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 Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations


U. S. S. MELLVILLE, Flagship.

30 Grosvenor Gardens,                  

London, S. W. 1.   

[10 October 1917]

FROM:     Force Commander

TO  :     Navy Department (Operations)

SUBJECT:  Inefficient handling of convoys.

REFERENCES:    (a) My Cable to Operations No. 687 of September 27, 19171

(b) Department’s cable to me, Opnav, 548, of September 28, 1917.2

     1.   In my cable, Reference (a), I expressed the opinion that unless prompt measures were adopted to improve handling of vessels in convoys bound to St. Nazaire, and to bring the vessels in such convoys under strict discipline, disaster was inevitable. By the word “disaster” I intended to cover losses of transports or losses of escorting vessels.

     2.   The Departments reply gives certain information regarding the present methods of control of transports, stated that Commanders of Cruiser Force and the Commander of Squadron 2, Cruiser Force,3 had control of all convoys operations under the Department’s jurisdiction, and expressed the hope that the situation was not so grave as the language of my cable indicated.

     3.   I may state in general explanation of my cable that the method of handling convoys being within the jurisdiction of the Commander of the Cruiser Force and the details ofthe command of transports being under the jurisdiction ofthe Department, I would not concern myself with these matters at all except for the fact that during the last portion of their voyage these vessels must be protected by escorts from the Forces under my command. The extent which this protection can be afforded depends very greatly on the rules and instructions under which the individual vessels operate, and under which the convoys are protected up to the time they reachmy jurisdiction.

     4.   On August 30, I addressed a letter File No. 9/9/4, to the Department commenting in general terms on the behavior of the convoy constituting Group 6 of troop transports on its approach to the French Coast, and quoted therein certain extracts from reports made by the Commanding Officers of the SHAW and JACOB JONES.4

     5.   The behavior of the vessels of the convoy on this occasion showed lack of discipline, and either incomplete instruction or disregard of instructions. It also endangered not only themselves, but had there been submarines in the vicinity, but the escorting vessels.

     6.   I did not, in the letter referred to quote all of the reports that were received regarding this convoy, nor did I think it necessary now to do so, as the extracts already furnished sufficiently indicate the basis for my statement that such conduct On the part of the transports must ultimately result in some disaster. For the Department’s convenience I enclose a copy of the letter referred to.

     7.   On September 5th the escorting yachts joined supply ships. Convoy consisted of the MONTANA, DAKOTAN, EDWARD LUCKENBACH, and EL OCCIDENTE, these vessels forming part of a larger convoy escorted by the British Cruiser Roxborough, the escort consisting of the U. S. S. CORSAIR and the French gunboat OISE.

     8.   After the vessels had been taken under escort and had proceeded about five miles EL OCCIDENTE turned out of the formation and slowed down on account of having sighted a ship’s boat of the S. S. MARIA with four dead men in it; EL OCCIDENTE stopped to investigate it. The Commanding Officer of the CORSAIR5 ordered her to rejoin the convoy immediately, and to cease using her signal searchlight, it being then about 6:00 p.m.

     9.   On rejoining her position the CORSAIR found that the transport had formed in line, although they had been ordered to form column on the MONTANAN. He also found that they were communicating with each other by signal searchlights, which it was necessary for him to order them to discontinue as it was [by] now 7:30 p.m. and it was gettingdark.

     10.  The vessels paid no attention to the signals to form column, but continued in line covering about four miles front. It was not until 10:00 p.m. that the CORSAIR succeed[d]ed in getting the vessels into column, and in order to do this without excessive signaling, it was necessary to go close aboard and hail each one.

     11.  At 7:45 the next morning the MONTANAN opened fire at what is stated by the Commanding Officer of the CORSAIR to have been a large fish, about one mile distant, on the port beam. The fish was clearly seen and distinguished by observers on the CORSAIR when it jumped from the water twice and swam away.

     12.  The MONTANAN then pointed away to the Southwest; a few minutes later a school of porpoises appeared and all ofthe vessels of the convoy opened fire, which was widely dispersed and apparently not aimed at any visible object. The shells from the EDWARD LUCKENBACH struck the water about 500 yards from her; the shells from the MONTANAN landed abreast of the CORSAIR at from 200 to 500 yards distance, fortunately none of them burst.

     13.  The vessels of the convoy then proceeded seaward at top-speed, making it necessary for the CORSAIR to pursue them and make signals for them to stop. At 8:20 a.m. the CORSAIR succeeded in stopping the stampede, got the convoy into column and resumed course at 12 knots speed.

     14.  Shortly after the convoy was straightened out the LUCKEBACH fired one shot, apparently at a flock of sea-gulls on her port beam, butthis, fortunately, did not cause any confusion, and the convoyproceeded to its destination.

     15.  In distinction to the instances [above] sited, the handling of troop convoy No. 8, which was joined by escorting destroyers at 9:45 a.m. October 3rd, was excellent. The speed of this convoy had been so regulated that a land fall would be made at 8 a.m. October 5th, and this was accomplished. There was no straggling or dispersion of the convoy, no apparent lack of discipline, or attention to instructions, and the Commanding officer of the escorting destroyers makes the following statement in his report.

     “The convoy commander asked and accepted advice in matters of course, speed, and formation, cooperation being excellent.”

     16.  As an in[d]ication of what large convoys can do when properly instructed and controlled, I may cite the case of the ANTRIM convoy, which arrived at a rendezvous on October 1st. This convoy consisted of twenty-eight merchant ships, escorted by H. M. S. ANTRIM.

     17.  The Commanding Officer of the WADWORTH6 states:

     “The excellent station kept by the merchant vessels shows that they are greatly improving in this respect ****** It is believed that at no time during the time the convoys were under escort, was a light of any description shown at night by any vessel ***** One of the British destroyers in outer screen sighted a submarine and dropped three depth charges the ships of the convoy made simultaneous 8-point turn to left in obedience to signal from H. M. S. ANTRIM. After streaming for fifty minutes on this course the original base course was resumed by all ships making simultaneous 8-point turn. These maneuvers were executed with precision and without any signs of confusion”.

     18.  It would be unjust to the Masters of American Merchant Vessels to assume that they are not capable of handling their vessels with the same skill as the Masters of the vessels of miscellaneous nationalities composing the ANTRIM convoy and other similar convoys. In view, however, of the fact that on our Army transports and supply ships there are in addition to the Master of the vessel certain other officers in positions of authority, I am strongly of the opinion, as stated in my cablegram, that the best, quickest, and surest means of bringing about a satisfactory condition as to their handling, is to place regular Naval Officers in command, such officers to be of such rank as to command respect and obedience.

     19.  I understand that for sometime past regular officers had been assigned to troop transports, and I have been further informed, perhaps incorrectly, that until a day or two prior to the sailing of the MONTANAN and other vessels of her group, two or three Naval Officers had been attached to each one, but that just prior to sailing all were detached with the exception of an Armed Guard Officer on each ship, and that he was not sure of his status, whether in command of the ship or merely of the Armed Guard.

Wm. S. Sims.       

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. Document: “Reference No. B 1279.”

Footnote 3: Capt. Harry S Knapp, Commander, Cruiser Force, and Cmdr. David F. Sellers, Commander, Squadron 2, Cruiser Force.

Footnote 4: Lt. Cmdr. Milton S. Davis, Commander, SHAW, and Lt. Cmdr. William S. Pye, Commander, JACOB JONES. See: Sims to Josephus Daniels, 30 August 1917.

Footnote 5: Lt. Cmdr. Theodore A. Kittinger, Commander, CORSAIR.

Footnote 6: Cmdr. Joseph K. Taussig, Commander, Wadsworth.

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