Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells
In the evolution of the United States Navy from a small regional force to a capable global power between the later nineteenth century and the First World War, there are two Naval strategists that rank at the top: Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and William Sowden Sims.
Mahan called for the United States to follow Britain’s lead in constructing a modern fleet worthy of global strategy, whereas Sims stressed a climate of professionalism and open-minded thinking where effectiveness was measured foremost in combat performance, especially in effective gunnery. Both men also counted Theodore Roosevelt as a patron; unsurprising due to his interest in reforms and naval matters. Both naval officers are also enjoying a resurgence of interest in the last few years due to the centennials of the Great White Fleet and First World War, which saw the United States deploy a modern fleet in a global scale. Their resurgence is also thanks in no small part to Naval Officer and historian Benjamin Armstrong who has published compact volumes on both men; this being the second. Armstrong’s volume features several writings from the Admiral between 1906 and 1934. The final piece from a former subordinate dates from 1937, a year after Sims’ death.
Admiral William S. Sims is best remembered for turning the US Navy into a competent gunnery force. He also served as the senior Naval Officer in Europe during the First World War. Sims was as a product of the evolution of the US Navy throughout the nineteenth century. The American military was a step-child to that of her former colonial overlord Great Britain. This was advantageous for the Sea Services, as the Royal Navy and Marines were thoroughly professional forces. From the very beginning, the US Navy would be a much more professional organization than the militia-based Army. The nineteenth century would illustrate that while the Army might get funding; the Navy would often do more with less. The War of 1812 had illustrated that to effect; yet the century had seen very little real change, as the Spanish-American War showed. While the US Navy had demolished Spanish squadrons efficiently with a minimum of casualties, her gunnery was quite deficient. Had she faced a better foe at Manila Bay, Commodore Dewey’s force might have been shattered.
The Royal Navy faced much the same issue, albeit on a grand scale. On duty with the Asiatic Station, young Lieutenant Sims met Royal Navy Captain Percy Scott who was doing his utmost to improve the gunnery of the fleet that still ruled the waves. Early in Scott’s career he had been informed that “The chief things required in a man-of-war are smart men aloft, cleanliness of the ship, the men’s bedding and the boats. Her gunnery is quite a secondary thing.” This attitude had not changed in the ensuing decades. Sims had found a kindred spirit. When his letters to Washington on Scott’s gunnery improvements were ignored, the junior officer took an unprecedented step: he wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. As a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and military reformer, Roosevelt had Sims recalled to Washington, promoted to Lieutenant Commander and appointed as the US Navy’s head of target practice. The US Navy soon matched British levels of gunnery, and then surpassed them. Sims’ career was on the rise, and his name was now circulated in corridors of power.
Not everyone in the naval or political hierarchy was an ally, however. The first chapter, “Professional Debate and Military Innovation” relates Sims’ debate with retired Admiral Alfred T. Mahan over the need for all-big gun capital ships, “Dreadnoughts.” Using the recent Japanese victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima (referred to as the Battle of the Japan Sea), Sims noted that, had American vessels been present at the battle, they would have been outmatched by the (British-designed) Japanese fleet. The second chapter, “a Proper Military Mindset” describes the type of officer that the Navy would require for service in the World War that the United States was soon to join. He recommended that training and professionalism was the key to distance the Navy from the era of “wooden ships and iron men.”
The third chapter “Preparing for Command and Preparing for War” begins the period when Sims had taken over at the Naval War College, and he relates how the Navy readied itself for the coming conflict by using Navy-Army football rivalry. For success “Efficient Material, Adequate Knowledge and Adequate Mental Training” are key to any chance of victory. In regards to individual officers, all “should be given the opportunity, either at the War College, or in War College Extensions, to study the art and practice of war.” Naval education beyond the Naval Academy and/or ROTC was paramount.
Chapters four and five, “The Forces of the Status Quo”, and “The Peace Dividend and the Professional,” respectively deal with the realities of drawing-down a military force when peace breaks out. The Washington Naval Conference added an extra element to this by restricting forces in the (vain) hope that it would prevent future wars of the Great War’s scale. As a gunnery officer, Sims was especially worried over the decade-long cessation of capital ship production, and the fact that his Navy still had no battle cruisers. There is some irony here in that while the two battle-cruisers in question, Lexington and Saratoga, would not join the fleet as designed, the resulting naval treaty opened a loophole in regards to aircraft carriers. The two large vessels would be converted into fleet carriers and help shape the war-winning strategy in the Pacific a generation later.
Chapter six, “A Century Old Promotion System,” calls for the updating of the method by which Naval officers earn promotions. Instead of simply using time in rank, a combination of merit and a board system should determine these rank increases. The method he describes would be adopted over the ensuing decades. The final chapter, “Mentorship from a Century Ago” uses the reminiscences of long-time colleague Captain Harry Baldridge to show how Sims shaped the Navy, and inspired those who would wield it in future conflicts.
This is a fine book overall. The major criticism that I have is that there are no illustrations; which would have been helpful to track the evolution of Sims and his Navy. I highly recommend the volume to anyone interested in the evolution of the modern US Navy, and Naval affairs in general.
Nathan D. Wells is an adjunct instructor of History at Quincy College in Quincy, Massachusetts.