His Majestys Australian Submarine AE2 was launched in the yard of Vickers Ltd at Barrow-in-Furness England on 18 June 1913. She commissioned at Portsmouth on 28 February 1914 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Henry Hugh Gordon "Dacre" Stoker, RN. Her crew of 35 comprised officers and sailors from both the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy. She was the second of two E Class submarines built for the fledgling RAN.
Accompanied by her sister submarine, AE1 (Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, RN), the two vessels sailed from England for Australia on 2 March 1914 reaching Sydney 83 days later on 24 May. Sixty days had been spent at sea and some 13,000 miles covered; a record for submarines at that time.
Following the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, AE2 and AE1 were ordered to join Australian naval and military forces assigned to capture the German colonies in New Guinea. Stoker and his crew took part in the occupation of New Britain, culminating in the capture and surrender of Rabaul on 13 September 1914 and the general surrender of the New Guinea territories on 22 September 1914.
A key duty assigned to the two submarines throughout the operation was to guard St George"s Strait, lying between New Britain and New Ireland, and defend the RAN fleet from the approach of any enemy ships. It was during one such patrol on 14 September that AE1 disappeared with all hands. A search was ordered for the missing submarine using all available ships but after three days it was called off, with no trace of the ill-fated submarine being found.
On 4 October 1914 AE2 proceeded to Suva to join Admiral Patey"s force (HMA Ships Australia (I), Sydney (I), Encounter, Warrego
Following a brief maintenance period, AE2 departed Sydney on 19 December en route for Albany in Western Australia where she joined the second convoy of AIF troops assembling in King George"s Sound. The convoy of 17 transports sailed on 31 December for Suez via Colombo. There were no other escorting warships on this occasion and whenever possible AE2 was taken in tow. On 28 January 1915 the convoy arrived in Suez following what was, for the the crew of the submarine, a long and uncomfortable passage across the Indian Ocean, through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.
Arriving in the Mediterranean, AE2 was attached to the British squadron engaged in the Dardanelles campaign. Prior to 25 April 1915 (Anzac Day), her part in operations was minimal, but that changed when Vice Admiral de Robeck, Commander-in-Chief Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, ordered AE2 to attempt to force a passage through the 35 mile long, heavily fortified Dardanelles Strait and enter the Sea of Marmara. If successful she was to "run amok" and prevent enemy shipping transitting between the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles from re-supplying Turkish troops on the Gallipoli peninsula.
All previous attempts by Allied submarines to pass through the heavily mined strait had failed and there was myriad obstructions, natural and artificial, that stood between success and failure. In his report Lieutenant Commander Stoker reflected:
"Having proceeded from the anchorage off Tenedos, I lay at the entrance off the Dardanelles until moonset and at about 2:30 am on 25th April entered the straits at 8 knots. Weather calm and clear. As the order to run amok in the Narrows precluded all possibility of passing through unseen, I decided to travel on the surface as far as possible."
Searchlights continually swept the Strait but AE2 continued unmolested until 4:30 am when batteries opened fire from the northern shore. The submarine dived and began her passage through the minefield. Wires, from which the mines were moored, continually scraped AE2"s sides for the next half hour. Twice she surfaced in the minefield to make observations. At 6:00 am she was within two miles of the Narrows submerged at periscope depth. The sea was flat calm. Forts on both sides of the Narrows sighted her and immediately opened heavy fire. Stoker, watching through his periscope, observed a number of ships and decided to attack a small cruiser of the PEIK-E-SHETHEK type. His report continued:
"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 feet. 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 a brief interval underwater Stoker decided to risk a look around.
"As the vessel was rising, she hit bottom and slid up on to the bank to a depth of ten feet, at which depth a considerable portion of the conning tower was above water. Through the periscope I saw that the position was immediately under Fort Anatoli Medjidieh."
The fort opened fire and for some minutes shells fell on all sides until efforts to refloat her succeeded. AE2 then slid into the safety of deep water. The relief on board the submarine proved brief and it was not long before AE2 was again stranded.
"Through the periscope I judged the position to be immediately under Serina Burnu, and I further observed two destroyers, a gunboat, and several small craft standing close off in the Straits firing heavily and a cluster of small boats which I judged to be picking up survivors of the cruiser."
"As my vessel was lying with inclination down by the bows I went full speed ahead. Shortly afterwards she began to move down the bank, bumped, gathered way and then bumped very heavily. She, however, continued to descend and at 80 feet I dived off the bank. The last bump was calculated to considerably injure the vessel, but as I considered my chief duty was to prove the passage through the Straits possible, I decided to continue."
Shortly afterwards AE2 again rose to periscope depth. She was seen to be approaching Nagara Point. On all sides she was surrounded by pursuit craft. Each time she showed her periscope the destroyers tried to ram her and each time she eluded them. At last in an attempt to shake the enemy off Stoker decided to lie on the bottom on the Asiatic shore to await developments.
All day, 25 April, AE2 lay in 80 feet of water while the searching enemy ships passed and repassed overhead. Once she was hit by a heavy object being trailed along the bottom. At 9:00 pm she rose to the surface to charge batteries. All signs of shipping had vanished.
At 4:00 pm on 26 April, AE2 proceeded on the surface up the Straits. Stoker commented:
"As soon as light permitted, I observed through periscope, two ships approaching - both men-o-war. Sea was glassy calm and I approached with periscope down. On hoisting periscope I observed ship on line of sight of port tube. I immediately fired but ship altered course and the torpedo missed. I discovered I had fired at the leading ship and found it impossible to bring another tube to bear on second ship (a battleship Barbarossa class) with any chance of success. I therefore did not fire."
"I continued on course through the Straits, examined the Gallipoli anchorage, found no ship worthy of attack and so proceeded in the Sea of Marmora, which was entered about 9:00 am."
About 9:30 am AE2 sighted several ships, but since only six of her eight torpedoes remained Stoker decided not to fire until he was certain his target was a troop transport.
"With this intention I dived close to the foremost ship - a tramp of about 2,000 tons. Passing about 200 yards abeam of her I could see no sign of troops; but as I passed under her stern she ran up colours and opened rifle fire at the periscope. I dived over to the next ship and attacked at 400 yards with starboard beam torpedo. The torpedo failed to hit."
Half an hour later AE2 surfaced and spent the rest of the day on the surface, charging batteries and making good defects. Shortly after dark she was attacked by a small anti-submarine vessel and throughout the night of 26/27 April she was attacked on several occasions shortly after surfacing.
At dawn on 27 April she sighted a ship escorted by two destroyers. Evading the escort, she manoeuvred into position at 300 yards but this time the torpedo refused to leave the tube. A destroyer tried to ram, forcing a hurried dive. Nothing else was sighted that day. The following night Stoker rested his crew on the bottom of Artaki Bay. Twice on 28 April she made attacks only to see the torpedoes narrowly miss the target.
"At dawn on 29 April I dived towards Gallipoli and observed a gunboat patrolling ahead of Strait off Eski Farnar Point. Dived under gunboat down Strait, and returned up Strait showing periscope to give the impression that another submarine had come through. Destroyers and torpedo boats came out in pursuit; having led them all up towards Sea of Marmora, I dived back and examined Gallipoli anchorage but found nothing to attack."
AE2 then proceeded out into the Sea of Marmora pursued by anti-submarine units. She surfaced half an hour later, spotted the gunboat, fired and missed by one yard.
On the same day, off Kara Burnu Point, she met HMS E14, the second British submarine to successfully pass through the Dardanelles. A new rendezvous was arranged for 10:00 am the following day.
On the night of 29/30 April, AE2 lay on the bottom north of Marmora Island. Arriving at the rendezvous at 10:00 am she sighted a torpedo boat approaching at high speed. Stoker commented on subsequent events:
"Dived to avoid torpedo boat; whilst diving sighted smoke in Artaki Bay, so steered south to investigate. About 10:30 the boat"s nose suddenly rose and she broke surface about a mile from the torpedo boat. Blew water forward but boat would not dive. Torpedo boat firing very close and ship from Artaki bay, a gunboat was also firing; flooded a forward tank and boat suddenly assumed big inclination down by the bows and dived very rapidly. AE2 was only fitted with 100 foot depth gauges. This depth was quickly reached and passed. After a considerable descent the boat rose rapidly, passed the 100 foot mark and in spite of efforts to check her broke the surface stern first. Within seconds the engine room was hit and holed in three places. Owing to the inclination down by the bow, it was impossible to see torpedo boat through the periscope and I considered any attempt to ram would be useless. I therefore blew main ballast and ordered all hands on deck. Assisted by LEUT Haggard, I then opened all tanks to flood the sub and went on deck. The boat sank in a few minutes in about 55 fathoms, in approximate position 4 degrees north of Kara Burnu Point at 10:45 am. All hands were picked up by the torpedo boat and no lives lost."
Thus AE2"s game of hide and seek was brought to an end, and her Commanding Officer and crew were on their way to spend the next three-and-a-half years in a Turkish prison camp. Four ratings died in captivity.
In early 1996, Mr Selçuk Kolay, director of the Rahmi Koç Museum in Istanbul, discovered what he believed to be the wreck of AE2 lying in 86 metres of water. With the assistance of an Australian diving team, which visited Turkey to dive on the wreck in October 1997, it was determined that the wreck was that of an old steamer.
After a further thorough side-scan sonar and magnetometric survey of the reported scuttling site of the AE2, Mr Kolay located AE2 in June 1998, lying in 72 metres of water, and was first dived upon the following month. An Australian dive team again visited Turkey in October 1998, with further dives confirming the identification of AE2.