First in at Gallipoli: the harrowing voyage of submarine AE2

by Dr Stephen Gapps

The submarine AE2

The stories of sailors in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) spring from the pages of their diaries, memoirs and journals – some of them pocket books with brief notes, others detailed descriptions of daily life at sea.

Crew of AE2
Officers and crew of submarine AE2 at Portsmouth, February 1914. Harry Kinder is front row, far right.

Australian War Memorial, P01075.045

Some are punctuated with intense periods of action such as the battle between HMAS Sydney and the German battleship SMS Emden. Others are full of complaints about the drudgery of patrolling and blockading or the impossibly hard consistency of ‘salt biscuit’ rations. These diaries are a wonderful insight into life in the navy, and as first-hand voices from the past they also resist re-interpretation after the events by historians and others.

One of hundreds of war diaries that have never been published – and one of the comparatively few accounts by sailors – is that of Stoker Petty Officer Henry (Harry) James Elly Kinder. It is also one of a handful by submariners from the war. Kinder’s dramatic account of forcing an underwater passage of the Dardanelles Strait – at the same moment as the Anzacs were landing ashore at Gallipoli – is one of the many engrossing personal stories from the Australian National Maritime Museum’s 2014-15 exhibition War at Sea: the Navy in WWI.

A lucky turn of fate

Henry Kinder was born in Kogarah, Sydney, in 1891. He joined the colonial navy aged 17, entering the submarine service four years later, in 1912. Two E-Class submarines had been ordered and constructed in Britain for the new fleet that was to be the backbone of Australia’s own naval force – the Royal Australian Navy.

Submarine AE2
Postcard showing the submarine AE2 in 1914, probably taken at Garden Island, Sydney.

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

Submarines were a relatively new arm of the force – in 1901 the idea of submarine warfare was considered by senior personnel in the British Admiralty to be ‘underhand, unfair and damned un-English’, in the words of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson vc. They were also still somewhat experimental and not the safest of vessels to serve on. Kinder joined submarines for the ‘extra allowances as danger money’ – what sailors called ‘blood money’.

00015801-AE2-Portsmouth.jpg
Crew of submarine AE2 fitting a new propeller, 1914

Kinder was an artistic young man who used his downtime in the navy to create fine embroideries. He also had quite a turn of phrase and a wonderful memory of a journey ‘so impressed on my mind that it is not easily forgotten’. AE2’s incursion into heavily mined Turkish waters on 25 April 1915 was certainly a harrowing one that affected the 34 crew members for the rest of their lives.

When war began in August 1914 the submarines AE1 and AE2 were sent with the Australian naval forces attacking German-held colonies in New Guinea and other Pacific islands. Kinder had initially been assigned to AE1 but due to ‘marriage leave’ ended up on AE2 – a fortunate turn of fate. Kinder wrote:

On 14th September, 1914, AE1 went out, accompanied by a destroyer, on what was to be her last journey. Little we thought, when laughing and joking with the crew just before she left, that it was the last time that we were going to see them.

AE1 was on a routine patrol and did not return. It was lost with all hands off the coast of Rabaul, New Guinea, and has never been located.

Crew of submarine AE2
A postcard showing the crew of the newly completed submarine HMAS AE2 in Portsmouth in early 1914. It was sent by Lieutenant Geoffrey Haggard to a relative in London.

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection. Gift from Mrs D Smyth (nee Haggard)

Submarines-AE-Starbd-Elevation
HMA Ships AE1 & AE2 General Arrangement Drawing (Stbd. Elevation & Sections)

Royal Australian Navy

‘Fortune Favours the Brave’

After the German Pacific colonies were quickly taken by the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, AE2 was directed to the Mediterranean where a grand naval assault was planned on the Dardanelles Strait prior to the Gallipoli Campaign – a campaign that might not be needed if the Allied fleet managed to break through the heavily mined and fortified strait.

Dinner menu from 1973 depicting the Battle of the Dardanelles
This 1973 dinner menu from the P&O liner SS Oronsay shows one of a series of paintings of famous sea battles. Painted by John Smith with notes (verso) by Captain Eric Bush, the image is of the Battle of the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915.

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

But this assault on 18 March failed and the Turkish celebrated a great victory against the might of Britain, as they still do each year on that date. Concealed minefields destroyed several Allied ships. Kinder recalled:

…it wasn’t a bad day’s work for the Turks although they too suffered as a lot of their forts were blown up. It showed that the forcing of the Dardanelles wasn’t going to be an easy job as it was well fortified by land and water.

The job of forcing the straits was given over to submarines. Just as the Gallipoli landings on 25 April were about to commence, AE2 was tasked with trying to get through to create havoc among Turkish shipping in the Sea of Marmara and assist with delaying reinforcements from eastern Turkey crossing to the Gallipoli peninsula.

World War I scarf printed with a map of the Turkish Empire
World War I scarf printed with a map of the Turkish Empire (marked ‘Turkey in Asia’), and surrounding countries. At lower right an inset map shows the Dardanelles, and notes Gallipoli and the forts along the shoreline.

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

The dangers were immense. Several submarine attempts had already failed, and AE2’s first effort on 24 April met the same fate. Kinder wrote:

One of the knuckle joints on the driving shaft snapped. This block is a 4 inch square piece of steel which prevents the hydroplane from moving in a rough sea or when running on engine power. The slightest incline would drive the boat under and then there would be another submarine disaster. What the captain said when he heard the extent of the damage would fill a book but I doubt if it would be readable.

But with running repairs, AE2 tried again the next day. Kinder noted that every submarine had a motto: ‘AE2’s was “Fortuna Favet Fortibus” or “Fortune Favours the Brave”. With a motto like that we ought to have some kind of luck.’

Map of Daradanelles
This map of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli peninsula was specially drawn to illustrate the operations by land and water which began in the spring of 1915 and featured in The Illustrated War News.

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

In the early hours of 25 April, just as Anzac troops were moving from ships into landing barges, AE2 crept into the Dardanelles Strait. Kinder described the beginning of the voyage:

The captain ordered the boat to be taken to 80ft [24 metres] so as to be well clear of any shipping or floating mines which float about eight or nine feet under the water. Our greatest danger was running onto banks or getting entangled in wire hawsers. Everything was very quiet for the first two hours and only an occasional order from the captain and the hum of the motors broke the stillness. Strict silence is maintained by the crew so that no order is missed.

The captain, every twenty minutes or so, brought the boat up to the 22ft [7 metre] mark to take observations through the periscopes and see that we were on the right course; then down again to 80ft, well out of sight.

At 6am the captain remarked that the next few minutes might see us sailing off for Kingdom Come after our halos and wings. We were approaching the place marked on the chart where there were two stationary mine fields, each containing nine rows of mines. Mines are one of the most dreaded things in submarines. It was not pleasant to know that we had to face eighteen rows of them.

Just after 6am AE2 scraped the first wire. Kinder recalled that ‘it was enough to stop one’s heart beating to hear it sliding over the steel deck’. He kept count of the wires as the boat hit them and ‘on the eighteenth we guessed we had passed through our first danger’.

The next thing was to pass the ‘narrows’ with its swift current, banks, shallows and overlooking forts. It was here that the British submarine E15 had ‘met her fate’ a few days before.

The control room of an E class submarine.
Life aboard a submarine. This photograph was taken in the control room of an E class submarine, similar to AE2.

Courtesy Royal Naval Submarine Museum