitted by the senior officer present at the Azores direct to the Department has been received.

It is considered very necessary that the negotiations with the Portuguese Government should be prosecuted with a view to improving the co-operations between our forces and the local Portuguese authorities. It is noted in the report from the Azores that Portuguese authorities do not co-operate freely with out [i.e., our] forces and in fact withhold military information from them. Furtherm that great difficulty is experienced in arranging for stowage on shore for necessary supplies and an entirely unnecessary amount of red tape is involved in handling and actually obtaining the supplies for use. It is noted that before gasoline could be landed the local authorities considered it necessary to communicate with Lisbon. These are intolerable conditions. The question of military control should be definitely cleared up. It is also noted that our senior officer at the Azores has been informed by the local authorities that the Portuguese themselves are planning to protect the harbor with nets.

8. INCREASED STAFF.

The necessity for an increased staff grows daily. As previously reported, practically the entire time of the present staff is now taken up with administrative work which cannot be avoided and for which the staff is inadequate. It is realized that the Department depends to a considerable extent upon this organization to furnish it with complete information of the progress of the war upon which its plans must be largely based.

The British Admiralty has been severely criticized for not having an efficient policy and particularly for not having plans projected sufficiently into the future to forestall enemy plans. Without going into the merits of these criticisms at all, and viewing the problem from our point of view alone, the question is a serious one as to the best means of insuring our efficient participation in combined naval plans for the future. In view of the vital element of time, and of the impossibility of efficiency formulating combined plans at long range, the most efficient course for us is believed to be the assignment of a force of capable officers to actually participate with the Admiralty in the preparation of all plans.

The decision on our part in regard to all plans must of necessity remain in the Navy Department where the ultimate responsibility rests and where all information bearing upon our participation is available.

The point that it is desired to stress, however, is that with the present staff here, it is entirely impossible to keep the Department informed fully of the progress of the war, and particularly to assist it in the formulation of plans for the future.11

9. MAIL CENSORSHIP – AUXILIARY CRAFT.

The British censorship authorit<i>es have recently stopped a number of letters written from naval auxiliary craft which have been improperly censored. This refers to craft under naval charter such as the Gargoyle, STANDARD ARROW and others.12 It is recommended that steps be taken to inform the masters of such vessels concerning censorship regulations. 10. GENERAL.    It is understood that the development by the Admiralty of the so-called “Fish” hydrophone, that is, a hydrophone towed astern, from which a reasonable degree of accuracy can be obtained in ascertaining direction, has proven very satisfactory and that during the present month a few flotillas of trawlers so equipped will start searching operations as close as possible off enemy bases. Such activities will, of course, be restricted by the inadequate number of vessels available.|13|

A limited number of destroyers will be assigned to these trawler search flotillas, keeping in touch with them by radio in order that they may take advantage of any information obtained.

       11. SHIPPING SITUATION.

       The Diplomatic Mission now in England is thoroughly investigating the general shipping situation and complete reports will eventually be submitted.|14|

       The Force Commander has detailed one of his staff to work in conjunction with the shipping representatives of the above mission, both to assist them and to insure all information obtained shall be available for information here after the mission has gone.

       Speaking generally, the losses from submarines and mines of British, Allied and neutral tonnage during October amounted to a weekly average of 104,436 tons gross, which is somewhat less than the average over the previous ten months of the present year.

       The weekly averages for July, August and September according to Admiralty returns, are 115,401, 118,649 and 73,571 respectively and 134,894 for six months ending June 20th.

       Although it is difficult to obtain accurate figures of current production of new tonnage of both the United States and England, it appears in round numbers, that the October losses are at a rate not far from double the rate of production. This means that if present rate of loss continues, the curve of available tonnage is on the down slope at a serious angle. The present estimates for the future production of new tonnage in England indicates that, on most optimistic basis, a rate of 250,000 tons per month will not be reached in less than a year, and only then provided the United States can assist by supplying a portion of the necessary steel, particularly plates. This indicates that until the United States production of new tonnage can be brought to a rate of 300,000 to 400,000 pons [i.e., tons] per month, the existing tonnage will continue to decrease.

       In connection with the above figures, there must be considered the increasing demands on shipping due to crop shortage in France and Italy and to the increasing numbers of American forces, both Naval and Military in Europe. From the American point of view it appears necessary to accept as a fact that an increasing amount of American tonnage must be contributed to support the Allies entirely outside of the demands of our military and naval forces. If this is accepted, it appears that the extent of our military participation is wholly dependent on the rate of American shipbuilding and that our military participation must be viewed with great anxiety until the rate of production of new tonnage commences to exceed the losses. It has even been suggested that, in view of the present situation, a good proportion of our national army could perhaps be more efficiently utilized in prosecution of the war by actually utilizing it as labour in American shipyards.

       A detail of the present situation which should not be overlooked but upon which I have no data to base accurate comment, is the relation of new tankers to the production of our new destroyers. As is well known, the present situation as regard fuel oil in Europe is not promising and apparently existing tankers do not seem to be more than sufficient to keep pace with present consumption in European waters.

       Evidence indicates that it is not safe to assume that new British tankers will be more than sufficient to provide supplies for the increasing number of British surface and air craft which will consume oil. It would therefore seem important to seriously consider the production of new American tankers in connection with the production of American surface and air craft which will require oil.

       All of the above indicates that we are operating on small margins which must be considered as being on the decrease rather than the increase.

       There seems to be a considerable amount of evidence which indicates that there is a large field for improvement in the utilization of present available tonnage. That is, that the present tonnage could be made to render better returns by improved methods of routing, the terminal facilities, and utilization of available cargo space. There is no doubt that commercial interests still interfere with the most perfect utilization possible of the world’s available tonnage. It has been reported that since the declaration of war by the United States, the capabilities of the railroads have been nearly doubled by improved organization, methods of routing and utilization of available rolling stock. This instance is illustrative of the above commend [i.e., comment] to the effect that there is unquestionably a large field for improvement in utilizing present available tonnage.

       Speaking broadly, it is unquestionable that the best solution of the shipping situation lies in organisation and centralised control. The shipping situation in this respect is identical to the military situation in which the necessity for pooling all interest and centralised control has been recognised from the beginning. The influence of conflicting interests, and the difficulties which complicate the shipping situation, are fully recognised, but there can be no doubt that the most effective and efficient means of solving the serious shipping problem with which we are faced would be for England and America to commandeer all possible mercantile shipping, pool their interests, and effect a central organisation for insuring its most efficient utilisation.|15|

       12. ASSIGNMENT OF New VESSELS.

       The question of the best assignment which can be made for new vessels as they become available is a very serious one., Some of the principal considerations involved from the point of view here will be covered by separate correspondence.|16|

WM. S. SIMS.       

Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. There is an identifying number thatappears in the top right-hand corner of all except one page: “25-13-12” and in columnar fashion: J/1/2/3/4/5/6.” There is also an identifying number that appears only in the top left-hand corner of the first page: “D2629.”

1. São Vicente is one of Barlavento islands of Cape Verde. It lies between two other islands in the northwest of the archipelago.

2. This was probably one of the U-151 class of submarines. Seven were built during the war though only four were operational at the time of this report. They had a speed of 12.4 knots on the surface. Uboat.net, Accessed on 2 November 2017, https://www.uboat.net/wwi/types/?type=U+151..

3. U-boat crews.

4. None of the enclosures mentioned in this report are still with the report.

5. See: Benson to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 20 November 1917.

6. Cammell Laird was a shipyard in Liverpool, England, that did refitting work for the American destroyer squadron.

7. Collier’s magazine published a series of eight articles by Christopher P. Connolly written while he was in Europe. For an example of one of these, see “The 343 Stays Up,” Collier’s Magazine, 4 May 1918, 6-7. It is an account of the torpedoing of U.S.S. Cassin, although the identity of the ship is never given.

8. On the sinking of Alcedo, see: J.R. Poinsett Pringle to Sims, 8 November 1917.

9. See: Henry B. Wilson to Sims, 13 November 1917.

10. See: Sims to Albert P. Niblack, 9 November 1917.

11. See: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to William Benson, 16 November 2017.

12. Gargoyle and Standard Arrow were tankers that the Navy had taken into service in August 1917.

13. Sims is referring to the “Nash fish” named for its inventor G.H. Nash. It was a wooden torpedo-shaped device designed to be towed at relatively low speed and operate at a depth of twenty to thirty feet. Inside the “fish” were two microphones, one stationary and one that rotated. The former established the presence of a submarine while the moveable one provided a bearing. The Admiralty accepted the design in October 1917 and by the end of the war had 199 in service. According to one historian it was “a step forward, but it did not completely solve the problems of listening for U-boats while under way.” Dwight R. Messimer, Find and Destroy: Antisubmarine Warfare in World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001). 116.

14. Sims is referring to the commission led by Col. Edward House. This commission collecting information and when it returned to the United States its findings were incorporated into a report created by the Council of National Defense in early January 1918. See, Newton Baker to Woodrow Wilson, 5 January 1918, Wilson Papers, 45: 489-91.

15. Most historians agree that convoying had been successful and that the situation concerning merchant tonnage was not nearly as dire as Sims paints it here.

16. See: Sims to Daniels, 20 November 1917.

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