America joined in the war against Germany, April 6, 1917. The events leading up to this decision went back two years and more. Both England and Germany had disregarded neutral rights. International law, with new conditions arising, had been set aside or had been changed to meet those conditions. At the hands of either belligerent American communications suffered. England's offense consisted in intercepting articles, consigned not only to Germany, but to countries neighboring upon her, from which they might be forwarded to her; also England greatly extended the classes of contraband. Germany's offense consisted in destroying merchantmen engaged in commerce with England and France, without exercising the right of visit and search, commonly without warning and often without making any effort to save passengers and crew. The first class of offenses caused irritation, but the trouble was only of money. In some cases compensation was made at the time; in others it bade fair to be settled by claims made after the war. The second class of offenses caused deep indignation. Among the people lost were American citizens, women and children as well as men, and for their lives there could be no compensation. Germany was said to be waging war against humanity.
A conspicuous example of this kind of warfare, a success that was to prove unfortunate for Germany, was the sinking of the Lusitania. On May 7, 1915, without the slightest warning that ship was torpedoed off the Irish p484 coast. She sank in eighteen minutes, and with her were lost 1153 men, women, and children, of whom 114 were citizens of the United States. Some people of our country were for an immediate declaration of war, but President Wilson bent his efforts to gaining a repudiation of the act, coupled with the promise of respecting in the future the rules of cruiser warfare. Although there were two further lapses that occasioned sharp notes, Germany was kept from unrestricted submarine warfare until February 1, 1917. Then diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany were severed, and when news came that three American ships had been sunk, an extra session of Congress was called and war was declared.
From a naval point of view the World War was a conflict of two blockades. Great Britain, since the beginning of hostilities, had been so superior on the surface as to enforce a long distance blockade that prevented ships from the west entering or leaving German ports. Occasionally German warships slipped out, but it was only for short runs or raids, from which they returned after a few hours. Germany, on the other hand, had a force of undersea craft that came and went at pleasure, encircling the British Isles and sailing about the French coast. They sank so many merchantmen as to make hazardous the carrying of cargoes to the Allied countries. Though many ships eluded them, the large number lost seriously interfered with the Allies' prosecution of the war, and in 1917 the menace was becoming worse.
Thus when the United States joined the Allies, if the surface blockade could be maintained and avenues from the United States to the Allies be kept open, our vast resources in men and war supplies of all kinds would eventually insure victory. On the other hand, if the p485 undersea craft, with the increased force then available, could prevent men and supplies from reaching England and France, they felt confident of a result favorable to them.
Three days after the declaration of war there arrived in England the naval representative of the United States, Admiral W. S. Sims, who had been sent when the break with Germany was inevitable, in order that he might get in touch with the British Admiralty and acquaint the Navy Department with the situation. He kept this position throughout the war, his duty for the most part being in London with his office near the Admiralty. When American naval forces were sent to join the British, French, and Italian, he was made "Commander of the U. S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters."
It was plain to him that the United States had not entered the war merely to be on the winning side. The prospects for the Allies in April, 1917, were bleak enough. Germany was making the unrestricted submarine campaign terribly effective, and in this month alone her boats sank 900,000 tons. This was out of all proportion to what the overworked British shipyards could do in making good the losses by building, and there was no disguising the truth that at this rate England would be isolated and starved out by the early fall.
There had been published many lurid accounts of the destruction of German submarines. Many of them originated with eye witnesses who had seen oil slicks and wreckage of some kind or other, making them believe that a U‑boat had been destroyed. Yet the Admiralty intelligence reports gave conclusive evidence of only fifty-four German submarines having been destroyed since the p486 beginning of hostilities, and the German shipyards were now turning out new boats at the rate of three a week.
All the facts at their disposal the British put before Admiral Sims, and he and the American ambassador, Walter Hines Page, reported to Washington the critical situation. In conclusion, Sims said, "Briefly stated, I consider that at the present moment we are losing the war."
Our army had promptly undertaken the task of organizing and training overseas forces, but it was plain that the process would take time, and there was the problem of transporting them to France. To make the United States at once effective, however, two kinds of assistance were possible: sending of destroyers and forwarding of supplies, both munition and food. To this the United States promptly gave itself.
From 1914 Great Britain had been sending a constant procession of troop and supply ships to France, and not a single one had been sacrificed to the U‑boats. This showed plainly the power of the destroyers, which always served as escorts. But the undersea craft, carefully avoiding them near Dover, operated almost at will in the entrance to the English Channel, St. George's Channel, and Bristol Channel. In these waters only occasionally did a destroyer appear, for the British had not a sufficient force to patrol them.
Thus to overcome the German submarine blockade American destroyers were essential. The Navy Department had surmised this even before Admiral Sims's urgent messages were received. A division was dispatched the instant it was ready, and on the fourth of May, less than a month after war had been declared, six American destroyers, under Commander J. K. Taussig, steamed into p487 Queenstown. No newspaper had announced their coming, but the whole city was out to welcome them. Their presence had the greatest significance to the Allies. Even more important than the increase of force was the visible evidence that the United States had entered the war and was taking her part. The moving pictures photographed at the time were soon shown all over England; prefacing this with the story of a few Englishmen who in 1620 went to North America to found a state based on justice and liberty, they emphasized this home-coming three centuries later to fight for justice and liberty by calling it "The Return of the Mayflower."
Painting by B. F. Gribble
The Return of the Mayflower
Admiral Bayly, R. N., the commanding officer at Queenstown to whom Commander Taussig and his associates hastened to report, was known to be a man of few words, but the response which he elicited became famous in British as well as American annals.
"After acknowledging the introduction, Bayly's first words were these: 'Captain Taussig, at what time will your vessels be ready for the sea?' Taussig replied, 'I shall be ready when fueled.' The admiral then asked, 'Do you require any repairs?' [meaning, dockyard work]. Taussig answered, 'No sir.' The admiral's third and last question was, 'Do you require any stores?' [meaning dry provisions]. Taussig answered, 'No sir! Each vessel now has on board sufficient stores to last for seventy days.' The admiral concluded the interview with these instructions: 'You will take four days' rest. Good Morning.' "1
The grim Admiral Bayly, who was a lion in action, when he found that his new force were as bold and efficient in deeds as in words, became enthusiastically devoted to them, and their relations were most cordial throughout.
On the 17th of May the second division of six destroyers p488 arrived, and another division appeared nearly every week thereafter until the fifth of July, when thirty-four destroyers were at Queenstown, the number that continued there until the end of the war.
Certain areas for patrol were assigned to the American force and a definite routine was established: six days of patrol, followed by two days in port; once a month, five days off for boiler cleaning and overhaul.
It was hard, wearing duty for the destroyer force; and only by constant vigilance was there safety for those intrusted to their charge as well as for themselves. There were repeated S.O.S. calls from ships attacked by U‑boats, and the destroyers had to rush off to their rescue. There were boat loads of survivors to pick up and bring in. There were convoys to meet and escort through the danger zone. Occasionally they sighted a periscope, and by quick firers, ramming, and depth charges they hunted the hunter. The last of these three methods of attack, a new type of mine, was invented as America entered the war, and possessed great possibilities. If the submarine by delay disclosed even its approximate position, a mine, adjusted to explode at a certain depth, was dropped overboard (or projected by the Y‑gun) from a destroyer, and it gave a frightful shock, in many cases causing serious damage.
On an October morning as some destroyers were escorting a convoy of British ships to the east coast of England, they received a radio message from the American steamer J. L. calling for help, for she was being shelled by a submarine. Though the position she gave was •ninety miles away, the Nicholson went at once to her assistance. The , being an armed merchantman, was by her guns keeping the submarine at a distance, but as the latter outranged her, it had the game seemingly in its own hands. Yet when the Nicholson radioed, p489 "Do not surrender!" there came back the spirited answer, "Never." As the Nicholson appeared, the American merchantman, through crippled and on fire, was still fighting. The destroyer by her prompt response saved her and brought her to England with the convoy.
At other times the destroyers were not so successful. The Cassin while on patrol was herself torpedoed, a torpedo striking the stern. She was kept afloat, however, and as the submarine appeared on the surface to complete its work it was driven away by the destroyer's guns. A storm followed, but the Cassin succeeded in weathering it, and when help arrived, after much labor she was towed into port.
The most satisfactory engagement any of our destroyers had was that of the Fanning, Lieutenant A. S. Carpenter, with the U‑58 on the afternoon of November 17, 1917. It occurred while, with the Nicholson, she was escorting a convoy of eight British merchantmen •ten miles out from Queenstown. A vigilant coxswain espied the top of a periscope only 400 yards distant and ahead, slowly making toward the path of the convoy — the submarine in excellent position for firing. The torpedo was never discharged, however, for before the periscope went under it revealed the Fanning working up to a speed of twenty knots and charging down.
Reaching the spot where the periscope had disappeared and going slightly ahead of the estimated position of the U‑boat, the Fanning dropped a depth charge and then continued on the turn she was making. The Nicholson, having also circled about, was approaching so as to join the Fanning in laying a depth-charge barrage around their quarry. As she neared the spot where the depth charge had been dropped, her officers saw a bow and conning tower emerging; they released a depth charge alongside when they passed, and followed this by p490 three shots from their stern gun. A minute later the conning tower opened and the officers and crew began crawling out, each one, with hands up, calling "Kamerad" to show he wished to surrender. Under cover of the Nicholson's guns, the Fanning approached, and as the bow of the submarine settled and the stern rose, the destroyer succeeded in picking up all but one of the German force, four officers and thirty-five men. While the prisoners were being taken on board, a chief pharmacist's mate and a coxswain of the Fanning jumped into the icy water to save a German sailor who was drowning. They succeeded in getting him on board, but efforts to resuscitate him were unavailing. Later it was learned from the commanding officer of the U‑58, that the first depth charge (dropped by the Fanning) had wrecked his motors, had put the diving rudders out of commission, and broken the oil leads. When the submarine, utterly unmanageable, had sunk to a depth of •200 feet, the officers had blown the tanks and come to the surface; in the choice between a horrible death on the bottom and surrender, they preferred the latter.
Courtesy of the Navy Department
Capture of the U‑58 by the Fanning
In order to increase the number of small boats hunting submarines, the Navy Department accepted several large pleasure yachts which their owners offered. Also a new type was developed, the subchaser, •110 feet long and of 60 tons displacement. Some 400 of these were turned out by the shipyards in eighteen months, and 170 were dispatched to Queenstown, Brest, Gibraltar, and Corfu. We used, further, coast guard boats, gunboats, and old‑time torpedo boats brought from the Philippines. Living conditions on these tiny craft were often grim enough, but they kept at sea no matter what was the weather. Although the larger number of their officers and crew were college men, new to the service, never having made an ocean voyage before, they made a splendid record. p491 The little yacht Christabel won high honors. While protecting a British merchantman that had fallen behind her convoy, off the coast of southern France, she had an engagement with a submarine that hovered about attempting to sink the ship. A depth charge dropped where the periscope had disappeared brought up all kinds of débris followed by quantities of heavy black oil. A day or two later the UC‑56, battered and bruised, crawled into the Spanish port of Santander, so badly damaged that she was interned for the rest of the war.
Thirty‑six of the subchasers, which had steamed all the way from New London to Greece, •6000 miles, were based on Corfu. Under the command of Captain C. P. Nelson, they were very efficient in the patrol of the Straits of Otranto, where the Adriatic narrows down to •forty miles. By their listening devices they became skilful in trailing submarines and they caused great disquiet by dropping depth bombs.
Early in October, 1918, Captain Nelson with twelve chasers was asked to coöperate with the British and Italian light cruisers in an attack on the Austrian base at Durazzo.
"It's going to be a real party, boys," was Nelson's remark as he appeared after conferring with Commodore W. A. H. Kelly of the British Navy. And it was with a spirit emulating that shown by Decatur in his exploits in the Mediterranean one hundred years before that our force entered the affair.
The subchasers had as their mission the screening of the cruisers from submarine attack, while the latter shelled the city, destroyed the shipping, and demolished military storehouses. Austrian batteries opened upon the small boats and the missiles fell all about them, but they held calmly to their work. At length one of the subchasers detected the presence of a U‑boat making toward the British cruisers, and changed its course to meet it. p492 The second subchaser in the division following the new lead, its skipper caught a glimpse of a periscope. Smashing the periscope with a well-aimed shot, he dashed forward and began dropping depth charges, in which sport a third chaser also joined. One bomb evidently hit its mark, for steel plates and other wreckage were blown into the air. The first chaser was found with her engine broken down, but she announced that before this happened she had discharged eight depth charges, bringing up masses of oil and seven pieces of metal plate.
Durazzo was ruined as a military base, but not an American in this exploit was injured.2
The raising and equipping of an army of two millions in the short time at our disposal was a great achievement. But that is a chapter of military history. It is the transportation of this army to France that belongs to naval annals.
The British plan of escorting troop and cargo ships across the Channel proving successful was adopted by our forces, and was put into operation for the protection of shipping bound for England and western Europe, whether from the United States or from Africa and Gibraltar. It slowed down the carriers by twenty per cent, but what did that matter if it made them safe — a result which in time was very largely accomplished.
For the United States to send what the Balfour Mission representing England and the Joffre Mission representing France implored of the President, it was seen that a vast flotilla would be required, and accordingly the United States Shipping Board and the Emergency Fleet Corporation were created. Ships were procured p493 from every possible source. German merchant ships and interned warships lying in our harbors were overhauled and repaired for American service. American vessels in the coast trade were taken over, old shipyards were enlarged, and others newly established worked with feverish intensity, turning out craft of every kind. Of naval transports at the begging we had only two, but this number during the war was increased to forty-eight. As escorts to the convoys while crossing the Atlantic, twenty-four cruisers were secured, some from the Atlantic Fleet, some from those on special assignments, and some from those out of commission.3
The large and faster cruisers were used to escort troop convoys, and the smaller vessels to escort cargo convoys.
The duty of this deep‑sea escort, which guarded the ships from destruction by German raiders as well as from attack by cruising U‑boats, was indeed a strenuous one. "Theirs was the constant and unceasing toil, in summer and winter. . . . Seven days of rest in port, then out again, mothering liners and pot‑bellied merchant ships loaded with their invaluable cargo. The hard part of it was that they rarely sighted land on the other side, but met the escorting destroyers far out from shore, where they had to turn around to buck the heavy nor'westers and so for home again, only to coal, have a little run on the avenue, a look at the movies, then back again with another convoy."4
The record they made was an enviable one. Not a troopship nor a single American soldier sent across by the United States Naval Transport Service was lost going over.5 The ships did not have quite the same immunity p494 returning, since five were torpedoed, three being lost, but two in spite of injuries making port. Every effort was made to protect the empty ships, but when it was necessary with the limited number of destroyers to choose between a heavily loaded convoy going over and empty ships returning, reason sent the escorts to the former.
The submarine blockade which Germany had counted on to prevent America's taking any appreciable part in the war was overcome by two lines of operations. The first was the use of every available means of protection — such as has been described. The second was the careful routing of the convoys. Trip after trip was made without a lookout's sighting any U‑boat. None was sent, for the ships had been directed in lanes where there was no enemy. This was the work of one or two officers in the convoy room in Brest or in London.
In this room from which no secrets issued, for practically no one beyond a very few officers of the staff were admitted, a huge chart of the Atlantic Ocean filled a side of the wall. The position of every convoy was marked and its progress was indicated. Similarly the position of practically every German submarine was marked, surrounded by a circle equal to its estimated cruising radius during the day or since the time when last reported. These circles were the danger zones to be avoided. To those unfamiliar with the methods of the convoy room it seemed strange that its officers could obtain such definite information about the U‑boats. In the first place, whenever a ship sighted a submarine, or was attacked, it promptly sent a radio message reporting the fact with longitude and latitude. Second, whenever a U‑boat opened up with its radio, the different stations quickly recognized it and with their direction-finders determined its position. The Allied submarines, destroyers, and convoys p495 were cautioned not to use their radio except when absolutely necessary; but the German submarines were much given to talking, commonly getting into communication about the same hour and often talking at other times. By patient observation, supplemented by information gained by the British intelligence office, the identity and habits of U‑boats in certain areas were learned. Some of them had as their chief mission the laying of mines, others rarely used anything but torpedoes in attack, and others made a considerable use of their guns, staying out longer by holding their torpedoes in reserve. The number of torpedoes they commonly carried was known; so if the data collected on a particular submarine showered that these had all been fired, one could be rather sure that it would soon be returning to port. Many a time when the routing officer in the convoy saw peril for an approaching convoy, because, if it kept on its course, it would on the following day or night enter the circle where a U‑boat was operating, he radioed to the convoy, sending it off on a wide detour or directing it to a different port. Thus it was that convoys arrived without sighting an enemy, in truth without having been within striking distance.
Of the vast American army overseas at the time of the Armistice 46¼ per cent had been carried in United States ships; or in figures given by the Secretary of the Navy, 924,578 of our troops in Europe, November 1, 1918, had made the passage in United States naval convoys under the escort of United States cruisers and destroyers.6 Beginning with spring, 1918, when men were so much needed in France, they were transported at the rate of 10,000 a day, together with food supplies required for soldiers and civilians of all nationalities, p496 and war munitions. Within ten months after work had begun in organizing the transportation service, the Secretary of the Navy estimated, a vessel manned by an American naval crew, carrying subsistence and equipment for the American Expeditionary Forces, was leaving an American port on an average of every five hours.7 At the head of the transport service and working indefatigably with his corps of assistants was Vice-Admiral Albert Gleaves. Its success was due in a very large degree to him and to Vice-Admiral Henry B. Wilson, our naval representative in France and the officer in charge of the naval base at Brest.
It was Admiral Wilson who had the problem of circumventing the U‑boats operating in the Bay of Biscay and of safeguarding the two million soldiers sent to France, when they had reached the danger zone. This he did through the convoy room at Brest and by means of the large force of destroyers, yachts, and other auxiliary craft under his command. The receiving and unloading of troop- and cargo-ships was also his responsibility; and their quick return was due in a large degree to his constant supervision and tireless energy.a
Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, who for the first two years of the war (previous to America's entry) was the minister who had charge of the German Navy, records that even as early as August 19, 1914, he remarked to the chancellor of the German Empire, "The decision of the war turns exclusively on whether Germany or England can hold out the longer;" and he observed to the chief of the naval staff, "The English fleet and England are Germany's most dangerous enemy."
p497 Whatever we may think of von Tirpitz's conduct of the war, his estimate of the situation was correct. It was the British Navy and more particularly the battleships and battle cruisers of the British Grand Fleet that were the backbone of the blockade, and the blockade was one of the two or possibly three great factors that brought Germany's downfall.
The superiority of the Grand Fleet was such that the German High Seas Fleet never sought a general engagement, and with sound strategy pinned its hopes of success on the expectation of surprising and crushing detached squadrons or units, until it had reduced this superiority. Consequently the activities of the High Seas Fleet (aside from Jutland when the general engagement came from a meeting unintended on the part of the Germans) consisted of raids and short runs with a home port near for a safe return. Had the Grand Fleet even momentarily neglected its vigilant watch, swarms of raiders might have dashed out, attacking the troop and cargo convoys bound for France, and defeating every means used by the Allies to overcome the submarine blockade. When the United States began sending its large convoys overseas, there was fear that Germany, taking a desperate chance, might send out even a battle cruiser and cause consternation in America as well as wild rejoicing in Germany by destroying a whole convoy. It was to guard against such a disaster that three of our fastest and strongest battleships, the Nevada, Oklahoma, and Utah, under Rear-Admiral T. S. Rodgers, were dispatched to Bantry Bay, southwest Ireland, whence they might be ready to meet any raider. Perhaps it was the knowledge of this precaution that prevented an attack.
Previous to the stationing of these ships in Ireland, Battleship Division No. 9 of the United States Atlantic Fleet had been sent to Scapa Flow to be combined with p498 the Grand Fleet. The constant sea service of the latter required that strong units frequently drop out for overhaul. That the British numerical superiority might still be maintained, as well as to strengthen the morale by this visible evidence of our participation in the war, the division just mentioned consisting of five battleships, the New York (Captain C. F. Hughes), the Wyoming (Captain H. A. Wiley), the Texas (Captain Victor Blue), the Florida (Captain Thomas Washington), and the Delaware (Captain A. H. Scales), under Rear-Admiral Hugh Rodman, joined the British at Scapa Flow, December 6, 1917. From that date until the end of the war it constituted the Sixth Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet.
Every navy has its own codes, its own system of signals, and its own system of tactics. The Sixth Battle Squadron promptly began to study and to adopt British ways. To simplify the process, with each American was paired a British dreadnought, which should accompany her in all maneuvers and act as her mentor. So quick was the assimilation that in four days the new squadron went out for maneuvers, taking its assigned position in the fleet.
It was not the contacts with the enemy but the constant vigilance that made this duty a severe one. The fleet, studying not to make its movements too regular, for the most part alternated between Scapa Flow in the Orkneys and Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. Some recreation was planned for the personnel, but it was necessarily limited when every ship, no matter how recent had been its patrol, must be ready to put to sea at four hours' notice. The winter nights in the northern latitude were long and the waters were cold and stormy. But cheerfulness and optimism were the prevailing note, and the only real grumbling was because the enemy would not come out and give the battleships a chance. Our force, however, found their service not without thrills. Some of the p499 thrills came from the maneuvers and others from attacks by the U‑boats.
In one of the frequent patrols, as the fleet steamed out of Rosyth on an afternoon, they ran into a blinding snow storm. The Delaware, which happened that day to be the last battleship in the column, lost touch with the other ships when the fog buoy, trailing along from the ship she followed, carried away. After that there was no alternative but strictly to follow sailing orders, which prescribed the course and included two right-angle turns. An anxious night for the skipper and his officers followed, but not only did they not collide with any of the other units, but they sighted none. When dawn came and the weather, clearing, lifted the veil, it disclosed to them just one ship in sight, the flagship of Admiral Sir David Beatty, who seeing them suddenly appear, trained his guns on them and demanded the recognition signal. During the night they had steamed through the entire fleet to a position close to their flagship, which was supposed to be leading the column.
The Germans plainly cherished hopes of bolstering up their morale by sinking one of the American dreadnoughts, and singled them out for repeated attacks. In February, 1918, when the Florida and Delaware were escorting a convoy off the coast of Norway, a U‑boat discharged four torpedoes at the former and two at the latter, but the battleships by quick turns avoided them all, and destroyers drove off the assailant. On a later day, in Pentland Firth, the skipper of the New York, seeing a suspicious object, changed his course, and then discovering that it was a U‑boat, headed for it at full speed. Officers felt a blow on their starboard quarter, followed by a second blow. When the New York was examined, it was found that two blades of her propellers have been broken off. The submarine was not seen again and it was believed that it had sunk to rise no more. p500 Shortly after this, the dreadnought being on her way to be refitted, a U‑boat attacked her and fired in quick succession three torpedoes, all passing ahead. Because of her damaged propellers she was making at the time but twelve knots; it may have been this that caused the U‑boat wrongly to estimate her progress and to miss her.
Meanwhile the various squadrons in home waters had been brought together and organized in the Atlantic Fleet, of which Admiral Henry T. Mayo was in command. He went abroad during the first months of the war to make a comprehensive study of conditions there. In the Atlantic Fleet there was constant drilling and fullest preparation for war service. German U‑boats, as a matter of fact, did come to the American coast in 1918, sinking with a mine the cruiser San Diego and shelling or torpedoing several small merchant vessels. If disaster had come to the British Grand Fleet, the United States had ready a strong reserve for immediate service.
Admiral Benson, as Chief of Naval Operations, had the duty of organizing the vast resources of the navy and coördinating our forces at home and abroad. His was an office of the very first importance, for all naval operations, big or little, had to be directed from it. He went to Europe near the beginning and technology of hostilities that he might visit the Allied navies and confer with the naval leaders as to the most effective prosecution of the war.
In Washington, at the heart of activities, was the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. Closely in touch with the varied work of the navy, he was indefatigable in representing its needs to Congress and securing the colossal appropriations required. Early and late he was at his desk; he personally attended to a huge volume of naval business, and yet he was always ready to listen to the request of the humblest sailor.
1 Naval Institute Proceedings, December, 1922, vol. 48, p2036.
3 Gleaves, History of the Transport Service, p28.
4 Ibid., p154.
5 Report of Secretary of the Navy, 1918, p27; Gleaves, History of the Transport Service, p29.
6 Gleaves, History of the Transport Service, p25; Report of Secretary of the Navy, 1918, p27.
7 Report of Secretary of the Navy, 1918, p20.
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