Newsletter for the Rotary Club of Western Endeavour - Issue No.: 820 Issue Date: 19 Aug, 2018

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Submarine AE2 - Historic Significance

Dr Mark Fielding provided some insight into the background and historical significance of the AE2 Submarine during World War 1

The AE2 is remembered for its mission which was to assist in the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks.  The Australian land contribution is memorialised in our Anzac celebrations but what did the AE2 actually do?

Background

The AE2 Submarine was built by the British and then sold to Australia.  It therefore was towed to Darwin where it was used for a short time until it was then towed back through the Suez canal to join the British Navy when World War 1 started.  It was 55m long and required a crew of 35 with 3 officers to sail it. 

It had none of the communications and detection equipment of today's submarines but was state of the art for its time.  So there was no sonar or radar which meant reliance on compass and periscope for navigation, no ventilation so could only stay below the surface for an absolute maximum time of 18 hours and it ran on diesel supported batteries.

Its arsenal comprised about 8 to 10 torpedos.

Prelude

Churchill developed a plan to attack the Turks on the 18th March 1915 through the Dardenelle Straits however despite a massive naval fleet there were significant losses to the British fleet due to the well fortified Turkish defences comprising significant underwater mines.  Three battleships were sunk within a matter of hours and the decision to withdraw and retreat was made.

Captain Dacre Stoker an Irish born British naval commander was seconded to the Australian Navy to command the AE2 along with an Australian crew.  Captain Stoker was known to have spent some time lobbying the Australian parliament to have the AE2 taken into battle to assist the British.

The Gallipoli Campaign

When this campaign was envisaged the mission given to the AE2 was to get into the Narrows of the Dardenelles and "run amok".  There was no plan for getting out.  The Turkish underwater defences were reknowned to be impenetrable and the Turkish land positions and navy were also extensive in the Dardenelles, so essentially this was a 'mission impossible'.

On the 25th April 1915 in the early hours of the morning (2:30am) under cover of dark the submarine sailed through the heads at Cape Helles under water and surfaced opposite Ghanak at 6:00am where it was immediately spotted by the Turkish Navy and land guard.

An immediate confrontation by Turkish Gunboats and Destroyers occurred with much firing and much diving and re-emergence to try to destroy as much as possible, however torpedos misfired and most never hit their targets.  It is claimed that one gunboat or destroyer was hit by a torpedo.

Sadly, the battle was so intense that the AE2 dived and sat on the bottom for much of the 25th day of April which was the day of the Gallipoli landing when the diversionary activity of the submarine was meant to be happening.

Early morning on the 26th April a signal was sent by morse code with a message that the AE2 had managed to get through the straits and was now opposite Gallipoli.  Thereafter 4 days was spent bobbing up and down with no other activity.  The E15 Submarine also got through the Straits and a plan was devised to rendevous for re-supplying the submarine, however on reaching the rendevous the submarine was fired upon by the Turks and was so badly damaged and had lost control with its bow and stern bobbing out of the water, so the command was given to abandon ship, surrender and scuttle the submarine.

The crew spent 3-1/2 years in a turkish prison and though a few perished due to malnourishment most survived including Commander Stoker.

Many subsequent attempts were made to find the submarine however it was not until 1998 that this happened.  The wreck was found, not at the recorded location of sinking, but rather in the Sea of Marmara at a depth of 72m.  No attempt was made to lift her to surface as it was likely she would break up and so simple rust protection anodes were put on the hull.

The Historic Relevance

  1. The act was seen as a feat of Naval endurance and higly regarded due to its difficulty
  2. The AE2 story was relatively unknown (even though it formed part of the Anzac story/legend) for many years as:
  • those involved served for some time as prisoners of war and there was spurious misinformation prior to release
  • the Australian Navy was unsure whether it was an Australian or British submarine
  • there was uncertainty as to whether it was the first submarine to get through the Turkish Dardenelle defences
  1. The Gallipoli Campaign was disasterous because they landed in the wrong location, companies were dispersed through the intense fighting, many lives were lost, morale was significantly diminished, a reprisal from the Turks was highly likely and it was thought to be a fiasco.  A meeting was held by those in command and William Birdwood the then overall commander was summoned and woken from his bed to give advice as to what to do.  As he was making his decision the signal came through that the AE2 submarine had got through the Turkish defences and had arrived at Gallipoli.  This provided a much needed positive momentum at a very bleak time, but also could well have deflected an otherwise sound decision to evacuate.  Instead, the decison was given that due to the significant time and unavailable resources to get the men out, that they would have to 'dig, dig, dig until safe', and so they continued on for many more months before finally being removed in January 2016. A total of 500,000 men from both sides of the campaign were lost in battle.

 

 

 

 

Author: Laurie Dender

Published: 24 April, 2018


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