- Smythe, D.H.D., AO, Commodore, RAN
- Early warships, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia I, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Parramatta I, HMAS AE2, HMAS AE1, HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Warrego I, HMAS Yarra I
- October 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The only exciting thing before Singapore, Stoker goes on to say, was one night when it was so calm that he had his bunk brought up and placed on the small strip of ‘upper deck’, only three to four feet above the water. A flying fish flew into his bed. ‘A fish,’ he writes, ‘in its proper place, at the end of your line or on a breakfast plate, is a most estimable animal; as a companion of your bed it is a failure.’ Between Singapore and Darwin there was a close call when the two submarines, in company with HMAS Sydney, who had taken over their escort in Singapore, was transiting Lombok Strait. AE1 was being towed by Sydney but the tow-rope broke and she and AE2 both somehow got out of control and firstly very nearly came into collision and secondly nearly ran aground on Lombok Island. They survived however, and reached Sydney safely, as I said earlier, on 24th May, where they joined and completed the formation of the rest of the fleet, which you may recall had arrived on 4th October the previous year (the day we now celebrate as Navy Day). Just over two months later the First World War broke out. AE1 and AE2 were immediately assigned to Admiral Sir George Patey’s force which went north in mid-August to capture the German Pacific colonies and to seek out Admiral Von Spee’s Squadron, and by 11th September the submarines had arrived off Rabaul with HMA Ships Australia, Sydney, Encounter, Warrego and Yarra. That was the day, some of you may recall, when the RAN New Guinea Landing Party went ashore and became the first Australians to go into action against the Germans.
Two days later Rabaul surrendered, and the next day (14th September) whilst peacefully patrolling somewhere south of the harbour in St. George’s Strait, AE1 disappeared. No trace, not even an oil slick, was ever found. Lost in her were three officers and thirty-two ratings. In Victoria last year I spoke to the last man to see her, ex-Master At Arms Ferguson (now aged 84) who was on the Parramatta’s bridge when, at 3.20 in the afternoon, she had moved off into some haze.
AE2 remained in the Rabaul area a further three weeks and then sailed for Suva with the surface force on 4th October, still vainly seeking Admiral von Spee. After three rather dull weeks based in Fiji, news came that von Spee was over off the Chilean coast, where he had just fallen in with Admiral Cradock’s force and sunk the Good Hope and Monmouth. AE2 was shortly after this detached, on 8th November, and reached Sydney on 16th November.
Not long after her return, the battle of the Falkland Islands resulted in the sinking of Admiral von Spee’s Squadron, and with the Pacific clear of enemy ships the AE2 was offered to the Admiralty for service in home waters.
In the third week of December (19th) she sailed from Sydney, called at Melbourne, spent Christmas in the Bight, and then picked up at Albany, as their sole escort, seventeen transports containing fifteen thousand troops and three thousand horses of the Second Expeditionary Force on their way to Egypt. The convoy sailed on 31st December and was led by SS Berrima, who towed AE2 for most of the nine thousand miles to Suez, via Colombo.
AE2 went straight on through the canal to Port Said, arriving there on 28th January, and then up through the Aegean Sea to join the fleet off the Dardanelles early in February 1915.
The Dardanelles Strait is thirty-five miles long, and half a mile wide at the Narrows of Chanak. It has a continuous current running south west at about four knots. It connects, as I’m sure I need not remind you, the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmora; and at the far end of the sea of Marmora is Constantinople and, beyond; the Black Sea.
Hiding in the Sea of Marmora was the Turkish fleet, reinforced by the German Goeben and Breslau. AE2 joined the Dardanelles Patrol, which was patrolling off the mouth of the strait lest the enemy fleet break out. She was the biggest and latest submarine there, and at the time of her arrival the big build-up for the great attack by the Allies on the Dardanelles began.
Stoker tells of the talk amongst the submariners at this time. They had decided that the submarines would, of course, be the first vessels to arrive at Constantinople in due course, and therefore they made out imaginary watchbills and stations for the crews for the sacking of that city:
The Captains of submarines were to immediately proceed is search of rare and priceless gems; the First Lieutenants were to inspect the ladies of the harem; whilst the Third Hands would engage the Chief Eunuchs in polite conversation.
As he says, ‘that the fall of Constantinople did not take place may partly be attributed to the lack of patriotism of the third officers of the submarines who, regrettably, showed a great distaste for the duty allotted to them.
In fact, of course. Stoker and all the submarine officers were much more concerned with plans to get their boats, when ordered to go, through the narrow, mined, and well-guarded Straits.
From late February the big super dreadnoughts, such as Queen Elizabeth, began bombarding the Dardanelles’ forts, and AE2 started preparing in the hopes that she would be the first submarine to attempt the passage through. But alas, she finished up on the rocks of Mudros Harbour, at Lemnos, when returning on the dark stormy night of 17th March (St. Patrick’s Day) from a patrol. She was fast aground for three hours and, although she got off safely, she had to go to Malta for hull repairs.
Whilst she was fretting and champing in Malta the first grand attack on the forts at the Narrows was made by the battle fleet on 18th March, but it failed, with three battleships sunk by mines floated down the current from Chanak, and the strategy was changed to one of attempting a landing by the army. Then three new E-class submarines, the E11, E14 and E15, passed through Malta on their way to join the fleet, their arrival seeming to reduce even further AE2’s chances of being the first through the Straits.
Finally, on 21st April, AE2 rushed back to Port Mudros, to learn that E15 had indeed made an attempt at the passage four days earlier, but had struck on Kephez Point, surfaced and been destroyed by the enemy.
Three days later, just after midnight on 24th April, AE2, having been told the day before by Commodore Keyes, the Chief-of-Staff, and by Admiral de Robeck, that she was to have the chance of being the first one through, crept up to the entrance to the Straights with the Admiral’s words still fresh in his memory: ‘If you succeed, there is no calculating the result it will cause, and it may well be that you will have done more to finish the war than any other act accomplished.‘