Think Piece – Our Remarkable Silent Anzacs
Source: Ray Kemp
On 22 April 2015, I had the privilege of representing the President and Members of the Submarine Association of Australia at a memorial service for HMAS AE2. The service took place on-board HMAS Anzac in the Sea of Marmara. It was a very cold, windy and wet winter’s day when I boarded Anzac at 0730 hours. The 4 hour cruise down the Dardanelles gave me the chance to reflect on what the young Royal Australian Navy had achieved in such a short time, especially its submarine arm.
In particular, I thought of the brave crew of the AE2 and especially its captain, Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker; an Irishman born in Dublin in February, 1885.
Henry Stoker was sent to school in England in preparation for entry to the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth. Joining the Navy in the year 1900 he transferred to the submarine service in 1904. He was loaned to the Royal Australian Navy in 1913 as the first and only Commanding Officer of HMAS AE2.
HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2 had been purchased from the British for the Australian Navy. They arrived in Sydney on 24 May, 1914. Tragically, less than 4 months later, HMAS AE1 was lost with all hands off the coast of Rabaul. On returning to Sydney following the unsuccessful search for the AE1, Henry Stoker, as Captain of the AE2, convinced the Australian Navy Board to send him to where the action was. Stoker believed the AE2 would be sent back to England to patrol the North Sea; however that was not to be. Instead she was sent to the Dardanelles.
On 24 April, 1915 the AE2 was ordered to penetrate the Dardanelles and to run amok in the Sea of Marmara, but a defect on the forward hydroplane meant a return to base for repairs. At 0230 on 25 April the AE2 made her second attempt at penetrating the Dardanelles and around 0430 was spotted by Turkish shore batteries and fired upon.
Having escaped damage and avoided a minefield, at around 0600 the AE2 successfully torpedoed a Turkish gunboat while simultaneously avoiding a Turkish destroyer. Shortly afterwards she ran aground underneath a fort, thereby escaping ground fire from onshore.
Over the next two hours, under Stoker’s direction, the ‘Silent Anzac’ manoeuvred her way unnoticed into the Sea of Marmara arriving at about 0830. Resting the submarine on the bottom until 2100 she then surfaced to recharge her batteries and to signal to the waiting fleet that she had successfully entered the Sea of Marmara as instructed.
For the next five days Stoker and the crew of the AE2 did as they had been ordered, running amok in the Sea of Marmara. Around 1030 on 30 April she was attacked by the Turkish gunboat Sultanhisar. A shell hole in the engine room left Stoker with no option but to scuttle the boat and to surrender. Ahead lay three years in prisoner of war camps, from which four of her crew would not survive.
For the next 82 years the AE2 lay silent in her resting place on the bottom of the Sea of Marmara. During this time she became the home of Bunting the Congo eel, who still lives in her conning tower today.
Last year, nearly 100 years to the day, in bright sunlight in the Sea of Marmara over the position in which she was scuttled, we paused to reflect on the extraordinary gallantry of Stoker and the crew of HMAS AE2. The Chiefs of the Royal Australian and Turkish Navy’s both laid wreathes next to mine. For me, laying a wreath under AE2’s battle honours was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Stoker was awarded a DSO and some of his crew received awards, but surely his actions were worthy of a VC, particularly when others around him who did less were awarded the highest honour. Why didn’t Stoker and his crew get more recognition for their actions? After all they succeeded in penetrating the Dardanelles and fulfilled what many agreed was an impossible mission.
I found myself wondering whether it was because he was an Irishman in charge of an Australian submarine. Perhaps if I take a less cynical view, it was just because when he eventually returned, that the war was over and those in charge failed to remember Stoker and the crew of the AE2’s incredible achievement against all odds.
During this Anzac Centenary and on the birthday of its Captain, Henry Stoker, let’s not forget the heroic crew of the AE2; nor the 40 Australian and English submariners who lost their lives on the AE1 off Rabual; these are our remarkable ‘Silent Anzacs’.
Lest we forget.