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       

October 2nd.1918.

My dear Admiral,

          There is nothing particular to report outside of the items contained in the usual Weekly Report.1 We call this a Weekly Report for want of a better name but sometimes it is not possible to get one off each week.

          As you know by this time, we are going ahead with the arrangements for establishing a mining base in the Mediterranean. After examining the situation in the lower Adriatic, we concluded that it would not be a justifiable risk to place a base within comparatively easy bombing radius of the enemy in Albania. You can imagine the maginitude of the disaster if a bomb dropped on one of our buildings containing a million pounds of high explosive. After a careful examination of the whole business we decided that Bizerta or a port similarly situated would be most advantageous. We had a conference with Strauss and Murfin2 and as a result the latter has gone through to Paris with aletter to the Chief of the French Naval Staff3 asking for their cooperation in this matter.

          At the last meeting of the Allied Naval Council4 we put in a clause specifying that the country in which the base was established will cooperate with us in every practicable way. Murfin is a man in whom we have great confidence. His work in establishing the bases at Inverness and Invergordon was very efficient indeed. We have given him sufficient authority to start all the operations for establishing a base and are making preparations to send him certain material from the North.

          Our northern mine layers are about leaving for their eleventh expedition. It will require two more expeditions to finish area “A” which is our area.5 We can always get these expeditions off at intervals of a week in so far as we are concerned. Sometimes they are delayed a few days on account of movements of the Grand Fleet, during which time the escort is not available. We have also agreed to lay another comparatively short line of mines covering the gap of about three miles between area “C” (next to the Norwegian coast) and area “A”. This gap is necessitated by uncertainties of navigation particularly the establishment of the longitude of the ends of the lines of these areas.

          The mines planted in the last two expeditions have only shown premature explosions of 4%. The experts inform me that this is about as efficient as may be expected. I think there can be no doubt that this minefield has gotten on the Germans nerves. It is regarded as rather significant that the Emperor has found it necessary to make a visit to Kiel. This is believed to be for the encouragement of his submarine service. There have been rumours of riots and acts of insubordination among the submarine crews.6

          It seems to be pretty well established now that the Germans are evacuating Bruges as a submarine base. It is believed that the submarines now out have been directed not to return to Ostend or Zeebrugge, but to German bases. It is positively known that all destroyers and submarines have left these ports with the exception of those who are actually out operating. These are apparently using the Mole at the entrance of Zeebrugge as a harbor of refuge. They will doubtless continue to use this port until the German lines are forced back. This operation of forcing back the German line is going forward but under great difficulties. I was informed today that the Belgian forces in this area are being supplied with provisions exclusively by airplanes, and that the British in this area are being supplied by horse transport, the roads being too bad for heavy vehicles.

          There have been more submarines operating to the westward of the British Isles and France during the last two or three weeks than there have been at any time for about a year. I believe this is an effort which cannot be sustained at present figures. It is encouraging to know that notwithstanding the number of submarines out, the sinkings are less than they have ever been before. This may be due partly to bad weather that has prevailed. Generally speaking they are operating pretty well off shore. Their individual attacks do not seem to be as successful as formerly. The Admiralty is making arrangements to deny critical areas to German submarines by sending out British submarines to attack them. The critical area is one embraced between longitude 9 and longitude 12 and in about the latitude of Brest. Many convoys must necessarily pass through or by this area, but as stated above the recent attacks in this area have not been numerous and some not successful.

          The British propose to assign six submarines to a base at Falmouth and to have three at a time operating in the area mentioned above. This is not so much with the expectation of destroying the enemy submarines but with making them abandon the area. The Germans must necessarily remain on the surface nearly all the time so as to keep their batteries as fully charged as possible and thus have a better chance of escaping in case of attack. On the other hand the allied submarines remain submerged during all the daylight hours, putting up their periscopes at intervals for a few seconds. Under these circumstances if any enemy submarine is sighted on the surface there is a good chance of getting a torpedo shot at him. This is what the enemy particularly dreads. The submarine’s greatest enemy is necessarily another submarine.

          It would add very materially to the effectiveness of the anti-submarine campaign if some of our most efficient types of submarines could be sent over here. As the Dover Straits are now blocked to at least the larger type of submarines (and have been since January), it follows that all submarines bound out must pass by the southwest point of Ireland. They used to pass through the Irish Sea but have not done so for a considerable time on account of the large number of patrol boats in the northern channel and elsewhere principally in St.George’s Channel. As they must therefore pass by the southwest point of Ireland an increased number ofsubmarines stationed at Berehaven would have excellent chances of intercepting enemy submarines both on the way out and on the way back.

          Some time ago the Department inquired as to whether we could make good use of some or our “O” boats.7 We replied that we could, but have heard nothing further about it. I had a long talk with Land as to the capabilities of our different types, and he informed me that both our “O” and “R” boats would be very efficient for service out here. I hope the Department can see its way clear to send them.

          I have naturally been thinking a good deal about the submarine campaign. I have tried to dope out the orders that I would give to the German submarines if I were responsible for the success of their campaign. I have not been able to convince myself that I would give them orders to concentrate their attention on American troop transports bound in to Europe. I have even not been able to convince myself that I would not give them orders not to attack any such troop transports.

          In this connection there was published some months ago in Germany an explanation from the Admiralty explaining to the German people why it was that the Germans had not been able to prevent the inflow of American troops. The explanations was very simple, and to me was quite convincing. Without going into details, the principal points in the statement were as follows: that the Americans could send their troop convoys in to any ports from the North of Scotland to the South of France (a distance of a thousand miles or so); that the number of convoys was not great; that the chances of submarines even sighting the convoys was small; that the troop convoys were much more heavily escorted than were merchant convoys; that the dangers of making an attack were much greater and consequently the chances of success much less; that the object of the submarine campaign could be more effectively carried out by attacking the mercantile and supply convoys that were bringing in food and munition supplies by the Allies.

          In view of the number of submarines that the Germans have lost during the last year, and the very marked effect that this has had upon the morale of the submarine crews and upon the morale of the German people it seems to me that the correct policy would be to give an order to the German submarines not to attack any eastbound American troop convoys.

          As these convoys have been flowing in for over a year they must have been sighted a good many times by the submarines. If they had had orders to attack them they would have been attacked. They have not been attacked, consequently it is a fair assumption that they had orders not to attack them. I am aware that a good many people would be surprised at the statement that none of our allied troop transports have been attacked but I believe this to be an actual fact, with perhaps only one exception. Of course there have been numerous reports of attacks ,as there have been thousands of such reports by both merchant and military vessels in all parts of the Atlantic. As you doubtless know, the position of the submarines that are out are almost always known with sufficient accuracy to determine whether an attack was really made on any particular vessel or convoy. It is from this information that we conclude that no attack has been made on our loaded transports.

          If anybody doubts this, he may turn his attention to the fact that up to the present time none of our loaded troop transports have been struck by a torpedo. It is true that some transports carrying American troops have been torpedoed, but there was nothing to indicate to the captain of the submarine that American troops were on board. The TUSCANIA was in a British convoy with supply ships of various kinds. I have no doubt that the captain of the submarine thought he was simply torpedoing a British vessel. There were two other cases of British vessels in convoys carrying American troops on deck and frozen meat below. These were struck in the Channel and in one case a number of our men were killed by the explosion.

          I do not think anybody doubts now that the Germans thoroughly believed that they would end the war before America could render any material aid to the Allies. In April 1917 they were thoroughly justified in this opinion, because at that time they were winning the war very rapidly by destroying between eight and nine hundred thousand tons of shipping per month. If they had believed that they could not end the war before we could render ourselves effective, they would undoubtedly have sent submarines to the American coast in order that public opinion might prevent anti-submarine craft being sent to this side. They knew of course, that we were sending a certain number of destroyers over here, but they doubtless had the same opinion about these destroyers that our European allies had at first. That opinion was doubtless about the same as opinions now held as to the effectiveness of the Brazilian destroyers that are coming over here. It was difficult for these nations with all the traditions of their Navies to believe that units of our comparatively new Navy could be really efficient. While I cannot say that I ever heard this opinion explicitly expressed, it is a fair inference from the surprise expressed over our efficiency that this opinion was held. In other words, the Germans did not particularly fear the influence of our destroyers and other vessels. They have doubtless learned better since. At all events there is considerable evidence to show that at least for many months after we came into the war the German submarine captains had orders to let us alone.

          You will have seen a copy of the German orders of May 8th 19178 inviting the attention of submarine captains to the fact that Germany had not declared war against the United States and that they must be particularly careful not to attack American military vessels. They did not specify what was included in the term “military” vessels. However, we have had reports from German submarine captains visiting Switzerland that they did have orders to let our troop ships alone. All of the above military considerations aside, I can hardly imagine the German High command deciding to make an effort to sink one of our troop convoys and at the same time deciding to make every effort to bring about a compromise peace, and there can be no doubt that they will make every effort to bring about such a peace.

          Of course my conclusions on this subject may be in error. There are a good many people who do not agree with me. However, I have asked the Planning Section for an Estimate of the Situation with the particular view of arriving at a decision as to what the Germans would better do in order to bring the strongest influence to bear on the Allies. That is, that <with> this object in view what orders would they be likely to give to commanders of submarines. I shall be curious to see the result.

          We were very sorry indeed to hear that Mr.Roosevelt9 had contracted double pneumonia on the way over. We cannot imagine how this happened, unless it was due to his having unduly tired himself by this trip over here.

          We are much pleased with the reports we get as to the 14” 50-calibre naval guns on the Western Front. General Plunkett,10 (as he is often called) is apparently handling the job in splendid style. He is a human dynamo of energy and enthusiasm. We are informed that he has given some of the Army artillery people some fine examples of Navy hustle and ability to get things done with<out> the usual amount of circumlocution and paper work. There is every reason to believe that these guns will do excellent service.

          You may well imagine that I am anxious to know who is going to be assigned to the very important position of commander of our forces in France. Twining11 has just made a trip to Brest and the Western ports, and he reports that Wilson12 is very tired, that he seems to have aged quite ten years. I am in great hopes that you will find available some officer upon whose loyalty and judgment we can rely. This command is of course my principal anxiety. The Commander-in-Chief told me that he had recommended Eddy Anderson.13 It positively gave me gooseflesh. All of us agreed that Anderson would not last long in this job.

          Before telegraphing to you the other day apropos of the message of Rodgers we telegraphed to Rodman14 and asked him if he would be willing to take this position. He replied quite energetically that he would prefer his present position to any other one in the Navy. Perhaps he would not like to tackle the responsibilities of the French command.

          I have been much interested in meeting the American editors who are now being entertained by the British and French Governments. They asked me a great many questions about the submarine campaign especially; I offered to answer these at a dinner the Government gave them at the American Officers Club providing that they would write down a collection of such questions. Mr.Balfour15 was at the dinner and was called upon for the customary few remarks. He said that although he had been First Lord of the Admiralty for a considerable time and though he had always been vitally interested in these questions, he had never understood them so well as he did from the answers to these questions.

          The Editors asked me if I would write out the answers to the questions, and I have done so. I enclose a copy of the manuscript herewith.16 They explained that they wanted this information not to use but so that they could avoid publishing statements that were not correct. I had previously at a luncheon given by the Minister of Information, Lord Beaverbrook, criticised the editors in a pleasant way for the numerous items of mis-information that they had been publishing on these subjects. As a result of this they asked for a copy of the criticisms as well as the questions. I enclose them also.

          A couple of Sundays ago I was invited by Mr.Lloyd George17 to spend the day with him at a country place he has near Brighton. He of course asked many questions concerning the submarine campaign and allied subjects. It was remarkable how accurate his information and understanding of these subjects are, and how well he understands their significance from a military point of view. It was due largely to this man’s remarkable courage that we have succeeded so well on the Western Front. It was known in the first part of July that the Germans intended to make a powerful drive against the British forces east of Amiens. It was proposed to him that the reserves concentrated in anticipation of this drive be shifted down to the western side of the Marne salient with the object of making this flank attack powerful enough to hold up the drive against the British Army. His consent was necessary to the scheme proposed by Marshall Foch.18 He gave it without hesitation and you know the result.19 The Lord knows what it would have been if he had not consented.

Always very sincerely yours,      

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

Footnote 1: For examples of Sims’ weekly reports, see: Sims to Daniels 19 September and 27 September 1918.

Footnote 2: RAdm. Joseph Strauss, Commander, Mine Force, and Capt. Orin G. Murfin, an aide on Strauss’ staff.

Footnote 3: Adm. Ferdinand Jean Jacques de Bon.

Footnote 4: This probably refers to the fifth meeting of the Inter-Allied Naval Council in early September 1918, which devoted considerable attention to the question of mining operations in the Mediterranean. In any case, the end of the war abruptly cut off plans these plans before any serious work could begin. Trask, Captains and Cabinets: 279-281.

Footnote 5: For the designated areas of the North Sea Mine Barrage, see the Maps section for April 1918.

Footnote 6: Although there was a major mutiny in the German surface fleet at the end of the war, submarine crews continued to make the best effort they could despite crushing losses until the very end. Gray, The U-Boat War: 241-256.

Footnote 7: O-boats were a class of American submarines.

Footnote 8: For more on this, see: Sims to Daniels, 21 June 1917.

Footnote 9: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Footnote 10: Capt. Charles P. Plunkett, Commander, U. S. Naval Railway Batteries in France. For more on the railway batteries, see: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-i/tech/railway-batteries-in-france.html, accessed 29 January 2019.

Footnote 11: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Sims’ chief of staff.

Footnote 12: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Naval Forces Based in France.

Footnote 13: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, United States Atlantic Fleet, and RAdm. Edwin A. Anderson, Commander, American Patrol Detachment. Wilson was not replaced and remained in France for the rest of the war and beyond.

Footnote 14: RAdm. Thomas S. Rodgers, Commander, Battleship Division Six, and RAdm. Hugh Rodman, Commander, Battleship Division Nine.

Footnote 15: British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. Balfour replaced Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in May 1915, when Churchill was forced out following the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign. He remained at the post until December 1916, when he became Foreign Secretary.

Footnote 16: For examples of Sims’ written responses to newspaper editors’ questions, see: Sims to Newspapers, 1 September 1918, and Sims to Editors, 6 September 1918.

Footnote 17: Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Footnote 18: Gen. Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander.

Footnote 19: For more on Germany’s failed offensive assault in July 1918, and the concurrent Allied success on the Marne, see Gilbert, The First World War: 440-446.