Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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

November 20, 1917.

From:     Force Commander.

  To:     Secretary of the Navy (Operations)

Subject:  Additional Vessels needed for European Waters.

 

EXPANSION OF WORK.

          It is not necessary to point out to the Department the large expansion of anti-submarine work that has taken place in European Waters since the arrival of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe in May, 1917. At that time all of the Allied Naval Forces, with a few exceptions, were employed in patrolling certain areas through which shipping was passing. The results obtained by this method were wholly unsatisfactory, considering the ships employed. There were not nearly enough patrol craft to cover all the areas, and when the coast line was heavily patrolled the submarine merely proceeded a little farther to seaward, where he could sink ships unobserved and unmolested by patrol craft. The sinking of mercantile ships were large. Even the addition of a considerable number of patrol craft could not ensure any marked reduction. During the summer the convoy system for Atlantic trade was put into operation, and the results of this were at once so apparent and the reduction in sinkings so marked that every effort has since been made to further extend this system. Everyone sees the virtue in the convoy system, and hence there is an insistent demand for more escorts, so that the present convoys can be given greater protection and the system further extended. The Allies are now definitely committed to the convoy system. These convoys are regularly established and arrive on definite schedules and must be met. So long as the patrol system was in vogue, while every effort was made to keep ships on station, still the absence of a few patrol vessels could not be said to materially increase the sinkings. With the convoy system, however, it is of the first importance that all convoys be surrounded by as large a number of escorts as practicable, and carried through the zone to destination. The greater the escort given, the greater the security. An effort is made to keep every escort working to its maximum capacity and to limit its stay in port and its period for overhaul to the smallest amount consistent with the general upkeep, for it is realized that the withdrawal of even one unity will increase the chances of a submarine making a successful attack. This matter is of considerable moment with the approach of winter weather, where some destroyers are certain to be injured by storms and others by handling in narrow waters, making landings in gales, and so forth.

 

INCREASE OF WORK ON FRENCH COAST.

     The very large increase of work on the French coast has made it imperative to station additional vessels there. It is for this reason that five destroyers were withdrawn from the Azores and based on Brest.1 While we now have a considerable number of yachts on this coast, most of them are of such low speed that they are unsuitable for offshore work. The great bulk of the offshore work on the French Coast is still done by Queenstown destroyers; but our forces based on Brest have to provide escort for empty transports and supply ships leaving the French Coast. It will be realized that this becomes a serious matter when large troop ships of the Kaiser Wilhelm type are involved. These large ships are of great value as transports, and the greatest possible protection must be given them. The handling of these vessels alone makes a very insistent demand for more large destroyers for the French Coast. Our experience has shown that we can place practically no dependence on assistance from French men-of-war. The French have very few vessels that are fit to go to sea, and these are occupied in looking after French interests. While we have definitely assigned a number of yachts to escorting the French coasting trade, we have not been able to count on any assistance from the French in offshore escort work. As a matter of fact, the French forces are confined almost entirely to operations near the coast, and it is for those operations that most of the U.S. forces in France are best suited. Additional destroyers are urgently needed on the French Coast for offshore escort duty.

 

AID TO ALLIED CAUSE GIVE BY U.S. NAVY.

     There should be no underestimating the very great help that the U.S. Navy has given the Allies Cause by protecting its shipping. It has been generally conceded that the submarine issue is the most serious phase of the Allied Cause, and the U.S. Vessels sent to Europe have given protection to thousands of ships, and helped in very great degree to reduce the losses due to the submarine. While carrying on this work our vessels are at the same time protecting American interests, for the convoys contain American storeships and Tankers, and cargo vessels, for which protection could not be given except by our own forces.

 

PRESENT PROTECTION NOT COMPLETE.

     The convoy system has greatly reduced the losses of ships; but it is not yet a complete protection against the submarine due to the limited number of escorting vessels available for each convoy. There is very little doubt that with double the number of escort now available for convoys ships could be brought through the zone with almost complete immunity from submarine attack. A larger number of escorts, whether for mercantile convoys or troop convoys, ensure greater protection with subsequent diminished losses.

 

EXTENSION OF CONVOY SYSTEM.

     There is a most insistent demand for further extension of the convoy system. The only reason for not extending the convoy system is a lack of escorting vessels. More and more vessels are taking advantage of the convoy, with the result that a larger number of escorts are required to give proper protection. As convoys get larger they may become unwieldy and more convoys will have to be organized to take care of the shipping, with the result that some escorts must be found to give protection. At the present time it is very desirable to establish the following additional convoys:-

1.   Hampton Roads to Gibraltar and return.

     At the present time there is a large American trade into the Mediterranean, all of which passes singly through the submarine zone to the westward of Gibraltar. Allied shipping from America is handled in the same manner. If a convoy can be established from Hampton Roads to Gibraltar and return all Allied shipping can be carried through the submarine zone to the westward of Gibraltar in convoy. This will require additional escorting vessels based on Gibraltar.

2.   Convoys in the Mediterranean.

     A great many additional escorting vessels are needed in order to put into effect the convoy system contemplated for the Mediterranean. At the present time shipping in the Mediterranean, with a few exceptions, is routed by coasting, with consequent exposure to mines, long routes, delays and so forth. It will require a great many additional escorting vessels in the Mediterranean to provide satisfactory convoy service for that sea. A large part of the sinkings occur in the Mediterranean, due to lack of convoys.

3.   Westbound convoy leaving the French Coast.

     At the present time if a vessel is in Bordeaux (for example) and wishes to take advantage of convoy, she must proceed up the French Coast, cross the English Channel to Plymouth, and then join the outbound convoy. The vessel is exposed to attack and mines until she arrives in Plymouth. If escorting vessels were available, it would be very desirable to establish a westbound convoy leaving a central French Atlantic port, so that all vessels on the French Atlantic Coast could be escorted to the westward direct. It is impracticable to put this convoy into operation until more escorting vessels are available.

4.   Westbound convoy of fast ships leaving England.

     At the present there is no convoy for the large liners that leave England for America. These liners cross in convoy from Halifax, but there are not sufficient escorting vessels to provide a convoy to escort them on their westward trip. Vessels of this type must proceed alone, taking advantage of their speed for protection. The larger steamer MINNEHANA was sunk a few weeks ago while proceeding to the westward not under escort.

5.   Classification by speeds of present westbound Convoys.

     Owing to lack of escorting vessels, vessels of all speeds (except liners) are grouped in the same convoy and escorted to the westward and dispersed. If more destroyers were available faster ships could be escorted in one convoy, and the slower in another. Our oilers like MAUMEE and CUYAMA (speed 14 1/2 knots) must join a convoy of which the average speed does not exceed about 7 knots. This is an unfortunate condition which must continue to exist until more escorting destroyers are made available for use in the zone.

6.   Cross-Channel Service for U.S. troops between England and

     France.

     In connection with the movement of U.S. Troops to Europe, it will be very desirable to establish a cross channel service between England and France in order that troops placed in liners proceeding to England can be transported to France. Furthermore England has son many excellent harbors, so many well swept channels, and such an abundance of coal that it will be desirable to send our largest troop transports direct to England, getting the troops to France by the cross channel service. The establishment of this service will require additional destroyers for escorting the cross channel transports.

7.   Coastal Convoys along United Kingdom to ports used for

     assembling convoys.

     In the Channel, Falmouth and Plymouth are used as assembling ports for outward convoys. A ship unloading at Portsmouth or Dover must travel without escort to either Falmouth or Plymouth in order to get into a westbound convoy. For a long distance the ship is exposed to attack, because of a lack of escorting vessels. Similarly Lamlash, Milford Haven and Queenstown on the west coast are used as ports of assembly, and vessels must travel considerable distances alone before getting into convoy. It is largely in these areas where vessels are not in convoy that a large part of submarine sinkings occur. If more destroyers were available convoys would be established more these routes.

     None of the foregoing extensions are possible at this time, except perhaps the Hampton Roads to Gibraltar Convoy, where it is hoped some protection can be afforded by our vessels based in Gibraltar. However, there are three convoys a week from England into Gibraltar, only two of which are escorted, and both of these are given very scant protection, not more than about 4 escorts to a convoy of 20 ships.

     Appended sketch (A) shows the regular organized convoys now entering and leaving European Waters.2

     The red lines on this sketch show the extensions desired in the convoy system; but owing to lack of escorts these extensions cannot be made at the present time.

 

AREAS WHERE SHIPS ARE NEEDED.

     It is most difficult to decide in what part of the zone vessels can be placed to assist most directly the Allied Cause. American interests are very large in the Mediterranean. With our troops and storeships entering France the French Atlantic Coast must have adequate protection. There is not an area in Europe that would not gladly welcome a few destroyers. More destroyers simply mean more protection and the earlier defeat of the submarine.

 

DISPERSED ENEMY ATTACK.

     The patrol system was doomed to failure, because the submarine could disperse his attacks at will, requiring extension of patrols beyond available capacity. The Convoy system has changed all of this and has forced the submarine to concentrate in focal areas, where he can be dealt with more effectively than heretofore. Under the patrol system we had frequent attacks as far west as Longitude 18° and occasionally in 19° or 20°. Now it is rare that an attack occurs west of 12°, except by some submarine in transit to station. The greater part of the sinkings now take place where the shipping concentrates, but against shipping not in convoy. So long as the enemy could carry on widely dispersed attacks, his campaign was effective, because our efforts were dispersed. Our effort is now concentrated, and in so far as the tactics of the submarine have been defeated. The submarine is still carrying on a dispersed attack with mines, scattering them widely in different zones, and so requiring a large number of trawlers to be employed in sweeping channels. It has never been understood why during the summer one or more submarines did not carry on a dispersed attack on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, in the hopes of scattering our offensive action. Fortunately this did not occur, and we have concentrated our forces in the vital area. It is hoped that if such an attack occurs it will not be permitted to alter our policy of concentrating our forces in the area where the enemy’s submarines are concentrated.

 

EFFECT OF LARGE SUBMARINES.

     The effect of the large submarine is to cause a return to the dispersed attack, in the hope of dispersing the Allied Forces and particularly of keeping those forces away from the zone in which the enemy submarine has concentrated. For instance, in the case of the Azores, one enemy submarine shelled Ponta Delgada in July 1917. Thereafter 5 destroyers were stationed at that point, and maintained there for several weeks, since which time other forces have been based there. The records show that no submarine has been in the vicinity of the Azores since July. The result has been to cause a dispersal of our forces, and thereby make the submarine more effective in the area where the submarines are concentrated. While there can be no question of the soundness of the strategy in holding the Azores as a base, the incident is pointed out as an effective use by the enemy of a means of scattering and diminishing offensive action. One submarine appearing on the Atlantic seaboard could sink a few ships and distort the perspective of the Allied submarine campaign. I think there can be no question of the fact that the building of large submarines is being carried on largely in the hope of scattering offensive action, and it is hoped that the Department will resist and appeals based on those scattered efforts. I have previously recommended that the country be prepared by Press propaganda for these attacks so that the Department will be free to carry on sound strategy, if such attack occurs.

     The large submarine is a vessel of limited capacity. It carries only a few torpedoes, which must be conserved to cover a period of several months, and undoubtedly will not be used except against vessels at anchor or where most favorable opportunities offer. The large submarine must rely almost entirely for his offense on gunfire, and well armed ships have little to fear. Furthermore, the speed of these craft is reduced, probably being less than 15 knots, in order to give them great radius. They are further limited by the fact that they cannot man their guns in the heavy weather that is normally encountered in the North Atlantic. The sinkings of these large submarines are much smaller than the sinkings of a small submarine in the same time. In other words, so far as actual effectiveness goes the large submarine is a mistake; but if there results a dispersal in the efforts of the Allies these large submarines will more than justify themselves.

     We have no information that the enemy proposes to use these large submarines in any considerable numbers. To date it is definitely known that only one of these so-called submarines has been at sea. Two more are expected to be ready for use shortly, and it is unlikely that more than two additional will be available for several months at least. Considering a total of five submarine cruisers (which includes the ex-DEUTSCHLAND) it is unlikely that more than two of these could operate at sea at one time, so that for several months at least there is very little to fear from the large submarine.

 

ESCORTING CONVOYS IN EUROPE OUTSIDE THE SUBMARINE ZONE.

     At the present time, and for several weeks past, there have been a considerable number of convoys outside the submarine zone to the westward of Spain. These convoys are the ones from Dakar and Sierra Leone, together with the convoys from England and Gibraltar. There are at all times approximately 8 of these convoys outside of the established submarine zone exposed to attack, not only by large submarines but by submarines operating to the westward of Gibraltar, whether based in the Mediterranean or enroute between the Mediterranean and Germany. So far the records show that only one of these convoys has been attacked, - in this case the torpedo was fired from a considerable distance and breached before it reached the convoy. Although these convoys are the regularly established ones, and although several of them have passed near the positions occupied by large submarines, this far the large submarines have not attacked these convoys. It must be presumed that this failure to attack is either in pursuance of a regular policy or of a desire to conserve the few available torpedoes for a more certain target.

ESCORTING CONVOYS ACROSS THE NORTH ATLANTIC.

     I have previously pointed out that it is a dispersal of our forces to attempt to escort convoys across the North Atlantic. I fully realize that there is some danger to our troop convoys as well as the many mercantile convoys crossing the North Atlantic; but I consider this danger so remote as not to justify dispersing our forces that are urgently needed in an area where submarines are continually present, and where our convoys are open to repeated attacks, and vessels subjected to the constant danger of being sunk owing to the limited number of destroyers that are available as escorts.

 

ASSIGNMENT OF NEW DESTROYERS AND OTHER

AVAILABLE ANTI-SUBMARINE CRAFT.

     I have tried to make it clear to the Department that every destroyer sent to this side saves many ships in the course of the year, and tends directly to defeating the submarine campaign. The convoy system so far has been successful, if one judges it only by the losses before the convoy was adopted; but the losses in convoy are still considerable, and these can be greatly reduced, if not wholly eliminated by adding more escorts to the convoy. Our convoys must pass through the zone with from 6 to 8 escorts. If forces were available so that this escort could be doubled, much greater security could be obtained. If more destroyers were available for escorting mercantile convoys, greater protection could be give<n> Allied shipping, and the damage by the submarine campaign greatly diminished.

     I cannot too strongly impress on the Department the fact that thus far the convoy is a new reply to the submarine, and has baffled the submarine very successfully. However, many convoys have been attacked, and it must be supposed submarine Captains after experience will become bolder and more likely to attack convoys. Longer range torpedoes may be employed or simultaneous attack of the convoy by two or more submarines. This means that without additional protection our troop convoys will not enjoy the immunity that they have thus far had. Every destroyer sent to this side aids directly to the protection of shipping, on which the whole Allied cause depends.

 

RESUME:       To summaries:-

1.   Our available forces in all areas are inadequate. We should therefore concentrate them where most effective and resist all influence towards dispersal.

2.   Some risk will always exist outside the areas of maximum enemy concentration. It is our best policy to accept such risks as long as our forces in the critical zones are inadequate.

3.   Convoys in the North Atlantic not under escort are safer than those in the zone under the present escort.

4.   To increase the safety of our convoys all additional protection should be given where the danger is greatest,-namely in the zone.

5.   Risks on our coast, to our troops outside the zone, and to troops and mercantile shipping within the zone, should be weighed and consider with the single end in view- the defeat of the enemy campaign as a whole.

6.   We must be prepared for occasional sinkings in new areas, but should resist any tendency to disperse our efforts.

7.   The Force Commander therefore recommends the concentration of every available anti-submarine craft – particularly destroyers- in the area of maximum enemy concentration. These areas are:-

     (a)  The Atlantic approach routes to Irish Sea and English

          Channel.

     (b)  Approach routes to French Coast.

     The only other area which may be considered a critical one is the Mediterranean, including the approaches to the Straits of Gibraltar.

<Wm. S. Sims>

Copy to C. in C. Atl. Fleet.3

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. At the top of each page are the identifying marks, “11-2-12” and “1.,3.,C.,4.,5.,6.,L.,J.”

Footnote 1: These were the American destroyers Reid, Flusser, Preston, Lamson and Smith, and were accompanied by Panther as their tender. These destroyers belonged to the 700-ton Flusser class, carried a battery of five 3.5 inch guns, were coal-burning and capable of steaming at 28 knots. Still, Crisis at Sea, 390. According to Reid’s war diary, this division of destroyers departed the Azores on 5 October 1917, arriving at Queenstown on 16 October. Part of the division left for Brest on 19 October and the remainder on 21 October. George M. Battey, Jr., 70,000 Miles on a Submarine Destroyer or, The Reid Boat in the World War (Atlanta, The Webb & Vary Company, 1919), 48, 65. See also: Benson to Sims, 24 September 1917.

Footnote 2: This enclosure is no longer with this document and has not been located subsequently.

Footnote 3: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

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