- Fuqua Chris S and Kennett, Rick
- WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE1
- June 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
July, 1914: The Royal Australian Navy is still in the embryonic stages, its forces limited and comparatively minuscule to the navies of the world powers. The R.A.N.’s current strength lies in its battlecruiser, four light cruisers and three destroyers, and the newest members of its fleet, the two –E– class submarines AE 1 and AE 2. On Sunday, May 24 the submarines anchor in Port Jackson, Sydney after a three month delivery voyage from England. Two days later comes frightening news from Europe: Austria has sent an ultimatum to Serbia, an ultimatum Serbia has completely rejected. War involving the British Empire is inevitable. Over the next four years Australia will suffer its share of wartime casualties, but none as mysterious as its first naval disaster – the disappearance of AE 1 and her crew of 35 men.
In total, 58 “E” class submarines were built prior to and during the First World War. AE 1 and AE 2 (the “A” prefix differentiated these two boats from their fifty-six Royal Navy sisters) were built by Vickers Maxim at Barrow-in-Furness. They had a surface tonnage of 660 and a submerged tonnage of 800. They could reach 16 knots on the surface, propelled by two sets of 8 cylinder twin screw diesel engines producing 1,750 horsepower, and 10 knots submerged, propelled by electric motors producing 55 horsepower. Although lacking a deck-gun, the ” E’ ‘ class were well armed with four 18-inch torpedo tubes – one bow, one stern and two beam.
When word of imminent war reached Australia in late July, 1914 AE 1 and AE 2 were undergoing a refit after their voyage from England. With war at hand, work on the submarines was speeded up considerably. On August 5th, Australia finally received word of what had been feared inevitable: Britain and Germany were at war. The Australian military was nearly ready. All warships except the old cruisers ENCOUNTER and PIONEER and the two submarines were already at sea on their way to their war stations. In Port Jackson, work on ENCOUNTER and the submarines continued. By August 6 ENCOUNTER was pronounced seaworthy and ready for action. AE 1 was ready by August 8 and AE 2 by August 10, both ahead of schedule. On September 2 the submarines sailed out of Sydney, accompanied by the gunboat PROTECTOR and the submarine depot ship UPOLU, for Palm Island, Queensland, where the submarines would receive orders to join a force whose task would be to occupy Rabaul on the northern coast of New Guinea, Germany’s centre of government for its Pacific colonies.
On September 9 the R.A.N.’s occupation force assembled, comprising the battlecruiser AUSTRALIA, light cruisers SYDNEY and ENCOUNTER, destroyers YARRA, WARREGO and PARRAMATTA (arriving late), transport BERRIMA, storeship AORANGI, the oiler MUREX, and the colliers KOOLONGA and WAIHORA. Another collier, the WHANGAPE, arrived the following day.
By day the fleet was to proceed to its destination in two columns, one mile apart; by night the columns were to be six miles apart. Initial plans called for the detachment of SYDNEY and the destroyers at dusk on September 10 to reconnoitre Simpson Harbour before dawn on the 11th. But due to the late arrival of PARRAMATTA and to the slow speed of several of the other vessels, the cruising order had to be changed and the fleet despatched in three sections. At 6 a.m. September 10 SYDNEY and the destroyers set off on their task; AUSTRALIA and BERRIMA followed them at 8 a.m. The rest of the convoy came along slowly, escorted by ENCOUNTER and the submarines. By 6 a.m. on September 11, Blanche Bay, Talili Bay and the channel on both sides of the Duke of York group had been searched without finding any enemy vessels. The Rabaul jetty had been found to be clear, and picket-boats had begun a sweep of Karavia Bay for mines. Except for a skirmish ashore while capturing the German headquarters, the operation went off without a hitch. However, the occupation would soon take its toll. Three days later, the R.A.N. would suffer its first major loss, one which would haunt the Australian Navy with endless speculation to the present day.
At 7 a.m. September 14, 1914 AE 1 left Rabaul Harbour to patrol east of Cape Gazelle with the destroyer PARRAMATTA, which had come from her previous night’s patrol area off Watom Island. General orders for both were to patrol the vicinity for enemy vessels and return to harbour before dark. At 2.30 p.m. the submarine and destroyer were in sight of each other. They communicated by wireless, AE 1 requesting visibility information. The day had begun clear, but haziness had by mid-afternoon restricted visibility to five miles. The sea, however, remained smooth, although strong currents were evident. At 3.20 p.m. AE 1 was lost sight of in the mist, apparently heading back towards Rabaul Harbour. PARRAMATTA turned and steamed in the same direction, keeping close to the coast, but saw no further sign of the submarine. PARRAMATTA remained in St. George’s Channel to conduct her patrol a while longer, then returned to Herbertshoe at 7 p.m.