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

October 15th. 1917.

My dear Pratt,

          Just a few items of gossip for this week.

          Proctor has been down here <to be> talking over matters in the Azores with us. He gives us rather a new point of view about conditions there and we agree with his view of the case.1 We understand that the base is held by a monitor accompanied by submarines, and that the vessel now there will be attached to Wilson’s force.2 If Cause<y>3 is in command is in command of the monitor I think he will be a very good man. I have serious doubts about Osterhaus as I don’t think he is quite the type of man we should have there.4 Probably this matter will arrange itself without necessitating any changes.

          Proctor has given us a most amusing account of the porpoise torpedo attacks against the old PANTHER on the way over. He says that even a torpedo can’t look any more like a torpedo than a porpoise making a run in phosphorescent water. We have experienced the same thing a number of times and doubtless others will in the future.

          I find now that the question of some of our people being authorized to accept the D.S.O. and other minor honors from the British Government has been sent over through diplomatic channels.5 I had been given to understand that if the recommendation of Admiral Bayly6 was approved by the Admiralty the matter would be presented to our Embassy here, and that then I could take it up with the Department. It appears, however, that it has already been sent over.

          I need not say, I am sure, how important I believe it is that our officers and men should be authorized to received these honours while the war is going on. If our Government declines to allow them to be accepted I am sure it will have the opposite effect.

          At all events, I think the fact should be published that our people have been recommended for these distinctions. The actual acceptance of the honour does not cut so much ice.

          Ever since I have been over here our people at Queenstown have been wild to have a mystery ship under their own command.7 After considering this carefully for a good while, I took it up with Admiral Bayly. He approves of it most highly. I mentioned it to Admiral Jellicoe8 and he at once agreed to give us a ship as soon as one was available. A ship of about 2500 tons, and thoroughly fitted up as a mystery ship is completing her repairs in Devonport and will be finished about the end of the month. We can man her by taking about two volunteers from each destroyer and replacing them by other men on the station. We can also supply the officers.

          I have enquired into the legality of the matter and I find that during this war it has been the practice among the Allies, to loan each other vessels. The Japanese are now manning some destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea that belong to Great Britain. The same is true of other British vessels now manned by a French personnel. All that is necessary is the consent of the Government to the condition laid down. I am telegraphing today for permission to man this vessel.

          The destroyers from the Azores have arrived at Queenstown and are being fitted with the depth charge apparatus and so forth. The individual vessels will make a trip to sea with some of the experienced vessels escorting convoys, so as to get this essential experience. Then they will be sent to Brest.9

          I am very sorry to say that the conditions are not at all satisfactory at Brest and not too satisfactory at Paris. My relations with the French are as you know, everything that could be desired, but there are certain annoying frictions among our own personnel.10

          At Brest unfortunately, conditions are such as to give me very serious anxiety. The man there [Fletcher] seems incapable of grasping the situation. He does not seem able, with all his personnel, to form an organization which will ensure success, but insists upon handling every possible detail himself.11 It is for this reason that I have decided that it will be better to shift Wilson to Brest and let Fletcher take his place at Gibraltar.12 Before this reaches you I will probably send a telegram to the Department on this subject. I feel impelled to do this on account of the responsibility I bear for the safety of our troops and the transports bringing in supplies. It would not be wise to trust this to a man who can’t get his nose off his desk and who apparently think he can’t afford the time to look things personally at St. Nazaire, Bordeaux and so forth. Wilson is a man of energy and initiative. He has not my ideas of administration, but I think he would handle the job all right.

          You have an account by this time of the torpedoing of the Drake.13 I happened to see a copy of the report of the Commanding Officer when I was at Queenstown. She had been escorting a big convoy and in accordance with orders had turned it over to the destroyer escort and was proceeding at 19 knots and zig-zagging when she was torpedoed wholly without warning. She did not see the periscope before the torpedo was fired or the submarine afterwards. They got the vessel into port in shallow water after which her bulkheads gave way and she collapsed.

          This is an illuminating example of the efficiency of guns alone on a big ship as a defence against torpedo attack.

          As I mentioned to you some time ago I have been thinking for some time of having Babby14 go home and spend a couple of weeks in the Department and return here.

          He was rather of the opinion that it would be a good scheme first to write over and get different people in the Department and in the Bureaus to send over a list of questions they would like to have answered so that he could dig out the stuff before he went over.

          This would be a good scheme provided it would work but I have my doubts about it. My experience has been that if you ask people to formulate questions of this kind they will give you a few but not many; but if you have a talk with them, a great many questions will come up in the course of conversation that you would not get hold of otherwise. I think that if Babby went over and saw the different people they would shower him with questions, some of which he could answer, but many of which, being of an intimate technical nature, he could not answer. He could, however, take down these questions and bring back a raft of them to this side. We could easily dig out the answers to them.

          I have been on this business of collecting information a good many years and it has always been my experience that one is were largely hampered by not knowing the things which the Department particularly wish<ed> to know about. I do not mean the Department in the sense of an entity but I mean a great many of the people in the Bureaus want questions answered which never reach the fellow who is on the field where the information can be gained.

          Besides all this, I feel very sure that if you people could chew  the rag with a man like Babby for a couple of weeks, he could bring back here a better view of your ideas on a great variety of subjects than we could get in any other way.

          Do not however, let anything I have just said on this subject, convey the impression that I think this is the best thing to do, for I don’t. In my opinion the best thing to do would be for one of you fellows to come over here where the information that you want is available and let us dig out what he wants and in the meantime he will inform us as to your views on many subjects.

          I hold this view very strongly, as you know. I think it is a great pity, as you also know, that some of you fellows did not come over with Admiral Mayo.

          I think one of the most useful things that could happen would be for Admiral Benson15 himself to come over and bring with him a number of experts in various lines. I am sure he would go back enlightened to a degree that I have not been able to accomplish.

          I was told recently that the British Government, or the British Admiralty, I don’t just know which, has suggested that it would be advantageous if some officials of the Navy Department should come over here with their experts and pay a visit. I believe it would be extremely useful if the Secretary16 should come over, but the finest thing of all would be for the world to come to their breakfast tables some fine morning and find that President Wilson17 had landed in London for a conference with the Allies. There is nothing that I can think of that would have the moral effect that this would have. I have in mind a mental picture of President Wilson driving through the streets of London, Paris and Rome. There can be no possible doubt of the tremendous effect this would have, and I believe it is equally certain that this trip would be of enormous benefit to the President in making some of the grave decisions that he has to make.

          I have talked over with Jackson, (O.P.)18 this question of Babby going over to the other side. He will explain the advantages to you, as I see them, and perhaps to Admiral Benson.

          Perhaps what he says would cause the suggestion of this visit to come from the other side. I would like it to be that way. I am informing you of it in advance so that if the question is discussed in Washington you will know my views, and if you approve of them you may be able to do something in the way of having the suggestion come from Washington which would be better in all respects.

          One reason that I would like this to be done is that it has <been> brought to my attention a number of times that both cables and letters of mine have not conveyed the impression which I intended, although the language used was sufficiently precise. The trouble is, the everybody reads between the lines of every piece of typewriting he sees. In other words he sees it from his own point of view.

          To illustrate what I mean, if it has ever happened to you to write a man a letter and then deliver the letter in person, you must have noticed the amount of explanation that has been required to make the other fellow understand the letter as you intended it should be understood.

          This is a serious war and nothing should be neglected which we think will make our co-operation more successful.

          I am writing a short letter to Admiral Benson by this mail and I assume that he will be likely to show it to you.19

          Let me again congratulate you upon the advent of young Bill Pratt. Though you speak of this young person with an assumed air of indifference I fancy you are about as “dippy” about it <him> as the Madame is.

          Everything is going along reasonably well here, except that the volume of the work is growing and it holds all of my people tight down to their desks. I do so want to be able to put some people into the Admiralty and to have some people who have the leisure to discuss important matters with me.

          Don’t forget that this billet carries with it a very heavy responsibility. I am not complaining of this because I am so constituted that responsibility does not oppress me in the slightest and does not get on my nerves in any degree. The only anxiety I have is as to whether the decisions that I have to make are as wise as they should be. It is for this reason that I would feel more confidence in these decisions if my assistants had the time to give me more assistance than can be had except in comparatively hurried consultation.

          Last week I wrote to Admiral Benson and recommended that he allow me five officers of a certain type.20 The intention was to have these officers work in the Admiralty and keep me informed of everything that was doing there. You can imagine that with such officers working there, our task here would be so lightened that I could decide matters then only after consideration so mature that I could feel convinced that all possible points had been considered. I hope that this matter will be considered with all the gravity which I believe it deserves.

          I enclose herewith a number of photographs which show with it looks like on a destroyer in the Irish Sea when there is a bit of wind.21 These were taken on the bridge of the PORTERWortman’s ship.22

With best wishes,

                   Very sincerely yours,

 

 

Captain W.V.Pratt, U.S.N.

     Office of Operations,

          Navy Department,

              Washington.D.C.

 

P.S. I have just received news of the torpedoing of Vernon’s destroyer, the CASSIN, but have no details beyond the fact that one engine and steering gear is disabled, another destroyer standing by, one man killed and five wounded.23

I have an idea that up to the present time the Hun Subs have been letting our boats alone and using their torpedoes on merchant vessels.

P.S.

          I understand and very much admire the reasons given by Admiral Benson for requesting you not to show him any more of my letters to you. I don’t know of anything done in a finer spirit by any officer of my acquaintance. I think, however, that you should be the judge as to whether there is anything in my letters that are is liable to irritate in the manner and to the extent which he indicated. It seems to me that you could take any one of my letters to him and say “there is nothing in this letter which you should not see. It is not the kind of a letter which you asked me not to show to you.”

          I think it would be well for you to show him this letter. I think this because there is a psychological difference between reading a letter that is addressed to a person and reading a letter that is addressed to someone else. The assumption is that each letter is written with a view of its being read only by the person to whom it is addressed. However, you must use your judgment in this matter in accordance with the eternal war principle of trusting the judgment of the man on the spot. I hardly need remind you of the necessity of keeping this principle always in mind.

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 78.

Footnote 1: Capt. André M. Proctor, Commanding Officer, PANTHER. For some of Proctor’s views and recommendations, see: Sims to Benson, 15 October 1917.

Footnote 2: Adm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, Patrol Squadron, Gibraltar.

Footnote 3: Lt. Lewis D. Causey.

Footnote 4: Cmdr. Hugo Osterhaus Jr.

Footnote 5: 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. See: Sims to Benson, 9 October 1917, Sims to Pringle, 12 October 1917, and Sims to Benson, 15 October 1917.

Footnote 6: VAdm. Sir Lewis Bayly, R.N., Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Ireland.

Footnote 7: 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 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) and Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations (see: Sims to Benson, 15 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 8: First Sea Lord Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 9: These were the American destroyers Reid, Flusser, Preston, Lamson and Smith, and were accompanied by PANTHER as their tender. These destroyers belonged to the 700-ton Flusser class, carried a battery of five 3.5 inch guns, were coal-burning, and capable of steaming at 28 knots. Still, Crisis at Sea, 390. According to Reid’s war diary, this division of destroyers departed the Azores on 5 October 1917, arriving at Queenstown on 16 October. Part of the division left for Brest on 19 October and the remainder on 21 October. George M. Battey, Jr., 70,000 Miles on a Submarine Destroyer or, The Reid Boat in the World War (Atlanta, The Webb & Vary Company, 1919), 48, 65. See also: Benson to Sims, 24 September 1917.

Footnote 10: The personnel “causing friction” were RAdm. William B. Fletcher, Commander, United States Naval Forces in France, and Capt. Richard H. Jackson, Special Representative to the French Ministry of Marine.

Footnote 11: According to Cmdr. Byron A. Long, an aide on Sims’ staff, Sims sent a member of his staff, Cmdr. Joseph F. Daniels, to Brest to assist Fletcher, largely 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 12: 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 Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ Chief of Staff, at a later Court of Inquiry regarding Fletcher’s dismissal-were highly displeased with the Rear 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 Benson, 15 October 1917, and Sims to Pringle, 19 October 1917. See also, Sims to Fletcher, 27 Sept. 1918, DNA, RG 80. For Sims and Twining’s comments, see, Fletcher Court of Inquiry, DNA, RG 125, Case 10662.

Footnote 13: The armored cruiser HMS Drake was torpedoed and sunk by U-79 on 2 October 1917.

Footnote 14: Cmdr. John V. Babcock, one of Sims’ aides.

Footnote 15: Adm William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 16: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

Footnote 17: President Woodrow Wilson.

Footnote 18: Capt. Orton P. Jackson, Mayo’s Chief of Staff.

Footnote 19: See: Sims to Benson, 15 October 1917.

Footnote 20: See: Sims to Benson, 9 October 1917.

Footnote 21: These photographs are no longer with this letter.

Footnote 22: Lt. Cmdr. Ward K. Wortman.

Footnote 23: “Vernon” is a typographical error on Sims’ part; Sims meant Lt. Cmdr. Walter N. Vernou instead. For additional information on the sinking of CASSIN, see: War Diary of USS CASSIN, 15 October 1917.

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