William Sowden Sims
After the American Revolution, when fighting was over, the young country was eager to dispose of its warships and be free of further expense. Again, after the Civil War the long period of naval decay told a similar story. But after the Spanish-American War our national policy followed a different trend. In part this was due to President Theodore Roosevelt, who attached great importance to the position of the United States among the world powers, and looked upon the navy as the instrument of maintaining it. Great Britain, Germany, France, and Japan were intent on extending their territorial limits and establishing prosperous colonies. They were all building warships. Although a few strong voices, like that of Professor Sumner of Yale, protested that we were embarking on a career of imperialism, America decided to hold the Philippines and Porto Rico, which consequently had to be protected. We had accepted the white man's burden, and a modern navy was essential to sustain it.
At the turn of the century, throughout the country there was great enthusiasm over the recent demonstration of the strength of our Republic and our naval force. We had defeated Spain, and there was no country we had to fear. In contrast to the many who extravagantly praised our ships for what they had done at Cavite and Santiago, there was one who was sharply critical — p292Lieutenant W. S. Sims, who as naval attaché had seen the warships and guns of the principal European powers and who did not hesitate to state facts and make comparisons. All through his long official career he proved that most disturbing of individuals — a friendly and outspoken critic. He constantly upset the peace of our naval establishment by urging a vast house-cleaning and reorganization.
Like Maury, Luce, and Mahan, Sims encountered opposition to his progressive ideas in the navy itself. It is no wonder that many of his superiors, comfortably settled in conventional routine, regarded him as an intolerable nuisance. He did not go with the crowd. He always saw something that needed correction. He was the stormy petrel of the navy. But however the disquiet may be analyzed, there resulted a more powerful fleet. That is what he was seeking.
He was born in Port Hope, Canada. He was not a Canadian, however, and never was a British subject. His father, a civil engineer, had gone to Port Hope to construct certain harbor improvements. With his family he returned to Philadelphia when the future officer was ten years old. As a boy Sims was not remarkable. He did not excel in studies, and especially in languages and mathematics showed little aptitude. At the age of seventeen he received a Congressional appointment to the Naval Academy, but failed to pass the entrance examination. The following year he tried it again and "just scraped in." Midshipmen there were admitted young, some even before they had reached fifteen. Sims, though nearly eighteen, had a struggle to stay in, and at first stood near the foot of his class. He held to it, however, and was graduated in 1880 with a standing of twenty-eighth in a class of fifty‑six.
p293 No period of our naval history is duller than that of the seventies and early eighties. For Sims the most significant event was what even then must have seemed utterly "non‑reg" and unnaval — the obtaining of a leave of absence for the entire year 1888, which he spent in Paris. He gave himself to the study of French, in which he became tolerably proficient. He never went to the American embassy, and during the year was entirely out of touch with the navy. In his study of French he not only acquainted himself with the language, but, mingling with the people, learned to know their customs, their manner of life, their thought.
Nine years later the value of this year's study became evident. He was given duty as naval attaché at Paris and St. Petersburg (1897‑1900), and at the time of the Spanish-American War was in charge of the secret service in Spain, Russia, and Italy. As naval attaché he was indefatigable in securing all possible information on the British, French, and Russian navies — essential details such as were not at all easy to obtain concerning naval construction, guns, mounts, fire control, armor protection. And he did not hesitate to compare the warships and equipment with our own, some of the conclusions being not at all flattering to us. His reports were voluminous (more than those of all the other European attachés combined); but they received little notice in the Navy Department.a
In his next duty he went to China and became the close friend of Captain Percy Scott of the Royal Navy. Scott was deep in his reform of the British fleet, especially in the improvement of gunnery. Sims had long had the same thought in mind. Eagerly installing a device that Scott had used, he proceeded to try it out. This was the Morris tube, or sub‑caliber gun, which was mounted p294inside a big turret gun. Whereas to fire the turret gun day after day would cause excessive wear and entail expense not to be thought of, the trainers and pointers could be drilled in handling it while doing the actual shooting with a sub‑caliber gun at a miniature target, and thus develop a familiarity, speed, and accuracy approaching those gained by firing the turret gun itself.
About this time the North Atlantic Fleet had gone out for target practice, firing at an old lightship at a range of •2800 yards, and had made a deplorable showing. But no notice was taken of it except by Lieutenant Sims in Asia. Sims had already sent to the Navy Department several reports of target practice in our own and foreign navies. Now, as he prepared what he regarded as his final report, he obtained an endorsement of his conclusions from the commander-in‑chief of the Asiatic Fleet. But the endorsement did not save this report, any more than those preceding it, from oblivion. Thereupon he took the unprecedented step of writing direct to the President, sending his famous letter of November, 1901. In this he wrote:
After as exhaustive a study of these subjects as my opportunities would afford, I have . . . been forced to the very serious conclusion that the protection and armament of even our now recent battleships are so glaringly inferior, in principle as well as in details, to those of our possible enemies, and that our marksmanship is so crushingly inferior to theirs, that one or more of our ships would, in their present condition, inevitably suffer humiliating defeat at the hands of equal numbers of our enemy's vessels of the same class and displacement.
Sims wanted action. His daring letter brought it.
"Get me all those reports!" President Theodore Roosevelt snapped out when he had read the unusual p295communication. Almost immediately he ordered another target practice. The gunners were plainly on their mettle, but their record was only 13 per cent of hits at a time when the Royal Navy was making 80 or 85 per cent.
"Cable to China for that young man to come home at once," was Roosevelt's next order to the navy. "Give him entire charge of target practice for eighteen months; do exactly as he says. If he does not accomplish something in that time, cut off his head and try somebody else."
Sims now had his opportunity. He was made inspector of target practice, and continued to hold this post the next six and one‑half years, when our gunners became the best in the world. But this did not satisfy him. Other essentials which he had observed and made the subject of reports in the nineties he had not ceased to work on — defects of structural design in the guns and armor of our battleships.
No criticism is of the highest value unless a way of correcting what is wrong is indicated. With Lieutenant Homer C. Poundstone, Sims began working on detailed plans for what was facetiously called U. S. S. Scared-o'‑Nothing, an all‑big‑gun ship corresponding in type to the Dreadnought, of the Royal Navy, which appeared two years later. When his recommendations, made through official channels, were repeatedly disapproved, he resorted to another most unusual procedure, using Henry Reuterdahl, the marine artist, as his mouthpiece. Articles under Reuterdahl's name, appearing in McClure's Magazine, set forth the crying need of changes in ship design. A tempest followed in the Navy Department and also in the Senate. Indeed, had it not been for the President's intervention, Sims would have been court-martialed. But the articles served their purpose. The p296public was aroused. The Navy Department gave his recommendations consideration. And the battleships Michigan and South Carolina, then under construction, were changed to become our first dreadnaughts. America now took the lead in ship design as well as in gunnery.
During the long period of duty in Washington, Sims had met and married Anne Hitchcock, daughter of Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Secretary of the Interior. The last two years there he served as naval aide to the President. Then he went to sea and, though only a commander, was given an assignment for which only a captain commonly could qualify, the command of the battleship Minnesota. But he was still the stormy petrel, and while in London, in 1910, committed an indiscretion that had an international significance. The occasion was a dinner given in the Guildhall to seven hundred and fifty officers and bluejackets from our ships. In response to an enthusiastic welcome by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Vezey Strong, Sims said, "If the time should ever come when the British Empire is menaced by a European coalition, Great Britain can rely upon the last ship, the last dollar, the last man, and the last drop of blood of her kindred beyond the sea."1
Sims had prefaced the utterance with the words "Speaking for myself"; but that did not alter the effect, for of course he was an official representative of his country. Telegraph and cable carried the speech around the world. It came at the time when Germany was threatening British naval supremacy by her large building program, and war clouds were threatening. Millions of Americans at home applauded the sentiment; but when the German embassy protested, a public reprimand from the President was the inevitable consequence.
p297 It was unquestionably an indiscretion. Yet seven years later and again thirty‑one years later, history shows that Sims's expression of American sentiment was sound and true. As ex‑President Taft remarked on our entrance into the First World War, when Sims had just taken over the command of our naval forces in European waters, "The ways of history are curious. When I was President I reprimanded a naval officer for saying the very thing he is doing now."
War was declared against the Imperial German Government on 6 April, 1917. For years the navy, anticipating the emergency, had formulated detailed plans, which showed how officers, men, destroyers, and transports could be multiplied without unnecessary delay or confusion.
Already the Navy Department had selected the officer who was to command American forces overseas. In March, the month before the actual break, Rear Admiral W. S. Sims's quiet life as president of the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, was interrupted by a call to Washington — duty so secret that he was to report his arrival to the Navy Department not in person but by telephone. A few days later two commonplace looking passengers in civilian dress boarded the S. S. New York, bound from New York to Liverpool. As their tickets read, they were V. J. Richardson and S. W. Davidson; but as the captain knew, Admiral Sims and his aide, Commander J. V. Babcock. The ship struck a mine as they reached the outer harbor of the port for which they were bound, giving them an early experience of the war and causing the transfer of passengers to another ship.
At once British officers laid before Admiral Sims the real situation and told what they were doing to meet it. Sims's first cable to the Navy Department was, "The p298submarine issue is very much more serious than the people realize in America."
The rapid construction of enemy submarines and the rising weekly sinking of British shipping were appalling. Only partial information was being given to the British and American public. But to Sims the Admiralty disclosed that whereas during the preceding three years only about fifty-four enemy submarines were known to have been captured or sunk, new U‑boats were now being turned out at the rate of three a week. The loss of British, Allied, and neutral ships was close to one million tons a month, which was several times the amount that could be built. As Admiral Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, bluntly told Sims, "They will win unless we can stop these losses — and stop them soon."
"Is there no solution for the problem?" asked Sims.
"Absolutely none that we can see now."
The prime minister, Lloyd George, was the only one prominent in public office who took an optimistic view and believed that somehow the menace could be met.
If, indeed, the menace were to be met, Sims plainly saw, America must take a very considerable part. He recommended to the Navy Department that the maximum number of destroyers be at once sent over, accompanied by small anti-submarine craft, repair ships, and a continuous supply of fuel. As the first discussions had shown, the destroyers thus far were the only successful means of combating the U‑boats. And of the two hundred destroyers which the British had in commission, one hundred had to be held with the Grand Fleet so as to be able at any time to meet an equal number of German destroyers that were a part of the High Seas Fleet; a considerable number must protect the constant ferrying of troops across the English Channel to France; p299and another group, in the Mediterranean, must protect the vital Italian supply lines leading to the long peninsula from the Near East. This left fifteen or fewer to patrol the crowded shipping lanes to the south and north of Ireland where the U‑boats were creating such terrible havoc.
In the Navy Department, Secretary Josephus Daniels had already been studying with the chiefs of bureau the needs which he knew we should have to face, and he was unusually successful in putting the naval problems before Congress and securing the coöperation and support required. Closely associated with him were Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, who controlled the detailing of vessels to their respective stations; Rear Admiral Leigh C. Palmer, who provided for the recruiting and training of officers and men (the 85,061 available at the outbreak of hostilities being increased eventually to 532,503); Rear Admiral David W. Taylor, who had the task not only of providing for the rapid construction of destroyers and various auxiliaries but also of converting yachts and passenger steamers into war craft; and Rear Admiral Ralph Earle,b1 who had an equally heavy duty in furnishing guns, powder, and munitions of every kind, besides devising new methods of warfare in mines and in great naval guns mounted as land batteries.
The war was not three weeks old when a division of six of our latest destroyers under Commander Joseph K. Taussig (his flagship the Wadsworth) left Boston under sealed orders and steamed •fifty miles east of Cape Cod. There they learned that their destination was Queenstown, Ireland. Though neither British nor American newspapers printed any notice of their movements, the people of the Irish city were somehow informed; for on the morning of their expected arrival public buildings, p300many of the houses, and nearly all the ships in the harbor broke out American colors, and crowds were gathered on the shore. As someone announced, it was "the return of the Mayflower," or, as an Irish woman explained, "Sure, an' it's our own byes comin' back to us." The destroyers had been battered by the heavy weather; one arrived with condensers leaking, and another without its fireroom ventilator, which had carried away. Under ordinary conditions the first concern would have been rest and repairs, but the commanding officers were desirous of anything but being laid up in a yard.
It was on the occasion of the officers' calling to pay their respects to Vice Admiral Bayly, who commanded the British forces stationed at Queenstown, that Commander Taussig spoke words which have since become famous as a naval slogan. One of the officers present has given us a detailed report of the conversation:
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?" Taussig answered, "No, sir." The admiral's third and last question was, "Do you require any stores?". 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."
The officer relating the conversation adds:
After this occurrence I saw a great deal of the admiral, and about a year and a half ago I visited him for a week in Devon. I know from what he has said to me on these various occasions that he was as much impressed with Taussig's straight answers as Taussig was impressed with the businesslike aspect of the interview.
p301 The American destroyer force had only one thought in mind, and this Commander Taussig voiced as he told Admiral Bayly, "We are ready now."
The six destroyers were quickly followed by other divisions. Still more came to base on Brest, until the total number of destroyers reached eighty-five. It was a severe duty that was required of them, tossed about on the stormy Atlantic, the light boats rolling so violently that for days at a time no table could be set and a hungry man had to eat standing braced with one arm around a stanchion or sitting wedged in a chair with a plate in his lap.
It was discouraging work to hunt an invisible foe, evident for the most part only in his trail of ruin. A constant lookout was maintained for his slightest appearance, and many a box or bit of wreckage was reported as a periscope. The merely defensive patrols, however, soon developed into convoy duty, and plenty of excitement was supplied by S O S signals from sinking merchantmen or small ships of war.
One morning in October, 1917, while Commander Alfred Johnson with a division of American destroyers was escorting a large convoy to the east coast of England, he received a radio from an American merchantman, the J. L. Luckenbach, •ninety miles distant. She was being shelled by a U‑boat. At once the Nicholson was dispatched to her rescue. It happened that the Luckenbach was armed with two 4‑inch guns, and the crew, though outranged, were putting up a brave resistance. Already the steamer had had her aftergun put out of action, nine of the gun crew had been wounded, and her engine room was damaged. But when the Nicholson radioed, "Do not surrender," the merchant skipper sent back a determined "Never." For four long hours he maintained the p302unequal combat. And when the destroyer arrived, the men of the Luckenbach had not taken to their boats and scattered about on the sea, where the destroyer had expected to find them, but were still firing their one serviceable gun.
The day continued to be one of adventure. Scarcely had the Nicholson resumed her position in the convoy, when, at the head of the second column, the British destroyer Orama (the Orama was the ocean escort that had accompanied the convoy from the port of sailing) was torn without the slightest warning by a terrific explosion on her starboard vow. A periscope was raised for a second and then disappeared. The glimpse was sufficient, however, to point the chase. Immediately the American destroyer Conyngham, Commander Johnson, took up the pursuit. Passing the stricken ship, the officers of the destroyer caught a glimpse of their submerged foe in the clear water and dropped a depth charge. Pieces of wreckage that came floating to the surface told the story, and the German U‑boat was never heard from again. Her destruction the British Admiralty credited to the Conyngham. After finishing the U‑boat the Conyngham and her fellow destroyer, the Jacob Jones, proceeded to the rescue of the crew of the Orama. They took on all 478 who had been aboard her.
Disasters also came to American destroyers. One afternoon the Cassin, patrolling off the Irish coast, sighted a submarine which quickly submerged. Later the vigilant lookouts in the destroyer saw a wake of bubbles headed their way, indicating a torpedo. Full speed and hard left rudder went the Cassin, but in vain. The torpedo, running erratically, sometimes on the surface, sometimes beneath, occasionally porpoising, drew ever closer to the stern. Gunner's Mate O. K. Ingram, sensing p303the danger, rushed aft and threw overboard as many of the depth charges stowed there as he could. He saw that an explosion of these following the torpedo hit might utterly wreck the Cassin. The torpedo found its target, the destroyer's stern; detonated, set off the depth charges still on board, killed Ingram, smashed the rudder, put the starboard engine out of commission, and extinguished all lights. The ship, however, remained afloat because of the personnel's training and discipline. The men in the after compartment, though blinded and dazed by the explosion, did not neglect to close the watertight doors instantly. Later the officers and crew, while working frenziedly to save their ship, did not fail to detect the U‑boat rising to view her work. At once they dropped shells from their 4‑inch guns close aboard their foe, and she promptly submerged, not to appear again that day. A storm breaking, a wild night followed. At dusk the destroyer Porter had come to assist, joined shortly by two British vessels. At 2.30 A.M. a hawser was at last made fast, only to part an hour later. Morning had broken and the day was well advanced before the Cassin was successfully in tow and her safety assured.
At another time the work of the destroyers was the rescue at night, in Quiberon Bay, of seamen surrounded by flaming wreckage. The steamship Florence H., loaded with explosives, had caught fire. In a few moments she was completely enveloped in flames; in addition, the water in the vicinity was covered with burning powder boxes, which scattered fire about as they exploded. Lieutenant Commander H. S. Haislip, commanding the Stewart, Lieutenant Commander H. J. Abbett, commanding the Whipple, and Lieutenant James G. Ware, commanding the Truxtun, drove their destroyers into the midst of the burning mass, and with the aid of two p304converted yachts and small boats rescued a large number who otherwise would have perished.c
The American destroyers had their most successful encounter in November, 1917. They had been escorting a big merchant convoy out through the mine field guarding the harbor, and had formed it in order for its perilous crossing to the west. Suddenly the destroyer Fanning, catching a glimpse of a periscope, turned sharply and headed it. On passing where she had seen the supposed enemy, she dropped depth charges, which exploded. The Nicholson, hard after her, extended the depth-charge barrage. At first it was thought that this would be like a dozen previous occurrences of this character, that it would serve only to drive away the enemy. However, the explosions had found their mark: a U‑boat conning tower emerged, its hatch was flung open, and Kapitän Leutnant Gustav Amberger of the Imperial German Navy threw up his arms as a sign of surrender, shouting "Kamerad! Kamerad!" He was followed by three officers and thirty-five men who went through a similar ceremony. The shock of the exploding depth charges had wrecked motors, broken oil leads, and put diving-rudders out of commission. The crew were all taken off; but the U‑58 sank, the Germans having opened her sea cocks before leaving the vessel.
To increase the forces hunting the submarines, and to meet the great need for warships protecting the important Gibraltar area, a division of five small old‑time destroyers, each of four hundred and twenty tons, was brought from Manila. They were led by Lieutenant Commander Harold R. Stark, who twenty-five years later served as Chief of Naval Operations in the Second World War. They steamed •twelve thousand miles and arrived in such good condition as at once to be ready for p305the duty assigned. Altogether they covered •forty-eight thousand miles in escorting convoys.
Then there were the pleasure yachts donated or purchased. Among these were the palatial Norma, the Corsair, the Alcedo, and the Aphrodite. Many people thought the smooth-weather yachts would not be able to reach France; but Rear Admiral N. A. McCully, in the May, led them across to do patrol duty off Brest and Gibraltar. Their long voyage in heavy weather was dangerous enough; decks were constantly awash, and for days at a time men were kept below. But this was only the beginning of the ordeal. However, with Coast Guard cutters, subchasers, and other small craft they held resolutely to their task in all kinds of weather.
The Alcedo fell a victim to the U‑boats, but the loss was offset by the success of the Christabel, the smallest of the converted yachts operating in French waters. While shepherding a British merchantman that had fallen behind the convoy off the Ile d'Yeu, she sighted a periscope and, heading for it, dropped a depth charge set for •seventy feet. A mushroom of water rose from its explosion, and then a second muffled roar was heard. What had happened was revealed two days later when the UC‑56 appeared in the harbor of Santander, Spain, so badly injured that she had to be interned for the rest of the war.
Admiral Sims, in his analysis of the battle of the Atlantic, as already stated, had come to the conclusion that the first step for America to take was the sending of destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, and yachts. The second step he recommended was the establishment of the escort and convoy system, with provision for transport service.
He found that the merchant captains for the most part were strongly opposed to the convoy system. They p306objected that merchant captains lacked the training of naval officers to steam in close formation without lights, and that they would sacrifice time at every turn — in the assembling of the convoy before sailing, in the lower average speed (speed being reduced to that to slowest ship), and in the inevitable delays of making port and discharging cargoes. Many of the British naval officers also did not favor the idea, urging that they could not spare the warships which would be called for as escorts. It was true that convoy would require destroyers. But Sims was deeply impressed by the immunity of the Grand Fleet, as, with their escorts, they passed through waters infested with U‑boats, and by the record the British had made in transporting troops across the Channel to France (during the four years of war were ferried across, and not a life was lost). He gave assurance that America would furnish the destroyers.
As an experiment, in May, 1917, a group of 8‑knot merchant ships assembled at Gibraltar and steamed to an English port under destroyer protection. They arrived in perfect condition. The proponents of the convoy system admittedly had won. The system was then adopted, and it had its full demonstration in the steadily diminishing number of ships lost on account of U‑boat attacks. The terrifying figure of 900,000 tons a month in April, 1917, fell to 100,000 in November, 1918.d In the last months of the war, when 91 to 92 per cent of Allied shipping sailed in convoys, the loss in those ships under destroyer escort was less than one half of 1 per cent.
Early our government had realized that in assisting the Allies we must send not only warships, munitions, and supplies but also troops. The last had been emphasized by General Joffre and Mr. Arthur Balfour on p307coming to Washington to discuss war plans. They had stressed the effect on the morale of the wearied Allied armies if even a small force of American soldiers and marines were seen at the front on the firing line. An advance guard often is eloquent in suggesting the host that will follow. On the Navy Department then devolved the responsibility of forwarding men and supplies without loss. More than anything else the convoy system advocated by Admiral Sims nullified the deadly work of the submarines, on which the Germans had counted to win the war.
Under cover of a dense fog prevailing in New York, 14 June, 1917, our first expedition, consisting of three troop convoys and one cargo convoy, together with a heavy escort of cruisers, destroyers, and converted yachts, got under way. This expedition was personally commanded by Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, who had direction of the convoy operations throughout the war. U‑boats had perhaps received information; but though they attacked with torpedoes fired at random, they kept their distance and caused no damage. The convoys steaming into the Loire, rich in its associations with Paul Jones and our infant navy, proceeded up to St. Nazaire, where the troops were disembarked.
The first expedition consisted of ten troop ships followed by four slower cargo ships. The ex‑German raider Prince Eitel Friedrich, rechristened the De Kalb, was one of the transports. She carried ten thousand troops, among them a picked regiment of marines. Later convoys frequently comprised sixteen to twenty ships. The danger of attack from submarines was commonly confined to the waters within a few hundred miles of Europe. So by prearrangement the convoy and an escort based on Queenstown or Brest met at a rendezvous (constantly p308changed to avoid the enemy) •four or five hundred miles out at sea. Whenever a submarine was sighted, a destroyer dashed at top speed for it, letting go the terrible depth charges. The encounters, however, were not frequent; for the vigilance of the escorts gave the crews of the U‑boats a wholesome distaste for these meetings.
Before the close of the war, convoys were carrying troops to France at the rate of ten thousand each day. At the time of the armistice 2,079,880 American troops had crossed. Of these 46¼ per cent were transported in American ships, 48¼ per cent in British, and the remainder in French and Italian (British-leased). All troops carried in our ships were escorted by United States men of war; also those carried in ships of other nations were nearly all given safe passage through danger zones by United States destroyers. Thus 82¾ per cent of the escort required for transportation of our troops was supplied by the United States Navy.
Not one soldier lost his life, because of submarines, in ships with American escort on the way to France. How in the face of a desperate foe was such a record established? Mention has already been made of the vigilance of the escorts, but success was due equally to the skill with which the convoys were directed.
The convoys were operated from various centers, the most important, Brest, being under the able direction of Admiral Henry B. Wilson. Here, in a secret office where only very few officers were admitted, the movements of every convoy were constantly plotted on a huge chart, and every submarine reported also was marked. The speed, course, and habits of the various U‑boats were closely studied; and as, rather regularly in the early hours of the evening, the U‑boats opened up with their radio, making a daily report to the German p309station at Nauen, operators at various points on the French coast caught the direction from which each message came and, by the simple method of triangulation, established the position of the sender. This, and a circle surrounding it, the American naval officer having charge of operations at Brest secretly marked as a danger zone, and by radioing instructions to the escorts and often changing the courses of the convoys he commonly saved them from even a glimpse of their subtle foe.
On the return voyage, when the transports were empty, the lack of destroyers and the need of economizing time often compelled our forces to take risks; and then it was that the few successes of the U‑boats were gained. Thus the Mt. Vernon was torpedoed, but she was kept afloat by the bravery of her fireroom force and the skill of her commanding officer, Captain D. E. Dismukes. With four of her eight boiler rooms flooded she steamed •two hundred and fifty miles back into Brest.
The best story of the war by an American naval officer is the simple narrative of Lieutenant E. V. Isaacs, first lieutenant of the President Lincoln, who described his experiences after the torpedoing of that vessel en route to the United States.e He was recognized and taken out of the boats by the U‑90, which had accomplished the deed, and carried into Wilhelmshaven. On the way he gathered information of importance, and inspired by the hope that this might help materially to curb German naval operations, he determined to escape. His first opportunity came after three weeks at the Karlsruhe prison camp, where he was sent by rail to Villingen. The train was running at high speed; but, seeing that the guards had relaxed their attention, he leaped out of a car window. Being injured and somewhat stunned by the fall, he was recaptured, and the p310guards clubbed him almost to death with their rifle butts. Later, however, at Villingen he short-circuited the lights on a dark night and jumped over the high wire inclosure. He then made his way through rough and mountainous country to the Rhine, traveling chiefly at night and hiding during the day. At the frontier, crawling and swimming, he managed to elude the numerous sentries and patrols and thus reached Switzerland and safety.
The United States Navy found another opportunity for service of the first importance in the reënforcement of the Grand Fleet; this was needed so that when certain capital ships were laid up for repairs, and a squadron was detached for special duty, there would still be available a force equal to any emergency.
On 6 December, 1917, at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, British and American battleships joined forces. Here our navy came to know the cold, dreary anchorage where the Royal Navy had based month after month, in readiness to give instant battle to the German fleet.
Arrival of the American Battleships at Scapa Flow
From the painting by Gribble
Organized as the Sixth Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet, our dreadnaughts put to sea but three days after their arrival, expecting to engage the enemy in battle. The report ran, "German force at sea; objective the Norwegian convoy"; but the foe was not to be found. Again and again it happened that the big ships, in perfect order, often in the dead of night, would steam out by the Calf of Flotta, through the Hoxa Gate, past the Lother Rocks, and near the Pentland Skerries, dark, misty, and forbidding, with dangerous currents eddying and swirling about them — all in the vain hope of meeting a worthy foe. At such times the crews would be excited and happy at the prospect of real work. But perhaps they were too prompt and cheerful; the game certainly was wary and never gave them the desired opportunity.
p311 On one of the frequent patrols, as, in the late afternoon, the fleet steamed out from Rosyth near Edinburgh, it promptly ran into a blinding snowstorm. The Delaware, Captain A. H. Scales, at the extreme rear of the column of capital ships, lost touch with the others because the fog buoy which trailed behind the ship she was to follow, and which was to guide her when nothing else could be seen, had carried away. As usual no lights were permitted; and when night came on, there was nothing to do but follow sailing-orders, which included two right-angle turns. With dawn the weather cleared; and to his surprise the commanding officer of the Delaware discovered only one other ship in sight, that of the British admiral (Lord Beatty) •a half mile ahead. During the night he had steamed through the entire Grand Fleet without so much as sighting a single ship. So unexpected was his appearance in the morning that Admiral Beatty promptly demanded the recognition signal.
The life of the ships' companies was rough and exacting. There was strenuous and unremitting training, and regular gunnery practice, with the light guns inside at Scapa and with the heavy guns in the Firth of Forth. What made the duty especially severe was the fact that the ordinary relief gained through leave or change of scene could not be granted. The vessels had to be kept ready for full speed upon from one to four hours' notice. They must keep full of coal; and this meant coaling almost weekly. Only screened lights were permitted at night, and the night in December and January at this desolate northern base lasted eighteen hours. To keep up the morale of the men various entertainments were devised, such as boxing bouts, minstrel shows, and theatrical performances, the latter being given on an p312English ship which had been fitted up with a stage and adapted to purposes of amusement. Furthermore, the men were often allowed an hour or two on shore and afforded the opportunity for short walks. Occasionally the base of the Grand Fleet would be shifted to Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. This was a welcome change, for a few hours of liberty in the city of Edinburgh were then possible.
It was necessary for the American battleships, on being merged with the Grand Fleet, at once to change to the British system of tactics and to adopt their signals and radio books. This they did with such rapidity and effectiveness as to win favorable comment from the British admiral. In order to hasten his process of amalgamation an American ship in the beginning was paired off with a British ship, and in practicing the evolutions the latter made it her especial duty to look out for the newcomer. But in a short time instruction was no longer required; and then the Sixth Battle Squadron, composed entirely of American battleships under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, U. S. Navy, was put on exactly the same footing as the other squadrons. Indeed, when the Sixth Battle Squadron was sent out on convoy or other special duty, the American admiral commanded not only the battleships which he had taken overseas but also the British cruiser and destroyer escort attending them. Americans and British alike commented on the spirit of courtesy, cordiality, and comradeship that characterized the two navies.
The cherished ambition of the German U‑boats had long been to sink an American dreadnaught. The Florida and the Delaware, awaiting a convoy near the Norwegian coast, avoided six torpedoes only by quick and skillful maneuvering. On the other hand the p313Texas and the Arkansas both tried their gun pointers' skill against periscopes. The New York, steaming to Rosyth, avoided three well-aimed torpedoes. At another time, while leading the column into Scapa Flow, she struck a submarine with her propeller, probably ending the career of the U‑boat.
British submarines had been used effectively against the German under-water craft. So, as America wished to lend aid of every kind, about the time that the battleships had their stormy passage to the theater of operations a flotilla of American submarines set out for Queenstown via the Azores. These little craft, of a type never designed for long cruises, labored painfully in gales that at times approached the intensity of a hurricane, but eventually they reached their destination. Then followed a short period of training from British submarine experts, after which the seven AL‑boats, as they were called, went out to their regular eight‑day patrols in St. George's Channel and in the entrance to the English Channel.
Though the AL‑boats operating from Berehaven, Ireland, never had the satisfaction of capturing or torpedoing a German U‑boat, their presence made the enemy more wary, and soon helped to drive him farther out to sea, where he was less effective.
One of the mysterious incidents of the war occurred when the AL‑2 indirectly accomplished the destruction of a German submarine. It happened while she was returning to Berehaven near the close of an eight‑day patrol. Running on the surface, she changed her course to investigate what one of the lookouts a few minutes before had announced seeing in the distance — a doubtful object, perhaps wreckage or perhaps something more interesting. Suddenly, without other warning, the officer p314on the bridge detected a periscope sixty yards distant and at the same instant felt the shock of a terrific explosion. The commanding officer of the AL‑2, without waiting to see if his vessel had been damaged, gave orders for a quick dive and, circling about, attempted to ram his foe. He passed near enough to hear the whirring of propellers. If the enemy craft, as was thought, had dived to avoid the aggressive little AL‑2, she dived to her doom. Several weeks later the British Admiralty learned through intelligence sources that the UB‑65, operating in this vicinity on the same day, had never been heard of again, and credited the AL‑2 with her destruction. The supposition is that the German submarine, seeing the AL‑2 during the stormy afternoon silhouetted against a bright western sky, attempted to torpedo her, but the torpedo either boomeranged or exploded prematurely.
This kind of warfare at first had seemed a game wherein the blind was to hunt the blind. But since the Germans, intent on sinking cargo or troop ships, had to spend the greater part of their time cruising on the surface, where they could see better and save their storage batteries — their sole dependence when submerged — they were liable to surprise; for the Allied submarine, playing the waiting game, remained submerged during the day and, with her periscope, watched for the enemy. Of course this imposed severe duty on the British and American crews. An eight‑day patrol was exhausting even to the most robust. The result of this type of anti-submarine activities, however, justified the effort and the great hazard. One hundred Allied submarines were officially credited with twenty victims.
The smallest naval craft of the war, especially designed to meet the emergency, were subchasers, 110‑foot p315gasoline boats. Stanchly built, each armed with a 3‑inch gun and a depth-charge projector, or Y‑gun, and equipped with listening devices, these little boats proved of decided value; but life on them was most uncomfortable, and at times a kind of endurance test. Two hundred of them reached the front, where they were to be found at Plymouth, Queenstown, Brest, Gibraltar, Corfu, and even Murmansk in the Arctic.
Their most spectacular adventure was what is known as the Durazzo affair. This city, near the Strait of Otranto, the Austrians and Germans had made important as a base, and from it they were sending out U‑boats, which found a lucrative hunting-ground in the Mediterranean. It was so important that the Allied Otranto patrol decided it must be attacked and virtually destroyed.
Captain C. P. Nelson with twelve subchasers took a lively part in the action. After a conference with the British Commodore Kelly, commanding the forces in the raid, he told his officers, "It's going to be a real party, boys." And events justified his promise.
On 9 October, 1918, according to plan, our subchasers, arriving off the port, circled about, while British and Italian cruisers began a bombardment. The return fire from forts dropped close to our vessels but did not frighten them. Austrian submarines came out to attack the bombarding cruisers. Our subchasers, dropping depth charges, sank two, as oil and steel plates blown high in the air proved. Austrian destroyers refused to come out. Thus the cruisers, screened by our brave little craft, ruined Durazzo's usefulness as a base.
There was seldom a lack of adventure for the aviators. Toward the end of April, 1918, two planes left the Ile Tudy station for escort duty. They met the convoy off Penmarch. Twenty lumbering cargo tramps made a tempting target for an enterprising U‑boat, and it was not long before the planes sighted the bubbles that indicated the course of a submarine. Flying low and aiming at an oil patch on the water, they dropped their bombs, at the same time radioing a destroyer, which supplemented their attack with depth charges. The submarine involved in the affair, never having returned, was officially counted as lost. Our airships are credited with another success when a U‑boat which had offered battle to a plane, showering her with shrapnel, was caught and bombed by four planes which appeared unexpectedly.
Our naval aviators worked also over the land, taking their part in raids on aërodromes and bases, such as p317Ostend, Bruges, Zeebrugge, and Pola; and many are the thrilling stories of their exploits on both sea and land.
Yet another effective method of battling with the submarines, one that brought terror to the sternest German crew, was the laying of a mine barrage. The British early had attempted to close the passage from the North Sea to the English Channel and beyond by laying mines and setting huge steel nets in the Strait of Dover. To block the way for submarines was extremely difficult because of strong currents, shifting sands, and violent storms. Nevertheless the British persevered and made the Channel at least highly dangerous. In consequence the Germans gradually abandoned the short passage by Dover and chose the longer and safer route to the Atlantic by steaming to the north, passing between the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and coming south along the coast of Ireland.
The ambitious project entertained by our navy was to block this northern passage so that submarines based at Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven, and Helgoland, and smaller ones at Bruges, Zeebrugge, and Ostend, would find the waters impossible to navigate without great hazard. Mines appeared the only practicable weapon, and as those used in the Strait of Dover were not entirely successful, others that were better adapted to conditions had to be designed and built.
Only nine days after we entered the war, Rear Admiral Ralph Earle,b2 Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, came forward with a proposition that was staggering in its magnitude. It called for the mining of the •two hundred and thirty miles of the foggy and stormy North Sea between the Orkneys and Norway, where the water reaches a depth of •eleven hundred feet. To accomplish p318the plan set forth he urged the development of a new mine-firing mechanism, new mine anchors, and new methods of planting mines. With his eager young officers in the Bureau and the coöperation of experts outside, he was sure it could be done. For the manufacture of the mines and the delicate mechanisms controlling them, he proposed to issue subcontracts and to coördinate the work of hundreds of factories so as to insure quantity production on a vast scale. Further, he desired at once to go about the procuring and fitting out of a squadron of mine-laying vessels.
One of the earliest and most decided of those who endorsed the mine project was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The project was approved, and through the able efforts of Commander S. P. Fullinwider, Lieutenant Commander T. S. Wilkinson, and Mr. Ralph C. Browne, an electrical engineer of Salem, Massachusetts, the Bureau of Ordnance produced a new and altogether superior type of mine. This made the passage of a mined area dangerous to a submarine cruising either on the surface or as far underneath as •two hundred and forty feet. Mine anchors were developed in consultation with British mining experts so that they could be used in ships of their navy as well as of our own, for both services were to participate in the laying of the mine field. The mines and anchors were designed to drop over the stern of the layer as a single mechanism, a requirement essential for rapid planting. Producing the huge quantity of mines on schedule time — 12,805 mines was the monthly output reached — required the coördination of five hundred and forty manufacturing firms, the development of a new high explosive, and the erection of a large mine-loading plant at St. Julien's Creek, Virginia. To supply the p319mine-layers, mine bases were established at Invergordon and Inverness, Scotland.
Captain R. R. Belknap organized the mine squadron, consisting of two mine-layers already in existence and six converted steamers. The whole operation overseas was under the command of Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss.
The actual mine-laying began 8 June, 1918, when •forty-seven miles of these "pills of perdition," as they were called, were laid by the American squadron. This was followed by twelve mine-laying operations, during which the vessels were screened by British destroyers and the battle fleet.
The barrage comprised a total of 70,263 mines, of which 56,611 were laid by the American Mining Squadron. Extending from Udshire Light, at the entrance to the Bergen Fiord, to the Orkneys, it was •fifteen to thirty-five miles in breadth, forming a treacherous area of water, the passage of which was a desperate venture. A submarine if running on the surface would be in danger from one to three hours; if submerged, twice that time.
On 8 July it was learned that the barrage had taken its first toll. A U‑boat, putting into one of the Norwegian fiords, reported that it had been disabled because of a mine exploding near it, and it was interned for the rest of the war. Submarines bound north or returning could be tracked by their radio communications caught by the Admiralty. When their radio messages stopped abruptly as they entered the barrage, the Allies had reason to believe that something had happened. From German records available since the war it is known that in attempting to pass through the barrage seventeen submarines were either lost or damaged so as to prevent their being used again.
p320 The cost to the United States of the Northern Mine Barrage was $40,000,000. Because of the great pressure of time, contracts for the manufacture of one hundred thousand of this entirely new type of mine necessarily were given before the design could be tested by actual use under war conditions. It certainly showed faith and vision on the part of Admiral Earle,b3 who staked his service career on its success.
The results were to be reckoned not merely in the number of U‑boats sunk but also in the breakdown of German morale. Referring to the latter, Admiral Sims remarked: "The officers and crews knew only that any moment an explosion might send them to eternity. A strain of this sort is serious enough if it lasts only a few minutes; imagine being kept in this state of mind anywhere from one to six hours! Submarine prisoners constantly told us how they dreaded the mines; going through such a field, I suppose, was about the most disagreeable experience in this nerve-racking service. Our North Sea barrage began to show results after our first planting. The German officers evidently kept informed of our progress and had a general idea of the territory which had been covered. . . . Stories of this barrage were circulated all over Germany; sailors who had been in contact with it related experiences to their fellows; and the result was extremely demoralizing to the German submarine flotilla. The North Sea barrage was probably a contributory cause of the mutiny which demoralized the German fleet in the fall of 1918."2
The last type of naval activity which we shall consider had little to do with the sea. It was a novel type of joint operations in which the navy took its part with the army in the terrific and often doubtful struggle p321raging on the Western Front. Someone has remarked, "In all big wars, it has ever been the privilege of the navy to land larger guns than those generally used ashore." This statement may be open to question, but it certainly was true in 1918. It chanced that construction had slowed down in the building of dreadnaughts, for the reason that all energies had been turned to the quick production of destroyers and other anti-submarine craft. In consequence several great ships' guns, powerful 14‑inch 50‑caliber cannon, were available. These, with their enormous range of •from 35,000 to 43,000 yards, were seen to be invaluable if they could be placed at strategic points on the Western Front.
The problem became one of designing and constructing mobile mounts for the huge naval guns. Railway artillery, employing heavy guns, was by no means a new idea, having been used in the Civil War as well as in this war but nothing approaching what the navy now proposed had ever before been considered within the range of practicability.
Admiral Earle laid before Secretary Daniels the proposals that the Bureau of Ordnance should take the turret guns designed for the battleships Tennessee and California, and, building the railway mounts required for operating them in France, should send the guns with naval gun crews to the fighting lines. The Secretary heartily approved. Two months later the intricate designs were completed, and the Baldwin Locomotive Works undertook the construction. A part of the problem was the distribution of the great weight of gun and mount, •535,000 pounds, in such a way as should allow the car to travel on French railroads. Twelve axles were found necessary, and precaution was taken to make the whole not so high nor so large that it might not pass p322through the tunnels met on the way. The first mount was completed in seventy‑two days; and in one hundred and twenty days from the time that the design was begun a 14‑inch 50‑caliber naval gun was ready on a mobile railway mounting — a record in speed, one of the best of the war. Altogether the navy prepared five such guns, in five battery units of fourteen cars each.
The resourcefulness of naval personnel was taxed to the utmost to assemble the batteries after their arrival in France. Rivets turned out to be useless stove bolts, facilities for handling heavy weights proved inadequate — these were but some of the unforeseen difficulties encountered.
On 17 August, 1918, the first mounted naval battery was moving toward the firing line. Paris had been bombarded from a distance of •68.8 miles by a 9‑inch German gun. The dropping of shells at regular intervals was demoralizing to the people of Paris. Thus there was an eager demand that our first gun should be sent to a point from which it could silence this menace. The American railway battery, though it did not possess such phenomenal range, was more than a match because of its enormous caliber and mobility. Rather than risk the destruction of their so‑called "Big Bertha," the Germans removed it from its fixed emplacement and never again used it to annoy the French capital.
The naval batteries quickly found their work: two guns operated with the French army at Tergnier, Rethondes, Fontenoy, and Soissons, and three with our army at Charmey, Thionville, Verdun, Champenaux, and Lunéville. Their service came during only the last months of the war, but in this period the five naval guns fired 782 shells at distances ranging •from eighteen to twenty-three miles. They blew up German ammunition p323dumps placed well behind the firing lines and supposed to be safe. They destroyed bridges and disrupted the traffic on railways, especially that which served as the great supply line to the Western Front running through Montmédy, Longuyon, and Conflans. Referring to this last most important operation, General Pershing wrote, "We had cut the enemy's main line of communications and nothing but surrender or an armistice could save his army from complete disaster."3
Vice Admiral Sims continued in command of the United States forces in European waters throughout the war. The London "flagship," as he termed his office, had grown in personnel and importance. Whereas at the beginning, April, 1917, a small room in the American embassy was sufficient for him and his aide, Commander J. V. Babcock, his commissioned staff eventually grew to two hundred officers, sixty of them regulars, the rest reserves, besides enlisted men and a small army of clerks. Their offices they found in six dwelling houses in Grosvenor Gardens, which they had stripped of their luxurious furnishings and slightly remodeled to suit the purpose. Sims's staff was constantly in touch with the Admiralty; and from his office issued general instructions and formulations of policy for the forces operating not only out of Queenstown and Plymouth but out of Brest — a base for American warships larger than any in the British Isles — and out of Gibraltar and other ports. Convoys were regularly coming, not only from New York, Boston, and Norfolk, but from Gibraltar and the South Atlantic; and it was the duty of headquarters at London to route them. Further, there was the general direction of all the operations of the various scattered squadrons, accomplished of course through subordinates.
p324 Thus as the part played by the United States Navy in the First World War is considered, Admiral Sims's service is seen to have been essential both during the period of preparation, when he taught the navy how to shoot and forced the improvement of ships in design and construction, and during the period of conflict, when he achieved an outstanding organization of American fighting forces and perfect coördination of American and British naval operations.
Sims exercised a lasting influence upon all officers who served under him, and no other American naval officer of this century has aroused such enthusiastic loyalty as he drew from the destroyer officers based on Queenstown and Plymouth and those attached to the London "flagship." In this he may be compared to Farragut and Porter — indeed, to the great Nelson, whose leadership he constantly felt as he worked in the Admiralty. The veteran war correspondent Ralph Paine, who felt his spell in London, has transmitted to us the guiding principles which Admiral Sims formulated for officers about to see service in the war zone. They have something of the "Nelson touch," and they reveal the human spirit of the American leader.
Be sure you know the subject of your instructions before you give them. Knowledge of your job always commands respect from those associated with you.
Encourage your men to come to you for information and take pains to look it up and supply it. Help them in anything they may want to study.
Train them to think for themselves by putting it up to them on all proper occasions and explain why you do it.
Always be considerate of inexperience. When reproof will correct a small fault it is almost always a mistake to inflict punishment.
p325 Be absolutely just. All kinds of men respond to the square deal.
Avoid harshness in manner or method. Let penalties be inflicted in sorrow, not anger. Always give the man the benefit of any reasonable doubt.
Never hurt a man's self-respect by humiliating him before others. You will thereby impair his usefulness. A man who is called down in public will surely resent it. Frequent "sanding down" of your men is a common mistake.
Do not let the state of your liver influence your attitude toward your men.
Before you take any action or adopt any line of conduct that concerns one or all of your men, consider carefully its effect upon loyalty, development of character, upon the discipline of the organization.4
After the war highest honors came to Admiral Sims. He was given honorary degrees by Yale, Harvard, and Columbia, and was lauded as no other American officer in England, where he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, and was made Doctor of Laws by Cambridge University. Also he was given highest decorations by France, Belgium, Italy, and Japan.
For his few remaining years of active service in the navy he could probably have had any assignment, but he desired to return to the quiet duty he had had before going to London, the presidency of the Naval War College. For this he was particularly well adapted. The fearless and independent thinker induced bold and logical thought in others, and this was quickened by the enthusiastic, affectionate loyalty which he evoked.
In 1930 he was promoted to the rank of Admiral on the retired list.
p326 Sims stands out as the great naval nonconformist. He saw with unusual clarity what lay within his own particular circle because habitually he stepped outside and surveyed it with all the detachment of the neutral or hostile mind. Thus he saw what the officer holding closely to his work often does not see — the minor imperfections and the actual and potential power of our navy.
He was one of the navy's outstanding democrats; and if he aroused a superb loyalty in the officers and men who served under him, it was because he was enthusiastic in his loyalty to them. Like Porter he was eager to recognize merit in those who had done their full duty, and to reward it with public commendation.
He continued the reformer, the stormy petrel of the navy, to the end. Even as a retired officer he was outspoken and critical of naval operations and education, war profits, the tariff system, and a host of other issues. He was not always tactful, he made some mistakes; but he was dead right in the big, important things. This nation, and also Great Britain and France, had reason to be grateful to him for his part in winning the First World War.
4 R. D. Paine, The Fighting Fleets, pp339, 340.
a Passed over in this account is a very brief stint as naval attaché to the American Embassy in Paris; according to Baumer (Not All Warriors, p296), the French claimed he left France with the secret plans for an artillery gun.
c Additional details are given in [Adm.] T. P. Magruder, The United States Navy, p303.
d Not the best figure for comparison, since the war ended on November 11. But in fact it seems that the tonnage lost to submarines in November 1918 was about 18,000 tons: I suspect a mistake in the text, which should probably read October, 1918 (tonnage lost about 119,000).
e Titled Prisoner of the U‑90, Edouard Victor Isaacs' book is nicely online, with its illustrations and diagram of the German prison camp, at The Prisoners of Villingen — a site devoted to "Names, Photographs, accounts, maps, cartoons, & memorabilia pertaining to Villingen POW camp, Baden, Germany 1918". The site further contains a valuable unpublished journal of the siteowner's grandfather, one of Isaacs' fellow prisoners.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 15 Sep 14