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Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters





24 September, 1917.    

My dear Sims:-

              Your letter of September 1st, duly received.1 I appreciate and understand what you say therein and candor compels me to state that Pratt,2 through a very fine sense of loyalty, in accordance with your general permission for him to show your personal letters to anyone who could use them to advantage and the general good, has shown them to me. At least, he has shown quite a number of them to me until finally, through a sense of what I considered justice to you, I requested him not to let me read any more of them, as I was afraid that the constant spirit of criticism and complaint that pervaded them at all times showing unmistakable inference that most of the good that was being accomplished in this office was due to Pratt, and possibly Schofield,3 would gradually produce a state of mind on my part that was undesirable, to say the least.

     While I fully appreciate all that you have done, and you certainly have every reason to know how highly I appreciate your ability and loyalty to the Service and the excellent work, not only that you are doing now, but always have done, I could not escape the impression that you did not understand, fully at any rate, the difficulties on this side and just what we were trying to accomplish.

     I have also been surprised that no plan of operations has been suggested as coming either from you or the Admiralty. So far, the principal requests and suggestions have been along the line of the increase in Anti-submarine craft in European waters and increasing the personnel assistance. I believe that this office has fully appreciated your situation and has made every possible effort to meet the situation as represented by you. Most of the requests for officers that you have made have been by name and it has not always been possible to immediately detail the officer so desired for duty under you. Strenuous effort however has been made to meet every request that you have made as fully and rapidly as conditions would permit. As you doubtless understand we are several thousand short of commissioned personnel and due to the changes that we have had to make in organization on account of the requests by the Allies, handling of personnel has been very trying. Palmer4 has handled this problem, I think, with masterly skill and judgment, but it is still far from satisfactory.

     I feel that I should also say that another impression made on me in reading Pratt’s letters was one of surprise that the information and suggestions contained therein should go to a subordinate in this office instead of to the officer installed as head of the office.

     The situation regarding mines has been very unsatisfactory. It has been practically impossible for us to get definite information on this subject. This office has a very definite plan of operation in which mines play a very important part, but so far we have been unable to get a definite plan of any kind from the other side, or just how many mines or for what purpose they are needed. Also the question whether or not our mines or the British Admiralty mines were to be used. We could not escape the impression that the Vickers Company and Commander Elia5 combined were largely responsible for a good deal of this trouble. Whether we are correct in our supposition or not, of course, would be impossible for me to say, but, due to the importance of this subject I think that a very clear and definite understanding should be arrived at the earliest possible moment.

     I hope, of course, that Admiral Mayo will be able to straighten this out upon his return.6 If not, as you would be able to judge from what you are doing now, I hope that you will see that it is straightened out.

     In regard to the distribution of forces in European waters, I am sending a cablegram which authorizes you to make any change in the distribution that you consider desirable, but with very distinct understanding that whatever change is made shall be perfectly agreeable to the other Allies, particularly the French, as they were the first to ask for anti-submarine craft on their coast and have continued to urge this matter and it has been very evident not only from the manner but the remarks of the French Naval Attache that there is a feeling that we have neglected to respond to the requests in favor of the British.7 Of course, as we are sending over troops, and will send a great many more in very rapid succession to the French coast, it will be necessary that a sufficient force be left to, as far as possible, protect troop-ships to and from the French coast.

     As soon as we can do so, the five destroyers now in the Azores will be sent to report to you and in addition we have about twenty more yachts that we expect to get away sometime in October.8 It would seem quite possible and desirable to reduce Wilson’s force at Gibraltar,9 but just where to send them is a matter that you are much better prepared to judge than this office.

     The five destroyers from the Asiatic [fleet] will reach Port Said tomorrow and will in the very near future reach Gibraltar, in case the Department should not decide in the meantime to divert them to the Italian coast. Should action be taken towards a break with Austria I think undoubtedly we would send the five destroyers to the Adriatic. This, however, may be settled later.10

     I assume that Pratt is keeping you fully informed as to all details and I simply want to assure you that this office is doing everything in its power to supply you with everything that you feel you need and we can supply for the prosecution of the War.

     We are not willing to send a portion of the battleship force and do not intend to unless very much stronger arguments are produced than have so far been set forth. It has been a surprise and disappointment that no definite plan or operation of the combined forces of the allied naval powers has not been taken up and decided upon long ere this. I consider this most urgent and certainly should be done at the earliest possible date, and if nothing can be done this fall or winter, preparations should be actively underway to carry out some definite plan of operation as soon as spring of 1918 opens.

     I admit that I have been rather frank in the statements that I have made in this letter but I consider it best to be so. At the sametime I can readily understand that you doubtless feel that you have quite as many causes for complaint and Justas many grievances, but notwithstanding all this, it is absolutely necessary that we try to make the situation as clear as possible and co-operate to the fullest extent. This is the absolute and full intention of this office and will continue to be so under all conditions.

     I congratulate you on your success in handling the Operations so far and with the best wishes for the future, I am,

Sincerely yours,

W.S. Benson.

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 49. Following Benson’s signature is typed, “Vice Admiral/W. S. Sims, U. S. Navy,/C/O American Embassy,/London, England.”

Footnote 2: Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 3: Capt. Frank H. Schofield, one of Benson’s aides.

Footnote 4: RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

Footnote 5: Capt. Giuseppe Elia of the Italian Navy invented the MK IV, V, and VI mines that were manufactured by Vickers for use in anti-submarine warfare.

Footnote 6: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, traveled to London at the end of August 1917 to conduct a review of the United States naval forces and gain first-hand perspective on the Allied naval war effort. During this time, he also attended an Allied Naval Conference in London on 4-5 September.

Footnote 7: The cablegram which Benson describes here has not been located. Cmdr. Bernard A. de Blanpré was the French Naval Attaché at Washington.

Footnote 8: These were the American destroyers Reid, Flusser, Preston, Lamson, and Smith. They were accompanied by Panther as their tender. These destroyers belonged to the 700-ton Flusser class, carried a battery of five 3.5 inch guns, were coal-burning and capable of steaming at 28 knots. Still, Crisis at Sea, 390. According to Reid’s war diary, this division of destroyers departed the Azores on 5 October 1917, arriving at Queenstown on 16 October. Part of the division then left for Brest on 19 October and the remainder on 21 October. George M. Battey, Jr., 70,000 Miles on a Submarine Destroyer or, The Reid Boat in the World War (Atlanta, The Webb & Vary Company, 1919), 48, 65.

Footnote 9: RAdm. Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Patrol Squadron Based at Gibraltar.

Footnote 10: The so-called “dirty five”, these vessels were Chauncey, Barry, Bainbridge, Dale, and Decatur. This squadron of destroyers was headed by Lt. Cmdr. Harold R. Stark. Although the United States did ultimately declare war on Austria-Hungary, these destroyers remained based at Gibraltar and provided excellent service as escort vessels in the Mediterranean; Sims, Victory at Sea, 161-162.