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First Submarine Lost

14 SEP 1914: World War I and HMA Submarine AE1 is lost off New Guinea. The AE1 and AE2 were the first submarines to serve with the Royal Australian Navy. The AE1 disappeared without trace during operations for the capture of German New Guinea. In 1914 the Australian government took possession of two new submarines, HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2, from Great Britain for just over £105,000 each.

These submarines were experimental, top-secret craft. At just over 54 metres long and less than seven metres wide, they could travel at around 15 knots surfaced and 9 knots submerged.

On 7 March 1914 AE1 and AE2 began an epic journey of almost 21,000 kilometres from England to Australia. The submarines frequently broke down and needed to be repaired; they had to be towed by naval ships for one-third of the distance owing to malfunctions; and they made many stops in ports, including at Gibraltar, Malta, Colombo, and Djakarta.

The interior of AE1 was filled with pipes, levers, and torpedoes¹, and conditions for the crew were cramped and uncomfortable. The supply of fresh air was limited and it got extremely hot. When temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius there was an attempt to reduce the heat by painting the submarine white.

AE1 and AE2 finally sailed into Sydney Harbour on 24 May 1914. They had completed the longest submarine voyage ever undertaken.

However, the crew and vessels did not have much time for rest and repair: in August the First World War broke out, and they were called up for duty.

The submarines were sent as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) to capture German possessions in the western Pacific and German New Guinea. Following the capture of Rabaul, on 14 September 1914 AE1 and HMAS Parramatta left Blanche Bay, New Britain, to patrol around Cape Gazelle.

The vessels kept in sight of each other and exchanged visual signals until around 3.30 pm, when a mist descended and the AE1 disappeared.

The Parramatta returned to the AE1’s last known position and spent the next two days searching for it, with the help of three other naval ships. No signs of the AE1 or its 35 crew members were ever found.

Theories speculating as to what had happened to the AE1 soon spread:

Whether she was actually sunk by a shot from the enemy, whether an unseen pinnacle of coral ripped open her plates, or the pumps refused to do their work in bringing the vessel again to the surface after a dive, will probably remain forever unknown.

Further searches of the area were conducted in the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s, each time to no avail. Photo: Australian Navy submarine AE1 at sea. AE1, and sister boat AE2, were the RAN’s first submarines arriving in Sydney Harbour in May 1914 under RN command.

On the outbreak of war both vessels moved to New Britain under escort. On 14 September 1914 AE1 left with HMAS Parramatta as escort to carry out a patrol off Cape Gazelle. At 1530 hours the escort noticed the submarine appeared to be returning to port but it was never seen again. More;

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