The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (1068) Petty Officer (SG) Robert Smail, HMAS AE1, First World War.
The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Richard Cruise, the story for this day was on (1068) Petty Officer (SG) Robert Smail, HMAS AE1, First World War.
1068 Petty Officer (SG) Robert Smail, HMAS AE1
Accidentally killed: 14 September 1914
Today we remember and pay tribute to Petty Officer Robert Smail.
Robert Smail was born on 26 January 1888 in Galashiels, Scotland, the son of Robert and Elizabeth Smail.
He attended school in the village of Spott, south of the coastal town of Dunbar. After leaving school at the age of 16, Smail joined the Merchant Service. He served on the Baltic trade route before joining a four-masted sailing ship Loch Tay with a cargo bound for Port Melbourne.
During the journey Loch Tay was becalmed and the cargo had to be offloaded to another ship. As a result, the crew were discharged in Australia. Smail then joined a ship, possibly the SS Cooma, as it plied its trade along Australia’s eastern sea board.
Smail joined the Commonwealth Naval Service on 3 August 1908, signing on for five years. With his previous service as a merchant sailor taken into account, he was awarded the first of his good conduct badges in January 1909.
He was sent to Scotland along with other sailors to commission the Commonwealth Naval Forces ship Yarra, a 700-ton torpedo boat destroyer. The ship was commissioned in early September 1910 and sailed for Australia shortly after in company with her sister ship HMAS Parramatta. The ships arrived in Australia in November. During the ship’s voyages around Australia Yarra stopped in at Launceston, where Smail had friends.
In mid-June 1911 Smail was promoted to petty officer. A year later he was sent to the shore establishment HMAS Cerberus. On 1 July he signed on for a further seven years’ service with the navy and sailed for England with men who had been selected to crew the now Royal Australian Navy’s new E Class submarines.
Arriving in England, he travelled to the Vickers Shipyard in Barrow, Furness, Scotland, and witnessed the building and launch of HMAS AE1.
While in England, Smail took every opportunity to visit his family, and convinced them to move to Australia, paying for their travel and a deposit on a house in Melbourne.
Smail’s second good conduct badge, which would have been for his leadership and drive during the sea trials of AE1, was awarded in January 1914. In March, AE1 and AE2 sailed from Portsmouth, bound for Sydney.
The journey was arduous, with both vessels suffering mechanical problems. At times the operating temperature inside the submarine would reach 38 degrees Celsius, and the air became toxic, polluted by gases from the engine room.
In May 1914 the submarines reached Sydney and were met with intense curiosity from the public. To the imaginations of the Australian people, the underwater capsule of Jules Verne’s novel 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea “was the stuff of science fiction”.
When the First World War began in August 1914, the submarines were assigned to the RAN component of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, providing forward protection to the fleet as it made its way to New Britain.
The AN&MEF went into action on 11 September and captured the radio station at Bitapaka late in the afternoon. Three days later, AE1 and HMAS Parramatta departed Blanche Bay to patrol Cape Gazelle.
AE1 was last seen by HMAS Parramatta at around 2.30 pm. When the submarine had not reported in by 8 pm, ships were sent to look for the missing vessel, but despite searches of the area, “no trace of the AE1 was ever found, not even the tell-tale shimmer of escaping oil in the water.” The crew of three officers and 32 sailors were believed to have drowned. Robert Smail was 26 years old.
It was a sore blow to the fledgling Royal Australian Navy. The loss of HMAS AE1 with all hands was the first loss of an RAN vessel.
Despite searches, the wreck of HMAS AE1 was unable to be located. In December 2017 a multi-national team aboard the survey vessel Fugro Equator located the wreck of AE1 off the Duke of York Islands. The ensuing investigation found that the sub’s loss was caused by a ventilation valve in the hull which had been partially open. It was not clear if it had been human error or a mechanical fault, but as the sub began its dive, water flooded the engine room. When AE1 reached its 100 metre crush depth, an implosion is believed to have torn through the vessel, killing all on board instantly.
Today Robert Smail and his crewmates are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial in the United Kingdom.
His name and those of his Australian crewmates are listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, among almost 62,000 Australians who died while serving in the First World War.
This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Petty Officer Robert Smail, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.
Historian, Military History Section
Video of The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (1068) Petty Officer (SG) Robert Smail, HMAS AE1, First World War. (video)