Loss of HMAS AE2
The AE2, one of Australia’s first wartime submarines, lies 74 metres below the surface of the Sea of Marmara off the coast of Turkey, exactly where it sank, on 30 April 1915. Sometimes described as ‘the silent Anzac’, its story has largely been forgotten.
Built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness in the United Kingdom and commissioned there on 28 February 1914, the AE2 was the Royal Australian Navy’s second submarine. Following commissioning, AE2 sailed to Australia accompanied by her sister ship AE1 with a crew of both British and Australian submariners, arriving in Sydney in May 1914. They were the first submarines to travel such a distance.
In what was to be a support role in the unfolding Dardanelles campaign, AE2 joined a Royal Navy squadron based on the island of Tenedos in the Aegean Sea in February 1915. AE2’s part in operations had been minimal however with the landings to take place at Gallipoli early on 25 April 1915, the AE2’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker, was given the order to ‘run amok’ and create a diversion to assist the troops on the other side of the peninsula. In his autobiography, ‘Straws in the Wind’, Stoker recalls he ‘formed the opinion that an attempt to dive a submarine right through the Dardanelles Strait and into the Sea of Marmara held sufficient chance of success to justify the attempt being made’. Previous attempts by Allied submarines to pass through the strait had failed – minefields, fixed and mobile gun batteries, searchlight surveillance and patrolling Turkish warships, as well as natural navigational hazards, had made the Dardanelles seem impenetrable. If successful however, enemy shipping between the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles could be prevented from reinforcing and resupplying Turkish troops on the Gallipoli peninsula.
The Dardanelles Strait is 35 miles long with a continuous current running at five knots back into the Mediterranean and was also heavily mined. At 2.30am on 25 April 1915, Stoker set out with a simple plan – travel as far as possible on the surface to conserve the limited battery power, and dive at daylight or when he reached the minefields. After firing a torpedo and damaging the Turkish gunboat Peykisevket, she passed through the Narrows, pursued by surface vessels. She ran aground twice beneath the guns of the Turkish forts along the shore, but fortunately these guns could not be depressed low enough to fire on her. Stoker and his crew sat in darkness and silence for sixteen hours and when they finally rose to the surface they were half a mile from the shore in a bay above Nagara Point with the worst of the journey behind them. One of the crew recorded in his diary: ‘During all this the Captain remained extremely cool, for all depended on him at this stage. It is due to his coolness that I am now writing this account. Nobody knows what a terrible strain it is on the nerves to undergo anything like this, especially the Captain, as all depends on him’.
Stoker sent a radio message back to the fleet which was received at the same time as a midnight conference was being held on the flagship Queen Elizabeth to decide whether to withdraw the troops off the peninsula. Following receipt of Stoker’s message, British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Ian Hamilton sent his famous message to the Australians ashore:
‘Your news is indeed serious. But there is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out. It would take at least two days to re-embark you, as Admiral Thursby will explain to you. Meanwhile the Australian submarine has got up through the Narrows and has torpedoed a gunboat at Chanak. PS You have got through the difficult business. Now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe’. News of the AE2’s success spread to the Diggers on the Gallipoli cliffs and lifted their morale. A notice stuck on a stump on the hillside read ‘Australian sub AE2 just through the Dardanelles. Advance Australia’.
AE2 operated for five days across the Sea of Marmara to give the impression of the presence of multiple boats. Several attacks were made against Turkish ships bringing reinforcements to the peninsula before mechanical faults forced her to the surface on 30 April 1915 and shells were fired into its engine room by the torpedo boat Sultanhisar. Stoker ordered the boat’s company to evacuate and scuttled AE2 at 10.45 on that day. All the crew survived the attack and were taken as prisoners of war. Four died of illness while in captivity with the rest, including Stoker, remaining in Turkish prisoner of war camps until the Armistice in 1918.
Retired rear admiral Peter Briggs, a former submarine commander and Chairman of the AE2 Commemoration Foundation, praised the bravery of Lieutenant Henry Stoker and his crew. ‘He pressed on, knowing that he had to attack supply lines and provide relief for the soldiers on the peninsula. I think he should be remembered as an Australian hero. I think he belongs in the Gallipoli story along with Simpson and the other well-deserving people that we remember’.
This 7-tonne submarine with 32 crewmen on board saved many lives by drawing enemy fire away from troops landing at Gallipoli. This was the first time a submarine was used to attack enemy supply lines by reducing the Turkish ability to supply ammunition, food and men. AE2’s achievements showed others that the task was possible and within months Turkish shipping and lines of communication were badly disrupted, with supplies and reinforcements for the Turkish defence of Gallipoli forced to take more hazardous overland routes.
The AE2 was the only RAN vessel to be lost as a result of enemy action during World War I.
AE2 was discovered by a Turkish archaeological team in 1998 – a perfect time capsule of the Gallipoli campaign.
Stoker, H. H. G. D.,’ Straws in the Wind’, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1925.