File No. 811.0151/101a
The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Great Britain (Page)
2297. It has been reported to the Department that British Government has ordered British merchant vessels to arm themselves with small caliber guns manned by trained gunners, and instructed such armed vessels to ram and otherwise make unprovoked attacks [Page 577] on German submarine crafty and that such attacks have been made by these vessels, and submarines sunk as a result.
The Department has been furnished with several affidavits of Americans who witnessed the destruction of the German submarine which attacked the steamship Nicosian. From these it appears that a vessel flying the American flag and displaying it on the sides, and having the appearance of a merchantman, suddenly appeared approached to within a short distance of the submarine, and began firing at the submarine with guns mounted behind screens, and that the attacking vessel turned out to be a British patrol ship commanded by naval officers, manned by marines, and armed for the purpose of attacking and destroying submarines.
Please bring the foregoing to the attention of Sir Edward Grey and express to him my earnest desire to have these statements either verified or denied.
It would seem that a distinction might be made between the use of a neutral flag as a ruse de guerre by a warship whose military character is unmistakable from the appearance of the vessel and by a merchant vessel which has no distinguishing marks of a military character, especially when peaceful merchantmen are allowed to carry arms ostensibly for defensive purposes. I am especially anxious to obtain full and complete official information on the above inquiries with a view to determine whether, if these reports prove true, it is not incumbent upon this Government to change its lenient attitude toward the arming of merchant vessels for defensive purposes. Recently the Waimana, a British vessel, entered Norfolk with one mounted gun on board and, in view of the above reports this Government refused to clear the vessel until the gun had been removed or until the British Government gave a formal assurance that it would not be used for other than defensive purposes. The case was closed by the gun being removed without prejudice to the principle involved.