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.
Nichols was one of a trio of Australian ratings (with John Wheat and CA 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, Nichols wrote, ‘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.