Reading prayers at the bottom of the sea – The harrowing journey of submarine AE2

AE2 at Portsmouth, England, 1912

AE2 at Portsmouth, England, 1912

The first images of the interior of submarine AE2 were shown on ABC television on 3 July 2014 – almost 100 years since the vessel was scuttled in the Sea of Marmara on 30 April 1915.

While interest grows in what the wreck might reveal about the RAN submarine that was the first vessel to breach Turkish defences of the Dardanelles Strait, an account of the incredible voyage written by Stoker Petty Officer Henry James Elly Kinder sheds a human light on the story. Kinder’s account, a memoir written after he returned from several years in Turkish prison camps, has not been published.

‘Harry’ Kinder was from Kogarah, Sydney and joined the RAN at the age of 17. He joined the submarine service for the ‘extra allowances as danger money’, or ‘blood money’ as it was called by sailors.

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, as he said, a journey ‘so impressed on my mind that it is not easily forgotten.’

When war began in August 1914 the Australian 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, which for him was a stroke of luck.

As 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.

After the German Pacific colonies were quickly taken by the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force, AE2 was directed to the Mediterranean where a grand naval assault was planned on the Dardanelles Straits prior to the Gallipoli Campaign.

But the naval assualt was a failure. The straits were heavily fortified and underwater minefields saw the destruction of several Allied ships. Kinder recalled that;

…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.

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1915 map of the narrows of the Dardanelles Strait. ANMM Collection

The task of forcing the straits was given over to submarines. Just as the Gallipoli landings on 25 April were about to commence, AE2 was selected to attempt the mission to get through and create havoc among Turkish shipping in the sea of Marmara and assist with delaying reinforcements from eastern Turkey crossing to the Gallipoli peninsular.

Several submarine attempts had already failed, and AE2‘s first effort met the same fate. As 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 made another attempt. 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.’

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

The captain ordered the boat to be taken to 80ft 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 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.

At this point, the captain of AE2, Commander Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker, saw several Turkish cruisers at anchor and decided to ‘have a shot.’ Kinder recalled;

The bow torpedo tube was got ready but just as the torpedo was discharged a mine layer steamed across the cruiser’s bows and got in our line of fire Unfortunately for her, she stopped the torpedo. It must have been an unpleasant surprise for them so early in the morning. As soon as the torpedo was fired the captain ordered the sub down to 80ft to get away from the hornets’ nest we had stirred up on top.

But the discharge of the torpedo had affected the vessel’s compass and AE2 was 80 feet under water and running blind. Surfacing to gain bearings in front of the Turkish forts was too dangerous, but the narrows forced their hand – AE2 rose as the bottom was felt and became stuck, surfaced and right under Turkish guns.

Kinder noted that in one sense they were fortunate, being so close inshore to the forts that the guns could not be successfully trained on them. With all the ballast tanks blown and the motor kept going full speed astern, gradually AE2 bumped off the bank. The tanks were again flooded and slowly the vessel sank down to 80 ft once more.

To Kinder, it had seemed AE2 had been on the surface an hour rather than just a few minutes. As he wrote, ‘at ordinary times I didn’t care to be down under water but I was thankful to see the gauge registering 80ft once more.’

Yet after escaping one side, still travelling blind underwater, AE2 careened into the opposite bank – again forcing its way off and gaining bearings before Turkish gun fire could target them. Their luck continued as the compass ‘became sensible again’ and Commander Stoker continued towards their goal of the more open Sea of Marmara.

A Turkish newspaper account of the hunt for the AE2.  ANMM Collection

A Turkish newspaper account of the hunt for the AE2. ANMM Collection

AE2 had indeed stirred up a hornets nest, with an array of Turkish vessels desperately searching for them, so Stoker decided to rest the vessel on the bottom. It was 8am on Sunday morning and the crew had breakfast, some sleep and then rose for morning prayers at 11am. As Kinder noted, ‘I dare say it was the first time prayers were read on the bottom of the sea.’

Stoker decided to wait for night to fall so they might surface with less risk. Turkish vessels dragged lines searching for the submarine throughout the day. A destroyer passed only a few feet over their position – so close the AE2 crew could ‘hear the stokers opening the furnace door and shovelling coal into the fires.’ Kinder continued;

There was no more sleep for us as it got on our nerves to hear the boat persistently going backwards and forwards. Once the drag hit the boat and for one awful moment we waited anxiously to see if the destroyer would stop but when we heard her continue on her way we knew the drag had not caught. If the drag had held it would have been the end of AE2 and her crew as a depth charge would most likely have been our fate.

Towards the end of the day the air inside the submarine was ‘getting thick.’ AE2 had been submerged for fourteen hours and carried no oxygen to renew the air.

At 10.30pm Commander Stoker decided it was quiet enough above to continue. For Kinder, ‘action was far better than lying on the bottom imagining all sorts of things happening.’ When the vessel surfaced after 18 hours submerged, the crew were joyous. ‘What a relief it was … How nice that fresh air tasted.’

After sitting on the surface and re-charging batteries, finally, at daylight on the 26th of April, AE2 headed into the Sea of Marmara and a sense of security, with open water to escape in. Kinder recorded the moment;

It was a beautiful day and the Sea of Marmara was like a sheet of glass … it was lovely to sit on the saddle tanks in the sunshine … We seemed to have the Sea of Marmara to ourselves.

Now, out of the dangers of the narrows, mines, current, forts and depth charges, AE2 was in the box seat – brazenly travelling on the surface scaring off local shipping and turning back transports with troops heading towards Gallipoli. Stoker had been ordered to ‘run amuck’ if he made it through.

After spending the next night submerged and during the next day scaring off several more transports, Stoker saw an opportunity and fired a torpedo at a transport vessel. Its escorting destroyers then attempted to ram AE2 and as the submarine dived, Kinder recalled that the destroyers’ propellers sounded so close that ‘we ducked our heads to allow it to pass.’

Another night was spent lying on the bottom. Kinder reflected that;

When the boat is lying on the bottom with only a pilot light on, one begins to imagine all sorts of things happening… Perhaps it would not be able to rise again with the crew caught like rats in a trap with no hope of escape. If you let your imagination run too long you can feel your hair rising … Sometimes the sound of a voice is a welcome sound.

Then on the 29th of April, in a moment of utter surprise and almost disbelief, a British submarine was spotted. E14 had also run the gauntlet in AE2‘s wake. The two commanders then agreed to separate and rendezvous the next day.

But this meeting was not to occur. Two Turkish ‘gun boats’ and a destroyer were making a bee-line for AE2 and when the vessel dived, something was wrong – AE2 started to go down by the bow. Kinder recalled that it was impossible to stand and that ‘everything moveable in the boat started to slide and roll to the bows.’

Eventually, after all the ballast tanks were blown and with the engines in full astern, AE2 began to rise. But circling above were Turkish war ships. AE2 surfaced with a ‘whoosh’ and quickly flooded the tanks in order to dive again, Stoker hoping this time to dive correctly. But luck had seemed to finally desert AE2.

Just as it was about to submerge, three shells hit the vessel. Water was flooding the engine room. AE2 descended and after a ‘hard struggle’, the water-tight doors to the engine room were closed. The vessel went down to 80 feet and then stopped. Would the flooded engines keep going? Without them AE2 could not surface.

Many things flashed through my mind in those few minutes. I could picture AEl and her crew under similar conditions fighting for their lives with all the boat in disorder. Although they couldn’t have lived long … and the boat’s hull would soon have been crushed under the enormous pressure. … Still, they must have suffered agonies in those few seconds. We would be lucky if we did not share the same fate.

Then AE2 began to rise. Perhaps luck was still with them. But on the surface the crew soon realised AE2’s end had come. While Stoker gave the order to abandon ship, the two gun boats were still firing and shells were falling all around.

Henry Kinder spent his last few minutes looking around the boat. He noticed the clock at five minutes to twelve, and recalled there was a rabbit pie the oven. He left the pie and went to his ditty box to retrieve 16 shillings and a photograph of his wife.

On deck, Kinder saw Commander Stoker come up after opening the kingston valves to scuttle the vessel and dived overboard with the rest of the crew. For a few seconds he saw AE2 ‘moving through the water like a big, wounded fish, gradually disappearing from sight.’

There was only one casualty – a large rat that the cat at Garden Island in Sydney had chased on board one morning when the submarine was lying along side. The rat took up residence in the engine room and the crew fed him to stop him eating their own food.

In what Commander Stoker agreed was quite a surreal moment, Kinder noticed that Lieutenant Haggard had lit a cigar just before leaving the boat and he recalled how Haggard looked rather comical floating around amid clouds of smoke. Stoker recalled how;

Curious incidents impress one at such times. As those last six men took the water the neat dive of one of the engine-room ratings will remain pictured in my mind for ever.

The Turkish torpedo boat Sultanhisar under Captain Riza – later to write his own version of events in his book How I sank the AE2 – took the crew prisoner. They were to remain in captivity for the rest of the war. Henry Kinder recounted much of his time in the camps, but said ‘there were many incidents that happened during the time that we were prisoners that I will not be able to write down here.’

He apparently never spoke about these events in later life. Kinder returned to Australia a broken man, having suffered kidney damage, malaria and severe beatings in the camps. He died on 25 April 1964 – Anzac Day.

AE2 crew members. Henry Kinder is in the front row, far right.  Australian War Memorial

AE2 crew members. Henry Kinder is in the front row, far right. Australian War Memorial

Further information on the remarkable story of submarine AE2 and the often overlooked role of the RAN in WWI will be on display at the museum’s upcoming exhibition War at sea – The navy in WWI which opens in September 2014.

With thanks to Vera and Peter Ryan and the Kinder family.

Further reading;

Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley Stoker’s Submarine HarperCollins 2001, 2013

Henry G. Stoker, Straws in the Wind, London, 1925

3 thoughts on “Reading prayers at the bottom of the sea – The harrowing journey of submarine AE2

  1. Pingback: The ‘triumphant procession’ of the ANMEF | Australian National Maritime Museum

  2. Pingback: Anzac Cove from the water: the Gallipoli diary of 2nd Engineer George Armstrong | Australian National Maritime Museum

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