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

October 15th, 1917.

My dear Admiral,

          Since writing you my last letter1 I have ascertained that the British Government has informed our Government that the British Admiralty has recommended certain of our officers and enlisted men for certain distinctions which are accorded to the personnel of their Navy vessels under like circumstances.

          This matter has hung fire for a considerable time. I was of course informed when Admiral Bayly2 recommended to the Admiralty that these officers and men should receive these distinctions. I was informed that they were approved by the Admiralty and that if approved by the Government this information would be conveyed to our Embassy. I was waiting for this to take place before taking up the matter with the Department and I did not know until recently that the matter had been referred through the British Government to our Government without having it come through the Embassy.

          I need not say I am sure, how beneficial I think the effect would be if the facts should be published that these distinctions have been recommended for our people. The effect on the morale of the personnel of all the forces over here, would, I believe, be very great. The refusal to allow this fact to be published would have a decidedly detrimental effect because the British vessels with which our vessels are serving, are accorded these distinctions when they perform a service similar to that in question.

          The D.S.O.3 is given as a reward for the kind of work and for the performance of duty which they think most desirable. It has no necessary connection with gallantry or bravery in action or with the success of the act for which the distinction is given. It is a reward for a demonstration of efficiency and an encouragement to others to follow the same example. In one of the cases in question a submarine was encountered, the correct orders were given to helm, and the personnel instantly handled handled the engines without the slightest delay and the whole operation showed that the personnel of the ship and its organization were entirely efficient. It showed that the organization worked automatically and that the proper thing was done instantly by all hands though the captain did not happen to be on the Bridge at the time. As I remember the case, Admiral Bayly estimated that there was a 75% chance that the submarine was destroyed, but the D.S.O. was given for the demonstrated efficiency of the ship’s company – a D.S.O. was given for the Commanding Officer, a similar but less distinction for the officer of the deck, and one for the quartermaster or look out and for the man in charge of the engines.

          You can imagine that the knowledge of the recommendation of these distinctions has had its effect in the Flotilla; and I think you will readily see that a refusal on the part of our Government to allow these distinctions to be received would have a bad effect.

          Here is another important matter which I have had in mind for a long time but which I have not heretofore mentioned because it was only recently that I found out that is materially possible, and that is, the question of our forces over here manning and operating one of the so called mystery ships (“Q” Ships) under the American flag.4

          Queenstown is one of the principal bases from which these ships operate and our people are not only familiar with them but are acquainted with those officers, like Captain Campbell, who have won the most distinctions.5 They have also listened to talks of these captains that have been arranged for them. This has excited a very pronounced ambition to take a part in this kind of warfare. Many of the officers spoke to me on the subject. Admiral Bayly highly approved of the idea. When I mentioned it to Admiral Jellicoe6 he also at once approved of it and said that the Admiralty would be willing to give us the first mystery ship available. Just the other day I was informed that one of Captain Campbell’s former commands of this type, is no completing her repairs at Devonport. She is fully equipped and fully armed and we could man her by two volunteers from each one of the destroyers, - about seventy men.

          Of course, I have looked into the legal aspects of the case and I am informed by a communication from the Admiralty that under certain conditions we could operate the vessel under our flag, returning her to the British Admiralty subsequently, except in case of her loss, in which latter case she would be written off the books in the same manner as if she had been lost under the British Flag.

          In the meantime, as the vessel will be ready for sea about the end of this month, I am cabling you about it.

          There seems to be a general impression that the energy and ingenuity of our people might make a venture of this kind quite successful. In any event, as one of the officers at Queenstown expressed it, our people are wild to have a vessel. This being true, it is manifest that if we are allowed to man her it will have a fine effect on the Flotilla.

          I have finally come to the conclusion that I was no longer entrusting the safety of our convoys to vessels under the command of Admiral Fletcher.7 This has been a subject of very considerable anxiety to me for some time. Twice I have sent a Liaison Officer8 and both Twining and I have talked over the matter with him.9 We have laid down explicitly his and my responsibility in the matter. Fletcher is a perfectly earnest and in a way competent man, but for this particular business he has certainly not been successful. The trouble appears to be that he cannot trust anybody with many of the details of the administration. The he has a very considerable personnel, he complains that he has had to work for eighteen hours a day. He has not formed an organization which will leave him free enough to give his personal attention to some of the important stations under his command. It is for this reason that I have decided that Admiral Wilson should be transferred to Brest and Admiral Fletcher take his place at Gibraltar.10 The latter position I think he could handle satisfactorily, as he will not be required to manage anything except from one locality.

          While of course I regret the necessity of this move, I think it is entirely necessary under the circumstances.

Believe me,

                   Very sincerely yours,

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 49. Following the close, the letter is addressed as follows: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.N./Chief of Operations,/Navy Dept./Washington.D.C.”

Footnote 2: VAdm. Sir Lewis Bayly, R.N., Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Ireland.

Footnote 3: The Distinguished Service Order was awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers of the armed forces in wartime, usually for acts undertaken in combat.

Footnote 4: One of the recommendations of the naval conference that Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, attended in London in September was the use of more special service ships (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, Destroyer Flotilla, Queenstown; see Sims to Pringle, 12 October 1917. In late October the Admiralty did turn over one of is ships, H.M.S. Pargust, to the Americans, who turned it into the U.S.S. Santee. Still, Crisis at Sea, 475.

Footnote 5: Capt. Alexander V. Campbell. During his service, Campbell was made a member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) as well as receiving a DSO.

Footnote 6: First Seal Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 7: RAdm. William B. Fletcher, Commander, Patrol Squadron Based on French Coast.

Footnote 8: This liaison was Cmdr. Joseph F. Daniels. According to Cmdr. Byron A. Long, an aide on Sims’ staff, Daniels had been sent to France because of “a lack of confidence in the way in which affairs were maintained on the coast of France.” DNA, RG 125, Entry 30, Box No. 245. Daniels had been instrumental in working with the American destroyers based at Queenstown including the creation of general destroyer operating instructions and Sims had hoped Daniels would assist Fletcher in a similar fashion. Ibid. See also: Daniels to Sims, 28 September 1917.

Footnote 9: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ Chief of Staff.

Footnote 10: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson. Before Sims’ proposed swap of commanders could take place, the transport Antilles was torpedoed and sunk on 17 October, a result, Sims concluded, of the transport not being “sufficiently convoyed.” Such an occurrence made it impossible for Fletcher’s transfer to take place as the British-according to testimony by Sims and Twining at a later Court of Inquiry regarding Fletcher’s dismissal-were highly displeased with the Vice Admiral. Consequently, Fletcher was recalled to the United States, a decision that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels approved: Diary of Josephus Daniels, 6 November 1917 and 5 December 1917. Wilson took command of the patrol squadrons in France on 1 November, and RAdm. Albert P. Niblack replaced Wilson in Gibraltar. See: Sims to Wilson, 13 October 1917, Sims to Pratt, 15 October 1917, and Sims to Pringle, 19 October 1917. See also, Sims to Fletcher, 27 September 1918, DNA, RG 80. For Sims and Twining’s comments, see, Fletcher Court of Inquiry, DNA, RG 125, Case 10662.

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