September 14 1914 saw the loss of AE1 – a British designed and built ‘E’ class submarine and the first submersible for Australia’s navy.
Built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness between 1911 and 1913, the vessel was commissioned in February at Portsmouth, England. HMAS AE1 set off in March of that year on the long trip to Sydney, Australia, together with the similarly designed HMAS AE2.
Arriving 24 May 1914, the boat had completed the longest voyage by a submarine ever at that time. Albeit that most of the voyage was on the surface it was never the less a great source of pride for the Royal Australian Navy,(1) its title having been officially recognised by King George V on 10 July 1911(2), a decade after Australia became a self-governing federation(3).
With war declared the two Australian boats set about the capture of Germany’s Pacific colonies, including the surrender of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, to the east of New Guinea on September 13 1914.
The following day AE1 rendezvoused with the destroyer HMAS Parramatta and then proceeded to Cape Gazelle.
At around 09:00 the submarine was ordered to a new patrol point and to anchor with the destroyer at Herbertshohe (the German name for what is now Kokopo, New Guinea) at 17:30.
Visibility varied between five and ten nautical miles because of haze and HMAS Parramatta subsequently reported that submarine was obscured by the mists and the commander of the destroyer thought it advisable to maintain visible contact with the submarine for as long as possible.
Five hours later at 14:30 the two vessels were in signal contact with the submarine asking for a report on the visibility in the immediate area.
An hour later the destroyer lost sight of the submarine and decided to investigate further. When nothing was found it was decided that the boat had returned to harbour and the Parramatta proceeded with its ordered task of anchoring at Herbertshohe.
With the destroyer anchored as order ed and the submarine now overdue a search was made to find AE1. No distress call had been received.
Despite an extensive search nothing was found at the time and the loss of the submarine with all thirty five crew was the first major tragedy in the history of the Royal Australian Navy and the first loss of an Australian naval vessel.
The crew included three officers from the Royal Navy and Cyril Lefroy Baker, the boat’s telegraphist and the first man from Tasmania to die in the First World War.(4) (5)
Several searches were carried since the vessel went missing but none could locate the wreck.
On 21 December 2017 – almost 104 years after AE1 disappeared – the Australian government announced that the mystery of the submarine’s final resting place had been solved.
An underwater search which began on 17 December and funded by the Australian government and the Silentworld Foundation and assisted by the Submarine Institute of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Fugro Survey N V, the government of Papua New Guinea and Find AE1 Limited a not for profit organisation established to finding the wreck, managed to locate the submarine in 300 metres (985 foot) of water off Duke of York Islands, a group of islands in St George’s Channel, Papua New Guinea.
There are said to be more than twenty shipwrecks in the area
With the Australian government attempting to find descendants of the 35 Australian and British crew members, talks were beginning with the Papua New Guinea government regarding a lasting memorial for the site.
However, how the submarine met its end remains a mystery.
The fin or conning tower structure is separated from the main body of the boat and the absence of oil at the time of the sinking suggest that the vessel sank intact and not as the result of an explosion.
Sources and further information