- Fuqua Chris S and Kennett, Rick
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE1
- September 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Speculation and rumour began almost immediately. After all, AE1’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Besant, was well known for his skill and alertness. And yet the submarine had disappeared. The fate of Besant, two other Royal Navy officers and the submarine’s crew of 32 – half RN, half RAN – remains a mystery, though not one without theories.
Rumours of the day naturally credited the loss to ‘German treachery’, a supposition thoroughly contradicted by the evidence, or rather the lack of evidence. Many hypotheses arose quickly, but the explanation considered most plausible emerged from those closest to the incident, and was set forth by Lieutenant H.G. Stoker, RN, captain of AE2.
Stoker’s first theory held that AE1 had broken down and was subsequently carried away by the currents. But the search following the disappearance eliminated that possibility when no debris or bodies had been found..
Stoker’s second theory may have held some credence amongst the German bashers, but it too lacked evidence, and more, it was simply not credible. AE1, Stoker suggested, could have been sunk by the enemy. However, no enemy ships had been sighted in the area, and if gunfire from York Island had sunk the submarine, the shots would have been heard by the other ships in the Australian contingent.
Stoker’s third theory – that the submarine had suffered an internal explosion – also fell through because evidence of an explosion literally never surfaced. Still, the theory has its proponents. Edwin Gray, in his book on submarine disasters, Few Survived, maintains that lack of wreckage suggests nothing but an internal explosion of hydrogen gas.
Most probable theory
Most experts agree, however, that Stoker’s fourth theory is the most probable. Depths in the St George Channel range between 200 and 300 fathoms. Stoker speculated that, while on an unscheduled practice dive, the submarine struck a reef. Yet the deep waters where she was last seen are hardly the sort in which a submarine would hit a reef, unless she struck one further in towards shore. She may have come up so close to a coastal reef that the rocks shredded her sides. As for the lack of oil and debris, some suggest that AE1 might have been caught under an overhang formed by a reef.
While mechanical failure quickly springs to mind as a possible cause of a diving accident, it is unlikely. AE1 had been in good working order when she left harbour that morning. The only problem reported was with her starboard electric motor which had been scheduled for repair on her return to harbour that evening. The defect would not have adversely affected the submarine’s standard operation. It would only have prevented the starboard propeller from being used during a dive, limiting submerged speed.
After years of pondering the possible causes of the submarine’s disappearance, Stoker, in his 1925 book Straws in the Wind, insisted that each of his four theories had ‘more arguments against it than for it’. But the only solution which could account for the complete and absolute disappearance of the boat and its crew, he maintained, was ‘an accident while diving’. If AE1 did indeed go down on an unscheduled dive, the question changes from ‘What happened to AE1?’ to ‘Why did Besant dive when he had neither reason nor time?’ The submarine was some 25 miles out of harbour when it was last seen just three hours before scheduled anchoring time. The cautious, experienced Besant had already expressed complete satisfaction with the capabilities of his officers, the crew and the diving ability of his boat. No enemy ships had been reported in the area which could have caused AE1 to dive for investigation. ‘If, however,’ Stoker continued, ‘the objections were brushed aside and one accepted as a fact that she dived and became out of control while diving, the end is plain to see. The sinking submarine would slip away into the vast depths existing in those parts, rapidly filling through the hull, bringing a quick and clean death to the crew, whose end would have most probably have come before their steel tomb had reached the ocean’s bed, there to rest, undisturbed by man and his investigations.’
As Stoker suggests, assuming Besant did take AE1 on a dive for reasons known only to himself, and assuming the diving planes jammed, AE1 may have slipped into a steep descent and eventually have been crushed. This theory has been posed before to explain an accident involving the British steam-driven submarine K5 when she disappeared near the Scilly Isles on 20 January 1921. The problem when applying the K5 theory to the disappearance of AE1 is that the wreckage of K5 was found, along with an oil slick – clear evidence of a disaster. On the same day K5 disappeared, her sister K22 (formerly K13) added further credence to the theory for the K5 accident. Participating in the same exercise as K5, K22 took on such an alarming bow-down angle when she dived that her captain threw the motors into reverse and blew all tanks at full pressure to get her back to the surface as quickly as possible. Assuming such an accident occurred to AE1, the method used by K22 to save herself would have been partially denied to the Australian boat as her starboard electric motor was out of action.
Lack of evidence
As to the lack of evidence, it must be remembered that whatever happened to AE1 probably occurred no later than 6 pm and possibly as early as 3.30 pm. The search did not get underway until 8 pm that night – two ships using flares and searchlights to try and cover an area of over a hundred square miles of sea. By morning, the strong currents in the area had had twelve hours or more – most of them in darkness – to disperse any wreckage.