Bert Brown was the quintessential tough sailor. One of the older crew members, he was born on 19 August 1882 at Higham, Kent. He entered the RN as a boy before rising to the rank of stoker petty
officer. He was amongst those lent in 1913 to the RAN to man their newly commissioned submarine, AE2. A hard and seasoned submariner, Brown was a trusted worker. He wrote in his diary that the AE2 was ‘his pride and joy’. This loyalty was rewarded in 1919 when he received the DSM ‘for distinguished services in HM submarine AE2.’
As a prisoner of war Brown’s technical skills were quickly detected by his captors. Initially assigned to road-making tasks, he was reassigned to the repair and maintenance of machines, at first near Rankin on a large tract of agricultural land near Ankara, which was being planted with grain crops by the Turkish Red Crescent Society. Here he discovered, oddly enough, that some of the machinery had been made in Australia.
From this rural camp Brown was next sent to Belemedik, where his term of imprisonment became much more difficult. His diary records the severe living conditions, poor food and lack of adequate clothing, all of which left many men susceptible to ill health. In August 1916, Brown wrote: ‘The illness about now is terrible, there have been sometimes as many as 5 or 6 Russians dying in one day … over the last 6 months over 800 deaths’. He also claimed that prisoners working in the tunnels that were being blasted through the mountains ‘often lost their sight, while others had their brains affected’.
Brown survived the epidemic of 1916 that claimed many of his colleagues, partly due to the arrival of parcels from the Red Cross, subsidised by the Australian government and delivered with the help of both the American and Netherlands embassies in Constantinople. As Brown became resigned to life at Belemedik, he wrote of a ‘strange pride in seeing the [railway] line completed, the first train going through between Stamboul and Aleppo’.
In July 1918 he wrote to the Red Cross asking to be sent ‘a small consignment of garden seed, anything that is eatable … we may be able … to grow a little vegetables if you will label them all, what they are and time for planting’. He received these, and later sent Miss Chomley a photograph of his garden.
In 1918, Brown was released, arriving in London via Alexandria at the end of December. He reenlisted in the RAN and relocated to Australia with his three children. A widower, he remarried after completing his initial period of service in 1923. He and his wife Maude became farmers on an orange orchard near Gosford, NSW.