- Fuqua Chris S and Kennett, Rick
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- September 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This article brings together an article, Australia’s First Naval Casualty Remains a Mystery, written by Chris Fuqua and Rick Kennett, which first appeared in the NHS Review in June 1991, and information drawn from the HMA Ship Histories section of the Sea Power Centre Australia website.
HMAS AE 1 – Statistics
|Type||E Class Submarine|
|Displacement||660 tons (surfaced), 800 tons (submerged)|
|Beam||22 feet 6 inches|
|Draught||12 feet 6 inches|
|Builder||Vickers Ltd., Barrow-in-Furness, England|
|Laid Down||14 November 1911|
|Launched||22 May 1913|
|Machinery||2 sets of 8 cylinder diesel engines, battery driven electric motors|
|Horsepower||1,750 (surfaced), 550 (submerged)|
|Speed||15 knots (surfaced), 10 knots ( submerged)|
|Armament||4 x 18 inch torpedo tubes|
HMAS AE1 commissioned at Portsmouth, England on 28 February 1914, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Thomas F. Besant, RN. Accompanied by HMAS AE2, the other of the Royal Australian Navy’s first two submarines, AE1 reached Sydney from England on 24 May 1914, manned by Royal Navy officers with a mixed crew of sailors drawn from the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.
In July 1914, the Royal Australian Navy was still in the embryonic stages, its forces limited and comparatively miniscule compared to the world powers. Its strength consisted only of a battlecruiser, four light cruisers and three destroyers, and the newest members of the Fleet, the two ‘E’ Class submarines, AE1 and AE2.
Only two days after the submarines’ arrival in Australia came frightening news from Europe: Austria had sent an ultimatum to Serbia, an ultimatum which Serbia completely rejected. War involving the British Empire was inevitable. Over the next four years Australia would suffer its share of wartime casualties but none as mysterious as its first naval disaster – the disappearance of AE1 and her crew of 35 men. When word of the imminent war reached Australia in late July, the submarines were undergoing a refit after their voyage from England. With war at hand, work was speeded up considerably. On 5 August 1914, Australia finally received news of what had been feared to be inevitable: Britain and Germany were at war.
The Australian military was nearly ready. All warships, except the old cruisers, Encounter and Pioneer and the two submarines, were already at sea on their way to war stations. In Port Jackson, work on Encounter and the submarines continued. By 6 August, Encounter was declared seaworthy and ready for action. AE1 was ready by 8 August, and AE2 by 10 August, both ahead of schedule. On 2 September, they sailed out of Sydney, accompanied by the gunboat Protector and the submarine depot ship Upolu, for Palm Island, Queensland. Here, the submarines would receive orders to join a force whose task would be to occupy Rabaul on the northern coast of New Guinea, Germany’s centre of government for its Pacific colonies.
On 9 September, the RAN’s occupation force assembled, comprising the battlecruiser Australia, light cruisers Sydney and Encounter, destroyers Yarra, Warrego and Parramatta (arriving late), transport Berrima, storeship Aorangi, the oiler Murex, and the colliers Koolonga and Waihora. Another collier, Whangape, arrived the following day.
By day, the Fleet was to proceed to its destination in two columns one mile apart; by night, the columns were to be six miles apart. Initial plans called for the detachment of Sydney and the destroyers at dusk on 10 September to reconnoitre Simpson Harbour before dawn on the 11th. But due to the late arrival of Parramatta, and the slow speed of several of the other vessels, the cruising order had to be changed and the Fleet despatched in three sections. At 6 am on 10 September, Sydney and the destroyers set off on their task. Australia and Berrima followed them at 8 am. The rest of the convoy came along slowly, escorted by Encounter and the submarines. By 6 am on 11 September, Blanche Bay, Talili Bay and the channel on both sides of the Duke of York Group had been searched without finding any enemy vessels. The Rabaul jetty had been found to be clear, and picket boats had begun a sweep of Karavia Bay for mines. Except for a skirmish ashore while capturing the German Headquarters, the operation had gone off without a hitch.
At 7 am on 14 September, AE1 left Rabaul Harbour to patrol east of Cape Gazelle with the destroyer Parramatta, which had come from her previous night’s patrol area off Watom Island. General orders for both were to patrol the vicinity for enemy vessels and return to harbour before dark. At 2.30 pm, the destroyer and submarine were in sight of each other. They communicated by wireless, AE1 requesting visibility information. The day had begun clear but haze had moved in by mid-afternoon, restricting visibility to about five miles. The sea was smooth, although strong currents were evident. At 3.20 pm AE1 was lost from view, apparently heading back to Rabaul Harbour. Parramatta turned and headed in the same direction, keeping close to the coast, but saw no further sign of the submarine. Parramatta remained in St George Channel a while longer, then returned to Herbertshoe at 7 pm.
By 8 pm, AE1 had still not returned to harbour. Parramatta and Yarra set off in search, using flares and searchlights. Encounter joined the following morning. Warrego, on her way back from Kavieng, also lent a hand. Motor and steam launches from Rabaul and Herbertshoe also joined in. The waters where the submarine was last seen were searched thoroughly. Even the coasts of New Ireland and New Britain and all neighbouring waters for 30 miles were investigated, but revealed nothing of AE1, not even a trace of oil.