What happened to HMAS AE1?
23 Dec 2015|

Political controversy, design issues and a logistics foul up, including a failure to allocate the resources to sustain the capability—there are some strikingly familiar themes in the acquisition of Australia’s first submarines, two 700-tonne E-class boats built by Vickers Maxims at Barrow-in-Furness, England.

Prime Minister Alfred Deakin was the moving force for submarines despite strong opposition from the senior naval officer of the day.  The project was slow to progress, taking three years to place the order in December 1910.   Various proposals envisaging three, nine or 12 were aired before settling on two E-class submarines for Australia—hence their names AE1 and AE2.

The delivery voyage was marked by technical issues, two propeller changes for AE2 (one achieved in the open roadstead off Aden), and seven engine clutch repairs for AE1, to name but a few. The logistic demands were underestimated by a reluctant parent navy, with no training or squadron oversight, base or shore accommodation available for their arrival in May 1914—this support was to be provided by a new submarine depot ship, which was finally delivered in 1919.

After a delivery voyage that broke records, the submarines entered dry dock at Cockatoo Island to repair the ravages of the trip. The onset of World War I truncated this process and they hastily prepared for sea, joining the fledgling Royal Australia Navy (RAN) fleet en route to PNG to capture a naval radio station and take over the German colony.

(The story of the successful landing at the expense of Australia’s first casualties in WWI has been told elsewhere.)

On 14 September HMAS AE1 was ordered to patrol the seaward approaches off Cape Gazelle in company with the torpedo boat destroyer, HMAS Parramatta, to protect the fleet anchorage in Rabaul and to return by dark at 6pm. The submarine and her crew of 35 vanished without trace.

We’re reliant on Lieutenant Warren, Commanding Officer of Parramatta, for an account of the day; conversations reported by Warren were probably by megaphone or flashing light as no other ships recorded any radio messages between them.

Solving the puzzle relies heavily on interpreting the negative clues: no oil slick, no debris and no distress call. This requires knowledgeable supposition and professional judgment to reach a conclusion. We are dealing with a hypothesis, not facts.

AE1 was last seen by Parramatta off the Duke of York Islands, well north of the ordered patrol line. The exchanges between the two vessels as reported by Warren are disjointed and to a naval eye, incomplete. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, the Commanding Officer of AE1 was the senior officer and should have taken charge of the patrol, but he didn’t.

Instead, according to Warren’s report, AE1 headed off to the northeast without explanation. It’s likely that they agreed that AE1 would head up to the Duke of York Islands in search of a German steamer seen the night before, while Parramatta undertook the patrol. I think that Besant decided to head for where the enemy was last seen—in the best traditions of Nelson. The rendezvous at 2:30pm in visibility of 5 miles was not a matter of chance. It was also the last recorded sighting of AE1.

Besant was under strict instructions, issued by the Fleet Commander personally on sailing that morning, to be back by dark; from his last seen position he needed to proceed at best speed on the surface to comply.

En route he may have been tempted to pass close in off Mioko Harbour in a final check for the steamer. With the South East monsoon creating a strong current adding to the wind already pushing him onto the fringing reef off Mioko Island at the south-eastern corner of the Duke of York Islands and rendered invisible by the sun, low on the western horizon this would have been a dangerous place for AE1. We believe it is most likely that AE1 was lost following a grounding.

Armed with this analysis the HMAS AE2 Project Silent Anzac team has formed Find AE1 Ltd, a not-for profit company, established for the sole purpose of finding Australia’s first submarine. The RAN, the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Submarine Institute of Australia are supporting the project.

Contemporary technology at the time of the loss couldn’t search underwater; sonar had yet to be developed. Subsequent searches in recent years have been ad hoc and ill-equipped to search the primary search area.

Supported by generous sponsorship Find AE1 Ltd has organised searches using vessels of opportunity mobilised in PNG to:

  • Examine a contact of interest, found during an RAN sonar search. Regrettably, it proved not to be AE1.
  • Complete a multi beam echo sounder search in November 2015.
  • Clear the area inside the 200m depth line.

We’ve reduced the problem. We now know where AE1 probably isn’t. It appears that after the grounding, the crew of AE1 may have been able to make way towards safety in Rabaul or Kokopo before meeting their fate. We must now search the deeper water using towed Side Scan Sonar (SSS) and magnetometer technology.

We’ve increased the search area to cover a wide range of scenarios; this will take 21 days with a further 9 days allowed for contingencies, utilising a Cairns-based vessel fitted with state-of-the-art sensors to locate AE1 should she lie in deeper waters. We will also embark Remotely Operated Vehicles, fitted with high-definition cameras to examine contacts of interest. That’ll give us a chance to revisit several contacts of interest located in the November search, exploiting the different capabilities of these technologies.

This search will be more expensive; Find AE1 Ltd will again rely on sponsorship and has also applied to the Federal Government for a grant to cover the cost. The next weather window is November 2016 to February 2017.

Noting the precedents set by Federal funding to search for and locate HMAS Sydney II, AHS Centaur and the large commitment for the ongoing search for Flight MH370, Find AE1 is optimistic that the Commonwealth will find the modest funds—$1.7M—to solve the last remaining naval mystery: the fate of HMAS AE1 and her 35 crewmen.

AE1 was lost seeking the foe, it’s time that Australia committed the resources to find her, solve the mystery of her loss and bring closure to the descendants.

In the words of the naval ode:

They have no grave but the cruel sea,

No flower lay at their heads,

A rusting hulk is their tombstone,

Afast on the Ocean bed.

We will remember them.