AE1 and AE2: The First Generation Australian Submarines
When the Commonwealth was proclaimed in 1901, submarines were beginning to appear in the Royal Navy, where their introduction had been opposed for a long time. Captain Creswell, the new Director of Commonwealth Forces, was very much against them and, up until 1906, his view prevailed in Australia.
In 1907, however, the Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, attended a colonial conference in London and came home convinced that the submarine was not only a potent weapon but also one that was suitable for Australia. He proposed purchasing three a year, plus two torpedo boats, over a three year period. By the next year, Andrew Fisher replaced Deakin and the new Government shelved his idea and ordered three Torpedo Boats instead.
In 1909, the German Navy’s growth began causing increasing concern. The Admiralty therefore came up with a proposal for an Australian Fleet of a battle cruiser, three light cruisers, six destroyers and three submarines. The three submarines were to be the small “C” class, however this was changed to two “E” class, which were twice the size of the “C” class as they would better suit Australian conditions. In late 1910, a contract was signed with a building yard at Barrow-in-Furness, England for the construction of AE1 and AE2 (the “A” in their name standing for Australian). The submarines displaced 810 tons submerged and were capable of a speed of 10 knots. Both submarines were completed and commissioned in Portsmouth on 28 February 1914.
AE1 and AE2 departed Portsmouth, England on 2 March 1914, sailing via Suez and Singapore. Beset with minor problems during their delivery, the two submarines arrived in Sydney on 24 May 1914, just three months before the outbreak of World War I. It was a baptism of fire as they were immediately deployed to support the war effort. AE1 and AE2 were assigned to operations in New Guinea waters at the outbreak of World War I. One month later, AE1 was gone.
Lost without trace
At 7am on 14 September 1914, HMAS PARRAMATTA from Herbershohe and AE1 from Rabaul left Blanche Bay together to patrol off Cape Gazelle. At 2.30pm they were in communication and at 3.30pm the submarine was seen to the Southwest of Duke of York Island, apparently on her way back into harbour. As that was exactly what the submarine should have been doing, no further notice was taken of her. The destroyer remained in the vicinity of St. George’s channel for a further period, eventually entering Herbertshohe in the sharply falling tropical twilight. At 8pm the submarine had not returned.
HMAS PARRAMATTA and HMAS YARRA were at once dispatched to search for the submarine, using flares and searchlights. HMAS SYDNEY, who departed Herbertshohe for the West Coast shortly afterwards was also instructed to keep a good lookout for the submarine. In the morning HMAS ENCOUNTER was dispatched to join the search. HMAS WARREGO, having completed escort duties for HMAS MELBOURNE was also directed during her return passage from Kawieng to provide assistance in the search. Motor and steam launches were commandeered from Rabaul and Herbertshohe and the coasts of New Ireland and New Britain. All neighbouring waters were investigated for over thirty miles. No trace of AE1 – not even the tell-tail shimmer of escaping oil on the water was found or has been since that fateful day.
Her commander, Lieutenant-Commander Besant, was one of the most skilful submarine commanding officers of the day. His fate, and that of the two other officers and 32 sailors (half Australian and half British) is still unknown.
Rumour of the tragedy was quick to be circulated. It is unnecessary to state in detail the various stories – usually attributed to as “bluejacket on leave” – with which readers of the press were regaled. They all agreed, however, in attributing the loss to “German treachery”, but this is not supported by any tangible evidence. Of the many hypotheses, the most likely is that AE1 dived for exercises when nearing the mouth of Blanche Bay and through navigational error ruptured her ballast tanks on the steep coastal coral reef which forms a deep entrance channel. This hypothesis is, however, not supported as no traces of oil were discovered, therefore the true facts on the cause of her fate must be left to the technical experts.
AE1 was the first submarine in the Royal Australia Navy and the RAN’s first war loss. She was also the first British submarine to be lost in World War 1. Her pennant number was 80.
The SIA has commissioned renowned historian Graham Seal AO to compile some historical pieces on Australian submarines. Click here to download the story 'AE1 - The Lost Submarine' (201 KB PDF)
Running the gauntlet in the Dardenelles
After the loss of AE1, AE2 was offered and accepted for the use by the Admiralty. Departing Albany, Western Australia on 31 December 1914 with the second Anzac convoy she was towed across the Indian Ocean by the transport ship (formerly HMAS BERRIMA) to the Middle East Station. On arrival in the Mediterranean she joined the British naval squadron engaged in operation off Gallipoli.
During April 1915, AE2 was ordered to attempt the passage through the Dardenelles for the purpose of disrupting enemy shipping in the Sea of Marmara. Running the gauntlet of Turkish forts and searchlights, AE2 entered the straits on the surface at 2.30am on 25 April 1915 (the first Anzac Day). She attacked and probably hit a small Turkish cruiser with her bow torpedo. Lieutenant-Commander Stoker believed that he had sunk this vessel however the sinking was never officially confirmed. Shortly afterwards, AE2 was forced to dive to avoid being rammed by an enemy destroyer.
There followed a period when she repeatedly tried to surface to carry out observations, only to be attacked by enemy vessels and forced to submerge again. During this period she grounded twice and suffered hull damage which caused leaks. Finally, having eluded her pursuers, she entered the Sea of Marmara at 9am on 26 April 1915. On entering her patrol area she fired several torpedoes at enemy vessels, but did not score any hits.
On 29 April 1915, whilst off Kara Burma Point, AE2 made rendezvous with HM Submarine E14, the second submarine to make the passage through the straits. The two submarine commanders arranged to meet again the next day. AE2 accordingly positioned for the rendezvous at 10am on 30 April 1915, but on arrival she was forced to dive to avoid an enemy torpedo boat. Shortly afterwards AE2 suddenly lost trim, broke surface, exposing her bow and came under fire of the torpedo boat and another enemy vessel. Lieutenant-Commander Stoker flooded the forward tanks and AE2 dived steeply. Attempts to check the dive, however, caused AE2 to break surface again, this time exposing her stern. The Turkish torpedo boat SULTAN HISSAR opened fire and AE2 was holed in the engine room. With his submarine in an incapacitated state and having no other option, Stoker blew main ballast, ordered all hands on deck and proceeded to scuttle the submarine. AE2 sank in some 72 meters off Kara Burma Point and the wreck was conclusively identified in October 1998.
All hands were picked up by the torpedo boat and they spent the remainder of the war in a Turkish prison camp. One officer and three sailors died in captivity whilst Lieutenant Commander Stoker and the remainder were set free after the war.
AE2 was the second submarine in RAN, and the first British built submarine to make the passage through the Dardenelles into the Sea of Marmara. Two previous attempts to break through into the Sea of Marmara had failed. She was the RAN’s first loss by enemy action and the second and final loss of World War 1.
Up to the time of her loss, AE2 had logged some 35,000 nautical miles, mostly under war conditions. Her pennant number was 81. With the loss, the Australian submarine service ceased to exist for the next four years.
Click here to download the article 'AE2 - The Silent ANZAC' (1.8 MB PDF)