One of two Western Australians in the AE2 crew, Charles Suckling was born in Perth on 8 June 1893. He joined the fledgling RAN at the age of 19 on 3 September 1912 for a five-year period of service.
Suckling kept a colourful record of his experiences, including his years as a prisoner of war in Turkey. In his diary he particularly paid tribute to Captain Stoker, of whom he wrote: ‘Lt Commander Stoker was a man absolutely loved by his crew, and there was not one of us who was not willing to go anywhere he cared to take us’. Stoker spoke to all the crew before they left for the Dardanelles and ‘told them each he was at liberty to leave the boat. Not one man asked to be relieved … All hands in the AE2 knew that the chances were in favour of tomorrow bringing our death, so most of us had letters to write.’
Taken as a POW from the sinking submarine, Suckling recalled:
Then began a life for us which was nothing but a sorry existence, and I don’t think if we had known what was ahead … that one of us would have left the boat. And when we were released from Turkey three and a half years later, leaving four of our number behind, we were nothing more than living skeletons … The building we were in was built of wood and was absolutely alive with lice and as we had no way of washing our clothes or even our bodies, we were soon as much alive as the buildings. To break the monotony someone suggested that we start a competition to see who could catch the most lice off their own clothes and body, each man being allowed to strip twice a day. The record catch was 250 in a day …
The first few months in captivity were the worst. ‘How we survived without going mad I don’t know.’ An assignment to work at breaking stones for roadworks came almost as a relief, even though the work was heavy and there were guards ‘armed with sticks about three foot long and about two inches thick which they made full use of. I remember one day when the guards were more vicious than usual some wag started singing “Rule Britannia, Britons never shall be slaves …” I am sure no-one would of recognised us as British sailors or soldiers’.
Within three months, Suckling and some of his group were sent by cattle truck train to Angora, then marched about 80 miles to Çankiri,a terrible trek that took them four days. At Çankiri, it began to snow heavily. The men were given quilts, but what they desperately needed was warm underwear. Always enterprising, Suckling noted in his diary: ‘We were given quilts to keep us warm at night, and were not long in finding out that they were filled with raw wool. A few weeks later all the wool had been taken out and spun and knitted into warm underclothes.’ Within a few months the men were moved by another march back to Angora, from where they were put on trains for shipment to Belemedik.
Suckling was lucky to get a job looking after an air compressor and switchboard, but later went to work on a drilling machine which was harder work and dangerous. It was common to drill into an unexploded charge and a few men were blown to pieces or crushed by falling rock. It was at this stage that Suckling apparently suffered permanent damage to his eyes, which would later result in total blindness.
Some of the men tried to escape, ‘but none succeeded. Two seamen of AE2 did actually reach the coast where they remained for about 10 days, but had to give themselves up for want of food. Myself and two others made an attempt from our camp and were away for four days, but could not get clear of the mountains, and our food running short we had to return, which we did without the Turks missing us.’
It was the enemy within the huge camp that was more lethal. Endemic malaria and other diseases swept over the men. Suckling wrote: ‘Men began to die like flies, four of AE2’s crew were among the victims. After three months of malaria there was about 100 of those remaining who were too weak to work, myself among them, so we were put on the train back to Afion Kara Hissar.’
After he had regained his health, Suckling volunteered as an engineer to work on a farm with threshing machines. From there he was sent to a larger farm to service tractors, harvesters and ploughs. Always inventive, Suckling and his AE2 mates became extremely cunning about getting more food. During the winter everything was covered with snow and work in the fields ceased. Suckling reported: ‘as we could not get through to the villages we had to live on the Turkish food and anything extra we could steal … One night we actually stole a bullock, killed it and salted the meat down, and buried the hide and bones before morning. The Turks thought wolves must have got it as there were quite a lot of wolves about.’
The men were eventually sent back to Afion Kara Hissar amid rumours that the war might soon finish. This was the case and Suckling was released. He took a train to Smyrna (Izmir) and was shipped onwards to Alexandria, then Port Said. He notes: ‘The AE2 men were told that we were to be sent to England to be decorated, but when we actually arrived a few weeks before Christmas 1918, the only ones to receive decorations were the three officers.’
Suckling arrived home in Fremantle, Western Australia on 19 February 1919. He and his wife Margaret opened a butchery and delicatessen shop in Fremantle, but his eyesight began to fail completely and in later years he was forced to live in a special home for the blind. He was granted a full disability pension, the navy and the government officially attributing his total blindness to beatings about the head he received as a POW in Turkey. Although disabled, Charles Suckling was the last of the AE2 crew to die, in 1983, aged 92.