Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Upon U.S. Fleet Operations in European Waters, Part 1

Recently, I had opportunity to give a paper at an Army-sponsored Medical History of World War I symposium in San Antonio. The meeting was superb: a two day affair with dual (“competing”) sessions both days. Excellent papers across a wide spectrum of study, given both by historians and by physicians. Here is the first of two parts of my paper, entitled, “The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Upon U.S. Fleet Operations in European Waters”:

In the popular mind (and probably most academic thought as well), the main American contribution to the Allied victory in World War I lies in the 2,000,000 doughboys who helped slug it out with Central Powers armies. As historian Stephen Howarth put it, “Today, imagining Americans in World War I, the doughboys spring at once to mind – young soldiers in their tens of thousands, singing and fighting through the muddy fields of France. Sailors serving under the Stars and Stripes seem scarcely to figure at all.”[1] E. B. Potter, in his authoritative one volume textbook on naval history devotes just two paragraphs of “U.S. [naval] Contributions” in World War I, which briefly describe our convoy operations.[2]


Yet the story is more dramatic that the usual depictions would have it. Rear Admiral William Sims arrived in London on 9 April 1917 to study the naval war. While he was in transit, the United States declared war on Germany. As a result, Sims transitioned from naval observer to commander, as Vice Admiral, of the American naval effort. Immediately upon his arrival, Sims discovered that the British situation was precarious. German unrestricted submarine warfare was sinking 600,000 to 800,000 tons of merchant shipping every month. The British Admiralty predicted that if a solution to the submarine threat weren’t found, and quickly, Britain, facing starvation, would have to sue for peace by November. The solution, arrived at despite stout Admiralty resistance, turned out to be the convoy system. This called for destroyers (lots of them), cruisers and aircraft (both heavier than air and lighter than air) to provide antisubmarine escort for groups of ships – merchant transports, hospital ships and troopships –  traversing submarine-infested waters in the Atlantic and the approaches to Britain, and in the Mediterranean. American destroyers played a significant role in that part of the anti-submarine effort by seeking out U-boats as they approached to attack convoys and bombarding them with depth charges.

Other anti-submarine activities undertaken by American naval elements included:

  • Laying 50,000 of a 70,000-mine barrage in the North Sea to interfere with U boat passage from their pens along the Belgian coast to the North Sea and the Atlantic;
  • “Chasing” submarines with about 140 quickly produced wooden submarine chasers. These 120 foot boats, officered largely by naval reservists from colleges and universities and armed with depth charges, gradually developed successful tactics in using hydrophones to identify, locate and attack the enemy submerged in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean;
  • Identifying and attacking submarines from the air. Naval and marine aviators, based on the French and Irish coasts, hunted submarines, then bombed them or marked them with smoke bombs so destroyers or subchasers could attack with depth charges;
  • Pursuing U boats from under the surface. American submarines based on the Irish coast performed both escort and submarine hunting missions.

In addition, four battleships were sent to join the British Grand Fleet as the Sixth Battle Squadron to strengthen the Grand Fleet in event of another Mahanian grand battle against the German High Seas Fleet.[3] Later on, another Battleship division was sent to supplement convoy operations.[4]

Finally, and very importantly American navy and commercial ships carried about 46%[5] of those 2,000,000 doughboys, and vast amounts of food, supplies and war materiel to Britain and to the war effort in Europe itself.

Methods and Materials

In preparing to write this paper, I was struck by the absence of any mention of the influenza in any of the broad naval histories I consulted. Lisle A Rose, in his one volume history “America’s Sailors in the Great War”[6] writes only about individual sailors’ afflictions with the disease. Vice Admiral Sims similarly ignored the flu as did Hugh Rodman, the battleship commander.[7] I attributed this lack of information to the usual bias of military figures and historians to emphasize military operations to the exclusion of such “peripheral” – though often decisive – matters as logistics or contagion. Even writers about the epidemic give short shrift to naval operations: Gina Kolata only briefly mentions the Navy in her book on the flu, and John M Barry ignores impact of the influenza upon sailors entirely.[8],[9]

In order to correct this oversight, I consulted relevant naval histories and actual operational correspondence for U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters for this paper.[10] I will review each aspect of the naval antisubmarine effort in the order laid out above.


Destroyers. As for the Destroyers performing convoy escort duties, just one mention of influenza appears, on 22 October 1918: “The Influenza situation is the occasion for some worry, but, really, compared to other organizations, I think we have been rather fortunate. I have found it necessary to use the hotel temporarily for our influenza cases…”[11]

Minelayers. Scant mention of the epidemic is found in reports from the Minelaying Squadron[12]. Commander Mine Force, in his Weekly Report of Operations for the week ending November 2 1918 wrote, “Very few cases of this disease have occurred… among the ships of the Mine Force. In fact the Naval Forces in this section have been remarkably free from this disease, considering the fact that it is prevalent among the civil population in this vicinity.” A week later, he wrote, “The epidemic of influenza among out [sic – “our”?] forces … has apparently disappeared, there having been no cases since 8 November 1918. A total of 50 percent of this detachment have been ill with influenza and transferred to Base Hospital Number Two, in order that they might receive proper care, and in order to prevent the spread of this disease as much as possible.” He made no mention of impact on minelaying operations.[13] Captain Reginald R Belknap, the Minelaying Squadron Commander mentioned the flu but once in his history of American World War I minelaying operations in which he indicated that 113 of the 427 man crew of the squadron flagship, USS San Francisco (C-5) fell ill as the ship prepared to leave British waters after the Armistice.[14] In a report dated 1 November 1918, the Commander of the Sixth Minesweeper Squadron, based in Ireland, reported that one boat (of about 30 in the squadron) was delayed in undertaking a mission because her crew had to transfer one of her officers to a local hospital, and that another did not leave for operations at all for three days “owing to sickness in the crew”.[15]

Subchasers. The most authoritative history of the subchaser war effort mentions “flu” but once, and this describes a preventative quarantine of one unit – after the Armistice.[16] That said, some subchaser crews appear to have suffered heavily from the influenza. The squadron of 36 boats based on Corfu, in a message sent on 6 November, just five days before the Armistice, when the subchasers were trying desperately to bottle German and Austrian subs up in the Adriatic Sea after Austria’s departure from the war, wrote in answer to criticisms of one of their hunting missions, “As to discrepancies disclosed in signals, principally in the preambles, due to the epidemic of influenza in the Sub Chaser Detachment a large number of the radio operators with the hunt were substitute operators from the Base…”[17] On 9 November, Commander Subchaser Detachment Three at Queenstown, Ireland reported that “[o]ne unit at Holyhead is reported as unable to operate on account of 35 men on the sick list from influenza. None of these cases is serious, however, and the medical officer states that all present cases should be returned to duty within a few days.”[18] None of this illness, however, appears to have impacted the subchasers’ performance of their mission to any degree whatever.

Naval Aviation. Naval aviation was in its infancy when the U.S. declared war upon Germany. As a result, American aviators and the sailors who supported them and their aircraft found themselves integrated into French, British, and Italian aviation units where they were trained. Once qualified, the Yanks flew antisubmarine and convoy escort missions and bombed German submarine bases and other targets using mostly Allied equipment. It was only in the late stages of the war that wholly American units were stood up, with American-made aircraft.[19]Neither Rose nor an official online history of naval aviation[20] mention the influenza in aviation units, nor did any of the intel briefings given to Sims preparatory to the daily Admiralty meetings in London.[21] Geoffrey L Rossano, in his comprehensive history of naval aviation mentions influenza 12 times, 3 of them substantive. Of Naval Air Station Dunkirk, he notes that during the period 21 October to 5 November, “as much as 90 percent of the base complement [were] affected more or less seriously. The weakened men spent the period … taking down hangars, cleaning the grounds, and loading trucks and a barge for possible repositioning northward along the coast” in response to the tactical retreat of German forces from coastal areas. The naval air station at St Trojan, on the French Atlantic coast suffered its epidemic at the end of August, “with 6 deaths and 210 men incapacitated to varying degrees. The sickness lasted about three weeks and ‘at times the station was completely unable to carry on operations.’” Naval Air Station Lake Bolsena, Italy experienced a flu outbreak in October, when “flying activities virtually ceased” for a week or two. This was a training base, so this lack of activity would had virtually no impact on the antisubmarine effort being prosecuted in the Mediterranean.[22]

[1] Howarth, Stephen: To Shining Sea – A History of the United States Navy (New York: Random House, 1991)

[2] Potter, E.B., ed.: Sea Power – A Naval History (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1981)

[3] The grand battle of the war, Jutland, was a Mahanian “disaster” in that neither fleet won what Mahan defined as the necessary decisive large-fleet victory. But the British, if fact, had won a strategic victory, because the Hochseeflotte remained bottled up in port until the end of the war.

[4] Most of this is discussed in Sims’s history of the Naval war cited above. The Sixth Battle Squadron was commanded by RADM Hugh Rodman. Battleship operations are detailed in Jones, Jerry W.: U. S. Battleship Operations in World War I (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1998.)

[5] Rose, Lisle A.: America’s Sailors in the Great War – Seas, Skies, and Submarines (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, 2017.), p 100.

[6] Rose, op. cit.

[7] Sims, William Sowden and Burton J Hendrick: The Victory at Sea (ebook verson, Madison & Adams Press, 2017.) Rodman, Rear Admiral Hugh: Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.)

[8] Kolata, Gina: Flu – The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.)

[9] Barry, John M.: The Great Influenza – The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York, Viking/Penguin, 2004.)

[10] National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter “NARA”), RG 45, Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, File 1911-1927.

[11] NARA, CE-Destroyer Escorts 9/18 – 11/18, Entry 520 I-18 Box 34 of 1630 – Destroyer Escorts 9, File No 3-978-5 U.S. Naval Base 27, 22 October 1918, to Captain R. H. Leigh, U.S.N. in London.

[12] 10 ships, eight of which were purpose built minelayers, two (including the Flagship, USS San Francisco [C-5]) were nineteenth century protected cruisers converted to minelayers in 1910., accessed 2 March 2018.

[13] NARA, RG 45, TA-Force Commanders General Reports-Vice Admiral Sims Reports, Entry 520 I-18 Box 640 of 1630, Folder TA-Vice Adm. Sims’ General Reports Nov 1918 Folder 5 REPORTS FROM MINE BASE.

[14] Belknap, Reginald Rowan: The Yankee Mining Squadron or Laying the North Sea Mine Barrage (Annapolis, U.S. Naval Institute, 1920, facsimile reprint London, Forgotten Books, 2015.), p 94.

[15] NARA, RG 45. OD-U.S. Subchasers – Operations of 9-12/18 – 1919 Halifax Patrol: Flotilla Attached to Subchasers Entry 520 I-18 Box 388 of 1630 File OD U.S. Subchasers, Operations of November-December, 1918  Folder 3 (in pencil: Force Comm S3466) U.S. NAVAL FORCES OPERATING IN EUROPEAN WATERS SUBCHASER DETACHMENT THREE U.S.S.C. 271, FLAGSHIP BASE SIX    1 November 1918

[16] Woofenden, Todd A.: Hunters of the Steel Sharks (Bowdoinham, Maine, Signal Light Books, 2006.), p119.

[17] See footnote 16, File No 8-255-1   6 November 1918.

[18] See footnote 12, REPORT FROM QUEENSTOWN

[19] Rose, op. cit., pp 234ff

[20], accessed 8 March 2018.

[21] NARA, RG 45 TC-Force Commander’s Letters and TD-Admiral Sims Personal File, Entry 510, I-18, Box 643 of 1630, TC-Admiralty Conferences 1918 Folder 1. These are daily “VERY SECRET” Memoranda prepared for Sims relating to daily staff meetings at the Admiralty.

[22] Rossano, Geoffrey L.: Stalking the U-Boat – U.S. Naval Aviation in Europe During World War I (Copyright Geoffrey L Rossano; Published Gainesville, FL, University of Florida Press, 2010.), pp 78, 117, 295.

I’ll post the second half of the paper in a couple of weeks.

©2018 Thomas L Snyder