- Arundel, Richard, Captain, RAN Rtd
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval technology, History - WW1
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- June 2018 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Richard Arundel*
Telegraphist W.W. Falconer, who was the radio operator in AE2 when she penetrated the Dardanelles Straits in 1915, was born in Richmond, Victoria, on 14 October 1892 and enlisted in the RAN on 16 July 19121as an Ordinary Seaman for a seven year engagement. He was then posted to the ageing colonial cruisers Cerberus and Encounter,based at the Williamstown Naval Depot which housed the first RAN Signal School and where on 22 January 1913 he was drafted into the new Telegraphist category. This followed RN practice until the end of WWI, when early wireless signalling was considered to be a new subset of the Torpedo and Electrical branches rather than the Visual Signalling branch2and taking into account that Falconer already had some experience in the electrical trade.
After this training, on 10 June 1914 Falconer was posted as a Telegraphist to the battlecruiser HMAS Australia and then to HMAS Penguin’s ledger on 4 August 1914, together with other RAN personnel who served with the ANMEF in operations to capture the German mandated New Guinea territories (where AE1was lost with all hands).Falconer’s Record of Service states he was posted to Submarine’s (sic) on 1 January 1915 but, sinceHMA Submarine AE2 was his submarine posting and it was then on passage to the UK, as they then thought, as the only naval escort in the second AIF troop convoy, he would have had to join the submarine some days previously, before sailing. Falconer’s duties would also have been a hydrophone operator and the control room note taker.
On 5 February 1915 the submarine was diverted from Port Said to join the Allied naval forces building up in the Eastern Mediterranean for the Gallipoli campaign. This strategy was to rely on an Allied surface naval force penetrating the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara and threatening Constantinople (Istanbul), forcing Turkey to cease its successful land campaign against southern Russia3. The strategy failed on 18 March 1915 with heavy losses to the Allied ships in the Dardanelles minefields and the strategy then changed to an amphibious Army troop landing on the Gallipoli peninsula.
The wireless equipment of AE2was the primitive 1KW Marconi Type 10 Morse spark transceiver which, commencing in 19124was approved to be fitted in E Class submarines and installed in both AE1andAE2prior to their commissioning into the RAN on 28 February 1914. This pre-valve wireless telegraphy (W/T) set consisted of early electronic components that created an unstable medium frequency (M/F) band Morse signal with a limited working range of 30 to 120 miles. There were three aerial configurations5of which the smallest rig enabled the vessel to dive rapidly but also, whilst surfaced, communicate by W/T out to horizon range. Apart from better communications, this now enabled a submarine to avoid compromising its location to other ships, especially at night, by the glare from a signal lamp.
However during this early period there was a major problem; should wire aerials be damaged by shellfire or anything else, this would cause any broken wire strands to earth the signal giving rise to very visible sparking, described technically as ‘brushing’6. Especially during darkness, this compromising visual effect could only be eliminated by reducing power output, resulting in signal ranges being further reduced unless the operator had shrewdly learned to adjust the signal power output so that the target signal range could be achieved with the minimum brushing effect.
Falconer’s ability in this new and evolving signalling medium would be tested when, after a phenomenal passage on 25 April 1915, AE2became the first Allied submarine to penetrate into the Sea of Marmara, through its Dardanelles minefields, during the evening of the amphibious landings at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove. This passage included being twice peppered with exploding shrapnel whilst briefly partially surfaced after striking sandbanks. The commanding officer of AE2, LCDR H. H. Stoker RN, had submitted a convincing plan to penetrate the minefields two days before the Allied landings. The novel plan was approved and, if successful, Stoker was to signal his success7so that further submarines could follow immediately and he was instructed to ‘run amuck’ off the port of Gallipoli in order to disrupt the resupply of Turkish land forces by sea through the Sea of Marmara. To reduce signal congestion this message was to be transmitted on ‘D’ wave, after 2000, between 40 to 50 minutes past the hour to the Campaign Commander.
Thus Telegraphist Falconer was ordered to signal Stoker’s achievement via the fleet’s communications guard ship HMS Jed, on the other side of the Gallipoli peninsula, which Falconer did in dangerous conditions for AE2with the aerial system sparking vividly. Despite continuous and complex tuning and retransmitting AE2received no response and both Stoker and Falconer believed their equipment had failed and the message had not got through. Several days later AE2 was scuttled and the crew imprisoned as POWs. It was not until they were repatriated in December 1918 that they learnt that Falconer’s repeated transmissions had enabled the guard ship to collate a coherent message that had been retransmitted to HMS Queen Elizabeth, General Hamilton’s headquarters ship, at the moment when a decision had to be made as to whether the perilous situation with the ANZAC Army landing force was taking so many casualties that it should be re-embarked8. The knowledge that a successful submarine passage would now lead to the Allied submarine force restricting Turkish seaborne reinforcements through the Sea of Marmara immediately contributed to the command decision to hold all amphibious forces on the beachheads and ‘to dig in’9. Falconer’s skill and determination retuning and retransmitting Stoker’s message establishes this signal as one of the earliest and most historically significant messages transmitted by an Australian vessel in WWI.
Telegraphist Falconer was subsequently held in POW concentration camps at Afion Kara Hissar and Belemedik. His electrical skills resulted in him being employed on Turkish rail networks in the Taurus Mountains. Repatriated to London in December 1918 after the peace, Falconer returned to Australia in HMAS Melbourne in April 1919 and on 1 August 1919 completed his engagement in HMAS Cerberus. He was awarded £63/4/3 from the Naval Prize and War Service Funds. After he left the Navy he was employed in Garden Island Dockyard and subsequently in the Commonwealth Electoral Office, Sydney.
He married Valerie E. McNamara in Redfern in 1921 and at some stage they later separated. In retirement Falconer lived at 29A Wells St. East Gosford, NSW, until his death aged 75 on 24 April 1968. That day was coincidently anANZAC eve anniversary and so was the 53rd anniversary of the commencement of AE2’s final and graphic voyage into the Sea of Marmara. His ashes were interred in the Northern Suburbs NSW Cemetery in Niche QE 6310. Curiously HMSQueen Elizabeth, also known as ‘the QE’ was the ship that played a major part in decision-making events after he transmitted his historic AE2 signal.
Although Falconer had been recommended for an award for his unique naval service, this had been rejected by the Admiralty as the RN ‘did not propose to take similar action for their personnel’11demonstrating that Gallipoli was viewed as a failed campaign. Senior officers were ignorant of the impact that the iconic signal message had in ensuring the ANZAC amphibious force would not be re-embarked and were ordered to ‘dig in’12. They also gave insufficient weight to the fact that an Australian submarine had got up through The Narrows and made it known that the feat was possible so other submarines could follow to contain Turkish reinforcements in the Sea of Marmara13. Nor was it understood in Whitehall that this would be the beginning of the iconic ANZAC ethos.
Falconer should be remembered as the RAN’s first outstanding communications specialist sailor for his contribution to the history of the RAN, for his skills with the earliest, and then unstable, wireless equipment. In dangerous and difficult circumstances, he enabled the passing of a crucial tactical message that contributed to the decision to hold the largest modern amphibious landing force on Turkish soil that, if competently led, arguably, could have reduced the length of WWI and saved Russia from political collapse14.
It is significant that following the successful transmission by Telegraphist Falconer of Stoker’s iconic transit message into the Sea of Marmara, the next two submarine commanding officers to transit the Dardanelles were awarded the Victoria Cross for the most conspicuous bravery15, an honour not yet found in the RAN’s lexicon.
*Captain Richard Arundel RAN Ret. is a former communications specialist.
- Record of Service Telegraphist W.W. Falconer RAN 1936
- Kent, CAPT RN. Signal A History of Signalling in the Royal Navy, Chapter 4 p28
- ADML Lord Wester-Wemyss, The Navy in the Dardenelles Campaign, Ch 12
- BR 3043 Ch 29
- ADM 186/810 (OU 5155 W/T Handbook Type 10 Sets (Submarines)
- ADM 137 Sailing Order 27 dated 23 April 1915; VADM de Robeck AE2 orders dated 23 April 1915
- Gallipoli Military Operations Vol 1 maps and appendices – 13 by direction of the Historical Section Committee of Imperial Defence (failure and withdrawal action)
- Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli,Ch 5, Les Carlyon Gallipoli,Ch 10, et al
- DVA letter to the author – Ph 9/1 dated 18 March 2005
11.Aust. Naval Rep London letter to Navy Office 17 December 1917
- Michael White, Australian Submarines: A History, 2nd ed, above, pp 132-134
- RADM Brodie, Forlorn Hope,Ch 5/6
- Wester-Wemyss, above, p 182
- ADM 137/1090 The London Gazette21 May 1915, p 51