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 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels

17th October. 1917.

FROM:     Force Commander.

TO  :     Secretary of the Navy (Operations)

SUBJECT:  General Report.

 

     1. ENEMY SUBMARINE OPERATIONS.

          During week ending 8 October the number of submarines operating at sea was above the average, but activity on the whole was small, with the possible exception of the area to the westward of the Straits of Gibraltar. Sinkings have been reported daily to the Department.

          Apparently several boats were working in the approach routes to the Bay of Biscay, but little damage was done there except to sailing vessels and no convoys were attacked.

          Considerable evidence is now gradually and indirectly being received indicating that the morale of enemy submarines personnel is not efficient. The degree to which the reported mutiny in the German Fleet has affected the submarines is wholly unknown, but evidence does indicate that a large number of Reserve Officers are now being employed for submarine work.1 Evidence is also available, although not wholly reliable, to the effect that considerable difficulty is being experienced in getting officers and men to voluntarily accept assignment to submarines.2

     2. MINE LAYING.

          Mine laying activity for the week ending 8 October was small — only twenty-nine mines having been located and destroyed. These mines were laid off Beachy Head, Ruiha na Cashair (Islay) in Rathlin Sound, off Inistrahull and the south coast of Ireland.

          Mining operations in the North Channel seemed to be directed against convoys; and to provide against further activity in this approach sweeping forces there have been augmented.

          During the same week twelve mines were located and destroyed off the French coast and eight were seen but not destroyed. Four ships on the French coast were destroyed by mines and three injured.

          The French report for the same period eight ships sunk by submarines with torpedoes and twenty-one sunk by means unknown; details of the latter have not been received. The French also report twelve ships unsuccessfully attacked. An average of two to three submarines were believed to have been operating in the western Mediterranean and three to four in the eastern Mediterranean.

          Sixteen encounters with submarines were experienced in British Waters as follows:—

               4 by Auxiliary Patrol.

               3 by Special Service Ships.

               6 by Merchant vessels.

               2 by Aircraft.

               1 by Reserve tug.

     3. CONVOY OPERATIONS.

          There is forwarded herewith statistical report concerning merchant vessels under organized convoy for the week ending 6 October.3

     4. TROOP CONVOY MOVEMENTS.

          With reference to the general subject of escort of troop convoys, as covered by separate correspondence and also cables, it is desired to invite particular attention to the war diaries of the destroyers for the month of September.

          As previously stated, convoy operations are <new> and increased experience is being had every day with their general handling and protection. It is for this reason that it is considered very undesirable at least for the present; to lay down any standard procedures or hard and fast rules. As previously reported, instructions which should be given to troop convoys concerning their co-ordination with destroyer escorts, may be <summed> up entirely in saying that the convoys should remain in formation and not disperse except in very unusual circumstances and under advice of escort commander. In case of attack they should simply turn away simultaneously without attempting to repel the attack with their own guns. In other words, they should rely upon the destroyer escort to provide for their proper protection and operate as a body without regard to the movements of the destroyers.

          As our destroyers are in possession of a large amount of experience with convoys, in fact, it is the major duty they are now constantly performing, it is important that the convoy commander should seek and accept the advice of the destroyer commander on any question that may arise. It is true that the convoy commander may frequently be senior to the senior destroyer captain and that the responsibility for the safety of the convoy lies with the convoy commander, but nevertheless, the only reasonable course is to utilize the maximum and latest experience which is available at any time.

          Attention is particularly invited to the war diary of the AMMEN for the month of September as a typical case covering much important information for troop convoy commanders.4

          The orders contained therein, issued by the Senior Destroyer Commander and others, in connection with convoy, and also the sketches, are very illuminating as indicating the experience which is being gained from day to day. For example:—the instructions issued by Commander Hanrahan5 of the CUSHING, dated 18 September, to the Commanding Officers who operated with him. Attention also invited to the personal letter written by Commander Courtney6 commanding the ROWAN under date 29 September to each Captain of the merchant convoy assigned to his protection.

          It is impressive to note the difficulties which the destroyers have experienced in attempting to keep convoys together, prevent straggling, separating convoys in darkness and bad weather, difficulties in communication by signals and otherwise, the necessity generally for destroyers to proceed from ship to ship of the convoy and <communicate> by megaphone in all conditions of weather.

          As an example of the fact as to how submarine activities are interfered with by the convoy system, a case which occurred on September 3rd may be noted. A submarine was reported in sight off the port quarter of a large merchant convoy, but soon disappeared in the sunlight. As it was undoubtedly observing the course of the convoy, the course was not altered for sometime, allowing the submarine to make its observations before changing. The course was later changed 30° to port. At this time the submarine was sighted on the surface in the sunlight about four miles distant. The AMMEN headed for her full speed but she disappeared in about one minute and before a shot could be fired. The AMMEN immediately returned, steaming through the convoy and instructing each ship as to the time for the next change of course. A few hours later the periscope was again sighted close aboard but immediately disappeared. Darkness was coming on and the courses of the convoy were so changed that the submarine was not again seen, its attempted attack having apparently been entirely frustrated.

     5. DECORATIONS BY BRITISH GOVERNMENT.

          In the early part of August the Board of the Admiralty approved a recommendation by the Commander-in-Chief at Queenstown, that decoration should be conferred on officers and men of two of our destroyers, as given below:—

U.S.S. O’BRIEN. Encounter with enemy submarine 16 June, 1917.

Names submitted for decoration by Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander-in-Chief, Queestown.

Lieut. Commander Charles A. Blakely, U.S.N.

     Commanding Officer..........Dist. Service Order.

Ensign Henry N. [Fallon,] U.S.N..........Dist. “ Cross.

Names forewarded to Foreign Office on 4th August, 1917

---------------

U.S.S. CUMMINGS. Encounter with enemy submarine 30 June,1917.

Names submitted for decoration by Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander-in-Chief Queenstown.

Lieut. Commander George P. Neal U.S.N.

     (Commanding Officer).........Dist. Service Order.

Lieut. Frank Leftin U.S.N...............Dist. “ Cross.

W. H. Justice7 Quartermaster 1st Class, U.S.N. “ “ Medal.

R. G. McNaughton8 Chief Machinists’ Mate U.S.N. “ “ “.

     ---------------

          As it was understood to be against the policy of the U.S. Government to permit officers and men of their military Services to accept decorations from Foreign Governments, recommendations to the Foreign Office were made on 7th August, and on 10th August the Foreign Office referred the question to the British Ambassador in Washington.9 On 8th September the British Ambassador in Washington was asked to hasten his reply but no information has to date been received.

          The fact that these officers and men have been recommended for decorations has become known in the Flotilla and the effect on all the Flotilla personnel was very pronounced. It was, in fact, surprising to the Force Commander to note that decorations were prized so highly and could serve as such an incentive as this incident seems to have indicated. The Force Commander is unaware of the Department’s views on this subject but he personally feels that steps should be taken towards obtaining legislation permitting the decorations being received. In any case, it is recommended that the fact of the British Government desiring to bestow these decoration be given publicity.

     6. FORCE BASED ON FRENCH COAST.

          Attention is invited to the Force Commander’s letter of October 11th concerning convoy duty by U.S. naval forces based on Brest. This convoy duty is, of course, treated as of secondary importance to escorting government troop and troop supply ships. The aim is to utilize our vessels to the maximum possible advantage in protecting allied trade consistent with the above. As previously reported, the number of vessels based on the French coast up to the present time which are available for high sea escort work is very limited.

          With the arrival of the five destroyers with the PANTHER which are now at Queenstown, the conditions as regards high sea escort will be considerably improved.

          It is the aim to carry troop convoys close in to harbour approaches with the high sea escort furnished from Queenstown, leaving the French forces to ensure safe passage through the inshore channels of approach.

          The REHOBOTH sailed Wednesday afternoon October 3 from Brest to proceed off Ushant for patrol and await a south bound convoy on the morning of the 4th from England. On the morning of the 4th, the REHOBOTH sent in signals of distress and was later abandoned and sunk. The crew was rescued by the British trawler CASTOR and brought into Brest. No further information has been received from the patrol squadron, Brest. A Court of Inquiry is now in session.10

          At the time of the last report, the VEDETTE was under boiler repairs, the CAHILL being docked, the HINTON and BAUMAN reported as leaking and necessitating docking for caulking, the KANAWHA II under repairs to condensers.

          The APHRODITE, CORSAIR, WAKIVA, ALCEDO, and NOMA on September 27 met the U.S. Supply transports WILLEHAD and ARTEMIS and LUCKENBACH and took them into Quiberon on 28th. These yachts then immediately went to sea with six troop transports ready for return to the United States, escorting them to 15° west, returning to Brest on morning of October 3. On night of October 4, the CORSAIR, APHRODITE, and WAKIVA proceeded to sea to take out supply transports from St. Nazaire, but found that one transport only was ready with no prospects of others being ready for from five to seven days. This one ship was taken out to 13° west, the vessels having orders to take her further if submarine warning required.

          The FINLAND, HENDERSON, ANTILLES were escorted in by the CHRISTABEL, SULTANA, MCNEAL.

          The employment of small yachts and trawlers not suitable for high sea escort in cross channel convoy work is considered extremely important as it not only constitutes an important contribution to our co-operation in necessary war activities, but also affords an opportunity of giving these vessels experience and knowledge of the French Coast and outlying reefs which<h> could not be obtained in any other way. It is also, as previously reported, releasing French vessels for mine sweeping and other work. The duty is more compatible with the speed and characteristics of the smaller yachts than any other duty would be. Coast pilots are very limited in number and Admiral Fletcher11 considers it necessary that our vessels should become familiar with the coast as soon as possible and before winter weather sets in. For this purpose vessels are selected according to their speed and sea keeping qualities, and the late arrivals are grouped with those that came first as far as possible.

     7. FORCE BASED ON GIBRALTAR.

          The Forces on Gibraltar continue on convoy and patrol duties according to their availability and ability. Their activities to 29 September are covered by two reports from the patrol forces commander herewith attached.12

          As a result of a Board of Investigation made up of officers of our own Service and the British and Italian Services, the Commanding Officer of the NAHMA13 will be tried by General Court Martial.

          Incidents of this character have occurred a number of times during the war. As previously reported, British Patrol Vessels have frequently fired on their own submarines. In one case, covered by report submitted to the Department, a British destroyer attacked, and had every reason to believe that they had destroyed a submarine, which later proved to be a British submarine which succeeded in reaching port. During the summer a British Auxiliary Cruiser sank a French armed sailing ship owing to a misunderstanding of an attempted recognition signal.

          The Commanding Officer of the NAHMA is known to be a very conscientious and capable young officer, and if any fault is to be ascribed to him it was probably due more to inexperience in this particular kind of warfare than anything else. It is considered that in view of the international character of the incident, a General Court Martial is probably the best step that could be taken.

     8. SITUATION AT AZORES.

          Commander Proctor14 was called to London after arrival at Queenstown and has had numerous conferences with the officials of the Admiralty.

          Separate report concerning the situation in that area will be submitted.15 Generally speaking, considering the size of the area involved and the number of vessels available for anti-submarine work there the force will always be entirely inadequate and will restrict our operations to the two principal missions,—first, a limited patrol which will ensure denying the use of the island to the enemy as a base; second, holding the vessels as far as possible in readiness to proceed on independent scouting expeditions whenever the location of enemy submarines seems to warrant. It is manifestly undesirable to attempt escort of vessels or any continuous high sea patrol as, with the limited number of vessels, such a course would be ineffective and would jeopardize the accomplishment of the above mentioned objects.

     9. DESTROYER FLOTILLA.

          Operations of the destroyer flotilla continue as before. The spirit prevailing in the force is admirable and everything that could be desired. Frequent compliments are heard not only from our own officers who visit this base, but also from allied officers, of the excellent spirit existing in the force, the businesslike atmosphere, and the general efficiency of the work being performed. It is hoped that the force can be increased by new destroyers as rapidly as they can be commissioned.

          There are not sufficient destroyers to give all important convoys adequate protection. It is frequently possible to give a large and important convoy only six destroyers as escort. In order to meet the demands of the situation all destroyers are being worked practically to the limit of their ability.

          The CAMDEN arrived and was discharged and escorted to Brest.

          The MAUMEE also arrived and is now being discharged. It will probably take about two weeks before she will be ready for return to the United States.

          Upon the request of Cammell Lairds, it has been decided to extend the time of overhaul of our destroyers at the works of that company to eleven days. This is on account of labour conditions and the severe amount of work which has been found necessary.

          The approximate total quantity of fuel oil issued by Admiralty to our destroyers to date amounts to 96,000 tons. 37667 tons have been replaced and 24000 tons more is understood to be en route.

     10. GENERAL.

          It is both difficult and unsafe to attempt to forecast the possible developments of the submarine campaign. There are many indications at hand to indicate that the crisis of the campaign is past, but the fact cannot be escaped that losses still continue greater than construction and there are many serious problems facing the Allies before it can safely be assumed that we are winning the war as far as the submarine campaign is concerned. A military decision in the war is unquestionably dependent in the first instance upon the submarine campaign.

          It is to be expected that enemy activities will be seriously impaired with the approaching winter weather, but the fact cannot be escaped that the difficulty of handling ships in convoys will likewise be increased with bad weather. The major enemy of the convoy system is fog and heavy weather.

          There is considerable evidence at hand to indicate a decline in enemy morale, but until the losses are reduced far below their present figures, it is dangerous to place any confidence in such reports.

          I would invite particular attention to the report of the WADSWORTH forwarded herewith date 5 October.16 The principal feature of this report is first the excellent behaviour of the merchant convoy consisting of twenty-eight merchant ships. This is an indication of what might reasonably be expected of a convoy which is well in control of the convoy commander and which must have unquestionably been well drilled during the passage and before the dangerous waters were reached.

          It is particularly noteworthy that this comparatively large convoy, in the face of a possible submarine attack, made two simultaneous 3 point turns in obedience to signal with precision and without confusion. Secondly, it is interesting to note that in this case circumstances permitted a double screen of destroyers and patrol vessels. This is, of course, an ideal convoy situation through which it is believed that a successful submarine attack would be practically impossible.

          The comments of the Senior Destroyer Commander17 should also be noted concerning the excellent station kept by these merchant vessels and the fact that at no time while they were in escort was a light of any description shown at night by any vessel. This condition even maintained after the total number of vessels steaming together had increased to forty-six.

          The loss of the DRAKE is impressive as illustrating the fact that armament is not in itself a protection against submarine attack, but only restricts the submarine to the use of torpedoes. The DRAKE had, under orders, left her convoy, and was proceeding independently at 19 knots zig-zagging when she was torpedoed. The submarine was not seen before or after the attack. The ship succeeded in reaching port and shoal water. Bulkheads eventually gave way and she capsized.18

WM. S. Sims

Source Note: CyS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 1: In August, more than 600 German sailors aboard Prinzregent Luitpold left the ship in protest to abysmal conditions and entered the nearby town of Wilhelmshaven. Most of the men reluctantly returned to the ship once shore patrol and local police began putting down the mutiny. Two of the leaders of the walkout were shot on 5 September. Christopher Bell and Bruce Elleman, eds. Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2003: 74-75.

Footnote 2: For a confidential discussion of enemy submarine activities, see: Sims to Benson, 16 October 1917.

Footnote 3: This report has not been found.

Footnote 4: AMMEN’s war diary has not been found.

Footnote 5: Lt. Cmdr. David C. Hanrahan.

Footnote 6: Cmdr. Charles E. Courtney. Courtney’s letter has not been found.

Footnote 7: Quartermaster 1st Class William H. Justice.

Footnote 8: Naval Constructor Russell G. McNaughton.

Footnote 9: British Ambassador to the United States Sir Cecil Spring Rice.

Footnote 10: For more on the sinking of REHOBOTH, see: Sims to Daniels, 9 October 1917.

Footnote 11: RAdm. William B. Fletcher, Commander, Patrol Force in France.

Footnote 12: This document has not been found.

Footnote 13: Probably the armed Yacht NAHMA, commanded by, Lt. Cmdr. Ernest Friedrick. Friedrick was found guilty of “conduct prejudicial to good order and culpable negligence and sentenced to loss of thirty numbers in his grade,” but “in view of the extraordinary combination of circumstances on this occasion, and resulting confusion, all of which operated to make this unfortunate incident possible; of the errors on the part of persons other than the accused or those under his command, which contributed to the event; and in consideration of the fact that the offense was the result of zeal rather than the lack of initiative, the court unanimously recommends Lieutenant Commander Ernest Friedrick, U.S. Navy, to the clemency of the revising authority.” Army and Navy Register and Defense Times, 26 January 1918, Vol. 63 (Washington, DC), 114.

Footnote 14: Capt. André M. Proctor, Commanding Officer, PANTHER.

Footnote 16: The official report referenced here has not been found, but Sims summarizes the actions of this convoy elsewhere. See: Taussig Diary, 2 October 1917; Sims to Benson, 10 October 1917; and Sims to Daniels, 19 October 1917.

Footnote 17: RAdm. William B. Fletcher, Commander, Patrol Squadrons in France.

Footnote 18: For more on the Drake, see: Sims to Pratt, 15 October 1917.

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