Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Winston Churchill to President Woodrow Wilson

London, October 22nd. 1917.

My dear Mr. President,

     During the month or so I have been in Great Britain, as an independent observer, I have had unusual and unsought opportunities to acquire a point of view on several matters, and among these on the situation as it exists between our naval Service and the British Admiralty. I have been thrown with men engaged in many different activities, I have seen the Prime Minister1 and other members of the Cabinet and their assistants, I have talked with naval officers of all ranks and of both Services, of progressive and conservative tendencies, including Vice Admiral Sims and Admiral Jellicoe.2 The opinion I have gathered I believe to be an independent one, and I send it to you for what it is worth, trusting you will not think me presumptuous in so doing.

(1) I have become convinced that the criticism of the British Admiralty to the effect that it has been living from hand to mouth, from day to day, that it has been making no plans ahead, is justified. The several Sea Lords3 are of the conservative school, and they have been so encumbered with administrative and bureaucratic duties that they have found insufficient time to decide upon a future strategy. The younger and more imaginative element of that service has not been given a chance to show its powers, nor has it been consulted on matters of strategy. On the other hand the British Army, under pressure of necessity, has been compelled to adopt a policy of foresightedness, and is now apparently reaping the benefits due to long preparations and the infusion of new blood.

     It goes without saying that any scheme of importance of an aggressive nature requires a due period of consideration by naval strategists with the aid of civilian experts, and usually involves the co-operation of sea and land forces. Such lack of cooperation has undoubtedly been a great source of weakness during the present war. And if any such scheme is adopted many months may be necessary for the collection of the material and personnel required to carry it to a successful conclusion. Sir Eric Geddes4 is unquestionably an able man, and apparently willing to discard precedent when necessary. There are signs that he is feeling his way, and that he is encountering a certain opposition from the Sea Lords. Not very long ago he appointed a staff of young officers who had made reputation as strategists, but both in numbers and authority it has been inadequate, and the Sea Lords have refused to support it and to give its suggestions serious consideration. Its deliberations have been held in a bed room at the top of the Admiralty building. I am informed today, however, that this staff has been increased by the First Lord, and that henceforth it will be composed of two sections, one for strategy and one for material.

(2) Because all aggressive plans hitherto proposed have been found impracticable, it by no means follows that some plan may not be hit upon, especially now that we have the combined forces of the two nations to draw upon, that will accomplish the object desired of crippling or destroying the German Fleet, or of suppressing aggressively the actions of submarines. But the accomplishment of these objects depends, first, upon due deliberation by a body of men trained for such a purpose, and who have made strategy their specialty, and second, upon the preparation of the material means called for.

     I would hasten to say that I am convinced that the lack of adoption of any such aggressive plan is in no way due to a want of initiative on the part of Admiral Sims. He has urged upon the Admiralty the value of such a staff as I have described, and he was given to understand by Sir Edward Carson, before the latter’s retirement as First Lord, that a staff would be established. But the Admiralty is still suffering from the inertia of a tradition that clings to the belief that the British Navy still controls the seas, and can be made to move but slowly in a new direction. In addition to this Admiral Sims has had to feel his way, he has had to build up a staff for himself, and he has been overwhelmed with work. I have visited Queenstown, I have talked with the officers of our flotilla there, with those of Admiral Sims’ staff both here and in France, and the opinion is unanimous that he is the ablest officer in our Service. Their admiration for his energy and talent is unbounded, their loyalty absolute. He is extremely popular both in England and France, and his relations with the Admiralty and the French Ministry of Marine are all that could be desired. The efficiency of our flotilla, the high seamanlike qualities of our officers and their ability to make their own repairs and to keep the destroyers constantly at sea has been the subject of universal praise among British officers, and is a source of pride to Americans here.

(3) Unquestionably the most important, indeed the essential thing still to be achieved is that of a partnership between our service and the British. It must be a full partnership. There are many good reasons why this complete cooperation has not as yet been accomplished, in addition to the situation in the Admiralty which I have described. At 30 Grosvenor Gardens5 I have constantly seen Admiral Sims and his staff busy from early morning until late at night, on account of the quantity of administrative work to be done. The machine has to be kept moving. This hampers them to such an extent that they find themselves, in regard to strategic matters, precisely in the condition of the Admiralty, - with this exception. There is scarcely an officer on that staff, including the Admiral himself, who is not keenly alive to the necessity of cooperation with the British Navy, of making plans a long way ahead. And we have on that staff some of the ablest strategists in our service, including Admiral Sims and Captain Twining.6 officers like Captain Twining are wasted upon office work, which could equally well be done by men who have a peculiar gift for it.

     It is generally agreed that what is needed is a combined staff of American and British strategists and material officers to sit constantly together and exert their entire energies upon making plans for the future conduct of the war.7 The Admiralty, in spite of their backwardness in creating such a staff for themselves, would welcome such cooperation, and indeed several times have requested it. Admiral Sims could not spare the officers. He has several times requested our Department to send him more officers. But unless the proper men are sent to such a staff, experts in their various specialties, the situation would be made worse instead of better. If more officers were sent to Admiral Sims by our Department, some of the experts on his staff could then be released for duty on the cooperative planning staff, as he has some of the best men in the service with him today. He would need about eight more officers, in order to establish such a staff in addition to the necessary administrative staff.

     I take the liberty of appending a list of officers qualified for such service, each with his particular qualification indicated, a list that practically coincides with one I made out in Washington. These men are known to our entire Service for their abilities. I trust you will not think I am making any reflection on our Department for not having sent all the officers needed, just naturally they have not the same close view of the situation as one is able to attain here.

(4) I have become convinced that whatever strategic plans are made for the future prosecution of the war should be made on this side of the water, subject always, of course, to approval of our Government. The war will be won or lost in these waters, and any aggressive policy must be staged here. New conditions will constantly arise that have to be dealt with in conjunction with the British and other forces. Besides, the great difficulty of communicating in all its aspects a certain situation by cable or letter to Washington has been proved. And I may also add what seems to me the most cogent argument for the establishment of our planning staff over here that we should not merely follow the suggestions of the British Admiralty, but act with them on an equal footing. The presence on the planning staff of an energetic group of American officers and perhaps of civilian experts would strengthen the hand of Sir Eric Geddes; while any scheme they might propose, backed by our own Department and by Admiral Sims, would impel the Sea Lords to adopt it. This tendency, I think, was illustrated by their agreement to our plan of a North Sea barrage of mines,8 a scheme to which they were formerly opposed. We are in a position to impel them to accept new ideas of value, or at least ideas worth the trying. It will do good to infuse into their councils American blood and a fresh American view point; but we cannot act with the ocean between us, and under the circumstances the British cannot send a staff over there.

(5) The present very slight preponderance of the British Fleet over the German gives cause for a certain anxiety. The proportion of British super dreadnaughts to German is now about 24 to 19 only, and three of the British dreadnaughts have to be withdrawn to replace as many vessels of the KING EDWARD Class now protecting the south east coast and the channel from a possible raid with heavy vessels.9 The latter vessels must be put out of commission in order to obtain the personnel for the manning of new destroyers. It is therefore hoped that the request of the British for four of our coal burning dreadnaughts will be complied with. The British are badly pressed for destroyers. In the past week only forty destroyers have been with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea, and at times none at all whereas they should have one hundred and fifty in case of being called into action. Germany has one hundred and seventy which she can bring out with her fleet at her own time. While every cruiser the British fleet is capable of sparing is at work on convoy or other duty in various localities.

(6) At present there are not enough convoying ships to take care of the merchant vessels supplying western Europe with materials and food. Except by destroyers in the zone, no ships are convoyed from Europe westward; nor, save within the zone, are those convoyed that run from the United States to Gibraltar, and from South America and the Cape of Good Hope to Dakar, on the African coast. I am also informed that none are convoyed, except by destroyers in the zone, from Gibraltar to the British Isles.10

     For the merchantmen now unprotected some forty odd additional cruisers are needed, including those required to make all the present convoys safe from German raiders of high gun power. The lighter armed cruisers are of no use against such raiders as evaded the North Sea patrols during the past week and sank two destroyers and many merchant ships off the coast of Norway.11 The success of the war depends largely, of course, upon our giving Europe supplies, and if all ships could be convoyed and properly defended the defeat of Germany would be much more certain.

     For this purpose of convoy it has been recommended to our Navy Department that our older battleships should be used, since the matter is of such grave importance that even the interference in the training of crews on these ships would in Admiral Sims’ opinion be justified. The old battleships could be made into convoying vessels by the simple operation of removing the smaller batteries and of scaling up the lower ports, leaving the larger batteries, which would be ample for driving off any possible raider; while temporary bulkheads of wood could be installed to render the ships safer against torpedoes. The argument against using such vessels for convoy purposes is that a large number of trained men might be lost if a ship were to be sunk, but it would only be necessary to man them with less than one half of the ordinary crews; less than one half of the usual engineer force, since they could be steaming at convoy speed, and gun crews sufficient to man the guns remaining in use. A few of the smaller guns could be mounted on the upper deck.

(7) I think it may be said with confidence that the various plans already submitted to the British Admiralty and which have originated on this side for aggressive action against the German Navy or for making landings in the rear of the German line are now impracticable, if indeed they were not always so. Some new plan must be devised. So also is the project of blocking in the German Fleet. I have discussed these plans with many officers, American and British, with a member of the British Cabinet and with Admiral Jellicoe, who showed me all the operations on a chart of the North Sea and the Baltic.

     Along the Belgian coast the work of the British monitors has been all that could be hoped for, considerable damage has been done to the enemy, and a most ingenious plan of shelling the land batteries with the aid of a smoke screen and devices for locating these shore batteries have been adopted. Such devices were necessary because of the much greater range of the shore guns as compared with the guns ships can carry. Yet the monitors have done extremely close shooting at longer ranges than would have been thought possible - over 30,000 yards. Under the most trying circumstances barrages of mines have been laid by the British, in the darkness, close to the coast, both in the Baltic and in the North Sea. According to evidence from German sources, the submarines are having considerable difficulty in finding their way through these barrages.

     The plan of blocking in the German Fleet by sinking ships in the channel is regarded by military men as impracticable on account of the greater range and accuracy of the shore batteries. The question of blocking these ports has several times been seriously considered by the Admiralty, and two years preparation was made on such a plan. But it was finally abandoned because the rise of the tide was found to be too great, and there was nothing to prevent the Germans blowing away the superstructures. In addition to this, eighty ships would have to be sunk in correct position at the very close range of five miles from shore under the guns of the batteries.

     The plan of landing a great force behind the German lines in Belgium for the purpose of seizing the naval bases there might once have been possible before it was so strongly fortified by the Germans. Now experts of the British Army are united in discouraging it. Something like 150 ships would be needed, and they cannot at the present time be spared, while a large army would have to be put ashore. While the project of capturing Heligoland may, I think, be dismissed. If the principle that ships are powerless against strong land batteries needed to illustrated, the unfortunate Dardenelles campaign was a case in point. And even if Heligoland could be taken it could not be held against repeated airplane attacks, since it is only 25 or 30 miles from the mainland.

     The British Government are sending me tomorrow across the Channel to the front in Belgium, and I expect to remain in France in three weeks and see our American camps under General Pershing.12 After that I shall return to England, where my address is Morgan Grenfell and Company.

     I find Englishmen of all sorts looking to your leadership, and many prominent men have expressed the hope that you might break with precedent and come over here. And Mr. H.G. Wells told me the other day that yours was the only voice that expressed what the mass of the British people felt.

Sincerely yours,       

Winston Churchill

CAPTAIN F.H.SCHOFIELD.

     A Naval War College graduate. Well known in the Service for ability in numerous lines. Is a keen analyst in strategical matters.

CAPTAIN F.H.CLARK.

     Often referred to as one of the best officers in the Navy, and one who will make good in any position in which he is placed. Particularly well known as possessed of sound practical judgement, and has the ability to extract the essential kernels of truth from a mass of details.

CAPTAIN RIDLEY McLEAN.

     An officer of excellent brains, high intelligence, thoughtful and practical. he has been Judge Advocate General of the Navy, and has been closely identified with the progress of the Service in gunnery and other important matters.

CAPTAIN LUKE McNAMEE.

     An officer of the same type as Captain Clark. Is also a Naval War College graduate, and is possessed of sound strategical and tactical ideas.

CAPTAIN YATES STIRLING, Jr.

     An officer of excellent reputation as a thinker, and as a practical officer. He is a graduate of the Naval War College. Has also made a study of the material, tactical and strategical features of submarines and their employment.

COMMANDER H.E.YARNELL.

     A Naval War College graduate and an officer of experience and good judgement, who has particularly devoted himself to strategical studies and is possessed of sound strategical judgement.

COMMANDER W. S. PYE.

     One of the most brilliant of the younger officers of the Navy. A Naval War College graduate, and a close and thoughtful student of strategy and tactics, in which subjects his judgement is known to be sound.

LIEUT.COMMANDER R.B.COFFEY.

     A studious officer, who although not a graduate of the Naval War College, was in attendance there when the war broke out. He was devoted much study to naval strategy, and is especially well known for his ability to study, collate and analyse data and information.

COMMANDER W.R.SEXTON.

     A Naval War College graduate of high attainments and particularly well qualified to be the administrative head of a Naval Office. An officer of much practical sea-going experience and one who, while not an expert in any particular line, is able in all.|13|

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Special Correspondence, Roll 65. The Winston Churchill who authored this letter was the American born author, not the British Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Footnote 1: David Lloyd George.

Footnote 2: VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operation in European Waters, and First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir John R. Jellicoe.

Footnote 3: First Sea Lord Adm. Jellicoe; Second Sea Lord Adm. Sir Rossyln Wemyss; Third Sea Lord RAdm. Sir Lionel Halsey; Fourth Sea Lord RAdm. Sir Hugh Tothill; Fifth Sea Lord RAdm. Sir Godfrey Paine.

Footnote 4: First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Eric Geddes.

Footnote 5: This is the location of Sims’ Headquarters in London.

Footnote 6: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ Chief of Staff.

Footnote 7: Daniels was reluctant to agree to the creation of a Planning Staff. After his November trip to London during which time he had plentiful opportunity to confer with Sims and the British Admiralty, Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, became convinced that such a staff would be an excellent idea. After continual pressure from Benson and Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, Daniels finally reluctantly agreed to the creation of a planning section, which officially met for the first time on 31 December 1917.

Footnote 9: The King Edward VII class was a class of pre-dreadnought battleships launched by the Royal Navy between 1903 and 1905. They were among the last pre-dreadnoughts built for the Royal Navy before the construction and launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, which immediately rendered them semi-obsolete. By the outbreak of World War I, these ships had become so outmoded that they were used as minesweepers for the Grand Fleet's more valuable dreadnoughts, though they also saw service in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Seas, and two were deployed to support the naval assault on the Dardanelles.

Footnote 12: Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 13: Frank H. Schofield, Frank H. Clark, Henry E. Yarnell, William S. Pye, Rueben B. Coffey, and Walton R. Sexton. On 23 October 1917, Sims wrote to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels identifying Schofield, Clark, Yarnell, Pye, and Coffey as the men he would like to have to form his Planning Committee; see: Sims to Daniels, 23 October 1917. Schofield and Cmdr. Dudley F. Knox were the first officers dispatched to London to form the new American Planning Section and were later joined by Yarnell (who later exchanged places with McNamme in the Planning Section of the Nay Department) and Maj. Robert H. Dunlap, USMC (later replaced by Col. Louis McC. Little, USMC). Still, Crisis at Sea, 44 and Sims, Victory at Sea, 253.

Tags