- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- Early warships, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By the end of 1914 the Indian and Pacific Oceans had been cleared of German units. The remaining Australian boat was recognised as being too valuable a unit to be retained on the Australia station and was soon despatched to escort a troop convoy to the Middle East. There AE-2’s successful penetration of the Dardanelles marked another stage in the evolution of the submarine as an offensive weapon. Although the boat was lost before she completed her patrol, the potential of the type had been clearly demonstrated to both the navy and – when the story of AE-2’s exploit finally emerged – to the Australian public. The submarine was an offensive weapon and it was capable of world-wide use. Interestingly, and ironically in view of AE-1’s employment when lost, what was also clearly demonstrated by the British experience of the First World War was that the submarine was not particularly suited to local or coastal defence. Not one German surface ship raid on a British port had been intercepted by a submarine in its approaches, despite the fact that there were units allocated to the task.
Phase Three: After 1918 – A New Threat and a New Concept
The end of the Great War almost immediately saw the development of new great power rivalries. In the Pacific, Japan had benefited significantly from the strategic space it had enjoyed as an ally while the United Kingdom focused on Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. It was now clear that there was the potential for conflict between an expanding Japan and the British Empire. Such a conflict would be inherently maritime in nature and would place huge demands on British and Commonwealth resources.
The shift of focus of British defence planning to Europe from the early 1930s and the rapid collapse of Allied resistance in South East Asia to the Japanese offensives in 1941-42 have tended to disguise the amount of effort that was put into developing concepts for the defense of the Far East in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly at the operational and tactical levels, before the crises began in Europe. It was accepted from the outset, even after the development of significant base facilities in the Far East, that the main British fleet would normally be located in the Mediterranean and only in emergency move to South East Asia. This created the requirement to buy time.
In particular, the British very quickly understood that submarines represented the best chance of interrupting or at least slowing any Japanese seaborne ventures into the archipelago. From 1919 until the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, the largest and most modern force of submarines in the Royal Navy was always part of the China fleet. The first modern submarine flotilla of L class submarines (of the next biggest type after the J and the special M and K classes, which were not considered suitable for such operations) was transferred to the China Station in 1919, at the same time as the J class were given to Australia. It was considered the ‘premier’ submarine flotilla of the Royal Navy. The first serious experiments with sustained submerged operations in tropical conditions were conducted as early as 1923 and the performance of submarines in this regard was a continuing subject of interest, with extended patrols (up to a month in length) being practised. Until the early 1930s, every new RN submarine design was intended for the Far East and it was only later in the 1930s and the return of a European threat that the priority moved away from the larger (and faster) boats which were required in the Asia-Pacific. In July 1939, in addition to the modern depot ship Medway, there were no less than fifteen large patrol submarines on the China Station. By comparison, there were only five operational submarines in the Mediterranean, three of which were clearly reinforcement units for the Far East, and six in the Home Fleet. Notably, although most of the surface fleet was withdrawn from the Far East at the outset of war with Germany, fear of Japan taking advantage of the situation meant that all the submarines remained in theatre until well into 1940.