Remembering World War I: The U.S. Navy Arrives in Europe

Not quite a month after the United States declared war, the first American warships arrived in Europe on May 4, 1917.[1] The Germans had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, leading to more than 800 Allied ships being sunk in a matter of months. Without escorts, these ships served as easy prey for the Germans.[2] This warfare had reduced British grain stores to a critical three week supply.[3]  The Royal Navy urgently requested more destroyers for hunting submarines.

The destroyers’ arrival was due in part to the presence in England of an American naval mission headed by Vice Adm. William Sims. A few years before, then Capt. Sims was President of the Naval War College at Newport. Appointed by the first Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), William Benson, together they anticipated a transatlantic naval war involving new challenges and technology.  Ashore and in exercises of the “War College Afloat” they studied the role of the Navy in modern war. 

By 1917 Benson anticipated a naval campaign in European waters that would require a naval headquarters in England.  Sims, with established reputation throughout the Navy, proved the ideal officer for that mission.[4]  He traveled to London under an assumed name, in civilian guise, arriving on April 2, 1917 with the intention of establishing direct contact between the United States Chief of Naval Operations, the Royal Navy, and other Allied naval forces.[5]  

By establishing an office in England called the “London Flagship,” Sims and a select staff of officers and expatriate American specialists evaluated and passed Allied naval communications and intelligence to the Department of the Navy.  Sims and his staff promoted American naval opinions when reviewing strategy with the British Admiralty. They challenged the Royal Navy’s method of countering German submarines, insisting supply ships should sail in protected convoys.[6]  

A trial convoy formed on May 10 at Gibraltar, and sailed to England without loss. The second escorted convoy, bound for England from Virginia, also arrived undamaged.  After that all supply and troop shipping was required to sail in convoys.  By mid-June the five American destroyers were escorting groups of arriving merchants ships into harbor.[7]   The convoy strategy overcame the German unrestricted submarine warfare campaign.

In the first month of American involvement in World War I, the U.S. Navy changed the strategic balance, not with its growing fleet, or daring operations, but through sound strategic thinking. The convoy system secured the passage of the American Expeditionary Forces to France along with vital supplies for all the Allies. America was becoming a world power with a first class navy.

[1] William Still, The Queenstown Patrol, 1917, (Newport, Naval War College, 1996). p. 19

[2] Ibid, pp 30-31.

[3] Jean Edward Smith, FDR, (New York, Random House, 2007), 141

[4] CDR David Kohnen, USNR, PhD, History MOC Warfighters Should Know, The “London Flagship:” Estimate of the Situation for U.S. Navy Operations in a World at War, 4/21/’17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean Edward Smith, FDR, (New York, Random House, 2007). 141-2, 144

[7] William Still, The Queenstown Patrol, 1917, (Newport, Naval War College, 1996). p. 66