AE2 performed one of the most daring feats of World War One - and inadvertently led to the deaths of thousands of allied troops. Turkish wreck-hunter Selšuk Kolay set out to track down the legendary Australian sub
Before coming up from my first dive, I rubbed my gloves against the rusty hull of the wreck. I wanted to keep these gloves with the rust from AE2 as a memory.
Back on board Saros, our research ship, I dropped my diving gear on deck and rushed to the bridge in my wetsuit to phone my Australian friends, even though it was after midnight in Australia. I couldn't wait to tell them what we had found.
Coming down from the bridge, I found that one of our crewman had washed my gloves. They had looked rusty, he said.
It had taken me three years, five other wrecks and much detective work to find AE2, a World War One relic highly significant for both Australians and Turks. This was the submarine that altered the whole course of the Gallipoli campaign.
It was one of Australia's first two submarines, acquired from England in May 1914. These were the latest E-Class craft, the biggest, fastest and most capable submarines in the world. Built by Vickers, they displaced 655 tons on the surface and 796 tons submerged. They were 54m long and 6.5m wide, had four 18in torpedo tubes and produced 1750hp from two eight-cylinder diesel engines, generating 15 knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged.
AE2's Commanding Officer was Lt Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker, a cheerful, flamboyant Irishman and a relative of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. He had offered himself for transfer to command one of the new subs because it offered an extra six shillings a day, and he had heard of a rich Australian who paid people to play with him his favourite sport, polo!
What Stoker could not know then was that Britain would declare war on Germany only three months later, and that AE2's sister-sub would be lost with all hands at the beginning of the war off German New Guinea, for reasons unknown. AE1 has never been located.
AE2, however, accomplished one of the most daring submarine feats of the war, becoming the first allied vessel to penetrate the treacherous Dardanelles Strait. It spearheaded a campaign intended to get ships into the Sea of Marmara and besiege Istanbul, thereby taking Turkey out of the war and relieving pressure on the Russians.
The Dardanelles Strait was considered impenetrable because of its strong currents, narrow passages, strong fortification and density of mines. But on the morning of 25 April, 1915, AE2 scraped against mines, beached itself twice right beneath Turkish forts, and evaded the Turks' efforts to grapple it with towed devices. Meanwhile Australian and New Zealand troops were disembarking on the beaches at nearby Gallipoli to disable the forts along the Dardanelles.
AE2's mission was to prevent Turkish troops and military equipment from Istanbul being transported to Gallipoli through the Sea of Marmara - its orders, to "generally run amok". It spent four days in the enclosed sea and sank one Turkish vessel. But with appalling casualties to Anzac troops, it soon became clear that the Anzac beach landings had been a mistake.
lt is thought that the troops were about to be recalled when news of AE2's successful penetration of the Dardanelles Strait reached Sir Ian Hamilton. Instead of withdrawing, he wired the troops: "The Australian submarine has got up through the Narrows and torpedoed a Turkish warship at Chanak╔ Dig, dig, dig until you are safe!"
On both sides, thousands of men ended up paying the ultimate sacrifice for their countries.
Captain Stoker was happy to find out that the British submarine E14 had also reached the Sea of Marmara. But on his way to a rendezvous, he sighted the Turkish torpedo boat Sultanhisar looking for the submarines. Trying to dive, AE2 hit a dense halocline, which caused it to rise uncontrollably. Breaking surface stern-first, it was disabled by shellfire.
Stoker gained some distance and scuttled his vessel. All 32 of the crew were captured. The captain was imprisoned in Afyon in Turkey and escaped twice, the second time being recaptured at Izmir just before boarding a boat. He was disguised as a woman at the time!
Back in England after the war, the Admiralty refused to decorate him, even though he had prevented his submarine falling into enemy hands. He left the Navy soon after being given command of one of the new K-Class boats, and went to London, where he worked as an actor until his death in 1970.
In 1994 the Australian Ambassador to Turkey asked me whether I would be interested in searching for AE2.
Aware of its historical significance, I took on the project, but materials gathered from Turkish, Australian, British and German archives revealed to my surprise four different locations, with the official Turkish and German locations some 10 nautical miles apart!
A friend at the BBC helped me track down Captain Stoker's only living relative, his niece Primrose Stoker, who was 80 and living near Greenwich. I went to visit her, and after cups of coffee she handed me an old leather bag full of manuscripts - the bag Stoker had taken with him before leaving AE2!
It contained his diaries, notes and letters he received during his imprisonment, including maps showing escape routes from Afyon to Izmir and his original report on the loss of AE2.
Primrose said I could take the documents - could I ask for more? I could.
"Can you remember him saying anything about the story of AE2 after coming back from imprisonment?" I asked her.
"As a hero of war he never talked about this incident; he was too secretive!," she replied. "But as a little girl, the only thing I can remember was his wife telling my mother that Captain Stoker would sometimes shout: "North! North!" in his sleep."
I worked out a search pattern covering all four positions, giving me an area of more than 22 square miles to scan. I used sidescan sonar with a proton magnetometer so that I could detect the submarine even if it were buried in the thick, soft mud that covers the flat seabed.
I located AE2 at 72m in June last year. We finalised a dive plan, using heliox carried in back-mounted twin-sets of 20 to 24 litre cylinders, nitrox mixes in 7 litre side-mounted cylinders and surface-supplied oxygen at 3m.
But AE2 did not want to reveal its secrets too easily. On our first dive the shotline came off the wreck when we had reached 60m, and we had to abort. On our second try we reached the bottom to find the grapnel-hook resting in mud, with no trace of a wreck.
The top of the AE2's conning tower.
Photo - Dr Mark Spencer,Sydney, Australia
On 2 July I managed to secure a shotline to the wreck and descended with my buddy and a cameraman following me. I was probably the first person to see and touch AE2 for 83 years.
Visibility was about 3m but I knew where we were: next to the starboard exhaust pipe. The submarine was lying upright, with mud almost up to the waterline. A quick tour of the aft deck and conning tower showed it to be in excellent condition: the morning of 30 April 1915 had been frozen in time.
The stern sits high off the mud floor, so that the tips of two blades of the port propeller and an even bigger portion of one blade of the starboard propeller protrude above it. The rudder is turned slightly to starboard. Both hydroplanes are also exposed.
The port casing of the raised aft deck has a few irregular holes that might represent shell damage. On the tower, the rear periscope and the forward-periscope steering-column assembly, which is heavily encrusted, is connected by what is presumed to be a thick net-deflecting cable.
At the bow the torpedo tube can be clearly seen. The top of the rounded stem of the bow has a distinctive lip to it, and is partly hidden by fishing net. On both sides the hydroplanes and protective guards are visible well above the mud.
The main hatch is slightly open, just as Stoker left it when he scuttled the vessel. Inside it a big conger eel stands guard. In October an Australian diving team led by Dr Mark Spencer and including John Thomson, the grandson of AE2's signalman of the same name, came and confirmed the state and identity of the wreck. John affectionately named the conger Bunts, which was his grandfather's nickname. Bunts seems quite friendly so far!
A thorough visual and photographic survey of the site is to be carried out and non-destructive corrosion testing performed. We intend to raise AE2 in a joint venture with Australia and put it on display in Istanbul, as the only existing World War One E-class sub on land.