Last updated: 08/06/2018

HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2: Australia’s first submarines

Australia’s first submarines, HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2, were launched in England in 1913 and manned by composite Australian and British crews.

HMAS AE1

The Royal Australian Navy submarine AE1 comes into port at Sydney, 1915. A02551

The Royal Australian Navy submarine AE1 comes into port at Sydney, 1915. A02551

At the outbreak of the First World War the two submarines were sent from Sydney to German New Guinea with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to help capture the German colony.

On 14 September, a day after the official German surrender of the colony, AE1, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, left Rabaul harbour to patrol Cape Gazelle. It never returned.

An initial search lasted two days, but no wreckage or oil slick was found. For 60 years AE1 was all but forgotten. From 1976 several searches were undertaken by various teams, but it remained missing until 20 December 2017, when the wreck was located off the Duke of York Island group. In April 2018 high-definition cameras helped produce a 3-D model of the wreck, allowing experts to study it and perhaps learn what happened.

HMAS AE2

Royal Australian Navy submarines AE1 and AE2 in Sydney Harbour, c. 1915. H11559

Royal Australian Navy submarines AE1 and AE2 in Sydney Harbour, c. 1915. H11559

AE2 remained in the Rabaul area until 4 October, when it proceeded to Fiji to join other Australian and French ships. After three weeks the German threat had greatly diminished, and AE2 was ordered back to Sydney. In December it joined the second Australian Imperial Force troopship convoy heading from Albany, Western Australia, for Europe, and in February 1915 it joined a Royal Navy squadron operating in the Aegean Sea.

Commanded by Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker, AE2 was ordered to sail through the Dardanelles and “run amok” in the Sea of Marmara. No other submarine had managed to breach the heavily mined and defended channel, but in the early hours of 25 April 1915 AE2 got safely through. After engaging a Turkish torpedo boat, it reached the Sea of Marmara and remained at large for five more days before sustaining irreparable damage from Ottoman troops.

Stoker was eventually forced to sink the submarine. He and his crew were taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in Ottoman captivity. Stoker survived, and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

The wreck of the AE2 was located off Kara Burnu Point in June 1998.

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