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


November 2nd, 1917.

From:  Force Commander,

To  :  Secretary of the Navy (Operations).

Subject:  Protection for Troop Convoys.

     1.   The three things that endanger our troops transports are:-

          (a) Submarines and mines encountered in the zone.

          (b) Raiders on the high seas.

          (c) Large submarines operating outside the zone.

     2.   Of these dangers there can be no question that the maximum danger is occasioned by (a). With the approaching winter nights I think the next greatest danger to which they will be exposed is (b), particularly if ships are sent without ocean cruiser escort. There will always be some danger from (c).

     3.   We are thoroughly familiar with the danger from submarines and mines in the zone,1 and know what steps to take to protect our transports, although it must always be understood that, regardless of the protection given, a chance shot from a submarine (a “Browning” shot from a long distance)2 may sink a vessel, a drifting mine torn up by the winter gales may sink a transport, or mines not encountered by the sweepers may damage or sink one of our ships.

     4.   So far as raiders are concerned, a battle cruiser on the high seas would easily overpower our armored cruisers, and again our protection is only partial.

     5.   There remains to be discussed the new problem of large submarines operating outside the usual area of the ordinary submarine. Thus far there has been one (or possibly two or three) of these vessels operating outside the regular submarine area. In every case the operations of this vessel or vessels have been to the southward of the zone, and at the present moment one is operating along the West African Coast.

     6.   Nearly all the sinkings occasioned by these submarines have been by gunfire. A large submarine is unwieldy and difficult to manoeuvre under water, and never will be as efficient for torpedo work as the smaller type. Like other vessels of small freeboard, they must confine their operations to areas where good weather prevails. It is not, of course, impossible for a submarine of large type to cross the North Atlantic or to operate in that area; but considering the approaching winter gales, the whole procedure is most unlikely. There is always the question of strain on personnel and damage to the submarine by storms to be considered, and this is a big item for submarines that are to remain at sea for several weeks. I consider it highly probable that the efforts of these submarines will be confined to areas where good weather prevails.

     7.   During this winter they could operate in such areas as the Islands off Africa, off Gibraltar, and so forth. I consider, therefore, that there is a little chan<c>e3 of encountering large submarines in the north Atlantic during the winter, but that there is much more likelihood of encountering raiders.

     8.   Modern German light cruisers make upwards of 30 knots, and a 17-knot ship like the AMERICA,4 oreven the 22-knot KAISER-WILHEL5 would fall an easy prey to a 30-knot light cruiser. It is for this reason primarily that I do not recommend routing our large transports independently. It is true that the OLYMPIC6 was routed independently for some time, but that was during a period when only small, slow raiders were sent out by the enemy. Since the convoy system has been established, resulting in a partial defeat of the submarines it is not at all unlikely that the enemy may meet this situation by dispatching a greater number of raiders of greater speed and power. This is a matter that has always to be considered.

     9.   As is well known, it will be difficult if not impossible for our destroyers to stand the North Atlantic weather during the winter. There is not doubt that the destroyers can weather gales, but they can make little progress into them. Furthermore, these gales may do considerable damage to the vessels and result in laying them up. I consider it will be difficult to carry out a plan of giving to our transports destroyer escort across the North Atlantic during the winter. In fact, there may be times when our troops cannot be met by destroyers, on this side, and may have to travel a considerable part of the distance through the zone without destroyer escort. The British have had this experience several times in handling troop transports. Within the last week two mercantile convoys were broken up by storms to the westward of Ireland. One of these convoys contained one of our troopships, the PANNONIA, and this vessel had to travel for some time in the zone without escort, as it was too rought for the destroyers to get to the rendezvous. These are risks that may be expected.

     10.  I do not see the desirability of routing our transports to the southwardin order to permit destroyers to cross with them. Bad weather will be encountered to the southward, and if an aera [i.e., area] is selected where good weather prevails, this is precisely where the cruiser submarine would most likely be found. I should recommend that this idea be abandoned.

     11.  If it is decided to provide one or two destroyers to escort our convoys all the way across, it would seem logical to base a force on the Azores. However, destroyers based on the Azores will need many repairs beyond the capacity of a repair ship or the resources of the Azores. I am afraid the scheme is hardly practicable during winter weather.

     12.  My recommendations are these:-

(a)  That a limited number of destroyer be reatined [i.e., retained] in the United States for escorting our troops off shore, so as to protect them against any large submarine that may be operating off the port of embarkation.

(b)  That the routes of our convoys be varied so as to   deny the enemy information of any one line of approach.

(c) That an ocean escort be provided sufficient to withstand any raider that escapes to sea. This will mean a dreadnought in the event that we get information of the escape of enemy battle cruisers – or else sailings will have to be temporarily suspended.

(d) That all escorting vessels should have guns superior to six inch.

(e) That all convoys be routed through the North Atlantic as before.

(f) That any destroyers be released that can be spared for operations on this side, so that greater protection can be given in the area where the deanger is greatest.

     13.  It is unfortunate that at the very time that our larger transports come into operation the number of men that Field Marshal Haig7 wishes to send on leave is greatly increased. We have, as the Department knows, a limit now of 600 arrivals a day in England, or 5,000 a week. If we can provide from the United States some fast shallow draught transports of 18 knots or upwards for cross-channel service, we can assist materially to relieve the congestion.

     14.  The British War Office are striving to comply with Sir Douglas Haig’s wishes, and to increase the number of men on leave. If the leave requirements are fully met, it will mean that practically none of our troops can be handled into England unless we can provide some fast steamers for cross-channel service. I consider this matter a very urgent one. An inquiry has already been sent by cable indicating the types of ships needed. I think perhaps both the HARVARD and the YALE should be used and perhaps some others of a similar type could be found.8

     15.  Aside from the question of handling our large transports there are a number of British liners crossing that can be utilized for carrying our troops. This is a great saving in tonnage to us, and a great convenience to land troops in England; for the French ports are very poorly developed, and all the assistance we get from the English ports is helpful. I have repeatedly pointed out however, the desirability of sending no freight via England, only troops and kit; but despite my recommendations the freight still rolls in, embarassing the situation more than ever. I had hoped to arrange for our first lot of large transports to come direct to England; but I find that in addition to troops and kit these vessels contain some 4000 tons of freight for France. The Department will understand that this additional amount of work thrown on the <cross-> channel service is most serious and cannot be handled at present. As a result these vessels could not be received in England. As a compromise I have suggested to the Department the disirability of loading these ships with freight for England, the freight carried to be determined by Mr. Guthrie, the Allies’ Shipping representative in America.9 It is possible that wheat or some non-explosive freight could be carried in these large ships and these vessels routed direct to Liverpool; but this is contingent upon our help in furnishing steamers for cross-channel service.

     16.  I consider Liverpool the safest port of entry in the submarine area. For the present, however, I think we shall have to send our large ships to Brest Roads and then when they are unloaded, escort them into England to be coaled.

     17.  I have previously reported against using the VATERLAND for the present until we have a little more experience in handling the other large transports. the VATERLAND is of course a much longer target, and injury to her would be a serious affair. I am assuming too that all of the troops that we have to transport for the next few months can be accomodated in the other transports, assisted by British liners. Whenever the situation becomes pressing I presume we shall have to use the VATERLAND and take the additional risk.10

     18. British destroyers would escort all our troops sent in British liners. Queenstown destroyers (our own) escort all our troops in regular convoys and also escort to France all supply ships in convoys sailing from Hampton Roads or Sydney. British Destroyers escort to a position near Brest all our storeships in New York convoys.

     19.  Forces based on Brest escort in to France the stsreships [i.e., storeships] in New York convoys that are carried by British destroyers to a rendesvous near Brest. The Brest forces also distributes our score-ships [i.e., storeships] to their destination along the French coast, and escort out of France convoys of empty vessels. It will be noted that the great bulk of our work is done by our Queenstown destroyers, and that the forces based on Brest do principally coasting work, and for escorting out our empty vessels.

     20.  At the present time, as we have things organized, we can handle one troop convoy every eight days. If six or eight vessels are sent in a convoy averaging 15,000 troops per convoy, this would mean approximately 60,000 troops a month direct to France with the addition of some 15,000 or 20,000 troops a month through England in British liners under the present arrangement.

     21.  To bring the troops in at a faster rate will require more destroyers on this side, and any considerable increase in storeships will also require more destroyers.

     22.  With reference to the use of submarine<s> versus submarines, this matter has been given more attention since the establishment of convoys. Formerly the system in use was patrol by surface craft of sea routes. With this system it was rather difficult to work submarines except in limited areas. Now that a large part of the patrols have been withdrawn in order to provide escort for convoys, there is considerable area open for the employment of submarines versus submarines. I believe the system will never be very effective so long as the attacking submarine must rely on torpedoes, owing to the difficulty of maneuvering into position to attack the enemy submarine. But a type of submarine which is not being built in England, of which Lieutenant Pierce has the sketch drawings, provides for the use of guns against enemy submarines.11 I am hopeful that this method of attacking enemy submarines will give much better results. There is no doubt that the presence in waters of our submarines makes the problem much more difficult for the enemy, and already a number of German submarines have been sunk by British submarines. The presence of our submarines in the Azores will have the effect, I think, of keeping enemy submarines away from that immediate area.


Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. There are identification numbers in the top left-hand corner: “A. 2041-3064” and the top right-hand corner: “11-2-14” and in columnar fashion “3/C.J.” The latter numbers appear at the top of each of the six pages of this copy.

Footnote 1: By “zone,” Sims is referring to the sea area close to the British Isles in which German U-boats were to be found in the greatest numbers.

Footnote 2: As the Browning Arms company was best known for making shotguns, which are not usually effective at long range, Sims presumably means a scattershot attempt that luckily hits the target.

Footnote 3: The typist originally had “change” but crossed through the “g” and typed “c” above it.

Footnote 4: The former passenger liner S.S. Amerika of the German Hamburg-American line. DANFS

Footnote 5: Someone handwrote “M” as an interlineation. The seized German passenger liner S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II was put in service by the U.S. Navy under the name S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II but was renamed U.S.S. Agamemnon in early September and commenced active duty as a troopship at the end of October. DANFS;

Footnote 6: R.M.S. Olympic was a British transatlantic passenger line owned by the White Star Line.

Footnote 7: Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. In 1916 British troops were given the right to three annual leave periods and in 1917 the length of leave was increased so returning home to England was more of a possibility.

Footnote 8: On 17 November, Benson endorsed the idea of using “certain coastal vessels,” including HARVARD and YALE, to ferry troops across the channel. See: Benson to Sims, 17 November 1917.

Footnote 9: Sir Connop Guthrie who managed American operations of the British Ministry of Shipping. Crowell and Wilson, The Road to France, 378.

Footnote 10: For more on S.S. Vaterland, see: Sims to Benson, 24 October 1917.

Footnote 11: Possibly what became the British R-class submarines. These were small diesel-electric submarines designed specifically to attack and sink enemy submarines. The officer was possibly Lt. Maurice R. Pierce.