A difficult and dangerous task

Considerable doubt existed as to the possibility of a submarine passage through the Dardanelles; two unsuccessful attempts had already been made; submarines diving in the entrance of the Strait had frequently run ashore owing to the current. What, if any, steps the enemy had taken to guard against a submarine passage were uncertain, and generally the task appeared to be both difficult and dangerous. [AWM: 36/49]

Lieutenant Commander Henry (H.G.D.) Stoker, Commander, submarine AE2

The penetration of the Dardanelles Strait was a topic of interest amongst submarine officers.[1] Known intelligence – from Admiralty documentation and accumulated through submarine operational experience – indicated the task to be a formidable one. Yet AE2’s commander, Henry (H.G.D.) Stoker considered the feat possible, flying in the face of general opinion.[2]

There were both natural and man-made obstacles to a successful penetration of the Strait by submarine. A current, of between one and four knots, was known to run opposite to the direction of a submarine passage up the strait to the Sea of Marmara. However, a deep counter current was also hypothesized by British naval authorities, that opened up the possibility of assistance for submarine running.[3] Whether or not this counter current existed and could be used to assist a submarine passage, elsewhere currents spelt danger. Strong and shifting currents had been implicated in the grounding of a number of Allied submarines, [4] [AWM: 36/49] Two sections of the Strait in particular presented navigational hazards. The Narrows was considered a “dangerous place” - besides being the “narrowest part”. As Stoker Petty Officer Henry James Kinder noted it contained a “lot of banks and shallow water”, with large forts close by. Further up the Strait was Nagara Point, which according to Kinder, was “a dangerous corner to navigate”, especially when fully submerged. [AWM: PR01466] On the positive side, submarine commanders had some knowledge of key Turkish defensive measures thanks to British intelligence.[5]

After speaking with his friend, Lieutenant Commander Charles G. Brodie RN (assistant to Commodore Keyes, Chief of Staff to Vice Admiral de Robeck), Stoker decided to outline his plan for penetration of the Dardanelles Strait, in a memo addressed to de Robeck. [6] In this memo, Stoker described a strategy to preserve AE2’s battery capacity, inclusive of factors such as strength of current at depth and the extended use of diesel engines. With prudent running and the improved battery endurance of the diesel powered E Class, Stoker argued that the possibility existed of traversing all or most of the Straits under water, avoiding the dangers posed by Turkish naval forces and fixed and mobile artillery. E class also had a gyrocompass to assist with navigation in the at times shallow narrow confines of the Dardanelles. With the aid of jumping wires, travelling at the right depth, a submarine might also avoid the rows of Turkish mines that had proven so devastating to the surface fleet. Once through the Narrows and into the Sea of Marmara, a submarine would be well placed to attack Turkish troop and supply ships. Stoker concluded that “given skilful navigation" passage to and through the Narrows was indeed possible.[7] On completion of AE2’s patrol duty on 7 March, 1915, he was in a position to deliver his memo.[8]

But fate intervened. The grounding of AE2 at Port Mudros on 10 March, 1915.[9] frustrated Stoker's plan. With AE2 stuck in Malta undergoing repairs, Stoker was unable to attend a crucial 14 April meeting between Commodore Keyes and British submarine command staff aboard the Allied Flagship Queen Elizabeth. At this meeting, a plan for the successful penetration of the Dardanelles Strait was discussed. Stoker’s friend Lieutenant Commander C. G. Brodie was present and he later recalled that aspects of Stoker’s original proposal were included in the plan adopted[10]. An outcome from the meeting was that the British submarine E15 would be given the chance to make the passage. Three days later, on 17 April, 1915, E15 was lost, tempering exuberance about the potential of submarines to change the strategic situation at sea.

On 23 April, having returned from Malta, Stoker was ordered to report to the Allied Flagship, Queen Elizabeth. In conference with Vice Admiral de Robeck, Stoker maintained his belief that penetration of the Strait by submarine could be achieved. Since this would be of great value to the forthcoming Gallipoli landings – Stoker was given permission to try.[11]

Stoker’s “chief duty” was to successfully penetrate the Dardanelles Strait. Wireless transmission to this effect was expected; once received, another submarine would then be ordered to follow. If AE2 made it to the Narrows, Stoker was ordered to target and attack vessels with mine-laying potential, and “generally to run amok” off Chanak. The main aim was to protect shipping – operating then in support of the Gallipoli landings – from floating mines. [12]Ultimately, if the Sea of Marmara was reached, the object was to disrupt Turkish troop and supply links between Constantinople and the Gallipoli Peninsula.[AWM 36/49]

Picture of Lieutenant Commander Henry (H.G.D.) Stoker [AWM: P01075]
Lieutenant Commander Henry (H.G.D.) Stoker [AWM: P01075]. After the war some confusion existed as to to the nature of Stoker's orders. In this link to his official account of the mission, Stoker provides his own interpretation.
[AWM: 36/49]

Early morning on 25 April 1915, the weather was “calm and clear.” AE2 lay at the entrance to the Dardanelles Strait waiting for the setting of the moon. Under the cover of darkness, she would have to run on the surface as far as possible to conserve battery power, dodging searchlights and fire from Turkish forts. [AWM: 36/49]

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References:

  1. ^ a White, M.W.D. (1992). Australian Submarines: A History. Canberra. AGPS. p. 44.
  2. ^ a Stoker, H.G. (1925). Straws in the Wind. London. Herbert Jenkins. p. 91.
  3. ^ a Brodie, C.G. (1956). Forlorn Hope 1915: The Submarine Passage of the Dardanelles. London. Frederick Books. pp. 11-12 & 23-25.
  4. ^ a White, M.W.D. (1992). op. cit., p. 49.
  5. ^ a Frame, T. (2000). The Shores of Gallipoli: Naval Aspects of the ANZAC Campaign. Alexandria. Hale & Iremonger. p. 95; Brodie, C.G. (1956). op. cit., p. 29.
  6. ^ a Brodie, C.G. (1956). op. cit., p. 12.
  7. ^ a Ibid., pp. 10-13; Stoker, H.G. (1925). op. cit., pp. 89-92
  8. ^ a Brodie, C.G. (1956). op. cit., p. 13.
  9. ^ a Ibid., pp. 13-15.
  10. ^ a Ibid., pp. 27-29.
  11. ^ a Stoker, H.G. (1925). op. cit., pp. 99-100.
  12. ^ a Ibid., pp. 105-106.