- Fuqua Chris S and Kennett, Rick
- WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE1
- June 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By 8 p.m. AE 1 had still not reached port. PARRAMATTA and YARRA set off in search, using flares and searchlights. ENCOUNTER joined the following morning; WARREGO, on the way back from Kavieng, also lent a hand. Motor and steam launches from Rabaul and Herbertshoe also joined in the search. The waters where the submarine was last seen were searched thoroughly. Even the coasts of New Ireland and New Britain and all neighbouring waters for 30 miles were investigated, but revealed nothing of AE 1 – not even a trace of oil.
Speculation and rumour began almost immediately. After all, AE 1’s skipper, Lieutenant-Commander Thomas F. Besant R.N., 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 R.N., half R.A.N. – 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 immediately, but the explanation considered most plausible emerged from those most closest to the incident, and were set forth in a report by Lieutenant H.G. Stoker R.N., skipper of AE 2.
Stoker’s first theory held that AE 1 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 could be found.
Stoker’s second theory may have held high respect among the German bashers, but it too lacked evidence; and more, it was simply not credible. AE 1, Stoker suggested, could have been sunk by the enemy. However, no enemy ships had been spotted in the area, and if gunfire from York Island had sunk the submarine, the shots would have been heard by other ships in the Australian contingent.
Stoker’s third theory – that the submarine suffered an internal explosion – also fell through because evidence of an explosion literally never surfaced. Still, the theory has its proponents. Edwyn Gray, in his book on submarine disasters ”Few Survived” maintained that the lack of wreckage suggested nothing but an internal explosion, one of hydrogen gas.
Most experts agree, however, that Stoker’s fourth theory is the most probable. Depths in the St. George’s 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 toward 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 AE 1 might have been caught under an overhang formed by the reef.
While mechanical failure quickly springs to mind as a possible cause of a diving accident, it is unlikely. AE 1 had been in good working order when she left harbour that morning. The only problem reported was with the starboard electric motor which had been scheduled for repair on 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 AE 1 did indeed go down on an unscheduled dive, the question changes from “What happened to AE 1?” 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 anchor time. The cautious, experienced Besant had already expressed complete satisfaction with the capabilities of his officers, crew and the diving ability of the submarine. And no enemy ships had been reported in the area which would have caused AE 1 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 down in the vast depths existing in those parts, rapidly filling through the hull, bringing a quick and clean death to the crew whose end might well have come before their steel tomb had reached the ocean’s bed – there to rest undisturbed by man and his investigations”.