On December 21, the announcement by Defence Minister Marise Payne that AE1 had been located brought an end to a mystery that has lasted 103 years.
AE1 and her sister AE2 were the first two submarines of the RAN. Built in the UK, they made the passage to Australia in 84 days, arriving on May 24, 1914. At 13,000 miles, it was the longest distance covered by submarines at the time. Two propellers, driven by diesel engines, gave the submarines a speed of 15 knots on the surface and electric motors, powered by batteries, provided a speed of 10 knots submerged. They were armed with four 18-inch torpedo tubes – one firing ahead, one astern and one to either side – but no guns were fitted.
At the beginning of World War I the RAN was given the task of seizing the German territories in the islands to the north of Australia. Consequently an invasion force of troops aboard the P&O liner Berrima, escorted by a strong naval force, landed on New Britain on September 11, 1914. The successful operation in which the radio station was captured along with all German forces in New Britain unfortunately led to the first deaths of the war.
The last sighting of AE1 was about 3pm on September 14, 1914, by the destroyer HMAS Parramatta, and when AE1 did not return to base that evening, searches began. No trace of her was found over subsequent days or in the 12 underwater searches since the 1970s, though these eliminated some possible areas.
The location of the wreck site is being kept a close secret because it is the war grave of 35 men and must be treated with respect. There is real danger that it could be plundered by divers seeking to profit from selling artefacts to collectors. In time it is likely that the reason for the disaster will be discovered after future examinations of the wreck.
The sister submarine of AE1 became famous on the first Anzac Day – April 25, 1915 – when she penetrated the minefields of the Dardanelles, sank a Turkish gunboat and drove off a battleship that was shelling the landing beaches. AE2 went on into the Sea of Marmara and caused consternation in the Turkish fleet before being sunk without the loss of any of her crew, who became PoWs for the remainder of WWI. The story of AE2 unfortunately is not known by most Australians. An excellent dramatisation, Gallipoli Submarine, can be seen on YouTube.
BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON
President, Peninsula SS
T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780
The Peninsula Ship Society meets at Hastings Yacht Club on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 10am. Visitors always welcome.