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 22nd. 1917.

My dear Admiral,

          These are certainly interesting times. the two affairs of greatest interest have been the surprise raid of the two German Cruisers in the North Sea and the Zeppelin attack on the city of London.

          As to the former, it certainly was very successful. Admiral Jellicoe1 showed me the positions on the chart of the North Sea of the five Cruiser Squadrons that were on patrol at the time this raid was made. One was off the North point of Denmark, another off the south-west coast of Norway and three other squadrons to the westward. All these not counting Commodore Tyrwhitt’s squadron which was operating in the Heliogoland Bight.2

          It is believed that the two German fast cruisers [about 34 knots] came out through Danish neutral waters late in the afternoon and made the run during the night to a position of about longitude 0 latitude 60, and met there the convoy from Bergen to the Shetland Isles.

          These convoys have been coming across in the night time and have been met by destroyers and other light escorting vessels at daylight and taken into port.

          This incident shows that of course hereafter convoys will have to be met by a force sufficient to withstand a similar raid. Our force at Queenstown have been immediately informed of the incident an [though] I do not think that there is any probability that a similar raid would be made to the westward of the British Isles as it would make it pretty nearly certain that the raiders would not get back again.3

          I have sent through full details of the attack made on the CASSIN. The official report4 shows that the vessel was very well handled after she was struck, and it was probably due to this  handling that she was not attacked the second time by the submarine. Of course, it was very fortunate that the torpedo struck her so far aft and that the torpedo was breeching and struck her either at or above the water line.

          The CASSIN was out to chase down the submarine that had been reported not far from Queenstown. Her Commanding Officer is a very good man and has his vessel well organized and trained. They were expecting to see the submarine at any time. Nevertheless, she was torpedoed without warning. This illustrates the extreme difficulty of seeing the periscope of a submarine. I have been told that the upper end of the periscope are now nickel plated so that they reflect back the light and color from the waves and that this renders them practically invisible except at a very close distance. Of course the vessel was going full speed and zig-zagging and it could only have been by chance that she came within range of the submarine’s torpedo.

          There have been a number of reports of torpedoes fired at our submarines during the past five months. Doubtless some of these were authentic but I believe a good many of them were porpoises or black fish. While there is no positive evidence that the submarines have been letting us alone, still there is an accumulation of indirect evidence which makes it seem to me very probable that the submarine commanders have had orders not to carry out serious attacks against our destroyers, the American Line steamers, or our transports. I may mention a few of these:

          1st. When we entered the war the Germans did not do the very obvious thing that we all expected them to do, and that is, send a couple of submarines to sink some vessels on our coast, changing their numbers each time they were seen, so as to bring the pressure of public opinion to prevent our destroyers being sent to this side.

          2nd. When it was reported that a torpedo had been fired on the SMITH, it was promptly denied in Germany where it was stated in the Press that this was only a foolish attempt of the Americans to try and establish the fact that Germany had taken serious aggression against us.

          3rd. The American Liners have been coming back and forth practically unmolested. They have been fired at to some extent but there is no evidence of a serious attack. The Germans would be too clever to let all of our ships alone, as this would make their intentions too obvious.

          4th. One of our Consuls who was formerly in Germany, is now in Switzerland: He has stated that German submarine captains go to Switzerland for their rest, where they can get plenty of food and beer and that number of these captains have told him that they had positive orders not to molest any American troop transports; that one of the captains told him that he sighted some of these transports and, without knowing what they were, dived and came up in a position to attack and was about to fire his torpedo when he noticed a great many troops on board. He said that if he fired the torpedo and sunk the transport his career would have been ruined.

          5th. Similar information came through from the Secret Agent in, as I remember, Copenhagen.5

          Of course there have been reports of vicious attacks against our transports, and these have been made in perfectly good faith. but extended experience over here has shown that these may not have been attacks at all. When Proctor6 was coming over in the PANTHER there was a supposed attack against her. [Far to the eastward of the submarine zone.] He was called on the Bridge and witnessed what was apparently the run of one torpedo after another approaching the ship. Some of these passed just across the bow and one actually struck the ship. They turned out to be porpoises running in phosphorescent water. Proctor states that he has never seen a torpedo make a more torpedo-like run than did some of these porpoises. [This occurred at night]

          Of course, if all this is true, it means that the Germans hope that the war will end before America would be of serious assistance to the Allies, and that it would be very desirable from their point of view that it should end without the war spirit of American having been brought to fever heat by the destruction of some of our troops on the way over or some of our vessels operating on this side. Of course it follows that if the Germans become convinced that they cannot end the war immediately through the submarine campaign and that we will become very serious factors in the war, they will then begin their aggression against us. I believe the Germans are approaching this condition of mind, and that we may expect to be more seriously attacked in the future.

          You doubtless have by this time all the details of the recent raid on London and know the disastrous consequence to the Zeppelins. The total result of this raid was the dropping of three large bombs on London and the killing of about thirty people. The cost was the loss or four or five Zepps, and it is supposed that some others will not succeed in getting back. This was the first raid of the Zepps that has taken place over London since about a year. It was of a most peculiar character, as there was no gun fire against the Zeppelins at all. None of them were seen in this vicinity. The noise of their engines which is always distinctly available at a very considerable distance was absent. [A clipping enclosing refers to this.] It is assumed that they were flying very high and that they attempted to determine the direction of the wind, then stop their engines, put out all lights and float over London. The manoeuvre, if this was a manoeuvre, was almost entirely a failure.

          I have been very much distressed indeed over the action which I felt impelled to take in the case of Admiral Fletcher.7 You will understand this when I tell you that he is an old friend of mine and that I have always like him very much. Also that I admire and like his wife very much; that she lives in the same town as my wife and that they are great friends.

          However, such was my anxiety and such my responsibility that I rather tardily made up my mind that he should be detached. This was a week or ten days before our transport was sunk, and I had already given preliminary orders to Admiral Wilson8 to take his place, and was arranging the details of the transfer. It is one of the hardest parts of my duty that such actions have to be taken in spite of personal considerations. I more than suspect that I am a little soft-hearted about such things and that I should have taken this action before. I am very sorry that it was necessary. I am glad that Niblack9 has been selected to take Wilson’s place. I believe he will be a good man for the position.

          I am going down in a couple of days to Paris to establish Cone10 in his relations with the Ministry of Marine and the Air people. He is taking hold of his job with his accustomed ability and I believe things will go along from this time on very satisfactorily.

          My relations with the French Ministry of Marine and French officials in general remain everything that could be desired. As showing you that these relations are not wholly official, I enclose herewith copy of a letter that I have received from Admiral Lacaze11 who has recently retired from the position of Minister of Marine.

          You doubtless know all of the details of the scheme that the Bureau of Navigation has proposed for training personnel on this side to man the new destroyers. We have taken up the subject in conference and have submitted a report as to the details of the operation of the scheme. If this is approved I feel quite confident that we can train men very satisfactorily in the Flotilla and in the Barracks to be established in connection therewith.12

     I believe the scheme will ensure each new boat arriving at the Front with a crew comparatively well trained in the various features of this peculiar warfare; and that this can be done without diminishing the efficiency of the boats already here.

Very sincerely yours,  

WM. S. SIMS       

     P.S. I am sending you by this mail a large pair of binoculars that came out of the U.C.44. She is the submarine that was wrecked by the explosion of one of her own mines. She is now hauled up on the beach in a little port in the South of Ireland. I hardly think the glasses are of any particular use except as a souvenir. They might, however, be interest to some of our optical people. They appear to be a very powerful instrument. A report on the U.S.44 is being made by Lieutenant Commander Daniels13 and a Naval Constructor.

          Here is a joke on the British War Department. Recently the French Government notified the British Government that they would be glad to accord decorations to thirty British Army officers. This was acknowledged in suitable terms and a list of thirtyfour officers were sent in. The French noted that there were thirtyfour but as they had offered decorations for thirty they let it go at that and sent the decorations.

          They were thirtyfour very much surprised officers who received these decorations, as the clerk who mailed the letter to France made a mistake and included a list of officers who had been ordered to London to be inoculated. Hardly any of them had not even been out of England.

WM. S. SIMS       

Source Note: TCy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.N./Chief of Naval Operations,/Navy Department,/Washington.D.C.”

Footnote 1: First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe, R.N..

Footnote 2: Commo. Reginald Y. Tyrwhitt, R.N. The Heligoland Bight is an archipelago off the northwest coast of Germany.

Footnote 3: The German attack off Lerwick, Scotland, on 17 October 1917, was made by the Germans to force Britain to commit greater resources to protecting convoys to Scandinavia. The German cruisers Brummer and Bremse successfully attacked a convoy sinking nine merchant vessels and the destroyers H.M.S. Mary Rose and H.M.S. Strongbow. Keith Allen, “Loss of the Mary Rose and Strongbow,” WWI: The War at Sea, accessed on 17 October 1917, http://www.gwpda.org/naval/maryrose.htm. The 19 October 1917 Zeppelin attack was the last of the large scale attacks by the Germans, who lost 5 of 11 airships during the attack. John H. Morrow, Jr., The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 222.

Footnote 4: Lt. Cmdr. Walter N. Vernou, commander, U.S.S. CASSIN. See: Report on Torpedoing of U.S.S. CASSIN, 15 October 1917.

Footnote 5: It is possible the Secret Agent referred to was Capt. James Totten, United States Military Attaché in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Christiana.

Footnote 6: Cmdr. André M. Proctor.

Footnote 7: RAdm. William B. Fletcher and his wife, Marlene R. Fletcher. Sims had recently relieved Fletcher as commander of American patrol squadrons on the French coast.

Footnote 8: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson assumed the post of Commander, Patrol Squadrons Based on French Coast. Wilson had previously been commander at Gibraltar, and he was to have traded places with Fletcher before Sims determined to relieve Fletcher entirely.

Footnote 9: RAdm. Albert P. Niblack. Niblack filled Wilson's old command, at Gibraltar. He took Fletcher's place in that Fletcher was to have assumed this command when Wilson transferred to France.  

Footnote 10: Capt. Hutchinson I. Cone.

Footnote 11: Adm. Marie-Jean-Lucien Lacaze.

Footnote 12: For more on recruitment and training for American destroyers. See: Leigh C. Palmer to Sims, 5 September 1917.

Footnote 13: Lt. Cmdr. Joseph F. Daniels.

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