A century old Australian military mystery is solved

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…Wrapped in the ocean boundless

Where the tides are scarcely stirred

In deeps that are still and boundless,

They perished unseen, unheard …

- ‘Missing’ by Will Lawson, 1914
 

In September 1914, the Royal Australian Navy’s first submarines, AE1 and AE2, began their service as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to New Guinea, to eliminate the German colonial presence in the area. On 14 September, 1914, HMAS AE1 and HMAS Parramatta met at 8:00 am to patrol the seas around Cape Gazelle. By around 3.30 pm, AE1 had vanished.

Having kept sight of one another and exchanging visual signals until this time, HMAS Parramatta returned to AE1’s last known position and spent the next two days searching, with the help of three other naval ships. Despite strong and repeated efforts, no signs of AE1 or its 35 crew members were found, until now.

Recent advances in technology has allowed an Australian search team of maritime surveyors, marine archaeologists and naval historians to locate the vessel intact on the sea floor, south-east of the Duke of York Islands, 300 metres below the surface. The team located the submarine just days after their search began.

The loss of AE1 and its entire crew of three officers and 32 sailors was the RAN’s first major tragedy during the First World War and marred an otherwise successful operation to seize German colonies in New Guinea and the South Pacific.

The AE1 and AE2 submarines were commissioned from Great Britain for just over £105,000 each. The submarines were top-secret craft measuring just over 55 metres long, less than seven metres wide and able to travel at around 15 knots surfaced and 10 knots submerged.

The interior of AE1 was filled with pipes, levers and torpedoes and conditions for the crew were cramped and uncomfortable. The supply of fresh air was limited and temperatures rose quickly.

After the submarines were purchased by the Australian Government they completed the longest submarine voyage undertaken for that time at 21,000 kilometres from England to Australia. They frequently broke down during the voyage and needed continuing repairs.

Since AE1’s disappearance, solving the mystery of the vessel’s loss has been a topic of interest for the Royal Australian Navy, treasure hunters, and even French adventurer Jacques Cousteau.

Theories surrounding AE1’s fate include that it was sunk by the enemy, punctured on a reef, or that the pumps failed to work to bring the vessel to the surface after a dive.

The exact location of the wreckage will be kept secret by the Australian Government in order to protect it from unauthorised salvage attempts.

The discovery of the wreckage has given peace of mind to the descendants of the 35 crew members and in time it may also shed light on what caused the submarine to sink.

The search party was jointly funded by the Australian Government, the Silentworld Foundation, The Australian National Maritime Museum and Find AE1 Ltd.

References:

G. Seal, Finding the lost submarine: the mystery of AE1, Submarine Institute of Australia, 2008 http://www.submarineinstitute.com/userfiles/File/AE1_-_THE_LOST_SUBMARINE.pdf

Seal, Finding the lost submarine: the mystery of AE1, Submarine Institute of Australia, 2008 http://www.submarineinstitute.com/userfiles/File/AE1_-_THE_LOST_SUBMARINE.pdf