Thursday 20 February 2014 by Yi Jiang. 12 comments
Education at the Memorial, News

AE1 at Devonshire Dock, Barrow, UK.
The AE1 at Devonshire Dock, Barrow UK, 1913.

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.

P03633.006Last known image of AE1, at a rendezvous with HMAS Australia and HMAS Yarra off Rossel Island in 1914. J03241

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.

H03270Nodup, New Britain. c. 1915, near where AE1 was lost. H03270

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 doneā€”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
P09222.001Able Seaman Jack Jarman, of St Kilda, Victoria, enlisted in July 1911 and became a crew member of AE1 in February 1914. He was 21 when it was lost with all hands. P09222.001
Video: The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (1268) Telegraphist Cyril Lefroy Baker, HMAS AE1PAFU2013/138.01


Steve Murray

Great article! It's a pity that there isn't more mention of the AE1 in the remembrance of WW1.

Betty D

Excellent article. Such a sad story.

Ralph S

Have read a bit about Stoker and AE2, but this was quite new to me. A very interesting article and well written! Nice one AWM.

Alison Carter

Absolutely loved the LAST POST yesterday on website on AE1. Seaman Gordon Clarence Corbould's citation was read - very moving as when his two nephews were mentioned in WW2 the wall behind showed North Africa, Greece/Crete which is where my Dad's cousin and my Dad were first sent with the 2/4th AIF. My cousin did attend and said it was moving.

John Christie

The book, Stoker's Submarine, gives the full story of AE1 and AE2, as well as the discovery of AE2 some years back.

Ted Baker

Any updates about a new search? I heard a group of descendants of the crew are hoping to find it before the centenary!

Terry P

Besant Street, Pearce A.C.T. was named in honour of Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant.


Informative and nice article


On Friday 23 May 2014, to mark the centenary of the submarines' arrival in Sydney on 24 May 1914, the Submarines Association of Australia (SAA) ACT Branch had separate plaques for each of AE1 and AE2 dedicated at the War Memorial. These plaques will be located in the Eastern Precinct in the vicinity of the National Servicemen's Memorial about the end of June 2014. They are the first plaques that recognise the service of any RAN ships during WW1. On Saturday morning, 24 May 2014, the RAN also held a ceremony at the RAN Heritage centre at Garden Island, Sydney to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of the two submarines there. There is another search for the AE1 scheduled for September 2014. The RAN has arranged for one of its Mine Hunters to be deployed to Rabaul to commemorate the centenary of AE1's loss on 14 September 1914. After the commemoration, the ship will spend 5 days using its specialised sonar to search the ocean bed in the vicinity of Duke of York Islands where recent research has indicated the best areas of search.


very good reading hope they find it.

Melissa Messenger

I attended the AE1 and AN&MEF commemorations In Rabaul, PNG on 11 Sep and 14 Sep 2014. It was the most emotional two days. My husband's great Uncle John Messenger was on board AE1 when it disappeared. Although the HMAS Yarra did not find AE1 for us in time for the 100th anniversary, being there where they were last seen and having the back drop of Simpson Harbour during the ceremony was breath taking. We mourn the loss of our men, and hope that one day they will be found. Until then, they remain on watch, keeping Rabaul safe.


Found the picture of AE2 with snake skin drapped over it Had it in my hands. Beautiful picture