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Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations


October 9th. 1917.

My dear Admiral.

     I have just returned from a visit to Queenstown. I went there with Admiral Mayo1 who remained about two days. He of course saw all the destroyer people who were in port, and his staff had a general talk on their specialties. They will doubtless report fully on what they saw. I have every reason to believe that Admiral Mayo was pleased with what he saw.

     While I was there I attended a conference that lasted all day on the subject of training both officers and men for any new destroyers that may be sent out. The Department cabled to us on this subject and we replied that we were very much in favour of it. The result of the conference will be forwarded as soon as it is received, which will be in a few days. It outlines a scheme which I believe to be entirely practicable and which I believe will ensure every new boat being gotten into an efficient condition of training for this peculiar warfare in the shortest possible space of time, and this without decreasing the efficiency of the boats already operating.2

     Of course it is unnecessary to say that the pressure for destroyers is very severe, not only at Queenstown, but at every other base from which they are operating. It is perfectly apparent that more efficient work could be done with the convoys now running if there were more destroyers. Other convoys would be put into operation as soon as the necessary cruisers and destroyers can be supplied.

     It would also be very desirable if, in addition to the destroyer<s> acting as escorts, there were a certain number to be used for making direct war against every submarine that is located. When this can be done by a number of destroyers, four or five, it absolutely ensures that that submarine can do no more business at least during the daylight of that day, and if a good guess is made as to where he goes in the succeeding night he may be kept out of business the following day.

     This type of warfare will become very much more efficient when kite balloons are supplied to the destroyers.3 The Admiralty has sent some balloon officers to Queenstown to pick out a location for six sheds for these balloons.

     Of course, all this warfare is in the future, but it will come into operation if the war lasts a considerable time, as now seems probable.

     Since Sir Eric Geddes came in as First Lord,4 he has been permitting the publication of brief descriptions of action between naval vessels and submarines. These relate the main features of the encounter without giving either date or location or name of the vessels concerned. I think it would have a very good effect in America if we should follow the same policy. Each week we send in summaries of the war diaries of the destroyers. These summaries are to save the people in the Department digging out the same information from all the war diaries. They relate just such incidents as those indicated above, except that they give the name, location, date and do [i.e., so] forth. If the latter were removed they could be given directly to the Press and I am sure they would be read with interest. Of course it could be stated that the incidents referred to the actions of American destroyers. It might have a good effect also to copy from British publications some of those incidents that have been published here.

     As no dates are to be given, the incidents that have already been reported during the past month could be utilized to interest the public.

     Some time ago the Commander-in-Chief at Queenstown5 recommended some Commanding Officers and some other officers and some of the enlisted men for various distinctions as a reward for excellent work done in the anti-submarine campaign. His recommendations were approved by the Admiralty, and I understood that if approved by the British government in due form, a notification would be sent to the Embassy in London.

     I understand now, without being entirely sure, that the matter has been referred to our Government through the British Ambassador in London.6 I will let you know specifically about this within a few days.

     In the meantime, however, I would like to say that I think it would have a splendid effect upon our entire personnel on this side if means could be taken to allow these distinctions to be accepted. The principle distinction is the D.S.O. or Distinguished Service Order.

     But even if our Government would not allow these to be received, or even if there were great delay in getting authorization, I still think it would have a very good effect if the fact were published that certain officers of certain American destroyers were recommended by the British Government for these distinctions. I will give you further information about this later. I would have done so before, except that I was waiting for information to be sent to the Embassy.

     It is a matter of great gratification to me that Cone7 has arrived on this side to take charge of aviation, which is destined to be very important, I believe, before this war is over. He is now on a tour of inspection of the British Stations and those sites that are proposed for our installations. He will then make a similar tour in France and will then be prepared to make recommendations upon which we can rely. It is a very big and very important administrative job, and I believe Cone will be one of the best men to handle it.   

     The case of Parente,8 who unfortunately and accidentally killed a man in Queenstown, with whom he had a dispute about a girl, has now gone to the Courts. He had a preliminary trial in Queenstown before a body which corresponds approximately to our Grand Jury and this body decided that he should go before the Assizes. His trial will take place in December. In the meantime he is out on bail and has been returned to the Melville. There was no evidence at all that there was any intent on his part to kill the other man. It was a fisticuff fight of the most ordinary character and would have resulted in no particular damage if the man who Parente struck had not fallen and struck his head on the curb. Parente is represented by a very good solicitor from Cork and his case will be watched by the Executive officer of the Melville.

     I omitted to state that we are fortunate in finding four large storehouse buildings that are very suitable for the barracks which the Department proposes we should establish here for training our men. These buildings are located within a mile or so of the anchorage of the Melville. They were abandoned as storehouses and when the channel all the way to Cork was deepened some years ago. They have been used by the British Government as barracks for troops and will serve admirably our purposes.

     While I was at Queenstown I went down to Waterford with Admiral Bayly and saw the German submarine – U.C.44 – which was blown up by one of her own mines a couple of months ago.9

     She was gotten up from a depth of about fifteen fathoms and is now in a small port and is high and dry on the beach when the tide is out. I have had our Naval Constructor and Daniels,10 sent down there and they will make a report upon it. She is also being examined very minutely by the British Admiralty and they find many things of interest.

     You may not remember that she went down with all hands on board with the exception of the Captain and two men who escaped in <from> the tower. Both men were drowned but the captain was picked up.

     To me the most remarkable feature of the boat is that a crew of twenty odd men could live in her for two or three weeks. She is astonishingly encumbered by machinery and the spaces inside are very small and life on board must have been poisonous, particularly in heavy weather.

     They find that her machinery and all her equipment is very well worked out and that her torpedoes are as good as any torpedoes that the inspectors have seen. She has one very peculiar feature, and that is that her two torpedo tubes forward are on the outside of the boat though the one aft is inside. She carried eighteen mines and was about four to five hundred tons displacement. She was built in 1916 and has an apparently efficient net cutter both above and below her clipper built bow.

     I have recently seen the interrogatory of the twentyfive men who were captured from the U.C.61 which went ashore on the Belgian Coast in the latter part of last July.

     I think the attention of our submarine people should be called specifically to this report. A translation of the interrogatory was sent to O.N.I. and it is dated August 31st. 1917.11

     There were many things in it which surprised me considerably.

     This vessel made in all five cruises, including the one on which she was wrecked. Two of these cruises were wholly unsuccessful due to machinery defects. One of these defects is so serious that the boat had to steam two and a half days on the surface to get back to port and she had the luck not to be seen.

     On all of these cruises this boat passed the Dover Straits on the surface over the weir. I have previously reported that on her last trip she went around the north of Scotland to get into the Channel but the interrogatory showed that this was a yarn that the crew tried to put over but did not succeed.

     A very surprising feature of the interroga[to]ry is the explicit statement of the officers that this class of minelayers are built in five different German yards, and that all of the details of the installations are different in all five yards. The Engineer officer of the U.C.61 complained of having been obliged each time he changed from one boat to another, to make a complete study of the installations and their details.

     The officers stated that before they left port they were given specific instructions as to where to plant mines. That is, the exact location was given them, or least within narrow limits.   

     This is also borne out by an examination of the mines on board of the U.C.44. These were all set for planting in a certain depth of water. They must be so set when the mines are placed on board, and cannot be changed after the vessel leaves port.

     The officers stated that “the most dangerous weapon against the submarine is the destroyer”.

     A rather surprising statement confirmed by the entire interrogatory, is that the designation of both officers and men are made independent of their wishes. Volunteers are invited but few volunteer. There was only one on the U.C.61.

     There was “a clear declaration (from five prisoners) that they never would have embarked on board submarines to lead a hard and fatiguing life if they had not been designated by orders”.

     The following are some additional quotations from this interrogatory:

     “Commanders are relieved at very frequent intervals”.

     “The German Navy has made a very strong demand on officers of the Reserve, coming from the Merchant Marine in order to make up their complement for submarines.”

     “All the Executive officers of the U.B. and U.C. Classes, and a large number of watch officers of the U.Type, are reserve officers from the Commercial Marine.”

     Each submarine flotilla has a reserve personnel and rated men of all specialties. On each cruise the submarine embarks one or two men from this reserve to complete their practical instruction.

     The reserve personnel also works on board submarines while they are in port or under repairs, and this facilitates placing in condition units returning from sea. This is a good point for our destroyers when we receive the reserve personnel that the department proposes to send.

     This interrogatory states that the Germans have a certain number of torpedo carrying aeroplanes, but that they have not been successful in use.

     The U.C.Type usually carry food for three weeks.

     You will note from the reports to be made by Admiral Mayo the amount of information his large staff was able to dig out in a comparatively short space of time. That sort of work can be accomplished only by men who can devote their exclusive attention each to one specialty.

     Doubtless much of this information will be of no particular use, but also doubtless much of it will be of great interest.

     It was with the object of being able to do this that I was so insistent in requesting more assistance when I first came over here. I am glad to say that the officers and men who have been sent over eased up things very considerably but I think you should know that conditions in this respect cannot be satisfactory to the degree indicated above unless I have a sufficient personnel to be able to keep some of the officers continually at work in departments of the Admiralty. It is only by this daily contact and association that we can keep thoroughly in touch with what is going on. The people at the Admiralty are working to the limit and we cannot expect them to think of and supply us with the things which would be desirable for us.

     As an example of what I mean, I may say that I had hoped that when Twining12 and the others arrived here, they would be able to spend at least a considerable amount of their time working with the people in the Admiralty. It was my intentions and theirs that they should do so, but, unfortunately, the amount of work to be done is continually increasing and has increased to such an extent that this has proved impossible.

     You will realize I am sure, that I am speaking in this respect, only of a certain type of officer. The officer who is the ordinary run of the mine could not advantageously be employed in this manner. It is as specialized and as important a kind of work as that which is being done by your able assistants. The type of man to which I refer are as follows:- Stirling, McNamee, Yarnell, Knox, Coffey, Cotton,13 and so forth. We should have five such officers if we are to carry on this work efficiently and keep you properly informed.

     It would aid us very considerably in our work if the various members of the Navy Department would send over questions which they could [i.e., would] like to have answered. This refers not only to Operations, but to the various Bureaus. I make this observation because officers who arrive here from the other side frequently say that they have been asked in various Bureaus to let us know that they would like to have information about certain subjects. Very often the officers do not clearly recollect what is wanted. If it should be generally known that we would be glad to answer any questions put to us that we find possible, I think it would help things along.

     Needless to say the work over here is pretty strenuous. Also needless to say, I realize the full weight of my responsibility. I am glad to say, however, that I am in perfectly good health and willing to accept all the responsibility which the Department thinks should be placed upon me.

There is another subject upon which I would like to express an opinion, though it is rather a delicate one. Officers who arrive here from the other side frequently bring us criticisms that they have heard in various parts of the Department. Some of these are justified and some of them are not. The former are not at all harmful but the latter may at any time be quite detrimental.

There is nothing that could be of more use to us on this side than perfectly frank criticisms of any or all of our actions. If, therefore, it could be generally understood that we would like to receive such criticisms from anybody who chooses to make them, I think the result would be beneficial.

Very sincerely yours,   

WM. S. SIMS       

Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers. Address below close: Rear Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.N./Bureau of Navigation,/Navy Dept./Washington. D.C.” Sims’ signature appears to be a stamp.

Footnote 1: VAdm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander, United States Atlantic Fleet. For Mayo’s impressions of his visit, see: Mayo to Caroline Wing Mayo, 1 October 1917.

Footnote 2: For more on this plan, see: Sims to Leigh C. Palmer, 8 October 1917.

Footnote 3: For a picture of a kite balloon, see: Illustrations for October 1917.

Footnote 4: Adm. Sir Eric Geddes, First Lord of the British Admiralty.

Footnote 5: VAdm. Lewis Bayly, R.N., Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Ireland.

Footnote 6: This was apparently a typographical error and should have been the American Ambassador in England, who was Walter Hines Page.

Footnote 7: Capt. Hutchison I. Cone was assigned to Sims’ staff and later became the head of his aviation section.

Footnote 9: For more on UC44’s sinking, see: Sims to Sims, 4 October 1917.

Footnote 10: Lt. Cmdr. Joseph F. Daniels, Sims’ liaison with the submarine flotilla at Queenstown; the naval constructor may have been Lt. John G. Church.

Footnote 11: The interrogatory has not been found, but Sims discusses some of its important points later in this report.

Footnote 12: Sims’ Chief of Staff Capt. Nathan C. Twining.

Footnote 13: Cmdr. Yates Stirling; Cmdr. Luke McNamee; Cmdr. Harry Yarnell; Lt. Dudley Knox; Lt. Reuben Coffey; and Cmdr. Lyman A. Cotten.