- Spencer, Mark
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- December 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On May 24, 1914, Australia acquired its first submarines from England as part of a new post‑federation initiative to achieve more autonomy in the protection of our shores. These were two submarines of the latest E-class, called AE1 and AE2 (Australian E-class) – larger, faster and more capable than any other submarine in the world.
The Gallipoli legend is rightfully ingrained in the very fabric of Australian culture and identity, and yet the courageous exploits of the crew of the Australian submarine AE2 are largely unknown.
The famous, but ultimately tragic, embarkation of thousands belonging to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) on the beaches at Gallipoli Peninsula, was actually an exercise of the Dardanelles Campaign, a predominantly naval objective to pass warships through the treacherous Dardanelles Strait into the Sea of Marmara with the goal of besieging Istanbul. If Turkey could be removed from the war, then pressure on Russia would be eased, assisting towards the end of the First World War.
Floating mines and cannon fire from shore batteries were preventing allied ships getting far into the narrow Dardanelles passage. Hence the deployment of ANZACs at Gallipoli. Their task was to disable the forts and gun batteries along the Dardanelles strait to make the transit of allied ships possible. There was, of course, one other way through the Dardanelles. Submarines! But many thought the task impossible, given the limited battery capacity of submarines at the time and the relatively short submerged periods, as there were no air scrubbers and the air quickly became foul.
The Dardanelles Strait was a long passage – some 56 kilometres. Currents exceeded 4 knots in the narrow part of the passage. There were minefields to pass, possible nets to engage, searchlights, forts along the shore and many unwelcoming gunboats. After unsuccessful attempts by British and French submarines, AE2, Australia’s only submarine in the campaign, was given the opportunity. She was to become the first submarine to successfully penetrate the Dardanelles Strait, and in so doing accomplished a major feat unmatched in submarine warfare at that time.
Her passage, in the early morning hours of April 25 – ANZAC Day – was the stuff of a big-screen adventure film. Her accomplishment made more than a mark on the land engagements at Gallipoli.
Project AE2 – How I got involved
The commanding officer of AE2, Irishman Henry Stoker, eventually scuttled the submarine after it was holed by a Turkish gun-boat five days later. No one was hurt, but all were taken prisoner-of-war. And so the submarine lay on the soft mud floor of the Marmara for 83 years, out of sight, and so it seemed, out of mind for most Australians.
In 1996, the then Australian ambassador to Turkey, David Evans, had heard of the successful discoveries of war wrecks by Turkish underwater explorer Selquk Kolay, the director of the Rahmi Koq Museum in Istanbul, and also a director of the Rahmi Koq Cultural Foundation. David Evans suggested to Mr. Kolay that he look for the Australian submarine. Kolay took on this assignment using the resources of the Rahmi Koq Industrial Group as well as his own personal expenditure and time.
Kolay did his usual detailed and exhaustive research for information which might help him locate the important war relic. He even visited Stoker’s niece in London, Primrose Stoker, now in her 80s. She assisted Kolay with written documents and verbal accounts of her uncle. This information convinced Kolay that the actual location of the submarine was further north than the position given by Stoker and Turkish authorities. The Turkish fishermen he spoke to had never snagged their nets anywhere near the official position, but they were aware of something about five miles north of the official position. All this fitted together. Magnetometer and side-scan readings later identified a wreck that looked remarkably like a submarine at a depth of 86 metres (280 ft). Kolay dived the wreck three times, first breathing compressed air, then breathing a helium mixture (trimix) for the other two dives. Each dive was to the mid-section of the wreck which just happened to resemble the aft section of the submarine. He was convinced he had found the AE2.
Meanwhile, Australian journalists Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley, living in London, published the story of Kolay’s find on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, July 5 1997. As I read the story of the AE2‘s remarkable adventure in the Saturday’s Herald, I thought: ‘Why have I not heard about this before? I didn’t even know submarines existed in the First World War!’