Project Silent Anzac: inside AE2

by Dr Nigel Erskine

The submarine AE2

AE2’s final resting place was located in 1998 by a Turkish dive team led by Selçuk Kolay, OAM. The submarine’s identity was confirmed later the same year by a team of Australian archaeologists led by Dr Mark Spencer and Tim Smith. The initial site survey provided critical information about the submarine’s condition, clarified its historical and archaeological significance, and proposed options for its long-term management.

In September 2007, an archaeological assessment was conducted inside AE2’s conning tower and control room via use of a specially developed drop camera. The camera was inserted through the submarine’s partially-open conning tower hatch, and provided the first images of the interior hull since AE2’s loss in April 1915. These images revealed that the submarine’s internal components are in an excellent state of preservation, and that high potential exists for the retention of intact artefacts.

In June 2014  Project Silent Anzac conducted a final maritime archaeological assessment of AE2. The project aimed to preserve, protect and tell the story of AE2. In June the team’s aim was to open the hatch of the submarine and to capture high-resolution images from inside the boat using remote-operated vehicles (ROVs), sonar imaging and high-definition cameras.

AE2's conning tower hatch
AE2’s conning tower hatch as left by Commander Stoker when he scuttled the vessel on 30 April 1915. The partially closed hatch has kept the submarine as a time capsule. The hatch has been carefully opened to 80 degrees, and now swings freely on its original hinges allowing access into the conning tower and control room below.

Courtesy Project Silent Anzac

No crew were lost when AE2 was scuttled, but speculation about what might survive inside the submarine and how best to preserve AE2 ultimately led to the formation of the AE2 Silent Anzac Project led by retired submariner Rear Admiral Peter Briggs.

Craning the temporary diver support platform (DSP) over the side of the vessel.
Craning the temporary diver support platform (DSP) over the side. This was placed adjacent to AE2’s conning tower to provide a working platform for the divers. The diving bell is the foreground.

Credit: Nigel Erskine/ANMM

The project brings together the expertise of the Australian Submarine Institute (ASI), scientists and engineers from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), ROV manufacturer Seabotics, archaeologist Tim Smith, conservation specialist Dr Ian McLeod, plus an experienced team of Turkish commercial divers to carry out the work under water.

Before arriving in Turkey the team had developed a range of cameras, an ROV and other equipment specially designed to get inside the submarine and to record its interior. Another invention was a dive platform designed to sit close to AE2’s conning tower, providing a safe and stable working platform for divers. On the surface, the ship Kaptani Derya 2 supported all diving operations, and was a home-away-from-home for the project.

The project goals this year were to inspect the exterior of the submarine for any damage caused by trawlers; to take corrosion readings on the hull to establish a datum for measuring the long-term effect of installing cathodic protection (zinc anodes) around the hull; to open the conning tower hatch and insert cameras and sonar into the main control room below the conning tower; and finally to ‘fly’ a small ROV into the control room spaces to record the interior of the submarine for the first time in almost 100 years.

With the ship held in place exactly above AE2 by four large anchors, one of the ROVs was sent down to locate the submarine. The ROV is fitted with cameras that send images through a cable to the surface, where they are shown on monitors mounted in a temporary shed on the ship’s deck. It was spellbinding to watch the rubbery marine growths attached to parts of the deck and superstructure. After this initial inspection the dive platform was craned over the side and carefully manoeuvred into place using the ROV, to great effect. Having successfully completed this task it was time to send the divers in to do a visual inspection of the area around the main hatch.

A diver (in the yellow helmet) is assisted into the diving bell
A diver (in the yellow helmet) is assisted into the diving bell

Courtesy Project Silent Anzac

All diving on the project was done from a dive bell. As the name implies, the bell is a tubular pod in which two divers are lowered to the working platform. Only one of the divers undertakes the assigned task; the other stays in the bell to provide backup if required and to watch over operations. Due to the depth, the divers have only just over 20 minutes to complete their work before slowly returning to the surface with several decompression stops. The last stage of decompression is completed aboard the ship in a hyperbaric chamber under the watchful eye of the doctor and her technical assistants. The process is slow and limits diving to just three dives a day.

Conditions throughout the two weeks of diving were ideal and each day produced a little more progress towards sending the ROV inside AE2. The conning tower hatch had been expected to create difficulties, but in the event it opened relatively easily, revealing the interior of the conning tower. By this stage there was a palpable air of excitement surrounding the DSTO team as they prepared the ROV and finally sent it down.

Anyone old enough to remember the excitement of the first moon landing will understand something of the anticipation as the ROV was manoeuvred into the conning tower for the first time. It was immediately obvious that the interior of the conning tower was preserved in an extraordinary state, with very little concretion build-up. Even timber cabinetwork (perhaps the flag locker) had survived. AE2’s engine telegraph, light fittings, gauges and other fittings all came to life as the ROV’s cameras and lights rotated slowly through 360 degrees. The atmosphere in the DSTO monitoring shed was electric as each new object appeared on the screens.

The interior of AE2’s conning tower is illuminated by a remotely-operated camera system inserted into the open conning tower hatch.
The interior of AE2’s conning tower is illuminated by a remotely-operated camera system inserted into the open conning tower hatch.

Courtesy Project Silent Anzac

The next day the mood aboard the ship was optimistic. The weather was unchanged and after the previous day’s success it seemed a relatively simple task to lower the ROV through the next hatch and into the main control room. But, as so often happens, nothing is that simple! It soon became apparent that some unexpected protrusions prevented the ROV from fitting though the lower hatch. This was disappointing, but luckily the scientists had brought a second, smaller ROV as well.

While the cameras on board this ROV were inferior to those of the larger machine, it passed through the lower hatch easily and was soon sending back excellent footage of the control room.

In the days that followed, the team was able to complete all the remaining tasks and leave Turkey with an enormous amount of footage and stills imagery to examine in detail in the months ahead. AE2 is a real time capsule and it was a privilege to be a part of the project.

Later in 2015, when Project Silent Anzac concludes, the Australian National Maritime Museum will receive the project’s extraordinary archive of film and other data recording the condition of the submarine and become responsible for continuing the positive relations between Australia and Turkey that have been established by the project.

Keep your eye on the museum’s blog over the coming months as we develop the archive of material from Project Silent Anzac.