World War I

World War I

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.

AE 1 - Lost for Over 103 Years

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 close together but by 3.20pm HMAS PARRAMATTA had lost sight of the submarine and turned back towards the position last seen, she was not sighted again.  AE1 was last seen to the west 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-tale shimmer of escaping oil on the water was found until 19 December 2017.

Her commander, Lieutenant-Commander Besant, had previously been in command of several RN submarines. His fate, with the resting place of the two other officers and 32 sailors (half Australian and half British - with one New Zealander) is now known.

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”:  tangible evidence to support or negate this opinion awaits the analysis of a detailed photographic examination of the wreck.  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.

AE 1 - Found 19th December 2017

The men of AE1 were found on 19th December 2017. The successful outcome relied on a combination of research and analysis that went into drawing up the search areas combined with the skill and technology deployed by the crew of MV Fugro Equator. 

The search would not have been possible without the funding and backing provided by the Australian Government, Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), their funding arm, the Australian National Maritime Foundation (ANMF), and Fugro. The Chairman of the ANMF and founder of the Silentworld Foundation, Mr John Mullen, provided a personal guarantee for the ANMF’s fundraising that enabled the search to proceed at short notice.

The Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) provided funding and support throughout the six-year project to find the men of AE1, and in doing so they provided the financial foundation for the project. Equally notable, the Find AE1 Ltd Board, a group of volunteers, has wisely directed the efforts of the team of other Find AE1 volunteers.

Following a workshop at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2016, the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) verified the search area with analysis based on the most likely scenario, loss of the submarine during a practice dive en route to Rabaul. Marine survey company iXblue acted pro bono as the prime contractor to prepare a costed plan for a 30-day search using towed sensors. This was used as the basis for obtaining Federal Government funding. 

Find AE1’s efforts to reach out to the offshore industry bore fruit in September 2017 when survey company Fugro advised that they had a suitably equipped ship operating in the waters of Papua New Guinea (PNG). A fixed-price contract to comprehensively search the area set out by Find AE1 ensued. Fugro provided favourable terms, including carrying the risk of any extension due to miscalculation of the task, weather delays or equipment defects. This was substantially cheaper than other options and offered the superior technology of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), deployed from a specialised search vessel by a highly experienced survey crew.

Silentworld Foundation, in association with the Australian National Maritime Museum, also undertook a fundraising initiative in the lead up to the search, gaining the generous support of otganisations and private sponsors.  The SIA would like to extend the deepest appreciation to the SWF and all those who supported the search for a vessel of such national significance. More information at the Silentworld website.


After an intense period of activity that included negotiating funding agreements and obtaining the necessary approvals, an eight-person expedition team drawn from the Silentworld Foundation, RAN, ANMM and Find AE1, plus a 14-person Fugro survey crew, sailed from Port Moresby aboard the Fugro Equator on 13 December.

The ship entered the search area  on 18 December 2017. It then sailed to the northern end of the search area, while collecting bathymetric data using its powerful EM 302 multibeam echo sounder (MBES). After completing sound/velocity profile measurement of the water column to the seabed, the first AUV mission was launched that evening. Examination of the data gathered after recovery of the AUV on the following evening, 19 December, revealed that its side-scan sonar and MBES had both detected a contact with similar dimensions to AE1. Further analysis identified the same contact detected during the ship’s initial MBES survey.

The AUV was diverted from its next programmed search to examine the contact more closely. The results added sufficient confidence to suspend the search on the morning of 20 December and examine the contact using a drop camera. The drop camera is a metal frame fitted with lighting, a colour, real-time video camera and a colour stills camera, triggered on demand, suspended beneath the ship.

As the contact came into view on the drop camera’s video feed from the seabed more than 300 metres below, it was apparent that AE1 and its crew had been found.

The wreck site was examined for several hours using the drop camera. This was followed up by an AUV survey using its fitted black-and-white still camera to obtain more than 6,000 images. These were skilfully merged by Fugro to provide a mosaic overview of the wreck (shown at the top of this page).

Analysis of the cause(s) of the loss must be qualified at this stage as it is a complex shipwreck. Resolving what led to the loss is made more difficult by the damage incurred to the submarine’s hull during the sinking process, possible post-sinking events and corrosion due to the march of time. The images are all from an overhead (plan view) perspective; however, the team undertaking the analysis has reached consensus.The most likely cause of AE1’s loss appears to be a diving accident.

AE1 was probably already submerged or in the process of diving when the accident occurred. The wreck’s position is consistent with a return course to Rabaul. It appears that the submarine experienced a depth excursion and exceeded its crush depth, leading to the implosion of the hull forward of the fin in the control room area and over the forward torpedo compartment.  The flooded submarine sank rapidly to the bottom, probably landing on its keel, with a moderate bowdown angle since the bow torpedo tube is relatively intact.  What follows is plausible speculation: - We believe it then pitched forward, to strike the seabed with its bow.  - It is possible that the implosion had already begun the process of dislodging the fin; we believe that the resultant whiplash effect caused or completed dislodgement of the fin and caused it to tilt forward onto the partially collapsed forward casing.

The team has determined that there is a low probability of obtaining further clues about AE1’s loss from entering the surviving hull, and consequently advises against an internal examination. This view is reinforced by the fact that the submarine is the final resting place of its 35 crewmen and deserves the sanctity due to a grave site.

However, the team also believed that a follow-up archaeological survey of the site that employed high definition still and video cameras, a large lighting array and an underwater laser scanner should be conducted to comprehensively document AE1’s exterior hull. Such a survey would provide a 3D model of the wreck site that could contribute to an understanding of its loss, assist in determining a strategy for its longterm management and provide interpretive material for the Australian National Maritime Museum to tell its story to a wide audience. It would also reduce the attraction for an illicit examination.

Such an opportunity presented itself just three months later when Mr Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, made his survey ship RV Petrel available.





There is a need to protect AE1 from unwarranted intrusion and exploitation.  Joint Australian and PNG action will be necessary to establish an exclusion zone around AE1 and preclude any unsanctioned activity on or near the wreck site. Inhabitants of the nearby Mioko Islands have a clear view of the wreck site’s location and are probably the cheapest and most effective means by which PNG and Australian authorities may be alerted to unauthorised visits to the site.

AE1 and its crew have been found – their grave must be protected from unwanted intrusion or exploitation





HMAS AE2: 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 at about 6.00am. 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 from 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 unknown to the world until 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)

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