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Alexander Nichols and the AE2 Submarine

AE2_crewAlexander Charles Nichols of Bli Bli, near Nambour, Able Seaman and Petty Officer, RAN 7298 was the only Queenslander in the AE2 crew, Alexander Nichols joined the RAN in 1912 at the age of 19, for a tour of service of seven years. He was a good-looking young man with brown hair and eyes and a fair complexion.

The following is a good account of the story of the AE2 by Ian Hodges, Military Historian, AWM, 30 April 2003:

Early on the morning of 26 April 1915 Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary force, having launched the Gallipoli operation less than 24 hours earlier, was faced with recommendations to re-embark his force. As deliberations continued through the small hours, a signal arrived. The Australian submarine AE2 had made its way through the Dardanelles and was threatening Turkish shipping approaching that narrow waterway from the Sea of Marmora.

Legend has it that this news encouraged Hamilton to order his troops to hold on at Gallipoli. In reality, the decision was based on the knowledge that the evacuation of thousands of men from under the gaze of the Turks would involve heavy casualties, but news of the AE2’s success did lift already sagging morale; one of few bits of good news on an anxious day.

With its half-English, half-Australian crew, AE2, as the name implies, was one of two submarines built in England and placed in the service of the Royal Australian Navy before the First World War. Her sister ship, the AE1, was lost with all hands off Rabaul in September 1914 in mysterious circumstances. By the end of 1914 any danger to convoys leaving Australia from German raiders had passed and a single submarine in this part of the world, when the war was raging in Europe, was of little use. So, on December 31 1914, AE2 and her crew joined the second convoy bound for the Middle East. She was towed to Port Said by HMAS Berrima and then made her way to the Aegean, in readiness for the plan to send a naval force through the Dardanelles and threaten Constantinople. She arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in early February 1915.

In March she was damaged entering Mudros Harbour and repairs were not completed until mid-April. AE2 had thus missed the naval attempts against the Dardanelles that ended in disaster for the British and French navies on 18 March. Now the Gallipoli operation was being recast as a series of amphibious landings in support of further naval operations, and the AE2 was given the task of making her way through the Dardanelles to disrupt Turkish shipping and preventing reinforcements and supplies reaching the battlefields of Gallipoli.

The danger and difficulty of this operation, always obvious, had become even more evident in recent days. Just before the repairs on AE2 were complete, the British submarine, E15, had run aground while attempting to make her way through the Dardanelles. Her captain and nine crew members were killed by Turkish fire and the survivors were taken prisoner.

On the evening of 24 April, with just two hours notice, AE2’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker, received orders to force a passage through the straits. He did not doubt that it was possible, his submarine had a submerged range of 80 kilometres on battery power — just enough to get through the straits and into the Sea of Marmora if all went well. By midnight on the 24th, Stoker was guiding his submarine along the surface through the entrance to the straits. His plan was to get as far as he could on the surface after the moon set, preserving his electrical batteries and diving just before dawn.

The plan didn’t work. Stoker was forced to dive to avoid a Turkish searchlight and in so doing damaged his propeller. The submarine remained undetected but was now unable to continue the operation. Stoker returned to Tenedos, a small island off the entrance to the Dardanelles, at about 8.00 am. The repairs only took a few hours and he was ordered to try again the next night.

But his orders this time were slightly different. With the landings to take place at Gallipoli early on 25 April, Stoker was now to protect the fleet by attacking minelaying ships in the Narrows before making his way through the Dardanelles. Even if this proved impossible, Stoker was to “run amok” in the waters off Chanakkale as a diversion for the landings on the other side of the peninsula. Despite the obvious dangers of the operation Stoker remained optimistic and even carried an extra-large white ensign with him to help advertise his submarine’s presence once she reached the Sea of Marmora. Thus began AE2’s last, and most perilous, voyage.

Stoker entered the Dardanelles at 2.30 am on 25 April 1915 and for the next two hours made his way on the surface, sometimes searchlights illuminated his submarine but somehow she remained undetected for almost 2 hours. Then, at 4.30 in the morning, just as the first troops were coming ashore at ANZAC Cove, a shot rang out from the northern shore. The AE2 had been spotted.

Stoker dived and began the nerve-wracking passage through Turkish minefields. Some of the crew tried to play cards to ease the tension, but the fear was too great for the men to concentrate. Someone on board counted 18 mine wires scraping the AE2’s side and twice something much louder hit the submarine, possibly mines that failed to explode. Stoker and his men survived the first obstacle and surfaced to periscope depth at about 6.00 am; AE2 was immediately seen and fired upon from the forts on the shore. But Stoker continued his observations and decided to attack a small cruiser. He fired a single torpedo and dived. His crew heard the explosion when the torpedo hit, not the cruiser he had seen but a nearby gunboat.

But now they had their own troubles. AE2 had run aground, her conning tower dangerously exposed so close to a Turkish fort that the shore-based guns couldn’t be depressed sufficiently to hit the submarine. It took five minutes – an eternity to the crew – before Stoker was able to order full ahead and AE2 slid down the bank and back into the water with Turkish patrol boats in pursuit. She made her way farther into the Dardanelles. Still hunted by Turkish ships Stoker decided to rest AE2 on the bottom near the Asiatic shore and hide until nightfall, when he could surface and recharge her batteries. It was 8.30 on the morning of 25 April. Just kilometres away, the fight for Gallipoli was raging; Stoker had just 32 kilometres left to cover before he was through the Dardanelles.

The crew faced a long day – some tried to sleep, but tensions were running too high. For more than ten hours they listened, nerves taut, as Turkish ships hunted above them. Hours after the sound of the ships faded Stoker surfaced. The submarine stank, the air was thick with diesel and the stench of men too long confined. The crew took turns to stand on deck and breathe in the fresh night air, relieved at having survived the dangerous hours beneath the surface. It was at this point that Stoker signalled his success to the fleet, just as Hamilton was deliberating about evacuating ANZAC.

Whatever the effect of Stoker’s signal, he was in a difficult position. He couldn’t even be sure that the signal had been received. He might be isolated far behind enemy lines with a major battle in progress. He had no deck gun with which to fire on Turkish shipping and only six torpedoes left. But he realised that the psychological effect of his presence could be considerable. In fact the effect of his success was more tangible. His signal, as we now know, had been received and within two hours a second submarine, E14, was ordered to repeat Stoker’s feat.

AE2 remained on the surface until dawn, fired at a Turkish ship and missed, and then entered the Sea of Marmora at 9.00 am on 26 April. Stoker fired on several ships over the next two days without success, at one point surfacing among Turkish fishing boats to advertise his presence, an incident made famous in Charles Bryant’s painting that now hangs in the Memorial’s administration building. On 29 April, with fierce fighting going on just miles away on the Gallipoli peninsula, Stoker returned to the straits, dived and then turned back into the Sea of Marmora, with his periscope breaking the surface to give the impression of a second submarine entering the Sea. He shook off his pursuers yet again, fired and narrowly missed hitting (by a yard he was later told) a Turkish gunboat.
AE2 was down to the last of its ten torpedoes and Stoker was planning to sail for Constantinople and attack shipping there when, on 29 April, the watchman sighted another submarine. It was the British vessel E14, which had made the same dangerous passage through the Dardanelles two days after AE2. The two captains agreed to rendezvous the next morning.

The planned meeting never happened. On 30 April, as she approached the rendezvous, AE2 dived to avoid being seen by a Turkish torpedo boat. Half an hour later, while at a depth of 16 metres, AE2 went bow-up and broke the surface just 90 metres from the Turkish vessel. Under heavy fire, Stoker ordered the forward tanks flooded and AE2 plunged back into the depths, down to 30 metres before rising again, breaking the surface at speed and out of control. Stoker ordered the ballast tanks flooded, again sending his submarine on a wild, almost vertical dive, deeper and deeper until she passed 30 metres. All eyes were on the boat’s sides, waiting for them to cave in. But instead AE2 shot back up again, surfacing quickly and almost immediately being hit three times by the torpedo boat.

AE2 was doomed and Stoker knew it. He ordered the crew to abandon ship and left only when the last man was safely in the water. The entire crew survived the sinking, were picked up and became prisoners of war. Their terrifying voyage had almost come to a fatal end. But having survived the dangers of five days of intense operations, four of AE2’s crew were unable to survive the rigors of captivity.

Two British submarine commanders, whose ships followed the AE2 into the Sea of Marmora and survived to tell the tale, were awarded the Victoria Cross. For Stoker there was no such recognition, partly perhaps because the story of the AE2 remained largely hidden from the public until after the war, when he and the surviving crew members were released from Turkish captivity. (end of Hodges' account)

Nichols was one of a trio of Australian ratings (with John Wheat and C. A. Bray) who wrote detailed diaries of their individual experiences, both on the submarine and later in various prison camps.

By May 1916, both Wheat and Nichols were working on the line at Haçikiri, about 12 miles from Belemedik. Conditions were appalling and the men began plans to escape. For months they pumped local peasants for information about their location, and began hoarding what food and utensils they could conceal. They made their escape attempt on 12 August 1916. It proved disastrous. The terrain was precipitous, impassable. It offered no shelter, water or food, and they quickly became hopelessly lost. They made it to within sight of the coast, but by that time were almost starving. After a week they were forced to return to Pozanti, where they were arrested and marched back to Belemedik. They were thrown into prison and fed only bread and water for a week. Nichols suffered a severe attack of malaria and collapsed. His poor health prevented him from working, and he was also now a security risk. At the end of 1916 he was sent back to Afion Kara Hissar with a group of fellow prisoners who were unable or unwilling to work, or who had proved troublesome.

After recovering his health at Afion, Nichols was again singled out for transfer. It was a move that probably saved his life. Together with fellow AE2 submariners Churcher, Wishart, Wilson and Harding, he volunteered to go to the San Stefano prison camp near Constantinople. Nichols wrote in his diary: ‘I was suffering from dysentery and fever, but determined to get away . . . I managed to secure a large opium pill which I managed to swallow a few minutes previous to the doctor’s inspection, and so managed to get away . . . ’

Arriving ‘by cattle truck’ at Haida Pasha, the men were marched through Constantinople to San Stefano, a distance of 16 miles, which took them 8 hours. San Stefano had previously been a Catholic convent and three priests remained there. One became a friend; Nichols called him Father Brickdust because of his ruddy face and red hair. The AE2 men were grateful for his support, and attended his mass. Father Brickdust became a vital conduit to the Dutch Embassy, and through it to the Red Cross, facilitating delivery of parcels, food and money to the prisoners.

At San Stefano the prisoners worked for Germans, loading and unloading goods, or as ship’s fitters, carpenters or orderlies. It was possibly the best run prisoner of war camp in Turkey, but again this depended on the whim of the German commandant. One man, Count von Bennermann, wrote Nichols, ‘was also very good, until his brother was killed . . . then he turned on us . . . He used to call us Schweinhunder and other choice names . . . and put us in prison for 14 days on the slightest pretext’.

By mid October 1918, Nichols noticed a definite change in attitude on the part of the Turkish civilians towards their prisoners, and a growing disdain among them for the Germans. In November, Nichols was released and began a homeward journey, first to Malta, then to Taranto, Italy, overland to Paris, then to London. There he spent several months recuperating before returning home to Queensland.

Nichols left the navy in 1920 but, according to his daughter Mrs Ena Henderson, ‘he lived and died Navy’. He rejoined in 1939 as a petty officer with the RAFR, and spent the war years around the Pacific Islands and New Guinea de-activating enemy mines, and was in Darwin during the Japanese raids. Nichols completed this second period of active service on 21 August 1945. He kept in touch with Captain Stoker, and organised reunions of his naval colleagues. He was one of the longest-surviving AE2 men, despite almost having died as a POW in Turkey. He died in 1971 at Woody Point, Queensland, aged 78.

Image references:
AE2 crew on submarine, probably taken in Gallipoli area. AWM H18370
AE2 prisoners of war at Afyon camp. Nichols is most likely in this photograph.
Courtesy Mesut Uyar PhD, PD, Associate Professor of Ottoman Military History.