Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations
October 28th. 1917.
My dear Admiral,
I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter of September 24th,1 which has only just reached me upon my return from Paris today.
I am sorry that my criticisms and complaints have been a cause of trouble and misunderstanding. The difficulty was in the beginning that I was in a rather exasperated state due to the fact that I wanted to do the best possible and could not do so because of the purely physical limitations imposed upon me at that time by having only one man on my staff.
This was further accentuated by the feeling that the British people could not consider my mission at that time as a very serious one and this because of the fact that officers in similar positions to mine from other countries had an organization that enabled them to carry on their work with efficiency.
Under these conditions it was more or less natural for me to blow off steam to my old Chief of Staff – Pratt.2 I am sorry if any of my remarks were taken as a reflection upon the Navy Department.
Permit me to say that your action in declining to see any more of these letters for fear you would be unduly influenced thereby, to the detriment of the efficiency of the work over here, is one of the biggest and finest things that has happened to me during my naval career.
Concerning what you say as to the lack of a plan of operations on the part of the British Admiralty, I think there is a misapprehension here based upon the conviction that such a plan is practicable at this time. When Admiral Mayo was here the Naval representative of the Allies went into this whole question.3 Sir Eric Geddes, the First Lord,4 who presided, stated that the Admiralty would be glad to join in any plan which would meet the approval of the Allied Admiralties and the War Departments. All hands were invited to submit suggestions and these suggestions were discussed without arriving at a conclusion that any action of this kind was practicable – in fact would not be playing the game the Germans would want played.
In this connection it was brought out that no distinctly naval operations could be successful without the co-operation of the army and that the representatives of the army had stated that the propositions that were there presented were not practicable from an army point of view. This included the proposition of landing behind the right flank of the German army; the necessary amount of shell fire to reduce such positions as Heligoland and the neighbouring fortifications on the German coast, etc.
It is a mistake to suppose that the Allies have not very seriously considered all plans which have been suggested by the numerous Governments and officials vitally interested.
It is my personal opinion that no aggressive action of this kind against the German Fleet or with a view of blocking the German Fleet in its ports, or with a view of placing a close submarine barrage around their ports could be successfully carried out and maintained.
All this does not assume that the developments of the future may not show some such aggression to practicable. It is for this reason that I have been requesting that a body of competent officers be attached to the Admiralty to work in this particular line. This would not only be welcomed by the Admiralty but has already been requested by them, and I hope the Department may see its way clear to grant this request, so that we may all feel that nothing has been left undone in the way of studies upon these possibilities.5
If we had had such a body of officers here during the last few months, I feel quite sure there would not have been any misunderstanding on the question of mines and the barrage that is proposed. I understand that this whole question of the barrage, having been accepted in principle, requires now only the working out of details will be difficult to carry out, particularly the question of the assembling of the mines at the base, and the question of planting them successfully.
I am assuming that the information that Admiral Mayo got here will go a long way toward clearing up the situation. I also believe that Commodore Gaunt’s visit to this side will be equally beneficial.6 He leaves in a couple of days for America.
While I believe in the possibility of some plan being formulated that will diminish the submarine menace, I must confess that I do not see any such plan in the immediate future.
This is why I have been recommending the augmenting of antisubmarine forces on this side, particularly with a view of putting the convoy system more completely into operation. When we have the additional vessels for ocean escort and the additional destroyers now being turned out here on this side, the task of the submarine will become more and more difficult. This will not only reduce the amount of damage they are able to do but is bound to have an additional effect upon their morale. This latter is already believed to have been seriously affected. We have reason to believe that submarines that are sent out to operate in certain dangerous areas do not always go there. It is said that it is proposed, or possibly now being carried out, to make them cruise in pairs or in groups of three so that they may check upon each other’s operations. We have fairly conclusive evidence that almost no more men volunteer for submarine service but must be ordered.
Referring to the question of the distribution of anti-submarine craft on this side, I think it should be fairly understood that there has not at any time been any question of assisting one nation more than another. Everything that has been done in that respect has been done with the full consent of the Admiralties concerned.
I wish to make this point with all possible clearness. You doubtless remember that in the beginning there were insistent demands, through the diplomatic officials in Washington, that groups of destroyers should be sent to various places in Europe. They invoked the traditional friendships of the past, and so forth – than which nothing could be more dangerous as a guide in military operations.
As soon as this situation developed I took up the discussion in a conference in Paris between the Chief of Staff of the British and French Admiralties,7 and it was immediately and thoroughly agreed that our destroyer force on this side should be maintained as a unit, based as far to the west as possible, and made self-sustaining. The object of this was to make our force as efficient as possible, particularly in the way of being self-sustaining, and it was agreed by the respective Admiralties that if this were done, thus relieving the pressure on the British Fleet for anti-submarine craft, the British Admiralty would send assistance to Russia (which was done) and would help out in the submarine defences in France (which was also done).
You have seen from previous reports the great number of ships that Great Britain maintains in the Mediterranean. You know that they do a considerable part of the mine dragging in front of French ports, and so forth.
I think you will agree that this manner of arranging the distribution of forces available by consultation with the heads of the Admiralties concerned, is a mere logical and safer method than depending in any degree upon the advice of Naval Attaches or the diplomatic representatives of the countries who are not informed of the actual and changing conditions at the Front.
To give you an example of the kind of pressure that is being brought to bear, I may say that I was informed in Paris by the Chief of Staff of the French Navy that very insistent demands are being made upon France to use its influence with the other Allies to the end that Naval assistance be sent to the Russian Fleet in the Baltic.
This situation will be discussed within the next few days here in London by the French and British with the object of showing Russia what it would mean to accord with their request. It is hardly necessary to go into details as to what such an aggression would mean and as to what it could accomplish.
Of course, a portion of the British Fleet could not be sent into the Baltic, it would have to be practically the whole Fleet. It would take a considerable time to make its way through the narrow straits, digging out a path. During this time it could not expect to escape very considerable damage. If it should get through safely and proceed to the Gulf of Riga it could not remain there any length of time with the German Fleet upon its line of communications. It is difficult to say what it could accomplish by going in, except to delay the German operations going on there until it was forced to retreat to its own base. In doing the latter it could not expect to escape even more serious damage than when it went in because during the time of its operations the Germans would not be idle. All this, not to mention what the German Fleet itself might do in the North Sea during its absence.
It is very good news that twenty more yachts are soon to come over, and particularly that there are to be twelve more sea-going tugs. The letter will be very useful indeed. The distribution of these forces and of our forces here will always be governed by agreement with the officials of the countries concerned. In coming to all these agreements, particularly with France and Great Britain, the sole question has always been, not whether we were assisting one country more than another, but how the combined forces could best be distributed so as to give the maximum assistance to the Allied cause. This concerns also the protection of shipping and the maintaining of the supplies to the armies.
In this respect the officials of the French Ministry have been just as fine as possible. Never once have they even intimated to me any possible obligation on our part based upon our traditional friendship but always the consideration has been the cause of all the Allies and the ending of the war. This is of course as it should be and very satisfactory. I refer in this respect to the agreement made between the Naval Authorities and the countries considered. Outside of that there always has been and probably always will be a certain amount of pressure brought to bear by the civil members of the Government for assistance in various localities. This is also augmented in many cases by the personal insistence of Naval Attaches who are acting both under the Naval Authorities and under the direct authority and control to a certain extent, of their respective Ambassadors.
From the above it would seem to me that when any of the latter pressure is brought to bear, the question should be referred to the military and naval authorities of the country concerned. It seems to me that decisions made in any other way would be dangerous.
In referring such decisions to the Naval authorities on this side, it seems to me that the reference should be made to them through me, as it would have to be discussed by us in any case. If you agree with this it would relieve you of much trouble.
In order to make my meaning clear. Suppose a Naval Attache comes to the Navy Department with a request that more assistance be sent to a certain particular place. If you should assure him that this request would be sent to me and that I would take it up for discussion with his Navy Department, this discussion based upon actual conditions over here, it would be the best way of determining what had best be done for the cause of the Allies.
It should also be noted that the officials charged with the handling of the naval forces in any one of the numerous stations both in France and England, are all very seriously short of the number of vessels that are required, so that a request made in reference to any particular one of these stations can always present a very plausible case. For example, merchant ships are now being brought in by escorts that are in all cases insufficient for security. Sometimes when we would like to send eight or nine for a large convoy only six are available, the others being engaged with other convoys. The same is true in other stations engaged in this work.
With reference to our troop convoy, the French Ministry of Marine is in complete agreement with me that our (American) first duty on the French Coast (to the Allies) is to assure the safe handling of our transports, and that only after this is assured are the remainder of our forces available for such assistance as they can give in patrolling, escorting, mine dragging and so forth. There is no possible doubt about a misunderstanding, and it will be carried out to the letter.
In this connection I believe that Wilson will handle this situation satisfactorily. The trip to Paris, from which I have just returned, had the double object of introducing Cone and starting him on his important work, and of meeting Wilson and discussing the above question with him.8
After this discussion it became apparent that it would be a wise thing for him to come to London with his Chief of Staff9 and go into the whole system of handling the convoys so that there should be no misunderstanding. He accordingly came with me here yesterday and will return in a couple of days. In the meantime, Magruder has taken hold of the situation admirably.10 We sent him full instructions and invited his attention to the previous instructions had been gone into and were thoroughly understood.
With regard to the destroyers that have just arrived at Gibraltar from Manilla.11 We have had a conference with the Admiralty upon the subject of the extension of the convoy system in the Mediterranean. I also took up this question with Admiral de Bon, the French Chief of Staff and we are in accord with him as to the importance of that service.
The convoy system in the Mediterranean has, as you know, recently been place in the hands of a special British Commander in the Mediterranean, who will have the military handling of all the convoys.12 The system is now being developed but the details have not all been worked out. We will of course do a certain amount of this work in the neighbourhood of Gibraltar both to the east and west. This may at any time bring us in contact with an Austrian submarine. In the recent conference at the Admiralty the question of the employment of certain Italian destroyers was taken up and a satisfactory agreement was reached.
As the details of this convoy system develop, we may see certain necessities which we do not see now. For this reason I believe that the decision as to the distribution of the combined forces should in all cases be made as a result of discussion on this side between the Admiralties concerned.
Of course everybody realizes that we are actually, though not technically, at war with Austria. We may at any time come in contact with any Austrian submarine that carry their operations to the Western Mediterranean. It is hoped that this situation may be cleared up soon so that we will have greater liberty of action.
In connection with the above I may say that cooperation between the Italian Naval Forces and other forces of the Allies has been, and I believe still is, quite difficult. I should therefore think that any assistance which we might give to the forces in the Mediterranean had better be based on a British force so that the latter may, when we relieve some of their vessels, render further assistance to the Italians.
Our people at Queenstown are very much pleased indeed over your decision in reference to the mystery ship. We expect to have her in operation before very long. The list of the volunteer crew is being made out, and Hanrahan has been selected as her Commander.13
Since dictating the above paragraph I have been informed that the vessel they expected to have ready immediately for our use has had some trouble and will not be ready until February. They promise us, however, another vessel, but as she has been chartered by the British Government it will be necessary to make a rather different arrangement before she will be available for us. This is being taken up with the Admiralty today, and I hope will be satisfactorily arranged before very long.
Here is an interesting time of naval warfare. One of the monitors that has been engaged, when the conditions would permit, in bombarding Ostend and Zeebrugge was “torpedoed” a couple of days ago by an electrically controlled motor boat sent out from shore to a distance of 17 miles. This motor boat carried a mine in its bow and trailed behind it an electric cable through which its movements were controlled. The orders for the control were given by wireless to the shore from an aeroplane. About a month ago a similar attempt was made but the motor boat was shot down. This time it was more successful and got in its blow. It did not sink the vessel, and she was able to remain on her station for a while but has been obliged to return to port for repairs.
Some time ago one of the other monitors were struck by three torpedoes, but her “blisters” saved the inner hull and she has returned to port for repairs.
I am informed by a good many different army officers that things are not going satisfactorily in reference to getting in our troops both through French and British ports. General Lassiter, who was recently Military Attache here, has just been sent from France by General Pershing to discuss the question of transporting troops through Great Britain and so forth.14 I am not well informed as to what are the intentions of the army in reference to the sending of troops to France, and all the Army officers with whom I have talked on this subject seem to be no better informed.
As far as I can make out, the necessary data is not here at hand in London to form an estimate as to what could be done in the following respects:
1st. How many troops could the railroad facilities of the various ports of France transport to the interior, and keep them supplied afterwards? Of course the question of supply is the serious element of the problem.
2nd. With measures that are now being taken to increase the railroad facilities from the French ports to the interior (but which cannot be finished for a long while) how many more troops will they be able to land and supply? the answer to the above questions will be define absolutely the limitation of the number of troops that could be landed and supplied in France now and during the successive months of the next year.
3rd. How many troops can Great Britain transport across England and across the Channel now and in the immediate future. This matter must be governed by two things (1) the railroad facilities from the ports of debarkation, and (2) the transport facilities across the Channel. The former is already considerably congested and the latter is working to its maximum capacity.
This latter problem is complicated by the question of the congestion on the French from the Channel ports to the destination of the troops.
An examination of the above noted questions will fix the limitation as to the number of troops that could be gotten into France in the succeeding months.
Wholly independent of the above is the limitation in the transport and supply of troops that will be necessary, due to the general shortage of shipping.
I do not know whether the limitation of ports and R.R. transportation above noted, or the limitation of tonnage needed, would begin to operate first: but I believe you will readily admit that it is of very vital importance that these questions should be answered at the earliest possible moment.
All of the information necessary to arrive at a sound conclusion cannot be brought together except by a conference which includes thoroughly informed shipping delegates from the United States, similar delegates from Great Britain, Army Officers who can answer all the questions as to the necessities of supply and the capacity for transportation of the various French routes, etc.
General Lassiter agrees with me in the above brief estimate of the situation. I have told him that I think it would not be becoming in me to take any official action in suggesting what the armies of the Governments concerned should do to settle this question, and that I think the initiative should be taken by our army; the necessary invitations issued and the delegates indicated gotten together as soon as possible to thrash out the whole business.
It is always gratifying to me, and I assume to you, to have evidence of the good relations of our forces with the British forces at Queenstown. In this connection I enclose herewith copy of a letter just received from Admiral Bradford who has recently been on a visit to Admiral Bayly at Queenstown.15
Very sincerely yours,
Source Note: Cy, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 49. Addressed below close: “Admiral W.S.Benson. U.S.N./Chief of Naval Operations,/ Naval Department,/Washington. D.C.”
Footnote 1: See: Benson to Sims, 24 September 1917.
Footnote 2: Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations.
Footnote 3: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet. Mayo had traveled to London to attend an Allied Naval Conference 4-5 September 1917.
Footnote 4: First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Eric Geddes.
Footnote 5: Sims reiterated this proposal in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels; see: Sims to Daniels, 23 October 1917. This request was also brought to the attention of President Woodrow Wilson; see: Winston Churchill to Wilson, 22 October 1917.
Footnote 6: Commo. Guy R. Gaunt, British Naval Attaché in Washington, D.C.
Footnote 7: VAdm. Sir Henry F. Oliver and Adm. Ferdinand Jean Jacques de Bon.
Footnote 8: VAdm. Henry B. Wilson had just been transferred from his command at Gibraltar to become the Commander of Patrol Squadrons, French Waters, largely because the man he was replacing, VAdm. William B. Fletcher, struggled to handle the responsibilities of ensuring the safe passage of transports; see: Sims to Benson 15 October 1917. Cmdr. Hutchinson I. Cone was dispatched to Paris to oversee matters concerning aviation. For further information about the arrival of both these men, see: Sims to Joel R. Poinsett Pringle, 19 October 1917.
Footnote 9: Lt. Cmdr. John Halligan, Jr.
Footnote 10: Capt. Thomas P. Magruder. Magruder had served as Fletcher’s Chief of Staff while the latter was in command at Brest, and assumed Fletcher's responsibilities as commander of the patrol squadrons in France until Wilson arrived to assume command on 1 November. Upon Wilson becoming the new commander, Magruder was made Commander, Minesweeper Squadron and was later named Commander of the Lorient District once a base had been established there.
Footnote 11: The so-called “dirty five”, these vessels were Chauncey, Barry, Bainbridge, Dale, and Decatur. This squadron of destroyers from the Asiatic Fleet was headed by Lt. Cmdr. Harold R. Stark. Initially planned to be used in the Adriatic if the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary (which it eventually did), these destroyers remained based at Gibraltar and provided excellent service as escort vessels in the Mediterranean; Sims, Victory at Sea, 161-162.
Footnote 12: VAdm. Sir Somerset Arthur Gough Calthorpe.
Footnote 13: Cmdr. David C. Hanrahan. For additional information on this mystery ship, see: Diary of Commander Joseph K. Taussig, 23 October 1917.
Footnote 14: General William Lassiter and General John J. Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces.
Footnote 15: VAdm. Sir Edward E. Bradford and VAdm. Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Ireland. The letter to which Sims refers is no longer with this document.