The AE2: Discovery of a World War 1 Submarine

Interview with Dr Mark Spencer
Mark, what originally got you interested in the AE2?

The first time I heard of it was about two and a half years ago, in a small article in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was about the alleged discovery, at a depth of 80m, of the famous Australian submarine by Selçuk Kolay, director of the Rahmi Koç Museum in Turkey. It amazed me. I thought, ‘Good heavens, there were submarines in the First World War?’ I wondered why I hadn’t heard about this before – the AE2 is a significant part of our history. It was one of two Australian submarines in WWI, and the first Allied vessel to penetrate the Dardanelles. It went through the straits around 2am on April 25, 1915, three or four hours before the ANZAC troops landed on the beaches of Gallipoli.

Were the E-class submarines built in Australia?

No, they were British boats. Australia in those days was still very British, and we had no men experienced on submarines. The three officers were British, the commander was Irish, half the crew were British and half Australian. There were 32 men crammed into a submarine 53m long. By today’s standards that’s not very big. The other Australian submarine, the AE1, was lost off New Guinea. AE1 and AE2 were from a group of ten early E-class submarines, the others of which were numbered E1 to E8. After that the class changed shape and configuration, and most of the later ones had deck guns. It was pretty easy to identify the wreck. We know that only two E-classes sank in the Sea of Marmara, AE2 and E20. The AE2, being of the earlier variety, has a ramp or step in the forward casing, and the aft casing ends rather abruptly about the level of the hydroplanes. The E20 is from the later variety, with the deck guns and a completely different deck shape. Besides, it was known to have sunk near Marmara Island. So this had to be the AE2.

How did she sink?

The object of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns was to get to and besiege Constantinople (now Istanbul). Knocking out Turkey would relieve pressure on the Russians and go a long way towards ending the war. The AE2’s mission was to get through the Dardanelles and create havoc there and in the Sea of Marmara. The Turks relied heavily on sea transport to bring in supplies and troops, and the very knowledge that a submarine was there would have a severe negative impact.

The AE2’s passage through the Dardanelles was an incredible adventure. They had to pass through minefields, scraping against the wires of floating mines. Three times something heavy bounced along the submarine, which they could only assume were mines which for some reason didn’t detonate. The submarine beached twice, with the conning tower high out of the water. The first time it was right under some Turkish forts, but so close that the Turks couldn’t point the guns down far enough to hit them, so they had five minutes to wriggle back into the water. The second time they had four minutes, also underneath a Turkish fort. The Turks towed heavy objects behind ships to try to snag the submarine, and nearly succeeded once. They had no CO2 scrubbers in those days, so after a 14-hour stint in the submarine the air was quite sour and they had to surface to open the vents.

AE2 got through the Dardanelles and spent about five days in the Sea of Marmara harassing shipping. They had eight torpedoes, but only one ever hit a target. They were pretty primitive in those days; German torpedoes were better. Nevertheless, they radioed their success back to the mother ship Queen Elizabeth. The AE2 penetration was possibly the deciding factor in the continuation of the disastrous ANZAC campaign beyond the first day. At the time, Sir Ian Hamilton was deliberating whether or not to re-embark the ANZACs after some 2000 soldiers had been killed on the first day of the landings.

Then the news came through that the AE2 had penetrated the Dardanelles and damaged a ship. This was seen as a good omen. Sir Ian thus said that he appreciated the situation was very serious, but there was no choice now but to ‘dig, dig, dig’, and hold their places as one of the submarines had broken through. Some say that even if the troops had been pulled out, there weren’t enough ships to bring them all back at once; but there is no doubt that it was being seriously considered, and that the AE2’s success was instrumental in the decision to keep the troops on the beaches.

Four days later in the Sea of Marmara, the AE2 went out of control and surfaced unintentionally. It dived, but again got out of control and ended up diving beyond the recommended depth of 100 feet. In the crew’s haste to blow ballast, the submarine returned to the surface and then back down. It was up and down like a yo-yo. The next time it surfaced the Turks were waiting. Shells were fired into the hull so it couldn’t dive. No one was hurt; all 32 crewmen were taken prisoner. Before leaving, Commander Stoker scuttled the AE2 so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. He left the hatch open to speed up the flooding, and this is still open today.

How did your project to dive the AE2 happen?

I thought I could put together a team to get information about the submarine, so I contacted the Navy and the Department of Foreign Affairs, telling them we had the skills to identify the wreck and tell the story. This really deserved to be done. The Navy was very interested in making their role in the ANZAC campaign better known, because as far as the public is concerned it was a soldier thing. However, I was an unknown. I was working as a dentist. Fortunately, one of my patients was the well-known political commentator Dr Gerard Henderson. He arranged a meeting with Bronwyn Bishop, Minister of Defence Industries, Science and Personnel. She got in contact with the appropriate people for me. I was also writing to David Evans, Australian ambassador to Turkey, who was already very interested in the wreck.

Following the alleged discovery, the Royal Australian Navy sent over a clearance diver, but it turned out the Turkish Navy diving protocol is quite different from Australia’s. So he wasn’t allowed to dive the wreck, but collated information, interviewed Selçuk Kolay, looked at the side scan sonars, and listened to reports of what they saw down there. His report was an intelligent one. Basically he said that there was a good chance that it was the AE2, but there was still no real evidence. I then approached Selçuk Kolay. He was very keen that an Australian contingent should be involved, and also hoped Australia might help with the expense of recovering the submarine.

I managed to obtain some media sponsorship, particularly from Channel 9, one of our television stations, and the Australian Women’s Weekly. The Royal Australian Navy also came up with the most significant amount of sponsorship to get us there. We went to Turkey in October 1997 and dived to 86m. It wasn’t very pleasant – intimidating depths, cold water, visibility from one to three metres, nets and ropes everywhere. We also had really bad weather with 40 knot winds. On our first dive we found the bow of an old steamship. We thought that maybe it was near the AE2, but we had a feeling that this was not the case.

Selçuk had dived around the midsection of the wreck, which had broken up considerably and happened to resemble the stern casing of the AE2. He saw a hole in the casing, and thought it was the hatch over the aft firing compartment. It looked like a submarine on the side scan sonar, and the discovery fitted in with all his research. It was a very understandable mistake. So we all went home, and then a year later Selçuk rang to say that he’d found the submarine at 72m. He had a four minute video from the conning tower towards the stern and back again; it was obviously a submarine. On this trip the weather was beautiful.

We dived with trimix for safety, although 72m is only just beyond the safe air diving depth. Richard Taylor looked after the safety aspects. I concentrated on photography and general coordination. John Riley was responsible for surveying the site. Merv Marr was responsible for video, and also technical diving support. We breathed 16% oxygen, 50% helium and the remainder nitrogen, with 32% and 80% nitrox on the way up. We worked on 18-minute bottom times, allowing three or four minutes to get down. That meant we had anything from 12 to 15 minutes on the bottom. The wreck’s only 53m long. The shot line was tied to the conning tower, practically midway on the submarine, so you could swim up to the bow, take pictures and come back. We would work half the vessel one day and the other half the next. Altogether, we ended up having five dives.

What was it like to see it the first time?

On our first dive, all four of us jumped in together. It was very exciting. However, the line had been dropped too far from the wreck, and we got down to the bottom and found nothing. It was upsetting, because every dive was precious, but conditions remained good and the next day we dived again. John and Richard went down first, Merv and I dived immediately afterwards, he with video and I with still camera. I swam along the bow and I could see that this was indeed the submarine. When I first descended, I landed on the aft deck immediately behind the conning tower, and all I remember thinking was ‘Wow, this is the real submarine, this is the deck that the crew were standing on 83 years ago.’ It’s like a frozen sculpture down there, so quiet and still that it was hard to reconcile what incredible adventures it had gone through.

The following day we looked at the stern. The submarine is intact. There is some corrosion in the conning tower and the casing, but really it’s in remarkably good condition for 83 years underwater. John Riley’s theory is that wrecks settle into the bottom to approximately the depth they float in water before sinking, but a fairly substantial part of the AE2 was out of the mud: the fore and aft hydroplanes, the whole stern, most of the rudder and the tips of the two propeller blades.

What will happen to the AE2 now?

The director of the Bodrum Museum, the biggest museum of underwater archaeology in the world, was involved in getting permits for us to dive the AE2. He said that although the AE2 is only 83 years old, it is just as important as Bronze Age, Roman and Venetian wrecks, because it played a very significant role in world history. The big issue is whether or not it will be salvaged. It would cost tens of millions of dollars, and there is the question of who would pay, where it would be displayed, and who would be involved in its conservation. It’s not going to happen overnight. But the AE2 is the biggest relic we have of the whole ANZAC campaign, and I think raising it would serve a purpose. It would provide a concrete example of that campaign, to remind young people of the sacrifices, bravery and endurance of our forebears. It would also show the Navy’s role in the Gallipoli campaign. The idea of a salvage is being carefully examined by the Navy and maritime archaeologists.

Are there other E-class submarines in existence today?

There are no topside examples of E-class submarines anywhere in the world. There are two more underwater E-class submarines identified as E49 and E34, which have both been dived. One of these was a minelayer. As AE2 was one of only 10 Group 1 E- class submarines in existence – the remaining E-class submarines comprising Group 2 had quite a different deck configuration and were mostly equipped with deck guns – she is a most significant find indeed.

So I suppose you could probably say to a lot of young divers that there are still plenty of adventures out there.

Yes, there are heaps of adventures. You’ve only got to look for your own adventure. It doesn’t have to be in deep water, it can be in ten feet, because the ocean just has so much living diversity that allows us to learn more about our past or the natural environment. Every dive is a new discovery, and you’ve just got to open up your eyes.

For more information on the AE2 see the Australian Navy’s special web page set up for the AE2 expedition

Or the Explorers Club (New York) which has set up a very nice site for the AE2 project:

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