Commander Henry Hugh Gordon Stoker, known as ‘Dacre’, was born in Dublin on 2 February 1885. At an early age he decided to join the Royal Navy. In 1904 he began study at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, later volunteering for submarine service. In 1907, he was promoted to lieutenant and given a submarine command, gaining a posting to open Britain’s first submarine station in Gibraltar.
In 1913, when the new Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was preparing to collect its two new AE class submarines, it advertised for captains and crews. No Australian sailors had the required submarine experience so positions were opened to Royal Navy personnel. Stoker applied for and gained a position, being appointed the first captain of HMAS AE2. On 2 March 1914, he sailed on the AE2, together with her sister ship, HMAS AE1, to Australia. The voyage took 83 days, 60 of them at sea – which was at that time the longest submarine voyage ever undertaken.
In August 1914, after Australia declared war on Germany and its allies, AE1 and AE2 were ordered to hunt for and attack the German Pacific fleet. But during a routine mission, AE1 and all its crew members mysteriously disappeared. AE2 returned to Australia to await further orders.
Stoker was eager to join the Allied war effort in Europe. In December 1914, AE2 embarked for the Middle East with the second contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). While at Malta in 1915, Stoker received orders to join the naval forces that were being assembled to breach the Dardanelles. The first attempt ended on 18 March with the defeat of the British and French navies. Stoker and AE2 were part of the second attempt to breach the Dardanelles by submarine.
Stoker and his crew succeeded where others had failed. During the period 25–30 April, Stoker captained the first submarine to breach the Ottoman defences in the Dardanelles and reach the Sea of Marmara.
After five days ‘running amok’ in the Sea of Marmara, the crew of AE2 lost control and inadvertently surfaced near the Ottoman torpedo boat Sultanhisar. AE2 was fatally damaged by gunfire; with three shell holes in the engine room and unable to dive, Stoker gave the order to surface. He and his crew surrendered, but not before deliberately sinking the submarine so it would not fall into enemy hands. The crew were all rescued from the water by the crew of Sultanhisar, who gave them dry clothing and took them to Istanbul where they became prisoners of war. Four members of the crew were to die in captivity.
Stoker returned to England in 1918 after the war, receiving the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his wartime services. In December 1919, he was promoted to commander.
In 1920, Stoker resigned from the navy and began a career as a writer, actor, theatre director and radio broadcaster. In 1925, Stoker’s autobiography Straws in the Wind was published by Herbert Jenkins Limited. (Extracts from the book can be read here.)
Stoker did return to active naval service during World War II, before continuing his career in theatre and television. He also won the Irish croquet championship in 1962, when he was 77 years old. Stoker died in 1966 at the age of 81.
All of the published books on AE2 contain detailed information about Stoker. In addition to his autobiography Straws in the Wind, Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley’s Stoker’s Submarine provides the most detailed account of his life and service.
The Australian War Memorial’s Who’s Who in Australian Military History includes a short online biography of Stoker, a timeline of his life and images of collection items (such as photographs) relating to Stoker, his crew and his submarine.