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Submarine heroes emerge from the shadows

17 May 2014 154 views No Comment

Stoker’s Submarine: Australia’s Daring Raid on the Dardanelles on the Day of the Gallipoli Landing, Anzac Centenary Edition
By Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley
Australia Teachers of Media, $280pp, $49.95

THE little-known stories of war are an important part of our ongoing fascination with the two global conflicts of the 20th century. The adventures of an Australian submarine in the Dardanelles on the eve of the Gallipoli campaign is one such story, and in Fred and Elizabeth Brench­ley’s hands it is a ripping yarn indeed.

The story begins on the morning of April 25, 1915, the day the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli. On that day a debonair, pipe-smoking Irishman, Lieutenant-Commander Dacre Stoker, cap­tained the Australian submarine HMAS AE2 on a mission to breach the treacherous Dardanelles Strait. The objective was to disrupt Turkish supply lines from the rear.

Against the odds, in the face of dangerous currents, complicated minefields and withering enemy fire, Stoker and his men managed to fulfil “their kamikaze orders to “run amok in the treacherous narrows. After succeeding in passing through the straits, the AE2’s exploits included sinking a Turkish cruiser and making life somewhat difficult for other enemy ships. This was something that British and French submarines had been unable to achieve.

Then, on April 30, 1915, Stoker’s submarine was hit by the Turkish torpedo boat ‘Sultanhisar’. Stoker issued orders to scuttle the AE2 in the Sea of Marmara — where it still lies at the bottom of the ocean — and all hands were ordered on deck and then overboard. The entire crew of 32 (three officers and 29 seamen) survived to be taken on board the ‘Sultanhisar’ on the orders of its thoroughly decent commander, Captain Ali Riza. According to his biography, Riza told his crew “to remember their duty to humankind by picking up all the survivors and making sure no one was treated badly. As Stoker struggled in the water clutching his dispatch case, the Irish captain saw that his beloved submarine had slipped beneath the surface.

The wreck was found in 1997 and afterwards the AE2 became perhaps the most tangible relic of Australian naval action at Gallipoli, which had become an almost entirely army affair. Intriguingly, until relatively recently the remarkable achievements of Stoker and his redoubtable crew remained unsung, even in Australia. In part this was because for 3½ years all 32 men of the AE2 languished as prisoners of war in Turkey, mostly in the remote Taurus Mountains, and hence were out of action and unable to tell their story.

In fact it was not until 2001, when journalist Fred Brenchley published the first edition of this fine book, that the daring exploits of the AE2 were widely exposed. Before then, few were aware an Australian submarine had played any part in ourcampaign at Gallipoli.

It is pleasing to report that this thoroughly revised and updated edition of ‘Stoker’s Submarine’ does full justice to what was proclaimed at the time as “the finest feat in (our) submarine history. Brenchley died in 2009 and this edition was completed by his widow. It places the exploits of the AE2 in proper historical perspective as we prepare to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.

With a half-British, half-Australian crew, and built in England, the AE2 was one of Australia’s two submarines bought before World War I. On September 14, 1914, its sister submarine, AE1, mysteriously disappeared, losing all hands, off Rabaul in what was then German New Guinea. This tragedy did not diminish the enthusiasm for captaining the AE2 of Stoker, who was born in Dublin on February 2, 1885.

Led by Stoker, the AE2 pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in submarine history, one that may have been forgotten without this important book. Stoker wrote in his diary at the time that “no captain has ever been more proud of the men under his command than I was whilst commanding that Australian submarine. Despite all the dangers and deprivations facing its heroic crew, during its relatively short life, the AE2 achieved something quite extraordinary. And the tactical and symbolic importance of its breaching of the narrows should never be underestimated.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, May 17-18, 2014, Review, Books, p 22.

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