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

[Extract]

October 11th.1918.

My dear Admiral,

          In reference to my recent cable giving the result of the discussion over the question of an armistice1 I am afraid there is a cog slip somewhere. It is apparent that our Government was not consulted through diplomatic channels before the question of discussing terms of an armistice was decided.

          Mr.Balfour2 told me today that he understood that the cable sent through by General Bliss3 had a phrase or expression in it which seemed to indicate that the Allies were contemplating an armistice, whereas they had no such idea but were doing the usual thing, that is, making a tentative decision as to what the terms of an armistice would be pending the cessation of hostilities.

          As far as I know Jackson4 did not know anything about this until he was called in consultation by the Allies. However, as it was only intended as a preliminary discussion, there is no harm done. Personally, I would be in favor of terms much severer than those laid down.

          There is really no understanding the German mind. They propose an armistice and discussion of peace with the Allies and then torpedo a regular passenger steamer in the Irish Sea and drown five hundred men, women and children. They also withdraw their submarines from our coast, presumably for the purpose of exercising an influence beneficial to them upon American public opinion and then the same day they sink this passenger steamer. Of course they can claim that they have a technical right to sink the steamer because she carries soldiers going on leave to Ireland and returning. But the unwisdom of it is what I cannot understand. It has inflamed public opinion here very considerably and I assume it will do so in America. Unfortunately for us, Captain Cone5 was on board and though he has been saved, he is, I am afraid, painfully injured. You may be sure that everything that medical science can provide will be done for him. The doctor informs me that one of the best orthopaedists in Europe is adoctor practising in Dublin. His services have been secured and two of our doctors have been sent up, one of which is his nephew, Dr.Rhodes.6 If he has only simple fractures it will not be long before he is out. If there is no infection of the compound fracture the doctors believe he can be brought to our splendid hospital here in London in about a month.

          The Commander-in-Chief has been to the Grand Fleet and Killingholme, Eastleigh and Plymouth and expresses himself in complimentary terms.7 He seems to be of the opinion that our Battleship Fleet should be stationed on this side so that it will be handy in case of emergency. This is a matter which it would not be very profitable to discuss at this time because of the fact that without further and somewhat severe restrictions there will be a shortage of about 4,000,000 tons of freight as a deficit on the program of imports. This is based upon the report of the Allied Maritime Council. They state:-

          ““While the full munition program is not yet before the Council, it is understood that it will amount to approximately 22,000,000 tons, leaving a deficit on programs of imports, some of them such as food, already so reduced that the Allied countries claim that they cannot meet their absolutely essential needs of a little over 4,000,000 tons.

          It has not yet been ascertained to what extent the above estimate allows for the provision of artillery and ammunition for the American Armies.”

          If the American military program recommended by the Supreme War Council is carried out it will require a supplement of about two million more tons. From this it is apparent that no further burden can be thrown at present upon the logistics of the problem.

          Our air pilots have been doing very good work on the Western Front from the northern bombing squadrons particularly in assisting the British Squadron.

          Rear Admiral Andrews8 has taken over the work at Cardiff with great enthusiasm, and I have an idea he will make a success of it.

          The position of submarines during the last couple of weeks has not been as accurately defined as usual. Locations of submarines have been obtained as usual by cross bearings but the identification of the particular submarine is what has been lacking. This will probably be cleared away before long.

          As you know we all on this side are very anxious about the danger of a spread of the present epidemic of influenza and pneumonia. In spite of all the means we are taking we are losing a good many men. I have stopped all leave that involves travel. However, this is not the serious part of our problem because we can take care of our men at the different bases pretty well. The danger is that there will be serious epidemics on board the transports. Since sending the cable for the American editors,9 I have learned unofficially that conditions on all of the other transports that came in the same convoy were about as bad. They averaged between thirty and forty deaths. The editors impressed me as being seriously desirous of doing whatever they can to get the conditions remedied. They were under the impression, and so were certain army officers over here, that a blanket order caused the sailing of ships that are not in proper condition before their conditions can be properly represented to the Government authorities. They came to me because we control the means of communications over here, but I told them it would be out of the question for me even to send through such a cablegram unless the Army authorities were perfectly willing that it should be done. I therefore consulted the Army and they said they thought it best the cable be sent through. They also suggested that they, the Army, send a copy of the Editors cable to General Pershing.10

          I am also informed by the Army that they have recommended to Washington that the number of troops on transports be reduced by 50% until this epidemic abates, also that a permanent detail of medical officers and medical attendants be placed on each transport to remain with it and acquire experience of how to handle a large number of men at sea.

          We hope that we will not have as much trouble in this respect with our transports coming in to France. We should not have because our people can give more assistance to the Army medical officers than can the medical officers of the British transports.

          The work on the barrage is proceeding as well as can be expected considering that there has been considerable bad weather of late. I am afraid however that we shall find that our mines are not standing very well. A good many antenna have come adrift. This is probably due to the continuous action of the waves in the North Sea, which, in any case are short, and of course pretty violent when there is bad weather.

          The weakness in the principle of the mine is of course the question of keeping the enemy in the dark as to its nature. I have never believed that this could be successfully done for a very long time, because any one who learns the simple fact that the mine has a copper antenna supported by a copper float must form the conclusion that contact with the latter will set off the mine. That this fact is known outside our own Service has been shown by a telegram received from our Attache in Norway11 stating that certain Norwegian officers told him that they would not be surprised if the Germans fitted some of their submarines with a wooden batten extending fore and aft and some distance out from each side, thus protecting the metal of the hull from contact with the antenna. Area “B” and area “C” are being reinforced by certain lines of British mines. These are known to be effective as mines, but there are certain defects in the anchoring apparatus.

          There is the usual amount of discussion as to the probability of the High Seas Fleet coming out, either in desperation or for some political purpose, before the final end of the war. I have never been able to persuade myself that the Germans will do this. I cannot see what their object would be unless it were an elaborate attempt to plant a minefield as the fleet came out in the hope of being able to draw the British fleet over it. Considering the vigilance that is exercised in the Bight, and the means of acquiring knowledge of the movements of the enemy I think this is extremely improbable. You may be sure that the Admiralty is thoroughly alive to such a manoeuvre.

          Irwin12 has arrived and is going into the air situation, and I hope for much good from his visit. The Naval Air Board has finished its work in England and has gone down to France. It should be able to report before very long.

          I hope the Department will be able to send over some of the “U” or “R” boats or both. There can be no doubt that the most effective means of opposing the actions of submarines within comparatively closed waters is the submarine itself.

          We are all pleased with the decision to build and send over additional mounts for the naval railroad battery. I believe this battery is prepared to do excellent work in France.

          We are all naturally distressed over the wrecking of the transport OTRANTO. The convoy in which the OTRANTO was a part was coming in to the northern channel of the Irish Sea with a gale of wind of force 11. Some of the vessels became separated but the OTRANTO, KASHMIR and two others were proceeding in line abreast in very thick weather. Land was sighted ahead and three of the transports took this for the coast of Scotland and changed course to starboard. The OTRANTO evidently believed it was the coast of Ireland and directed her course to port. This brought about the collision. We do not know yet how many people were lost but we believe about four hundred.

          Apparently the festive “juggy” Nelson13 has pulled off an interesting and useful stunt in the Adriatic. It seems to be very probable that our chasers destroyed one submarine and it is quite possible that they destroyed another.

          The following quotations from a letter just received from Train14 may not give a true account of certain frictions between the Allies, but they are at least interesting. In this connection I have also been informed that the taking of the port of Beirut by a French naval force was accomplished by the French without the knowledge of the British, and they have issued port regulations and so forth in the same manner as though it were a French port. The following are quotations from Train’s letter:-...15

Very sincerely yours,

Admiral W.S.Benson, U.S.Navy.

     Chief of Naval Operations,

          Navy Department.

              Washington.D.C.

P.S. I have received just this morning a letter from Dr.Rhodes which I believe you will read with interest as showing that Cone did what you would have expected him to do when the LEINSTER was torpedoed. A copy of this letter is enclosed.16

Source Note: LT, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 49.

Footnote 2: British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour.

Footnote 3: Maj. Gen. Tasker H. Bliss, American Permanent Military Representative, Supreme War Council. For more information on this, see: Richard H. Jackson to Sims, 8 October 1918.

Footnote 4: Capt. Richard H. Jackson, United States Naval Staff Representative at Paris.

Footnote 5: Capt. Hutchinson I. Cone, Aide-de-Camp for Aviation, Staff of VAdm. Sims. Cone was badly wounded while freeing lifeboats on the RMS Leinster, on which he was a passenger. For his lifesaving actions, he was made an honorary commander of the Order of the British Empire. For more on the injuries Cone sustained, see: Sims to Josephus Daniels, 12 October 1918.

Footnote 6: Dr. George C. Rhoades.

Footnote 7: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet. See: Mayo to Benson, 10 October 1918.

Footnote 8: RAdm. Philip Andrews, Commander, United States Naval Base, Cardiff, Wales.

Footnote 10: Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces.

Footnote 11: Col. Arthur T. Marix, United States Naval Attaché at Christiania. Marix’s telegram (summarized herein) has not been subsequently located.

Footnote 12: Capt. Noble E. Irwin, Director of Naval Aviation. Irwin came to Europe for an inspection tour in October and November 1918.

Footnote 13: Cmdr. Charles P. Nelson, Commander, Submarine Chaser Detachment Two. Despite Nelson’s optimism that his forces had sunk at least one, if not two, German submarines, none were sunk at Durazzo. See: Charles R. Train to Sims, 7 October 1918.

Footnote 14: Cmdr. Charles R. Train, United States Naval Attaché at Rome.

Footnote 15: Sims goes on to quote extensively from the aforementioned letter that Train sent to him and is not reproduced here. For the full text of this letter, see: Train to Sims, 7 October 1918.

Footnote 16: This enclosure is no longer with this letter.