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British and Australian Submarines in the Dardanelles, 1915

The AE2

Got up through the Narrows

Animation April 1915 - The Story of the AE2
View an animation of the AE2's passage of the Dardanelles on 24-29 April 1915. The presentation is based on Lieutenant-Commander Henry Stoker's report of the voyage submitted after the end of the war and published in Arthur Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Sydney, 1941, pp.242-248.

On the night of 25 April 1915, Britain’s greatest dreadnought battleship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, cruised up the western coast of the Gallipoli peninsula near where the landings of the Anzac Corps had taken place that morning. On board was General Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), who had retired to bed. At midnight he was shaken awake by his Chief-of-Staff, Major-General Walter Braithwaite, who told him that an important message had arrived from the force ashore at Anzac. Hamilton followed Braithwaite to the battleship’s dining saloon where he found a group of Royal Navy officers and others. He recalled that ‘a cold hand clutched my heart as I scanned their faces’. He was handed a note from Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, the Anzac Corps commander. Birdwood wrote that his generals, after the setbacks and chaos of the first day’s fighting, during which they had failed to take their objectives, recommended evacuation. Birdwood himself was not convinced they should leave but he had passed on the opinions of the commanders on the spot for Hamilton to decide. A ‘yes’ from Hamilton, and the ‘Anzac Legend’ would have been stillborn.

Document gallery
The original documents in this gallery are from two files in the Australian War Memorial dealing with the AE2 - Submarine AE2: Loss of (September) - 18/3 AWM 50; [HMA Submarine AE2 Lieut Comd Stoker] - Bundle 49 AWM 36
Image Galleryimage: see caption below
The photographs in this gallery are mainly from the collections of the Australian War Memorial and relate to the submarine warfare carried out by the Royal Navy against Turkey in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. In those operations the Royal Australian Navy played a part though the allocation of the submarine AE2 to British naval forces.

Hamilton faced an awful decision. To withdraw would upset the whole Gallipoli invasion plan before it had really been tested. He asked the man in charge of the Royal Navy invasion fleet, Rear-Admiral Cecil Thursby, for his opinion and was told that it might take up to three days to withdraw the force and casualties would be high, The admiral recommended the Anzacs stick it out. Hamilton was on the point of dictating a reply to say the same when Lieutenant Commander C G Brodie, on the staff of Commodore Roger Keyes, the naval Chief-of-Staff, came into the saloon with a message for Keyes. Keyes tried to shoo him away at such a vital moment but Brodie insisted he come outside and read the signal he had just received. It was from an Australian submarine, sent from a position well north of Nara Burnu towards the Sea of Marmara. Keyes was delighted and went straight back into Hamilton with the message. While it might not have changed the general’s mind, here was a piece of news telling of an Australian success. His note to Birdwood, in part, reflected the optimism of the moment:

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Through the Dardanelles, 25 April 1915, from Henry Stoker’s Straws in the Wind.

… there is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out. It would take at least two days to re-embark you as Admiral Thursby will explain to you. Meanwhile, the Australian submarine has got up through the Narrows and has torpedoed a gun boat … you have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe.

[Hamilton, quoted by Rhodes James, Gallipoli, London, 1999, p.130]

The Australian submarine, the first Allied warship to make it though the Narrows, was the AE2 commanded by Irishman Lieutenant-Commander Henry Stoker.

'E' Class submarines at the Dardanelles
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The Royal Australian Navy’s new 'E' Class submarine, AE2, arriving at Portsmouth on 17 February 1914 to prepare for the voyage to Australia. [AWM P01075.043]

The AE2 was an ‘E’ class submarine, a more modern craft than Holbrook’s B 11. It had diesel engines not petrol, better batteries with a longer range submerged, and twice the number of torpedoes. Four ‘E’ class submarines had arrived to serve with the British fleet off the Dardanelles. Stoker’s AE2 arrived from Australia in early March 1915. The question was, could an ‘E’ class vessel make the journey underwater right through the Narrows and so be able to break through and operate in the Sea of Marmara? This question became even more significant after the failure of the Allied warships to silence the Turkish shore batteries during the great attack of 18 March 1915. If there was now to be a military landing on Gallipoli, with the aim of seizing the peninsula and putting the Turkish guns out of action that way, it would be a great help to get submarines past the Narrows and operating against Turkish military transports in the Marmara. The main problem for the submarines in getting through the straits was the speed of the current at the Narrows. To make progress against it required running at full speed, which drained the battery power. Moreover, two sharp bends in the coastline at the Narrows had to be negotiated and the unpredictability of the currents there was notorious. A submarine would have to come to periscope depth frequently in order to stay on the right course.

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An advertisement for Vickers Limited, from Janes Fighting Ships, London, 1915.

The first to try, on 17 April 1915, was Lieutenant-Commander Theodore Brodie in E15. His ship was caught in a violent eddy off Kepez Point and forced ashore. Brodie and six of his crew were killed by a Turkish shell and the remainder of the crew were captured. Later, British gunboats sunk the submarine to stop it falling into enemy hands.

Generally run amok
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This photograph shows something of the effect of the British submarine campaign on voyages in the Sea of Marmara in 1915. Turkish soldiers line the rails of a steamer on the lookout for submarines.

After Brodie’s failure, Stoker begged to be allowed to try in AE2. The date for the great Allied invasion was fast approaching and the admirals were keen to get the submarines through to cause maximum disruption in the Turkish rear areas. The AE2’s first attempt on 23 April failed due to faulty machinery. But, on the evening of 24 April, Stoker was again given the go-ahead, being told by Admiral de Robeck that if they got through, then ‘there is nothing we will not do for you’. Commodore Keys issued more dramatic instructions. Stoker was to sink any mine-laying ships he saw in the Narrows and, as the landings were due at dawn the next day, to ‘generally run amok’ around Çannakale and cause maximum disruption to the Turks.

At 2.30 am on 25 April 1915, as the men of the Anzac Corps approached the west coast of Gallipoli in the ships of the invasion fleet, the AE2 entered the Dardanelles. According to Stoker’s report, the moon had just set and searchlights played across the dark waters:

As the order to run amok at in the Narrows precluded all possibility of making the passage unseen, I decided to hold on on the surface as far as possible … at about 4.30 am … a gun opened fire at about one and a half miles [2 kilometres] range … I immediately dived and … proceeded through the minefield.

[Stoker, quoted in Arthur Jose, The Royal Australian Navy, 1914–1918, Sydney, 1943, pp.241–242]   

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Studio portrait of Henry Stoker. [From Henry Stoker, Straws in the Wind, London, 1925]

For half an hour the crew listened as mine cables scraped the sides of AE2 and Stoker brought the submarine up through the minefield to check his position. He was aware that E15 had been caught by the currents in this area and driven ashore so he took every precaution to ensure that AE2 was well out into the channel.

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Lieutenant Henry Stoker taking a bath on the Royal Australian Navy submarine AE2, c.1914. [Photograph in Henry Stoker, Straws in the Wind, London, 1925]

At 6 am, Stoker took AE2 up to periscope depth. By that time, Australian soldiers had been ashore on the other side of the peninsula for about an hour and a half. The submarine’s periscope was spotted and heavy fire opened up from Fort Chemenlik at Çannakale and from Kilitbahir on the other side of the Narrows while gunboats and destroyers began the hunt for AE2. Seeing a suitable target, the small Turkish cruiser Peykisevket, Stoker fired a torpedo and managed to submerge just before the AE2 would have been rammed by an enemy destroyer. The cruiser was badly damaged and later taken to Constantinope (Istanbul) for repairs. At this point AE2’s presence became of some value to the Anzacs fighting kilometres away. A Turkish battleship, which had been firing across the peninsula at the invasion fleet causing considerable disruption, sighted the submarine’s periscope and was forced to cease its shelling and move rapidly away.

By this time Stoker was north of Çannakale. He took AE2 up again and discovered he was close inshore. Suddenly, the vessel ran aground directly under the guns of a Turkish fort. Much of AE2’s conning tower was showing above the surface. They were so close that Stoker could see the flashes from the enemy guns almost reaching his periscope. Luckily, the Turks were unable to depress their guns sufficiently to hit AE2 and other batteries were too far away for accurate shooting. However, Stoker and the crew spent an anxious four minutes while the submarine worked itself off the shore and shells fell all around them. They had now certainly run ‘amok’ in the Narrows and Stoker set off to try and get away.

The Captain remained extremely cool
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The torpedoing of the Turkish steamer Stamboul at Istanbul, 25 May 1915. [From Granville Fortescue, Russia, the Balkans and the Dardanelles, London, 1915]

As AE2 submerged and approached the opposite shore, it ran aground again. Putting his engines into reverse at full power, Stoker brought the submarine back off the bank bumping along the seabed. With a final huge thump, it broke loose. Stoker considered that this bump could have caused much damage but he was determined to fulfill his orders to break through the Dardanelles, so they pressed on. Later, Stoker reported that during these heart-stopping moments his crew had behaved with great courage. One of them wrote:

During all this time the Captain remained extremely cool, for all depended on him at this stage. It is due to his coolness that I am now writing this account. Nobody knows what a terrible strain it is on the nerves to undergo anything like this, especially the Captain, as all depends on him.

[Wheat, quoted by Michael White, Australian Submarines: A History, Canberra, 1992, p.55]

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Lieutenant Henry Stoker and two other officers of the AE2 in captivity in Turkey between 1915 and 1918. [Photograph from Henry Stoker, Straws in the Wind, London, 1925]

By this stage many Turkish ships were on the lookout for AE2. In those days the equipment did not exist for finding a submarine’s position when it was submerged and it could not be attacked until it came up. On the other hand, submarines passing through the Dardanelles needed to surface frequently to take accurate course bearings from nearby landmarks, otherwise they risked running aground.  Feeling he had sufficient data for his course, Stoker now headed the AE2 down the straits past Nara Burnu at some depth before he risked further necessary observations at periscope depth. Coming back up, he saw they were well past the point but the Turks saw them. Fire was reopened upon the submarine and the chase resumed. Diving deep once more, the AE2 headed on but when they surfaced again Stoker saw straight ahead two Turkish tug boats with a wire stretched between them to catch the submarine’s conning tower. Down AE2 went yet again. Stoker took it to the bottom and settled the vessel there with the engines off. They did not have enough power left in the batteries to get right through to the Sea of Marmara and to recharge them would require running on the surface under diesel power. It was 8.30 am, 25 April 1915. As the Anzacs tried to find their way forward on Gallipoli, sailors of the Royal Australian Navy were almost through the Dardanelles.

April 25 1915 was a Sunday. As the AE2 rested, Stoker held prayers and then gave the crew a chance to sleep. Overhead they could hear the Turks looking for them and at one point something being towed from the surface hit the side of the vessel. Leaks were bringing significant amounts of water into the bilges and this water, if pumped out and released, could reveal their position because it contained large amounts of oil. All day the crew worked carrying water to a safer place in the submarine.

Advance Australia
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The Royal Navy submarine E11 being cheered by sailors on HMS Grampus as it leaves the Dardanelles on 6 June 1915. [AWM H10287]

At 9 pm Stoker finally brought AE2 back to the surface. They had spent more than 16 hours underwater, it was dark and no ships were in sight. So stale had the air become that in some areas of the submarine a match would not burn for more than a fraction of a second. The crew, when permitted, now hurried up top for gulps of fresh air. Stoker placed the submarine on diesel power and moved ahead charging the batteries. Again and again the AE2’s wireless operator beamed a message back to the invasion fleet to say they had made it through the Narrows and were heading for the Marmara. No answer was received and AE2 ran on into the night.

But AE2 had been heard and the news of its success conveyed to the top navy and army commanders. After the war Stoker was told by Admiral Roger Keys of the dramatic effect the news had had as General Sir Ian Hamilton was pondering the fate of the Anzacs on Gallipoli. One Australian soldier ashore that night claimed later that the following message was posted at Gallipoli:

Australian sub AE2 just through the Dardanelles. Advance Australia.

[Tudor Jenkins, quoted in  Michael White, Australian Submarines:A History, Canberra, 1992, p.58]

Charles Bean did not mention any such notices being erected, but he did record in his diary that the news of AE2’s breakthrough of the Dardanelles arrived at headquarters on Gallipoli at about 2.30 am on 26 April 1915.

In the Marmara
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AE2 in the Sea of Marmora, April 1915 – oil on canvas, 1925, Charles Bryant [AWM ART09016]

Between 26 and 30 April, the AE2 hunted for Turkish ships in the southern area of the Sea of Marmara. Stoker and his crew had little success in sinking anything but they certainly made their presence there known. A painting of the submarine that hangs in the Australian War memorial shows it cruising along on the surface, with Turkish fishing boats all around. By displaying the presence of the AE2, Stoker hoped to deter Turkish shipping from approaching the Dardanelles with reinforcements. At one point he took the AE2 back below the top reaches of the Dardanelles and then traveled up through them with his periscope up trying to convince the Turks that yet another submarine had broken through the Narrows.

Thinking we were alone – E14 in the Marmara
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Another image of the AE2 arriving at Portsmouth on 17 February 1914 to prepare for its long journey to Australia. [AWM P01075.042]

Actually, another submarine had got through. On the night of 27 April, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle took HM Submarine E14 up the Dardanelles. He got all the way through until near Nara Burnu he fired at a gunboat and missed. Now the Turkish forts opened up and Boyle fired another torpedo. All of a sudden, Boyle could see nothing through his number one periscope! Quickly raising the other scope he saw an extraordinary sight – a Turk in a small boat was clutching it in his hands and if he had brought along a heavy object he could certainly have done serious damage to E14. Boyle dived quickly and ran successfully past Nara Burnu and by morning the submarine was running up past the town of Gelibolu (Gallipoli) at the entrance to the Sea of Marmara. Turkish patrols had sighted E14 and all day Boyle had the vessel surfacing and submerging with the result that its batteries were nearly out of power. The enemy patrols eventually vanished for a while and E14 was able to surface and run briefly on its diesel engines while the batteries recharged.

However, all during the night of 27–28 April and the daylight hours of 28 April, E14 was obliged by a vigilant enemy to keep diving for cover. During the dark of 28­–29 April, Boyle kept the submarine motionless on the bottom to give his crew a chance to rest. On 29 April, they fired at and sank a Turkish transport and that evening they met up by chance with the AE2. Stoker and his men were greatly relieved to see friendly faces:

Five days, about, had passed since we had entered the Dardanelles, vouched for by our experiences, the only true recorders of time’s every varying flight. As one by one the five days had slipped by, the habit of thinking we were alone became so ingrained that realisation of the reverse brought very pleasant surprise.

[Stoker, quoted in Tom Frame, The Shores of Gallipoli :Naval Dimensions of the Anzac Campaign, Sydney, 2000, p.114]

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The engine room of a WWI submarine. [The Royal Naval Submarine Museum, Gosport, Hampshire, England]

Boyle was the senior submarine captain and Stoker now reported to him how he had been getting on. His plan was to head up to Constantinople but Boyle believed that they should stay in the area while he received further orders by wireless. The two captains agreed to rendezvous next day, 30 April, at 10 am.

Hurry, Sir, she’s going down

Next morning AE2 was heading towards the meeting place with E14 when it ran into trouble. As it approached, a Turkish torpedo boat appeared and it had to dive. There had been no sign of E14. As AE2 cruised underwater it suddenly began to rise upwards, out of control. The explanation later given for what happened was that the submarine had hit swirling patches of denser water which caused it to lose its capacity to hold balance or ‘trim’. Although Stoker ordered full speed downwards, the submarine ascended and was fired on by the Turks. AE2 now began to dive, still out of control, and headed well down below its maximum permitted depth. There was a danger that it would be crushed by the weight of water, so Stoker now ordered full speed astern and blew air into his main tanks. Slowly AE2 responded but then it ran back up until it broke surface in full view of the Turkish torpedo boat, the Sultanhisar. Stoker, determined not to let his submarine fall into enemy hands, recorded the last minutes of the AE2:

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The crew of the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine AE2, February 1914. [AWM P01075.045]

Within seconds the engine room was hit and holed in three places. Owing to inclination by the bow, it was impossible to see the torpedo boat through the periscope, and I considered an attempt to ram would be useless. I therefore blew the main ballast and ordered all hands on deck. Assisted by Lieutenant [Geoffrey] Haggard, I then went round opening all tanks to flood the sub. Cary [Lieutenant John Cary], on the bridge, watched the rising water to give warning in time for our escape. A shout from him and we clambered up. ‘Hurry, Sir, she’s going down’. As I reached the bridge the water was about two feet from the top of the conning tower.

[Stoker, quoted in Tom Frame, The Shores of Gallipoli:Naval Dimensions of the Anzac Campaign, Sydney, 2000, p.115]

The AE2 went down at 10.45 am on 30 April 1915 and slid to the bottom of the Sea of Marmara about six kilometres north of Kara Burnu. Stoker and all his crew were captured.

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The original grave of Petty Officer Stephen John Gilbert, Royal Navy, Christian Cemetery, Belemedik, Turkey. [AWM P01645.004]

The E14 continued her patrol in the Marmara with substantial success, sinking two Turkish ships. One of them, the Guj Djemal, was a transport ship with 6,000 men on board and a battery of field guns, all bound for Gallipoli. After 13 days E14 had only one defective torpedo left but it was ordered to continue the patrol as the presence of a British submarine in Marmara was causing great difficulties for the Turks. Boyle now rigged a false gun on deck and frightened one steamer into heading away for shore. The Turks were still hunting for them, however, and E14 was once nearly rammed by an enemy destroyer. On 17 May, after 20 days at sea, orders came through for them to return and on the afternoon of 18 May E14 surfaced near a French battleship off Cape Helles. Boyle raised the flag – the White Ensign – and a British destroyer escorted them to Imroz (Imbros) Island where they were cheered round the fleet. For his daring cruise in the Marmara, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle received the Victoria Cross and each member of his crew was decorated with a lesser award. Other British submarines, notably E11 under its captain, Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith, who was also awarded the VC, continued the submarine campaign against Turkish shipping in the Marmara.  While Boyle and Nasmith were justifiably feted, Stoker and his crew began three and a half years of captivity in Turkish prisoner-of-war camps.

Completely disrupted

What effect did the submarine war in the Marmara have on the Gallipoli campaign? Clearly, it was not a war winner as eventually the Allies were forced to evacuate the peninsula without ever having successfully broken through the Turkish lines. But the submarines did cause some havoc. Charles Bean concluded that the activity of vessels like the AE2, E11 and E14 ‘completely disrupted’ Turkish sea communications, forcing reinforcements to be sent overland which meant they took much longer to reach the front lines on Gallipoli. Food and other stores were still brought by sea, but in small ships forced to hug the coast and move only by night. All Turkish writers, Bean wrote, agreed that because of the submarines the supply of their armies on Gallipoli was, for the whole of the campaign, an ‘acutely anxious problem’. The German assessment gave a clear indication of what might have happened if the British had been able to bring considerable numbers of submarines through the Narrows:

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Painting by Louis McCubbin entitled, RAN tribute to Anzac dead, Dardanelles, 12th November 1918. [AWM ART09451]

If communications by sea had been completely severed, the Turkish Army would have faced catastrophe.

[Quoted in Tom Frame, The Shores of Gallipoli:Naval Dimensions of the Anzac Campaign, Sydney, 2000, p.212]

In this Allied attack on the Turks, the AE2 had led the way.