• 4th Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery, Gallipoli

  • Menin Gate Last Post, Ypres

  • Rhododendron Ridge, Gallipoli

  • Tyne Cot, Belgium

  • Villers-Bretonneux, France

Australia’s Other World War 1 Submarine

Most of us are aware of the place in history of the Australian submarine AE2. Less is known, however, about the short service life and tragic loss of her sister ship, HMAS AE1.

AE1 was built by Vickers in England and launched in 1913. One of the first of the new British “E” Class submarines, she and AE2 had been ordered for the fledgling Royal Australian Navy at a cost of £105,000 each. Commissioned in February 1914, AE1 faced a 21,000 km delivery voyage to her new base in Australia. This voyage, in company with AE2, was a feat in itself. Alternatively steaming under her own power, and being towed by a relay of escort vessels, AE1 reached Sydney on 24 May 1914.

AE1 was refitting in Sydney when war was declared in August. Australia was asked to capture German possessions in New Guinea to deny communications and coaling facilities to the German East Asiatic Squadron, suspected to be cruising in the Pacific. The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was hurriedly recruited and trained for this task. The possible presence of the German warships demanded a strong naval escort and AE1 became part of the sixteen-vessel supporting fleet.

The force sailed on 7 September 1914 to capture the two wireless stations reported to be in the vicinity of Rabaul, on the island of New Britain. A landing was made at dawn on 11 September and the Bitapaka station was secured by day’s end. On 12 September Rabaul and the second wireless station at Kokopo were taken without opposition.

On 14 September AE1 was in Simpson Harbour, Rabaul. At 8.00 am she and the destroyer HMAS Parramatta proceeded to the day’s patrol area. The captain of Parramatta had orders to search to the south, in company with AE1, returning to Kokopo in the evening. However, Lieutenant Commander Besant, commanding AE1, chose to move north-east, independent of Parramatta, and search the Duke of York group of islands. The submarine was not seen again by Parramatta until 2.20 pm, east of the main island. She signalled Parramatta asking about visibility, the destroyer replying that it was one to five miles with haze. Parramatta then lost sight of AE1 at about 3.20 pm. A local sweep by Parramatta was followed by a wider search by other vessels over the next days. The submarine and its crew of 35 were never seen again.

Theories involving attacks by German ships hidden among the islands were unproved. More likely is the explanation by Lieutenant Henry Stoker, captain of AE2 which was also operating in the area. He believed that AE1 might have struck one of the many reefs in the area, or had suffered a major mechanical failure while submerged. Some weight was given to this opinion by the fact that, before leaving England, AE1 had undergone balancing tests following trimming problems with her main ballast. Further, Stoker’s own boat, AE2, was lost later in the Sea of Marmara, Turkey, following an unexpected surfacing after losing trim while submerged.

A number of searches for AE1 over the years have proved fruitless. Most recently, a RAN minehunter detected a wreck in 55 metres of water off Rabaul, but it was identified as a Japanese WW2 submarine.

On 14 September 2011 the Governor General unveiled a plaque at the RAN Historical Centre, Sydney, commemorating the loss of AE1.

Image Top Right: The Australian Navy submarine AE1 coming into port.

Image Bottom Left: H.M.A. Submarine AE1, with HMAS Australia and HMAS Yarra at a Rendezvous off Rossell Island in 1914-19, Taken from the bridge of HMAS Encounter.

Article written by: Rod Margetts - who is a battlefield tour guide for Boronia Travel Centre.
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