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 Captain William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations

November 21st. 1917.

My dear Pratt,

          Just a few items that may interest you and some which I consider are of very considerable importance.

          Admiral Benson has been pursuing his investigation in the same manner as I described in my last letter and, as you know, he has made certain recommendations which are in accord with those that we made from this side many months ago.1

          It is of course an excellent scheme that they have decided to send over the battleships and to have these relieved from time to time by others so that we may be in a position to cooperate with them efficiently to the extent which the future may show to be necessary.2

          The Admiral has finally concluded that there should be a more intimate cooperation with the Admiralty than we have ever been able to establish by our limited staff that is held down by the administrative details that must be carried out promptly. While it is true that Schofield and Knox and the third man to be selected after the Admiral returns, will be of great benefit as regards cooperation, I think you must see that these men should be assisted, in their special work, by at least three thoroughly competent juniors.3 I know that officers are scarce on the other side, provided you continue of the opinion that the best way to bring this war to a conclusion is to keep on occupying these officers as they are now occupied; but in any case it seems to me that a correct estimate of the situation would force the conclusion that the greatest measure of efficiency that could be adopted would be to supply an adequate number of officers on this side to work with me and with the Admiralty not only in planning but in digging out the necessary information for the plans and in keeping the various branches of our Navy Department thoroughly supplied with up-to-date information. Are there not many things that are occupying the attention of officers on the other side that are vastly less important than this?

          I believe that Admiral Benson now realizes the supreme importance of the maximum increase of the destroyer force on this side at the earliest possible moment. You doubtless know that in order to land troops in France we must use greater facilities than are now afforded by all of the available French ports; that we must put troops through England. That to do this we must supply cross channel steamers of a certain type and destroyers to convoy this ferry system.

          I do not know that the Admiral has yet reached a definite decision, but he told me that he believes it will be best to send over all of the 750 tonners for this and for similar service on the coast of France. I have also recommended to him that they send over the 450 tonners for service based on Gibraltar, as the Mediterranean is now the danger point, and will become more and more so in the future, particularly if they succeed in blocking the straits of Dover so that no submarine can come through there.4

Some of the yachts coming out will go to Gibraltar – but they cannot all be used effectively unless they are allowed to go east and operate against Austrian subs.

          In my last letter,5 I gave you all the arguments that I possessed against employing essential destroyers to convoy our troops all the way across the Atlantic. I do not know that the Admiral agrees with this yet, or what pressure is brought to bear to have it carried out, but in my opinion,it would be a very serious military mistake.

          I spoke to Admiral Benson about utilizing tonnage to send coal to the Azores. I explained to him that the Admiralty has offered to keep that station adequately supplied with coal. This they can do without utilizing the tonnage necessary to bring supplies to this country. This is because so many ships go empty on the Western trip. The Admiral’s sole objection to this scheme is that we can land coal in the Azores for $5 a ton while it will cost about $14 a ton if the coal is procured from England. This is because the labour is such in England that the coal costs about $5 at the mines, and the rest of the price is the cost of transportation and the cost of ocean freight at the regular rate now established for such service. While it is always regrettable to spend more money than in normal times would be absolutely necessary, I believe it to be a grave military mistake to let the question of the small amount of money involved be the determining factor at the expense of the loss of a considerable amount of tonnage that would otherwise be employed in carrying food and essential supplies to the Allies. Please give this very serious consideration. It would not be much consolation to us if we could show that we had saved a certain number of thousand dollars on coal and eventually lost the war. The situation in respect of tonnage is really very serious indeed, and the Commission now here will carry back the most convincing proof of this point.

          The Bureau of Navigation telegraphed for us to send home the officers and the men of the yacht ALCEDO that was torpedoed off the coast of France.6 In the first place, it seems to me that this is a very bad precedent indeed. In the second place, Wilson7 had already telegraphed me for permission to send home all of those officers and men who wanted to go home. I had already declined this request.

          I can imagine how much interested you all were in the account of the FANNING getting a submarine and capturing the crew.8 I can also imagine how the Press Bureau were disappointed over our request that the circumstances should not be published,for the reasons given in my telegram.9 I sincerely hope that the Department will play the game in this respect, not only as regards to the FANNING but as regards all other similar incidences that may occur.

          I regret very much the loss of the CHAUNCY and the officers and men who were apparently drowned in the after compartment.10

          The final arrangements for taking over the mystery ship to be commanded by Hanrahan11 and volunteer crew have been completed, and she will be under our flag within a short time.

She will probably be named the ENDEAVOR.12

          Last night I attended a dinner at Sir Eric Geddes’ house at which were present Admiral Benson, Admiral Jellicoe, Admiral Jellicoe’s Chief of Staff, the First Lord’s secretary and myself.13 The whole subject of an allied naval council was discussed and it was decided unanimously that we did not want a council similar to that of the allied Army council. It was decided that not only would a naval council be useful but that public opinion created by Mr.Lloyd George’s speech will make the organization of some form of naval council quite inevitable.14 It was decided that the paper be drawn up today defining the composition and functions of such a council with a view of getting the approval of the British Government and then taking it up for discussion next week during the conference at Paris. The idea agreed upon was to have a council composed of the Chiefs of Staff of the various Admiralties concerned, except that I would represent our Navy Department. This council to meet at stated intervals and also as often as the council itself might consider necessary outside of the regular meetings. This will probably be put through, as our past experience shows that the French are in favour of discussions of this kind. It would be composed of representatives of United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan.15

          During the discussion at the First Lord’s last night it was decided to make arrangements in the Admiralty for installing the three officers we propose to send over. Space will probably be made by erecting some more temporary buildings on the Horse Guards Parade, immediately adjacent to the Admiralty, so as to move out of the main building some of their officials to make room for ours. It was also decided that it would be well for me to attend the daily council that takes place in Admiral Jellicoe’s office every morning to go over the events of the preceding day and see the reports of the mining, submarine, and anti-submarine operations, and other naval activities. This will be a means of keeping me better informed of the incidents that turn up from day to day and the decisions that are based thereon.

          It still seems apparent that Admiral Benson wishes to carry out his investigation personally. Of course I offer to go with him at all times, and he replies that he would be glad to have me “if you would like to go”. I take this to mean that in these cases he prefers to go it alone. He leaves for Paris tomorrow, the 22nd, with the commission though the conference will not take place until the 29th. I will go down in time to be in Paris during the sessions of the Conference. I am of course not a member of the political conference, but the Admiral would like to have me there to consult if it may be necessary. I believe he will go to Brest, St.Nazaire,and Bordeaux if he can find the time, and if Colonel House is willing that he should be absent from Paris the necessary time. He did intend to go to Queenstown, and while I was making the preliminary arrangements Colonel House requested him to remain in London, so he will not see this station – very much to my regret and to that of the Flotilla.

          Incidentally, I may say, that the Department’s telegram asking the Admiral to visit all these places, the Grand Fleet, and so forth, was an embarrassment to him.16 I think he believes that it was done in order to give him the opportunity to have a bit of a holiday and get rested. The Department probably does not realize that this sort of thing is not rest but very hard work, particularly for a man who dislikes travelling as much as the Admiral does.

          We have not seen much of Colonel House since he arrived. I had quite a chat with him while coming up from Devonport, and have seen him a couple of times since. His habits, or rather his methods of carrying on a piece of business of this kind are rather peculiar. He will not accept invitations to any official functions. Mr.Balfour17 gave a dinner in the Houses of Parliament for the whole commission, but Colonel House did not attend. Admiral Benson responded to Mr.Balfour’s speech and did a very good stunt. Yesterday the commission was received by the Cabinet, but Colonel House was not there and Benson again had to respond. The Admiral told me that Colonel House had never made a speech and never intended to. However, I have no doubt that he is doing a very valuable stunt. It is generally understood that he avoids all such functions because he is not in very good health.

          You know of course that I requested the Department not to grant permission for the wives of officers to come across to this side. It is comparatively easy for any woman to occupy a position in the Red Cross or in the Y.M.C.A., and thus get over to this side unless the Navy Department can fix it so that permission to cross the ocean will not be granted to the wives of officers. I also issued a notice to the forces stating that I considered it very undesirable for any wives to come over to this side.18 The other day I received a letter from Zogbaum saying that he inferred from certain letters he had received Mrs.Zogbaum was coming over to England but that he was opposed to it. Sometime later I received a long letter from Mrs.Zogbaum stating that she had arrived in Cork as a member of the Y.M.C.A. for the south of Ireland.19 Cork is about ten or twelve miles by rail from Queenstown. The lady explained at great length that she come out on her own account and without the consent of her husband and the she would not allow his duties to be interfered with by her presence. I have called upon Zogbaum for his statement as to whether his wife intends to remain in Ireland. If she does I will transfer him home or to Gibraltar or some place else, because if that sort of thing is going to be overlooked we would soon have a swarm of wives all along the line. Admiral Benson quite agrees with me. I hope the difficulty may be overcome, as Zogbaum is an excellent destroyer commander and is in high favour in the Flotilla.

          The order has come today detaching MacDougall and making me Naval Attache.20 This will enable us to avoid numerous cross wires and no inconsiderable amount of irritation. Where did you people in Washington get the idea that the naval attache was subordinate to the ambassador. If you will look in the State Dept. Regulations for 1897 which is the last one that has been issued, you will find on page 16, I think, the status of a naval attache defined. This does not bear out the statement in the Department’s cable to the effect that an attache is subordinate to an ambassador. However, this would make no possible difference in the case here, as our ambassador is a splendid man and cooperates with us in every possible way.21

          It may mildly interest you to know that the Journal of the Royal United Service Institute has published as the leading article in its issue of November 1917, my lecture on Military Character. Sometime ago I saw an article published therein on the subject rather similar to my article and signed by three initials. I sent of copy of my lecture addressed to these three initials in care of the Institute. This brought back a request from the editor of the Institute asking permission to publish the article, which of course I granted.

          I would also like to call your very particular and very earnest consideration to my letter of November 20th, forwarded in this mail, and transmitting a report made to me by Conn – the Commander of the ALCEDO when she was lost off the coast of France.22 In my letter of transmittal I have referred to a recent previous letter on the same subject,23 that is the necessary inefficient conditions of all these class of vessels, due to the fact that they have but one regular commissioned officer on board.

See also a long letter of Nov. 20 on convoys, etc.24

          The reason I want youto look into and consider this very seriously is that in case we lose some of these vessels and a number of lives, or in case we lose a transport with a great many lives, and this loss could be directly traceable to the necessarily inefficient condition of these vessels, there will be no possible defence on the part of the Navy Department.

          Therefore to leave these vessels in the condition in which they are now is, in my opinion, for the Navy Department to run a wholly unjustifiable risk of justified criticism of great severity. I think this should be brought specifically to the attention of the principal dignitaries in such a manner that they may understand the nature and extent of this risk. Please do not write back and say that officers cannot be spared to make these ships efficient. Please remember that these ships are performing dangerous fighting duty at the Front. If you glance over the multitudinous duties that are being performed by a great number of lieutenants, ensigns, and so forth, (regular commissioned officers) I think you will realize that a great many of them are performing duties which are vastly less important in bringing this war to a successful conclusion. I think you will recognise that rather than leave these ships in their present condition it would be better to wholly discontinue some of the activities of some of the officers in question.

          This question and that of increasing the number of destroyers at the Front at the earliest possible moment are the two most important measures that are now up for decision. This refers particularly to the destroyers now being employed in the Western Atlantic where there are no submarines or other enemy vessels, and in all human probability never will be. Also to the destroyers being employed in escorting troops across the wide Atlantic where the chances of their being of any use is almost infinitesimal.

          My great fear is that this war may be lost or that the Allies may be forced into a very unsatisfactory peace and that the subsequent examination as to the causes of this condition may reveal the fact that we have not done our utmost to prevent it and that our military decisions in many cases have been unsound.

Please remain as cheerful as you can.

          Very sincerely yours,

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 78. Following the close, the letter is addressed, “Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.N./Office of Operations,/Navy Department,/Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations. At this time, Benson was in London representing the United States Navy as a member of the House Commission, a diplomatic mission that spent most of November investigating ways in which to strengthen cooperation between the United States and its European allies in the war effort.

Footnote 2: At the beginning of November, the Navy decided to detach Battleship Division Nine from its Atlantic Fleet to serve with the British in the Grand Fleet; see: Josephus Daniels to Benson, 12 November 1917. Battleship Division Nine was a division of four (later five) dreadnoughts (New York, Delaware, Wyoming, and Florida; Texas joined 11 February 1918) detached from the Atlantic Fleet to serve as the American contribution to the British Grand Fleet. Upon joining the Grand Fleet, the division became officially known as the Sixth Battle Squadron and was based at Rosyth, Scotland; Nathan C. Twining, Information Bulletin, 8 December 1917, DNA, RG 45, Destroyer Ship Files, Jacob Jones.

Footnote 3: Cmdr. Dudley M. Knox and Capt. Frank H. Schofield. Cmdr. Henry E. Yarnell ended up being the “third man” that Sims mentions here. On 23 October 1917, Sims wrote to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels asking that Schofield, Frank H. Clark, Yarnell, William S. Pye, Rueben B. Coffey, and Walton R. Sexton be sent over to form his Planning Committee; see: Sims to Daniels, 23 October 1917. Schofield and Knox were the first officers dispatched to London to form the new American Planning Section and were later joined by Yarnell (who later exchanged places with Luke McNamme in the Planning Section of the Nay Department) and Maj. Robert H. Dunlap, USMC (later replaced by Col. Louis McC. Little, USMC). Still, Crisis at Sea, 44 and Sims, Victory at Sea, 253.

Footnote 4: At this point in the document, Sims has added a note in the margin that reads, “Some of the yachts will go to Gibraltar – but they cannot all be used effectively unless they are allowed to go east and operate against Austrian subs.”

Footnote 5: This document has not been located.

Footnote 6: Alcedo was a converted yacht purchased by the U.S. Navy. On 24 October the ship rescued 85 survivors from the Antilles after it had been attacked by a German submarine. On 4 November 1917, during a convoying mission from Quiberon Bay to Brest, Alecdo was attacked by U-71 and sunk. For more on this sinking, see: Pringle to Sims, 8 November 1917.

Footnote 7: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, Patrol Squadrons Based in France.

Footnote 8: On 17 November 1917, while escorting a convoy through the submarine zone, the destroyer Fanning encountered and sank the German submarine U-58, capturing the majority of its crew. For more details on this encounter, see: Diary of Angus W. Wiggins, 17 November 1917 and Arthur S. Carpender to Sims, 18 November 1917.

Footnote 9: The telegram that Sims refers to here has not been located. However, for additional information regarding Sims’ reasoning that the details of this submarine sinking not be published, see: Sims to Lewis Bayly, 20 November 1917.

Footnote 10: Chauncey (Sims misspelled the ship’s name above) was a Bainbridge-class destroyer that had been assigned to convoy duty in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean. On 19 November, while on a return trip from Gibraltar, Chauncey was rammed by the British Merchantman Rose. 21 men died, including Chauncey’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Walter E. Reno, and Lt. (jg) Charles F. Wedderburn.

Footnote 11: Lt. Cmdr. David C. Hanrahan.

Footnote 12: :One of the recommendations of the naval conference that Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, attended in London in September was the use of more mystery (or Q) ships; See: Mayo to Daniels, 17 September 1917. This, despite the fact that the German submarine commanders had become much more proficient at identifying them and their effectiveness as a weapon had diminished. Sims also discussed this topic with Joel R. Poinsett Pringle, Commander, Queenstown Destroyer Flotilla (see: Sims to Pringle, 12 October 1917) and Benson, (see: Sims to Benson, 15 October 1917). On 27 November, the Royal Navy turned over one of its ships, H.M.S. Pargust, to the Americans, who commissioned it U.S.S. Arvonian. On 18 December, the ship was renamed Santee. Still, Crisis at Sea, 475.

Footnote 13: Geddes was First Lord of the Admiralty. In addition to Geddes and Benson, the other members of this dinner party were First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe, Commo. Allan F. Everett, and J. S. Barnes.

Footnote 14: Prime Minister David Lloyd George. On 19 November, Lloyd George and Leader of the Opposition H. H. Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, engaged in a debate on the floor of the House of Commons concerning British efforts to cooperate fully with the United States in the war effort. Asquith was the former Prime Minister, having been replaced by Lloyd George as the head of a coalition government in December 1916.

Footnote 15: Sims and Benson both attended the second Allied Naval Conference in Paris on 29 and 30 November (the conference to which Sims refers above). As Sims predicted, one of the major results of this conference was the formation of an Inter-Allied Naval Council, established along the parameters outlined here. Sims was ultimately chosen to represent the United States Navy at the Council’s meetings; see: Daniels to Sims, 8 January 1918.

Footnote 16: This cable has not been located.

Footnote 17: Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour.

Footnote 18: Neither of these documents have not been located. Nevertheless, as this was an issue about which Sims felt particularly strongly, he discussed the topic in letters with various individuals, including his wife, Anne Hitchcock Sims, and Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Ireland. See: Sims to Bayly, 20 November 1917, and Sims to Sims, 21 October 1917, and 24 September 1917.

Footnote 19: Neither of the letters from the Zogbaums have been located. Lt. Cmdr. Rufus F. Zogbaum, Jr., was the commanding officer on Davis, one of the first destroyers to arrive at Queenstown in May 1917. In his memoirs, Zogbaum writes that his wife had obtained a passport and come to Ireland even though “it was well known that the wives of men in the American forces could not get passports for the British Isles.” When Zogbaum informed Sims of his wife’s arrival, Margaret Zogbaum received a telegram from Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ Chief of Staff, informing her that “she or I [Zogbaum] must leave the vicinity of Queenstown.” Margaret then relocated to London. Shortly afterwards, Rufus Zogbaum was rotated home to take command of one of the destroyers then being built. Rufus F. Zogbaum, From Sail to Saratoga, A Naval Autobiography (Rome, N.p., 1961), 267-69.

Footnote 20: See: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to Sims, 20 November 1917. Prior to this order, Capt. William D. MacDougall served as the United States Naval Attaché at London.

Footnote 21: Walter Hines Page.

Footnote 22: This letter has not been located.

Footnote 23: It is unclear here to which letter Sims may be referring.