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Loss of HMAS AE1

Friday 13 September, 2019

Australian Submarine, HMAS AE1, was launched at Barrow-in-Furness, England on 22 May 1913 and was commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) at Portsmouth on 28 February 1914 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Thomas Fleming Besant, RN.  It was the first of two E Class submarines – experimental, top-secret craft – built for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

AE1 departed England on March 7 1914 along with her sister AE2.  After an epic journey of almost 21,000 kilometres, they finally reached Sydney Harbour on 24 May 1914. Although the submarines remained surfaced for almost the entire voyage, it was the longest transit distance ever travelled by a submarine at that time. That first voyage was not without incident and the submarines frequently broke down and had to be towed by naval ships, making stops in ports such as Gibraltar, Malta, Colombo and Djakarta. Conditions for the crew on board were cramped and uncomfortable, extremely hot and with little fresh air.

Their arrival in Sydney was closely followed by the outbreak of World War One in August 1914, so there was very little time for recovery and repairs. AE1 joined the naval forces assigned to the capture of the German Pacific colonies and, on 13 September 1914, she took part in the operations leading to the occupation of German New Guinea, including the surrender of Rabaul on 14 September. Following the capture of Rabaul, AE1 and HMAS Parramatta left Blanche Bay, New Britain, to patrol around Cape Gazelle. The vessels kept in sight of each other, exchanging visual signals until around 3.30pm when a mist descended and the AE1 disappeared.  By 8.00pm that evening, the submarine had not returned and Parramatta and her sister ship HMAS Yarra were ordered to conduct a search.

The light cruiser HMAS Sydney, on her way to the west coast, was also instructed to keep a lookout and later HMA Ships Encounter and Warrego also joined the search together with launches from Rabaul and Herbertshohe.  The ships spent the next two days searching but no trace was found.

The loss of AE1, with her entire complement of three officers and 32 sailors, was the RAN’s first major tragedy and it marred an otherwise successful operation to seize the German colonies in New Guinea and the South Pacific.

Throughout the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s, a total of 12 private and government-funded expeditions were conducted to establish the AE1’s location but failed to find the vessel. Finally, in December 2017, a new search using the vessel Fugro Equator, and with the benefit of more advanced technology, located the wreck of AE1 in 300 metres of water off the Duke of York Island group. The RV Petrel was enlisted to survey the wreckage and it was discovered that the submarine’s rear torpedo tube was fully opened.

On 21 December 2017, the Australian Government formally announced that the exact location of the wreck would not be publicly disclosed to protect it from ‘unauthorised salvage attempts’. The government’s stated position is that the wreck will be treated as a war grave.

Following the discovery, Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Timothy Barrett, said:

“For the Navy, it demonstrates the persistence of a view that fellow mariners always have and that is, we always seek to locate and find where those who sacrificed so much for their country actually laid at rest”.

He then quoted the Naval Ode:

“They have no grave but the cruel sea

No flowers lay at their head

A rusting hulk is their tombstone

A’fast on the ocean bed.

 Lest we forget.’


 Vision of the AE1 wreck



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