Think Piece – The Royal Australian Navy and Gallipoli

Source: Adam Paterson

Gallipoli lives large in the minds of many Australians, the courage and tenacity of the Australian soldiers who fought there is a story so often repeated we might be forgiven for thinking we know the history of Gallipoli well. I came to realise, while researching an exhibition commemorating the role of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the First World War that I knew little of the Navy’s involvement at Gallipoli. Most of the naval support for the landings and subsequent battles were provided by the Royal Navy, but an Australian submarine AE2 and a horse drawn engineering unit, the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT) both served there with distinction.

On the eve of the Anzac landings AE2 was ordered to navigate the Dardanelles and to “run amok” in the Sea of Marmara. The aim, to distract Turkish Naval vessels that otherwise may have supported the defence of the peninsula. AE2 was the first allied submarine to successfully navigate the narrows, and the first Australian unit to see action at Gallipoli. News of their success was enthusiastically relayed to the officers in charge of the difficult landings at Gallipoli. AE2 paved the way for British submarines that eventually dominated the Sea of Marmara.

In August 1915 the RANBT arrived at Suvla Bay, north of Anzac Cove, to support the British offensive. Their role – to build and maintain wharves and piers, unload supplies and maintain a fresh water supply – was essential to maintain the drawn out trench warfare. The RANBT carried out their duties within range of Turkish guns; on 20th December, 50 men of the RANBT were the last Australians to leave the Gallipoli Peninsula. The RANBT became Australia’s most decorated Navy unit in the First World War.

The absence of AE2 and the RANBT from mainstream recollections of Anzac highlight the importance of exploring the many different experiences of Australians during the First World War. Sharing these stories moves our commemoration away from the meta-narrative playing on repeat in years past, towards a deeper understanding of the successes, tragedies and sacrifices made.

Adam Paterson is an historical archaeologist with an interest in maritime and industrial communities. His work has ranged from heritage consultancy, academia and most recently, curator at the South Australian Maritime Museum. Adam curated the exhibition “All the World’s at Sea: a World War I Centenary”.