The 'Silent ANZAC' legacy

This article has photo gallery Published on LSEW Shane Rolfe (author)

The Royal Australian Navy’s new 'E' Class submarine, AE2, arriving at Portsmouth on 17 February 1914 to prepare for the voyage to Australia (photo: )
The Royal Australian Navy’s new 'E' Class submarine, AE2, arriving at Portsmouth on 17 February 1914 to prepare for the voyage to Australia

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli and, in turn, the birth of the ‘Anzac legend’ but how was that born for the Royal Australian Navy?

It can be said that it was born through the deeds of a submarine crew, building on the exploits of HMAS Sydney (I) off the Cocos Islands and events in German New Guinea at the start of the war.

Allied forces aimed to undertake action at Gallipoli to relieve the hard pressed Russians by taking Turkey out of the war. The original plan of a naval attack through the Dardanelles Strait, advancing across the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul, suffered a massive defeat on 18 March 1915, when the Allied armada struck an unknown minefield. Over 700 sailors drowned and three Allied battleships were sunk.

LCDR Henry Stoker, DSO, RN

LCDR Henry Stoker, DSO, RN

The Strait was heavily guarded by mines, Turkish forts, mobile howitzer batteries and the Turkish fleet. Not to mention the perilous environmental conditions which had already claimed two Allied Submarines.

As British, French, Australian and New Zealand forces prepared to land, it became apparent that a submarine threat in the Sea of Marmara would be the most effective way to disrupt Turkish supply lines and reinforcements to the Gallipoli Peninsula. 

Australian submarine AE2 was given orders to “run amok” in the Dardanelles between 24 and 30 April 1915, causing havoc and creating sufficient distraction to allow troops to land on the opposite side of the Peninsula.

The successful infiltration and navigation of the Dardanelles by AE2 and her crew under the Command of Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker remains one of the finest feats in submarine history – and creating the legend of ‘the silent ANZAC’.

The boat successfully operated within the Sea of Marmara for five days, surfacing frequently and harassing local shipping to give the impression of multiple vessels in the area.  On 30 April, after being fired upon by a Turkish torpedo boat, the Australian vessel was scuttled and all hands became prisoners of war.  Four men died in captivity and AE2 became the only Australian vessel lost to enemy action during the war.

Over the next few months Allied submarine activities virtually cut off Turkish sea supply lines to Gallipoli, forcing the Turks to use inefficient rail and road supply links to service their troops on the Peninsula.

Since the 17 March 2015, the Royal Australian Navy has been recounting the heroic actions of AE2 and her crew on twitter (@Australian_Navy) to bring her exploits to a new generation and restore her rightful place as part of the birth of a legend.