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Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Anne Hitchcock Sims


30, Grosvenor Gardens,  

London, S.W.       

November 23rd. 1918

My dear Anne:

          Just before I left London to go to the Grand Fleet on Tuesday, the 19th, I put a letter in the pouch that was to go the following day. Since then there has been no mail arrived so there are no letters to answer.

          I took with me to the Fleet Twining, Babcock, McNamee, Long and Stark.1 We left here at 9.30 p.m. and arrived in Edinburgh at 8 a.m. and after breakfast went on board Admiral Rodman’s flagship the NEW YORK.2 The King and Queen at that time were in the Fleet, and were to visit Edinburgh the next day. I was invited on board Admiral Beatty’s3 flagship the QUEEN ELIZABETH, to lunch with all the Admirals and the Royal party. I enclose you the seating plan of the table. You will see that I was alongside of Lady Beatty, who was on the right hand of the King.4 You doubtless know that she was the daughter of Marshall Field of Chicago and that she was a widow with some children when Admiral Beatty married her.5 She has a son in the British Army.6 She is rather an interesting woman and I enjoyed talking to her very much. The Queen and the Prince of Wales were also of the party. After lunch about 3 o’clock the King paid a visit on board the NEW YORK. He inspected the crew on the spar deck but did not go through the ship as he has been through her before and knows her well. After inspecting the crew he came in the Admiral’s cabin, where all the officers were assembled, and smoked a cigarette and had a cup of coffee. . . .

          On the following day, Thursday, was to take place the astonishing ceremony of the turning over of over fifty German vessels to the Allies and the United States. The vessels of the Grand Fleet got underway between 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning and steamed out into the North Sea directly east. You have doubtless read all about it in the newspapers so that I will not describe it in detail. I doubt if you could be made to realise what an imposing spectacle it is for forty or fifty great ships to be formed in two columns and steaming out to sea. The people in the Fleet and around Edinburgh will tell you that they seldom see the sun in the winter time and that it is usually foggy and blowing hard. We were of course all wishing for the fairest possible weather in order that the photographic records of the ceremony might be taken and exhibited in all of the cinematograph theatres in the world. So for a wonder the sun came out and shone continuously throughout the day, and there was not more than wind enough to make a small ripple on the surface. The conditions could not have been better.

          Nothing like the surrender of a great Fleet has ever taken place in the world before and there was much speculation as to whether the Germans really intended to carry out the terms of the Armistice. Some officers were of the opinion that they would take their Fleet out into the North Sea and sink it rather than suffer the humiliation of giving it up without a fight. Others suspected that the Germans had agreed to the Armistice in order to form a trap, that is in order to carry out some scheme of treachery. Certainly their actions in this war almost justified such suspicion. However, Admiral Beatty was taking no chances. That is why the German Fleet was required to steam in between the two columns of battleships and return with them to port. All ships were cleared for action and ready to open fire at a moment’s notice in case there should be any attempt on the part of the enemy to do us damage. It was for this reason that the two columns were six miles apart with the Germans in the middle. To have placed them much closer together would have involved hitting each other when firing at the Germans. It would have been a much more impressive ceremony if this necessity had not existed and if the columns could have been one mile apart with the Germans in the middle where they could so easily have been seen. However, the day was so clear that they were readily visible at all times.

          I think you can imagine the feeling of suspense as the great Fleet was steaming out to the eastward to meet the German Fleet coming to the westward. Of course scouts were sent out ahead . A British cruiser was designated to place itself at the head of the German Fleet and lead them in. Everything was really carried out according to schedule. The Germans were on time at the rendezvous and the first thing we saw was the kite balloon that was being carried by the cruiser that was to lead the Germans in. The Grand Fleet was then steaming to the eastward at about 12 knots and the Germans coming to the westward at about the same speed. When the German Fleet was all enclosed between the two columns of the Grand Fleet the vessels of the latter all turned round and the great armada steamed to the westward together. We met them at between 8.30 and 9 o’clock in the morning and at 3 o’clock in the afternoon they were anchored just outside the harbor at Rosyth, with two divisions of battleships anchored on each side of them. Even now that we have seen this and read about it in the papers and seen some of the photographs of it, it is hard to realise that any such thing has taken place. Certainly this has been an extraordinary war. The German ships were brought out by an Admiral, and as far as I know at present each ship was commanded by its own Captain. We have of course all wondered what the sensations of the Germans were. We have remarked how interesting it would be if we could have a report of the conversations that took place across the wardroom tables of all the German ships at lunch that day when we were all steaming to the westward for Rosyth. According to the agreement, the vessels were to have no ammunition on board and after they were anchored the officers from the British vessels went on board to satisfy themselves that this had been carried out. It was found in all cases that the conditions had been complied with. The vessels were to be taken from Rosyth up to Scapa Flow where they will be interned awaiting the decision of the Peace Conference.

          Of course you understand that an Armistice is simply an arrangement for a cessation of hostilities. The vessels in question still belong to the Germans. None of the agreements of an Armistice are binding in any sense upon a Peace Conference. The latter may, if it chooses, restore these vessels to Germany, though I do not think that there is the slightest likelihood that this will be done. Conditions of this Armistice amount, of course, to an unconditional surrender so that the Peace Conference is free to impose any conditions it wishes upon Germany, even to the extent of taking all the rest of the vessels they have.

          There has been much speculation as to the final disposition of the sixteen capital ships and the cruisers and submarines that have been turned over. I am glad to say that there seems to be a nearly universal feeling that none of these ships should ever be commissioned under the flag of any of the Allies. I think it is likely that for a certain length of time they will be distributed amongst some of the Allies to allow the people to see them as visible symbols of the victory after four years of a terrible war. The opinion has been expressed that it would then be well to remove everything from the ships that is of any value, sell it and give the proceeds to charities of an international nature, and then take the vessels out and sink them. This to apply to all the capital ships, submarines etc. I hope this will be done. It will be in the line of the reduction of armaments. There is no use increasing the strength of our Fleet by the addition of any of the German vessels and the same applies to other Fleets. I should like to see an example of this kind so that it will convey the impression that no seaman would ever care to serve on board the vessels of a nation which had violated all of the traditions and chivalry of the sea.Of course you may imagine how much I wish that you could have seen this spectacle, but of course this was a man’s job and there were no ladies on board. The King did not go out to see the delivery of the vessels. He said to me that he was not going because it would seem like “rubbing it in.”. . .

          There is very great interest over here over the proposed visit of the President.8 The tentative arrangements are published in THE TIMES [(London)] this morning. THE TIMES also gives extracts from American papers criticising the action of the President in proposing to come over here and remain during most of the Peace Conference.9 The Foreign Affairs Committee of our Senator’s House seem to be disposed to take the bit in their teeth. I think the President could probably settle the matter by bringing them over with him. These are certainly interesting times! There will doubtless be many difficulties before the Allies reach the common agreement but I am optimistic enough to believe that they will finally arrive at conditions to which they all agree. As a matter of fact they must do so. I think all of them will be impressed with the feeling that the people whom they represent could not possibly stand for anything else. . . .

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 10.

Footnote 1: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Cmdr. John V. Babcock, Capt. Luke McNamee, and Capt. Byron A. Long were all members of Sims’ staff in London. Cmdr. Harold R. Stark was secretary to Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 2: RAdm. Hugh Rodman, Commander, Battleship Division Nine. Rodman’s squadron had been operating as part of the British Grand Fleet.

Footnote 3: Adm. Sir David Beatty, Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet.

Footnote 4: Ethel Beatty and King George V. The seating plan referred to was not included with this copy.

Footnote 5: Sims is mistaken (or perhaps deliberately obscuring embarrassing information about a fellow naval officer’s personal life). Ethel Beatty’s first husband, Arthur Tree, was very much alive at this time. She had abandoned him and their six-year-old son to marry Beatty in 1901. The two sons Sims refers to, David and Peter, were both born during her marriage to Beatty. Massie, Castles of Steel: 84-90.

Footnote 6: Beatty’s eldest son, David, entered the Royal Naval College at Osborne in 1918 and went on to a career in the Royal Navy and Parliament. Stephen Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, The Last Naval Hero: An Intimate Biography (London: Collins, 1980), 262.

Footnote 7: In a handwritten note in the margin, Sims comments that “I should not like to serve on one of them. It would be quite different in the case of a vessel captured in battle from an honorable enemy.”

Footnote 8: Woodrow Wilson. For a discussion of Wilson’s role at the Peace Conference, Republican criticism, and his ultimate inability to secure Senate ratification of the final treaty, see: Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: 454-534.

Footnote 9: A handwritten note in the margin reads “I will go out to meet the President in 3 battleships.”