The RAN E-class submarine HMAS AE1 was the first submarine to serve in the Royal Australian Navy, and was lost at sea with all hands near East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, on 14 September 1914, after less than seven months in service. The wreck of the submarine has never been found, despite numerous searches.
AE1 was built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England and launched on 22 May 1913. She reached Sydney from England on 24 May 1914 accompanied by her sister ship AE2.
At the outbreak of World War I, both submarines took part in operations leading to the occupation of German New Guinea, this including the surrender of Rabaul on 13 September 1914. AE1 was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, RN.
Early on 14 September, AE1 set out to patrol off Cape Gazelle. She had not returned by evening and several ships were sent to search for her. Together with Lieutenant Commander Besant, two other officers and 32 sailors were lost in this disaster. This was Australia’s first major loss of World War 1.
Merlindown first located the wreck of AE1 in 2006, the discovery being confirmed following a visit to the site by divers in July 2007. The divers reported that she was lying upright and was in good condition bearing in mind the length of time she has been underwater. For security reasons we are not publishing the wreck site coordinates at this present time. Neither are we including all the scans we have obtained of the wreck with this posting, one of which shows the submarine to extremely good effect with her characteristic outline clearly defined. However, we are taking this opportunity to notify visitors to this website of our results so that our discovery of AE1 can be dated and verified when appropriate.
As we understand it the loss of AE1 was due to fact that it was not familiar with her course and had crossed over a low coral reef bar whilst manoeuvring underwater. This caused damage sufficient to have popped many of her rivets along the hull bottom plates. The consequent in-rush of water reached the exposed batteries causing an explosion and then a fire, forcing the submarine to the surface where it remained briefly before sinking down for the last time. No crew were observed getting out. The sinking was witnessed by a native who described it as a ‘sea monster dying’. Because of all the noise it was making, he stated that he was glad when it had disappeared. We assume that the noises he alluded to were her engines, the cries of the crew trying to put out the fire, escaping chlorine gas and subsequent explosion which killed the crew and the sounds emitted as she sank.
This Merlindown colour-coded image, taken in infrared and ultraviolet light, shows the submarine upright on the sea floor. The green dot shows the location of the stern, the red dot shows the location of the bridge and the blue dot shows the location of the bow.