Australia’s first submarines – tragedy and triumph

Underwater mystery solved after 103 years

The wreck of Australia’s first naval submarine, the AE1, was found in December 2017 after several searches spanning 103 years.

The 13th search mission since the sub was lost, carried out by the vessel Fugro Equator, found AE1 largely intact in waters off the Duke of York islands, north-eastern Papua New Guinea.

She was found in about 300 m (840 ft) of water with the use of an underwater drone floating 40 m (131 ft) above the sea bed.

AE1 was the first Allied submarine lost in World War One. She disappeared with 35 Australian and British crewmates onboard on 14 September 1914, just weeks after the outbreak of the First World War.

Her sister boat, AE2, went on to figure in one of the most daring submarine feats of the war.

AE1 was launched in the yard of Vickers Ltd at Barrow-in-Furness, England, on 22 May 1913. She was commissioned at Portsmouth on 28 February 1914 under the command of Lieutenant Commander TF Besant, RN, and reached Sydney in May 1914.

The AE1, with a joint crew of Australian and British crew and one New Zealander, was sent to help capture German colonies including the then German-held New Guinea and lead the Allied capture of Rabaul on 13 September 1914.

But a day later while searching for German warships she became separated from the accompanying HMAS Parramatta in a heavy fog.

Parramatta and HMAS Yarra were ordered to search for AE1. HMAS Sydney, on her way to the west coast was also told to keep a lookout and later Encounter and Warrego also joined the search with launches from Rabaul and Herbertshohe.

No trace was found.

The loss of AE1 with her entire complement of three officers and 35 sailors was the RAN’s first major tragedy and it marred an otherwise successful operation.

Early In 2017, the Australian government announced it would match private investment to fund an expedition to search for AE1.

The government set aside $500,000 for “Find AE1 Limited” to search, in conjunction with The Silentworld Foundation, Australian National Maritime Museum and Fugro Survey.

There are no plans to return AE1 to Australia and the Government said it was working with Papua New Guinea to preserve the underwater site and plan for a lasting commemoration.

Down under hero

A hero of the Australian Navy, a relative minnow in the fleets of World War I warships, was the submarine AE2.

As was AE1, the AE2 was built in Britain by Vickers Armstrong for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) that was formed only three years earlier, in 1911.

The subs arrived in Sydney on 24 May 1914. Sixty days of the 13,000 mi (21,000 km) voyage were spent at sea, a record for submarines at that time. The quite basic submarines of the era had previously never managed to sail more than 200 mi (120 km) without breaking down.

The E-class boats displaced 726 tons submerged, were 181 ft (55 m) long, 22.5 ft (6.8 m) wide and could travel at 10 kts (18.5 km/h) submerged and 15 kts (27.7 km/h) on the surface. They were powered by two sets of eight-cylinder diesel engines and battery driven electric motors. The steel sheets were riveted – not welded – with the panels hand-planed to make sure the joins were watertight.

After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, AE1 and AE2 joined Australian forces assigned to capture the German colonies in New Guinea.

During a patrol on 14 September AE1 disappeared with all hands.

After Germany surrendered the territories on 22 September 1914 AE2, under the command of Dublin-born Lieutenant Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker, was assigned to Suva, Fiji. She returned to Sydney in November 1914 and in December joined the second AIF (Australian Infantry Forces) convoy at Albany, Western Australia.

Stoker and the AE2 set off for Europe but only got as far as the Mediterranean before being ordered to join the British fleet at Tenedos Island and patrol the entrance to the Dardanelles at the start of the Gallipoli Campaign.

Before 25 April 1915, AE2’s operational role was minimal. That changed when Vice Admiral de Robeck, Commander-in-Chief Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, ordered AE2 to try to force a passage through the 35 mi (56 km) heavily fortified Dardanelles Strait and enter the Sea of Marmara.

If successful she was to “run amok” in enemy shipping between the Bosphorus and Dardanelle Straits to disrupt the re-supplying of Turkish troops on the Gallipoli peninsula while a massive Allied fleet prepared to attack Turkey, Germany’s ally in the Middle East, by landing 50,000 troops.

Suicide mission

History records that AE2 pulled off one of the most daring submarine feats of World War I in what was generally regarded as a suicide mission.

No boat had made a pass through the Dardanelles but on the morning of 25 April 1915, AE2 succeeded.

Searchlights continually swept the sea but AE2 continued unchallenged for two hours until 4.30 am when artillery batteries from the northern shore opened fire. She dived and continued through the more than 400 mines that had been laid. Stoker chose to sail under them and mooring wires scraped AE2‘s sides for half an hour. Twice she surfaced to make observations. At 6 am she was within 2 mi (3 km) of the Narrows, submerged at periscope depth. Forts on both sides of the Narrows sighted her and opened fire.

Stoker, through his periscope, saw a number of ships and decided to attack a Turkish gunboat. His report said: “At a range of three hundred yards I fired the bow tube at her. One of the destroyers was now very close, attempting to ram us on the port side, so at the moment of firing I ordered 70 ft. A last glance, as the periscope dipped, showed the destroyer apparently right on top of us, and then, amidst the noise of her propeller whizzing overhead, was heard the big explosion as the torpedo struck”.

After torpedoing the Turkish gunboat Peykisevke, AE2 passed through the narrows, chased by surface ships. She ran aground twice but the guns in the Turkish forts along the coast could not be aimed low enough to fire at her.

All day on 25 April, AE2 lay in 80 ft (24 m) of water while the searching enemy ships passed time and again overhead. Once she was hit by a heavy object being trailed along the bottom.

At 9 pm she surfaced to charge batteries. All signs of shipping had vanished.

Stoker reported: “I continued on course through the Straits, examined the Gallipoli anchorage, found no ship worthy of attack and so proceeded in the Sea of Marmara, which was entered about 9 am.”

Diversion

For the next four days AE2 attacked Turkish shipping but with little success other than her presence serving to reduce the amount of shipping.

The diversion created by the 720-ton Australian submarine with 32 crew members drew enemy fire away from troops landing at Gallipoli, saving many lives.

AE2 and the British submarine E14 were to rendezvous on 30 April. E14 was the first of several submarines to follow AE2 into the Sea of Marmara and effectively close it to Turkish ships heading for the Gallipoli Peninsula.

As AE2 surfaced at the rendezvous point on 30 April, the Turkish torpedo boat Sultan Hissar approached. AE2 immediately dived but she lost trim and went out of control, broaching the surface twice. AE2 was hit in the engine room by Sultan Hissar’s guns and the crew had no choice but to abandon ship. Three shells had holed her hull.

Unable to dive, Commander Stoker surrendered his crew then scuttled AE2. He and his 31 men spent the rest of the war in captivity where four of them were to die.

Lieutenant Stoker was taken prisoner and escaped twice before eventually arriving back in England in 1919. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

AE2 remained lost at the bottom of the sea for another 83 years before Turkish underwater explorer and museum director Selcuk Kolay found the wreck more than 230 ft (70 m) down.

In 2014 a joint Australian and Turkish project used a high-definition roving camera to explore inside AE2 at the bottom of the Sea of Marmara.

Photographs showed well preserved sections of the submarine including forward and aft hydroplanes, rudder and tops of the propellers. Visible inside were instruments in the control room, a wooden flag locker and even a pair of sailor’s sandshoes. There was also a portable wireless telegraph pole and antenna wire.

The team was further surprised to see a crystal decanter sitting on top of the desk in the officers’ ward room, an oyster light fitting above the desk and unbroken light globes.

The project team said the AE2 would be left where she was. Anti-corrosion measures had been installed around the hull and a marker buoy set up to protect her from shipping anchors and fishing nets. It is believed a torpedo remains on board.

Henry Stoker, a man of many talents

The Australian Navy’s biography of Henry Stoker notes:

“Stoker was offered command of the submarine depot ship HMS Royal Arthur but instead, now disillusioned with a naval career, chose to leave the navy and was placed on the retired list on 2 October 1920. Stoker had always been a keen amateur actor and playwright and now pursued this second career. Stoker commenced acting successfully on the stage in both Britain and the United States. He often played the part of a professional such as a military officer or a doctor. In 1925 his autobiography “Straws in the Wind” was published by Herbert Jenkins Limited and, in the same year, he married a young actress, Dorothie (Peg) Pidcock, at the Savoy Chapel. The two remained together for the next 41 years but there were no children. By the end of the 1920s Stoker was a regular and popular performer in West End plays and in 1932 commenced radio broadcasts of short dramatic stories. In 1933 he made his first cinema appearance in the movie “Channel Crossing”. In 1935 he played the part of a naval officer whose ship was sunk in action during World War I in the movie “Brown on Resolution”. Overall Stoker appeared in eight films from 1933 through to 1948 and was also the business manager of the Apollo Theatre.    

When war broke out in 1939, Stoker was recalled to the Royal Navy. In October 1939, with the rank of Acting Captain, he became the Chief of Staff to Rear Admiral RM King, RN (Flag Officer in Command – Belfast) based in the depot ship HMS Caroline at Belfast. In August 1940 Commander Stoker was given command of the coastal forces base, HMS Minos, at Lowestoft in Southern England, which was the home base for harbour defence vessels and small escort craft operating in the English Channel.   

In July 1942, Stoker was posted to the Press Division, within the Admiralty, where he became a Public Relations Officer providing updates to ships crews on the progress of the war. In April 1944 he became a staff officer working in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force but after the D-Day landings returned to his Public Relations role in the Admiralty. In January 1945, as an Acting Captain, he commenced working in the Service Conditions Department in the Admiralty.

Henry Stoker retired again from the Royal Navy, at age 60, in late 1945 and returned to his life as an actor and playwright. He became involved in early television dramas in the 1950s but, now well into his mid-60s, began to take life more easily and devoted more time to sporting pursuits such as golf, tennis and croquet. He was also a member of the exclusive Garrick Club, for gentlemen associated with the theatre, in London’s West End.”

Henry Stoker died in London on his 81st birthday on 2 February 1966. AE2’s exploits were recorded in his autobiography Straws in the Wind.

FOOTNOTE: In 2016 the Australian Government announced that a $50 billion tender had been awarded to Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS) of France, to build a replacement class of submarines for the ageing Collins class. The 12 new subs were expected to enter service in the early 2030s with construction extending into the late 2040s to 2050. The Program would be the largest, and most complex, defence acquisition project in Australian history. The new submarines will be based on France’s Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A, a derivative of its Barracuda nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Sources: Australian Navy archive, press reports.

CM

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