Dig Deeper - The tragic mystery of AE1
Australia’s first submarines, the HMAS AE1 and her sister-ship AE2 (‘A’ for Australian, ‘E’ for E class submarine) first entered Sydney Harbour at 6am on 24 May 1914, as the country celebrated Empire Day. The two vessels had just completed the longest-ever voyage for a submarine: 24,000 kilometres and 60 days at sea from the shipyards of Vickers Armstrong in England, to Sydney. With their mix of Australian and British crew, the vessels were hailed as invaluable additions to the Commonwealth’s fledgling naval forces.
Berthing at Garden Island, they created quite a sight for spectators. The captain of AE1, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, responded to fascinated reporters about life on-board the strange craft. Described as quiet and youthful-looking, Besant admitted to some monotony in the life of a submariner, but gave scant details of the tiny, cramped, and poisonous environment he worked in, where his crew of 35 shared bunks, often slept between torpedoes, and used buckets for washing.
Compared to previous models, however, the E class featured larger crews, more torpedos, and safer diesel engines. Their technology was still top secret, with even the Sydney Morning Herald reporter being denied access to the new arrivals. The Herald’s report, under the sub-heading “House of Secrets”, explained that a submarine ‘is a deadly thing. A battleship may ride in majesty on the waves, and in a moment be torn by a torpedo hurled by the stealthy, invisible foe beneath the water. It is because this type of vessel is so valuable in time of war that such pains are taken to guard its secrets.’
Few people beside those who make their homes in them know the secrets that the submarines contain.Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1914
War came just two months later, with mixed feelings for the submariners, who according to AE2's commander existed solely so that ‘one day [they] would fight the Germans’. Their initial regret at being thousands of miles from the centre of naval action soon vanished as the two submarines were ordered into the Pacific to join the hunt for the German Pacific squadron under Admiral Graf von Spee. They raced to Rabaul, where two of the largest German cruisers were believed to be. But finding Rabaul Harbour empty, Australian troops of the AN&MEF occupied the shore and the navy began patrolling the narrow St George’s Strait. AE2 with an accompanying destroyer conducted the first day’s patrol. The next day, September 14, AE1 took up with the Parramatta to patrol Cape Gazelle, and what followed became one of Australia’s most enduring maritime mysteries.
Aboard AE1 everything appeared normal. Besant swapped signals with Parramatta throughout the patrol. About 2.30pm a haze descended, and the two vessels stayed together for an hour before they lost sight of each other. AE1 was never seen again. Believing that it had returned to Rabaul, Parramatta returned at 6pm to find the AE1 had not been sighted. Searches over three days and nights found no trace of the vessel.
AE2’s Lieutenant Commander H. S. Stoker was shocked and distressed. The two submarines' commanders were friends, having shared in the long voyage and adventures since leaving Britain. Quizzed for a possible explanation, Stoker suggested that a lack of any debris on the surface pointed to mechanical failure or a diving accident. If AE1 had dived and struck trouble ‘the sinking submarine would slip away down into the vast depths existing in those parts, rapidly filling as the increasing pressure of water outside forced its way through the hull’. The crew’s steel tomb would reach the ocean floor, ‘there to rest undisturbed by man and his investigation.’
It was Australia’s first warship to be lost in the First World War, and despite repeated attempts, no trace of it or any of its crew has ever been found.
Perhaps it is a harder life than in other branches of the service but it's the life I've chosen. Oh, yes, it's dangerous, if you want to look at it like that, but it's got to be done—and every man in the navy, no matter in what branch of it he is, has to be prepared to meet danger when it comes.Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, HMAS AE1, 24 May 1914