Warship Wednesday Sept 10. 2014, Australia’s Most Silent Sub
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Sept 10. 2014, Australia’s Most Silent Sub
Here we see the E-Class submarine AE2 of the Royal Australian Navy Presenting the Submarine Threat in the Sea of Marmara, April 1915 by Charles Bryant. The ship, just 181-feet long, sailed into history and proved her mettle.
One of the 58 British-built E-class submersibles constructed between 1912-1916, these ships were considered the first really successful Royal Navy submarines. Built from experience with earlier D-class boats, these 780-ton (submerged) ships could make a decent 15-knots on their twin 800hp Vickers diesels when surfaced on an attack run, or a more sedate 10-knots while submerged and on a set of 313kW electric motors. Although very small and cramped ships, they had a respectable 3,000-nm range and were capable of spending two weeks or more at sea before hiding places for food to stoke their 30-man crew ran out. Four 18-inch tubes (arranged bow, stern, port, and starboard– talk about variety!) and four torpedo racks allowed the boats to carry as many as eight war shots with a fish in every spot. Cheap (about 100,000-pounds) and able to both conduct ops in blue and brown water due to their shallow 12-foot draft, they were the perfect steel shark for the Royal Navy.
Therefore, the infant Royal Australian Navy ordered up two of their own designated HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2 from Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness, England, in 1912. Commissioned in the spring of 1914, they were the first subs to carry the Australian flag. Therefore, to spin up the Aussie crew, they carried a mixed complement of RN/RNAS personnel. For instance, it is known that of the 37 crewmembers who served on the ship in 1915 only 14 were born in Australia. Twenty-one crew members were born in Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland), one in New Zealand, and another in Brazil.
Sailing for the Pacific, these ships covered an epic 13,000-nm route in 83 days, impressive for the time.
When the war broke out, the subs, a rarity on the West Pac, were dispatched as part of the Australian force to capture the German colony of Rabal, Deutsch-Neuguinea (Kaiserwilhelmsland).
With no German ships to oppose the landing of some 2000 Australians, a force of about a tenth that size of German reservists and local police lost the sharp but bloody Battle of Bita Paka. However, HMAS AE1 vanished while on patrol during the operation, never to be seen again. This was Australia’s first major loss of World War I.
With the German colony’s surrender, and the destruction of Adm. Von Spee’s Asiatic Squadron leaving the Pacific free of the Hun, AE2, Australia’s only remaining sub, left for Europe where she could be put to good use. Leaving in December 1914, she was the sole escort for a convoy of 17 ships carrying Australian troops to Africa, being towed most of the way to be able to keep up. Since AE2 had no deck guns, her value as an escort was questionable at best, but nonetheless, her charges arrived at the Suez Canal at the end of Jan. 1915 without a scratch on them.
Once in the Med, the Royal Navy soon detailed the Australian sub to penetrate the Dardanelles, work its way through thick Turkish minefields that had foiled the combined fleets of Great Britain and France, and then run amok in the Sea of Marma. With traditional pluck, the ship set off and did just that on April 25, 1915.
From the Australian Navy’s website of the event as told from the report of Lieutenant Commander H H G D Stoker, commander:
‘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.’
Stoker and his crew, although saved, spent the next four years in a series of Turkish prisons, only freed by the end of the war.
The AE2 herself lay forgotten for 83 years until a joint Turkish-Australian effort found the stricken sub in some 236-feet of seawater. She is not set to be salvaged but instead saved as a war wreck, marked and protected. In 2010 the RAN awarded the sub the two official honors, “Rabaul 1914” and “Dardanelles 1915”.
Built: Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England
Launched: 18 June 1913
Commissioned: 28 February 1914
Length: 181 feet [55.17m]
Beam: 22 feet 6 inches [6.86m]
Draught: 12 feet, 6 inches [3.81m]
Displacement: 660 tonnes surfaced, 800 tonnes submerged
Speed: 15 knots surfaced, 10 knots submerged
Armaments: Four 18-inch Whitehead torpedo tubes – single bow tube: two tubes in the beam port and starboard, stern tube. AE2 carried 8 torpedoes: two at each of the 4 firing positions
Periscopes: Two: the main a fixed lens and another with moveable optics to view the sky
Crew: 32 (three officers and 29 seamen)
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