By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The arrival of the first convoy carrying the Soldiers and Marines of the American Expeditionary Force at Saint-Nazaire, France on June 26, 1917 surprised the world and uplifted the allies. Today, after two world wars and a century of witnessing operations around the world, Americans might take this large troop movement for granted. In 1917, however, the arrival of the Soldiers and Marines was earth shaking. For over 100 years the centerpiece of American foreign policy revolved around defending the Western Hemisphere from European incursions. When the United States declared war on Germany even the most recent war plans emphasized defending the Caribbean against European powers. Nowhere in those plans was a major troop movement to Europe considered. Nevertheless this movement was accomplished within weeks of the declaration of war.
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The Germans, above all, did not expect American troops to arrive so early in significant numbers. Three months before the American declaration of war, on January 9, 1917, Kaiser Wilhelm II met with his most trusted advisors in the Castle of Pless, Silesia, Germany. The council considered the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, curtailed one year earlier due in large part to American pressure. The Germans believed that U-boat attacks on neutral and allied shipping would starve Great Britain into submission and win the war. One likely consequence of that decision, however, would be the United States’ entry into the conflict. Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, Chief of the German Imperial Admiralty Staff and a leading proponent of unrestricted submarine warfare, argued that if the Kaiser untethered the U-boats, “England would be defeated within six months, at the most, before a single American had set foot on the Continent.” He claimed that the United States offered no real threat to the Central Powers: “Money as well as words will be hurled at us; military developments will come either not at all or too late to have an effect.” The Kaiser agreed, and ordered the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917. Warned by telegram from the German Ambassador in Washington that the action would likely lead to war with the United States, Wilhelm II wrote in the margins, “that is irrelevant.”
The Kaiser’s action and the resulting attacks on American shipping did, indeed, lead to an American declaration of war on April 6, 1917. But how could the United States assist her co-belligerents across the ocean? Obviously men, material, ships, and supplies were essential, but also important was less tangible aide to the allies’ flagging morale. The allied cause was teetering on the brink of defeat. The French Nivelle offensive failed in early May and French units were mutinying at the front. Shipping losses due to the submarine campaign caused acute shortages in Great Britain. In eastern Europe, revolutionaries overthrew the Russian Tsar and fronts in Russia and Romania were threatening collapse. In this environment a French delegation including former French Prime Minister René Viviani and former French Chief-of-Staff Marshall Joseph Joffre visited the United States. The delegation requested that the Americans dispatch troops to France as soon as possible. They claimed that the arrival of this force, even a small one, would boost allied spirits considerably.
The Americans agreed to dispatch a force of soldiers and marines and to transport them to France in American vessels. The War Department summoned General John Pershing and sent him to France on May 28th to make preparations for his force. On May 23rd, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels named Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves commander of the convoy, and later provided him with the title Commander of Convoy Operations in the Atlantic. Gleaves reported to New York City to prepare the convoy.
Gleaves’s task was not an easy one. Only three commissioned Navy vessels were capable of transporting troops: USS Hancock, USS Henderson, and the seized German Auxiliary Cruiser SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich, renamed USS DeKalb after the Bavarian Revolutionary War hero. Gleaves along with military and civilian authorities set out to scrape together an improvised armada of troop and cargo vessels. Of the thirteen vessels that carried troops, three were previously commissioned in the Navy, two were ocean liners for the United Fruit Company, two carried mail, and six were merchant or ocean liners with various shipping companies. Shipyards rapidly armed these vessels for defense and outfitted them to carry troops. Four cruisers, thirteen destroyers, three armed colliers and two armed yachts would escort the improvised troopships and four cargo vessels to the western French port of Saint-Nazaire. This motley convoy would steam in four separate groups.
The operation involved substantial coordination between American forces throughout the Atlantic basin. The Army would coordinate the embarkation of the troops and cargo. After getting underway, destroyer escorts with lesser fuel capacities would break off from the convoy and return to North American ports once they reached their cruising limit. The fuel ship USS Maumee, departing from St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada, would rendezvous with and refuel the rest of the destroyers at sea. American destroyers operating out of Queenstown, Ireland, since May would join the convoy groups mid-ocean as they approached submarine-infested waters and escort them through the danger zone. Finally, as the convoy groups approached France, they would rendezvous with a small French escort for added protection. This complex operation required careful cooperation on both sides of the ocean, and Vice Admiral Sims (commanding U.S. forces at Queenstown) and French authorities repeatedly contacted the Navy Department to arrange details. The American naval attaché in France loudly made sham preparations for the troops to arrive at the port of Brest, to deceive any agents of the Central Powers. On June 4th, Gleaves reported again to Secretary of the Navy Daniels at Washington for final instructions. Following the meeting Daniels bid Gleaves farewell, stating, “Admiral, you are going on the most important, the most difficult, and the most hazardous duty assigned to the Navy-good-bye.”
At daybreak on June 14th, Convoy Group I, led by Rear Admiral Gleaves in his flagship cruiser USS Seattle, weighed anchor in a thick fog. The convoy passed through The Narrows at the mouth of the Hudson River and into the Atlantic. Two hours later Convoy Group II departed and after two more the third made steam. In all the three groups carried 14,000 soldiers and marines and their weapons. Convoy Group IV, carrying supplies, departed on June 15. Gleaves arranged the groups’ speed in descending order, with Convoy Group I consisting of the fastest vessels and Convoy Group IV the slowest. Their departure was timed so that during the trans-Atlantic passage the speed difference between groups increased the time between their arrivals, which would permit the small port of Saint- Nazaire to accommodate each group.
Extreme caution was exercised by the convoy. Sixteen lookouts were posted during the day, eight at night in one hour watches. Ships were completely darkened at night and radio silence maintained throughout. The ships zigzagged to deny submarines a clear shot. Inexperienced and jumpy gun crews saw threats everywhere, even before entering the danger zone of heightened submarine activity. After five days at sea, on the afternoon of 19 June, troops milling around the deck of USAT Antilles, Convoy Group II, began pointing and shouting about a submarine astern. The Navy crew of gun #4 fired two rounds before their antagonist proved to be a whale. On the night of June 22 Convoy Group I claimed to have been attacked. Between 2215 and 2225 two vessels witnessed a rapidly passing wake that lookouts interpreted as a torpedo. DeKalb fired two shots and sounded her siren six times as a warning. DeKalb sighted a second wake at 2235. The escorts sprang into action and Destroyer Fanning closed on the source of the wake finding nothing. In all, the convoy sighted four separate torpedoes. While most of the convoy assumed it had been attacked, lookouts on USAT Tenadores claimed the wakes came from a large fish. What caused the alarming wakes is unknown, but postwar inquiries with the German Admiralty confirmed that no submarines were in the vicinity.
At 0830 the following morning, lookouts on Gleaves’s flagship Seattle spotted American destroyers emerging from the mist. The troops cheered the arriving four stackers and on deck of the Queenstown destroyer USS Conyngham officer Aaron “Tip” Merrill later remembered that “more than one heart beat a little faster when the two areas of the service met some several thousand miles from home.” Gleaves was less sentimental, reportedly greeting the destroyers by signaling “Gentlemen, you are ten minutes late.” The destroyer escorts took position around the convoy as it continued into the danger zone.
The final portion of the passage was the most treacherous. The convoy groups made top speed as they zigzagged in case of submarine attack. Reminders of the submarine threat were all around. Wreckage from sunken ships bobbed on the surface and radio rooms were alive with S.O.S. calls from distant merchant vessels. On June 26 Destroyer USS Cummings was escorting Convoy Group II when lookouts sighted a periscope on her port bow 1500 yards away. The destroyer pursued the submarine after it submerged and dropped a depth charge on a mass of bubbles. Apparent wreckage led the commander of Cummings to claim the attack as a probable sinking of the submarine. Later investigation disproved that assertion. Convoy Group I reported an attack later that day when Antilles and Lenape sighted an apparent torpedo wake off of the French coast. The slow moving merchant vessels of Group IV engaged in a confused battle on 28 June when cruiser St. Louis and collier Kanawha sighted torpedoes and a submarine and opened fire. When the smoke cleared, all ships in the convoy except Kanawha believed that the vessels had engaged various forms of oceanic wildlife. Despite the confusion, all believed the fire was necessary. Commanding officer of St. Louis Commander J.E. Trench concluded, “At any rate the experience was good and we must fire on everything suspicious.” St. Louis again engaged an apparent periscope on July 1, but the U-boat submerged before her crew could bring all of her guns to bear.
As the convoy groups approached the French coast, token forces of French warships ushered the American vessels into the Loire River estuary and Saint-Nazaire. Group I arrived off the French port at midnight on 26 June and by 2 July all four groups had reached their destination. In a final brush with danger, the convoy groups successfully navigated a minefield recently laid by a German submarine in the channel entering the harbor. The vessels crowded into the diminutive port and disembarked men and supplies. The operation was entirely successful and convoy reached Saint-Nazaire without any casualties. Gleaves later recalled one officer’s quip, “We didn’t lose but one horse, and that was a mule.”
The landing was a moral victory for the Allies and a harbinger of the over two million American troops that would be transported to Europe during the course of the war. The Kaiser risked American intervention under the assumption that no troops would touch France before the Allies submitted in August 1917. The United States Navy proved him wrong, first by disembarking troops at Saint-Nazaire in June and later by helping to keep the sea lanes to Great Britain open, thereby keeping that nation in the war. On July 4 1917 U.S. Army Colonel Charles Stanton stood in front of the tomb of Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier marquis de Lafayette and famously proclaimed “Lafayette, we are here!,” evoking the vital military assistance the marquis and his French compatriots had provided America nearly 140 years before. Left unspoken, was the United States Navy’s essential role in that historic reunion.
Want to know more about France and America’s friendship through the years? Read our blog, U.S. Navy Ships with Names Honoring America’s First Ally