The Search For The HMA Submarine The AE1

Briefly the AE1 story

The basic background information is available all over the web, the following AE1 background information is taken from an article by Gus Mellon MIMarEST, MIEAust; and somewhat edited by myself. The unedited version is available on the Ae1 Organisation web site at http://www.ae1.org.au

In 1910, the first ships for the fledgling Royal Australian Navy were ordered from Britain. This order included the construction of the RAN’s first two submarines, the AE1 and AE2, at the Vickers, Sons, Maxim shipyards at Barrow-in-Furness, England.

Specifications, Length 181ft, Beam 22.6ft draft 12.6ft, displacement 660 tons surface and 800tons submerged, speed 15kts on the surface and 10kts submerged, armament 4 only 18 inch torpedoes, crew 14 Australians, 20 English and 1 from New Zealand .

The AE1 was launched on the 22 May 1913 and commissioned on the 28 February 1914. After sea trials the submarines sailed home to Sydney via the Suez Canal, Ceylon, Singapore and Darwin, a distance of 26,000 miles in three months. The submarines sailed with an escorting warship and were towed by that vessel on alternate days;this was to lessen the wear and tear on their propulsion systems.

After their arrival Sydney, they were docked for maintenance at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Sydney and quickly brought back to full operational readiness, in time to be included in the fleet element of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. This was tasked by the Australian government with invading the German Pacific Colonial headquarters at Rabaul, New Britain, Papua New Guinea.

The Day of the AE1’s Loss

The ANMEF landings first occurred on 11 September 1914, at Kabakaulnear Herbertshohe (now called Kokopo). Several days later, on the morning of 14 September 1914, whilst combat operations ashore were still continuing, AE1 put to sea from Simpson Harbour and met up with the destroyer HMAS Parramatta near Herbertshohe. Their orders were to stand out into the St George’s Channel between New Britain and New Ireland, to keep a watch for any German warships, which might come up and catch the invasion fleet at anchor.

For the invasion fleet there was a real danger that Admiral Von Spee and the German East Asia Squadron which was known to be at large somewhere in the Pacific and would make for Rabaul. It would have made short work of the invasion fleet if they had come upon it without warning and at anchor and off a lee shore. All Australian ships in the area were on high alert.

On this day the seas were calm, a strong 3 knot current was running to the north, the sky was initially clear, although later in the day it was hazy, with the visibility decreasing to about five nautical miles by 1500 hrs. The ship and the submarine had patrolled separately for most of the day, the Parramatta to the south east and AE1 to the north east. They were in visual contact and exchanged signals at around 1430 hrs about the range of visibility. This was probably done by Aldis lamp, although both vessels did have radio installed. (AE1 would be patrolling with the radio mast down so radio could not be used)

The AE1 was last seen by Parramatta, at around 1520 hrs, in a position about 1.5 nautical miles SSE of Berard Point, Duke of York Island. She appeared to be shaping a course to return to her anchorage in Simpson Harbour via a southern route around the Duke of York Islands. Parramatta continued to search to the north and eastwards out into the St Georges Channel and to the north, rounding the Duke of Yorks.Parramatta returned to the fleet anchorage at Simpson Harbour several hours after sunset, to find that AE1 had not returned and a general search was commenced at about 8:00 pm that night.

The Immediate Search for AE1

When the search for AE1 was launched, HMAS Yarraand Parramatta were immediately dispatched to search for the submarine. Both ships spent the rest of the night searching the surrounding area by star shell and signal search light.

The search was extended the following morning, with HMAS Encounter proceeding to sea from Simpson Harbour and conducting a search around the Duke of York Islands and to the north-west, before returning to Simpson Harbour. HMAS Warrego, which was returning from a mission to Kavieng on New Ireland, also searched over a wide area, down weather of the AE1’s last probable positions, this was basically to the north and west of the Duke of York Islands.

Encounter sighted an oil slick some 30 nautical miles to the north-west (which was about where AE1 could have been carried by wind and current, if she had suffered a total propulsion failure on her way back to port). The slick was not considered to be significant however, and could have come from any of the warships, which had been sailing in the area from the past several days (constant pumping of oily bilges was a common occurrence back then).

At the end of three days of searching, there had been no trace of any oil, debris or bodies and the search was called off. The fleet began to disperse to other objectives.

By this time, the invasion had been successfully completed and the tempo of the war was increasing elsewhere. All of the major war vessels were urgently required back in Sydney to refit and make ready to escort the first AIF contingent to the Middle East. Also at this same time, the German cruiser squadron revealed their location by a raid on Tahiti and Australian war vessels were sent post-haste after them.

The Enquiry into AE1’s Loss

Vice Admiral Patey (the Flag Officer Commanding) carried out a rudimentary enquiry on the scene. His report ran to just a few pages and concluded (based mostly on the evidence given by the captains of Parramatta and Submarine AE2) that the AE1 most likely dived on its way back into port, to check its trim and/or clear a defect, and struck an uncharted underwater reef, thence sinking in the deep waters thereabouts. The report also noted that an internal explosion might have led to her loss.

Admiral Patey had to depart Rabaul in HMAS Australia and he left the continuance of the search in the hands of the captain of Encounter. No further formal enquiries into AE1’s loss were ever held, although Patey did subsequently submit two further reports on the matter to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board in Melbourne. These were simply re-hashes of his first report, with no further new details being available to him.

Now, what can one deduct from the official reports?

The above just about sums up the official line relating to the loss of the AE1, and what can be found on most web pages. But it’s not the whole story.

Let’s look a little closer at some the official findings

  • The most preposterous assumption is that the AE1 struck an unchartered underwater reef, this assumption is simply ludicrous. The Germans thoroughly surveyed waters in the vicinity of Rabaul and the Duke of Yorks and the Australians used German charts, yes, there were some differences in how the shallow water line was defined, but this is not significant to a professional captain. Furthermore the reefs in that area are all fringing and close to shore. If the submarine had hit a reef the vessel would by momentum ride up on the reefleaving the vessel stranded high and dry. The crew would simply scramble out of the sub and walk 100 yards or less to shore.

    Remember this is war time the mighty German fleet could arrive on the scene at any moment; everyoneis on edge, and on every ship the watch is doubled and on heightened alert scouring the horizon. To suggest that the lookouts on the sub would allow her to get close to a fringing reef just belies logic.

  • The AE1 had to back to anchor, or more correctly alongside the Encounter for engine repairs before dark, a few days earlier the Commander Besant, captain of the AE1had been chided for being back late to station, he would not want this to happen again. And based on his last known position he did not have time to waste diving the sub, which itself was a relatively complicated matter. Furthermore according to Commander Foster of the AE1.corp the starboard electric motor was broken down, probably the clutch system, making the suggestion of a practice dive ludicrous. The general consensus among all historians is that the sub would not have made a practice dive on this day.

  • Internal explosion, this would by all intents and purposes could be a logical conclusion, but there are issues that also negate this as the cause. If there had been a battery explosion, again, the general consensus is that it would not have been powerful enough to sink the sub, and if it did, then all those on watch and most if not all in the ops room would have been able to scramble out of the sub and into the water. Also apart from the survivors in the water there would have been flotsam, possibly jetsam, oil and other debris. So this scenario can also quite confidently be ruled out.

So that did happen to the AE1, what would have been serious enough for the AE1 to make an emergency dive especially with only one electric motor.

Why has everyone forgotten the bloody Germans?

Some Facts

  • The Meklong a 470 ton coaster was hidden up a creak at Mioko harbour, in the Duke of Yorks, the ship was so well camouflaged that the Parramatta anchored 50 yards from the ship and failed to see it. (reminds me of that NRMA advert, “charter boat, what charter boat”) there had been some thought that the Meklong may have been responsible for sinking the AE1 but there is no evidence that she had the means to do so.

  • Then there is the Kolonialge sells chaft a small 73 ton steam schooner usually refered to as the ‘Kolonia’ or simply the KG. She was found by the HMAS Warregoon a reef off Cape Lamberts mouldering and with cannon shells scattered over the front deck and the deck cannon missing.

    It is known that the KG had been fitted with a Maxim Nordenfelt 37mm quick firing automatic cannon, this had a range of over 2,740 yards and capable of firing both iron and armour piercing shells. It is not clear however ifthe KG was fitted with a 5 barrel or single barrel unit.Unfortunately the deck mounted gun was never found. either way,
    each could do some serious damage especially the 5 barrel unit, boy this was a wicked machine. The Australians discovered a 5 barrel Nordenfelt in the hold of the KG.

  • A German sailor Wilhelm Reuschel left behind when the SMS Planet visited Rabaul, he actually bragged that he was in command of the KGand fired the shots that sank the AE1. The diary of Aubrey Hodgson at the time noted that Reuschel “callously gloated over the fact” he and the other Germans were subsequently isolated from the rest of the prisoners and hastily shipped off the Liverpool concentration camp. Why was Reuschel not properly interrogated, it simply belies logic.

  • Then just too muddy the waters even more, another Australian researcher Ken Humphreys had been following a different line of research after he discovered a private report from a stoker on the Parramatta who claimed that the destroyer had….” run over the submarine and sent her to the bottom”. This is interesting as the log of the Parramatta records that at 1545h the day of the AE1’s loss the ship was dead in the water (hove to) no reason was given. This is very strange. A detailed description and map of this scenario was provided to me before Ken passed away.

The most likely scenario for the loss of the AE1

As there are no survivors,no bodies, flotsam or oilin the water, it is obvious that the loss of the submarine is in some way linked with the submarine diving. This can be stated with some confidence because if she had struck a reef, someone even if only those on watch would have survived.It has to also be obvious that for some reason the sub also changed course away from Kokopo and/or Rabaul (otherwise she would have been found by Foster). It stands to reason that the subwas forced to do an emergency crash diveand this ultimately leads to her loss. And I believe the most logical conclusion is that the KG was involved.

First it is important to understand that the AE1although fitted with torpedos, and she had 8 onboard, she had virtually no other means to defend itself, no cannon, no machine gun, just a handful of 303 rifles, a couple of revolvers and would you believe cutlasses!!!!

I Propose The Following Scenario

It is known that the AE1 was to meet up with the Encounter for repairs, it is not entirely clear if this was to be Rabaul or Kokopo, either way it doesn’t matter. At the time while on patrol off the Duke of Yorks Commander Besant would have known that the Encounter was at Kokopo, this may account for the Parramatta suggesting at the inquest that the sub appeared to be on course for south of the Credner islands, a quicker course to Kokopo.

I suggest that due to the strong north currents that day the AE1 would have kept a good distance south of the Credners, no less than a half a mile or so at least. When in the vicinity the Credners the lookouts spotted a small coaster rounding Cape Gazelle some 3 miles distant and the captain changed course to intercept this innocent looking steam coaster, a small, but worthy prize.

The distance from Credner’s and Cape Gazelle is under four nautical miles and at her top surface speed of 15kts the sub could very quickly close this distance (note that the sub had been patrolling at up to10kts at times during the day) The KGon the other hand was only capable of 6 or 7kts and even if the Germans wanted to make a run for it they had no chance, their fate was sealed and their only option was to bluff the submarine into believing that they were nothing but an unarmed coaster ready to surrender.

I suggest that when the sub was close,probably 500 yards or maybe even closer, the Germans ripped the canvass cover off the Maxim gun and opened fireon the sub, cannon shell would have been raining in on the sub at a frightening one round per second.That’s a 120 rounds of 37mm cannon shells slamming into the hull of the AE1in just 2 minutes.

The officers and men in the conning tower would have been taken completely by surprise, and worst of all they had absolutely no defence against this onslaught;their only chance for survival was to do an emergency crash dive.

The cannon shells would have ripped into the conning tower, smashing it to bits, this is not all that bad and would not sink the sub, but immediately behind the conning tower was the engine and main air intakes, any damage to these would result in very serious consequences.

Shells hitting the pressure hull would penetrate the casingand ricochet inside the hull causing seriousdamage to the hull and vital controlsinside possibly making a resurface impossible, shrapnel tearing into flesh and bone. As the sub starts to dive water would pour through the holes, wounded men unable to stem the flow of water.

There is one other addition to this terrifying scenario, when researching the drawings of the submarine I noticed that the engine room had a large manhole aft of the conning tower. Keeping in mind that we are in the hot and sweaty tropics close to the equator, an engine room in a surface craft is unpleasant; in the more confined space of the submarine it would be unbearable. I would bet a thousand quid that when patrolling on the surface in the calm waters of Bismarck Archipelago they steamed with this hatch open. The engine room crew may not have been aware or fully prepared for the sudden and immediate need for an emergency crash dive and not had a chance to close this hatch before the sub was underwater.

It would not have been a pleasant scenario for the officers and crew, once underwater the rain of cannon shells would thankfully have stopped, that would have been a blessing, but now there would be a desperate effort to quell the flow of water, all the time the sub is sinking deeper, if the engine hatch was open the scenario would have been hopeless. As the watertight doors were closed isolating the compartments, some crew would already know that death was a certainty and that it would be agonisingly slow as the sub continued on the way to the bottom.

On the KG another less desperate battle is underway and that’s to escape and survive, now comes the irony, in order to make their escape unnoticed and keep as far away from Rabaul and Kokopo as possible the KG would have continued at full speed to Berard Point (the last know position of the AE1) and rounded the top end of the Duke of Yorks, in effect following the same routetaken by the Parramattaless than an hour before. From there she would steam to the western side of Watom Island, rounding the island on her way to Cape Lambert where she unfortunately struck a small and insignificant little reef just south of Talele Islandsand stranded only to be found a few days later by the HMAS Warregosmouldering, spent canon shells littering the deck and deck gun missing (but a 5 barrel Nordenfelt in the hold) .


The AE1.inc group and Commander Foster (sadly now deceased) has spent a lot of time and effort over the past 35 years searching the reefs and route from Duke of Yorks to Rabaul, all with no luck, so obviously something must have caused the AE1 to deviate from the intended course, otherwise I believe Foster would have found her.

I believe the AE1 changed course to intercept the KG,and only a serious and dramatic incident like volley from a 37mm quick firing cannon forcedCommander Besant to order a crash dive. There also is a good possibly the sub will also be found in less 600ftof water. The AE1’ssafe diving depth was a little less than 200ft, so taking into account the usual safety margin anything over 600ft would cause the sub to imploded, thereby spewing oil and debris to the surface and ultimately giving away her location to searchers that day.

Based on years of painstaking research, in Australia, New Guinea, Germany and even America,together with private interviews I conducted with PNG locals and a German Catholic missionary at Vunapope in the late 60’s I have absolutely no doubt that given the right equipment and a bit of lateral thinking we will find the AE1. And if in 600ft or less water I have the crew to dive her and film her.

I have already personally invested over 130,000 in the project and would commit the balance, but my investment property values have plummeted living me not only short but unable to sell. My new boat the Harbinger is a comfortable 60 footer ideally suited for diving and research work, comfortable cabins, large saloon and a huge back after deck. Twin diesel engines for safety and maneuverability.

The ANMEF landings first occurred on 11 September 1914, at Kabakaulnear Herbertshohe (now called Kokopo). Several days later, on the morning of 14 September 1914, whilst combat operations ashore were still continuing, AE1 put to sea from Simpson Harbour and met up with the destroyer HMAS Parramatta near Herbertshohe. Their orders were to stand out into the St George’s Channel between New Britain and New Ireland, to keep a watch for any German warships, which might come up and catch the invasion fleet at anchor.

Surely there has to be a philanthropist out there with sufficient pride in Australian history to put this, the greatest Australian maritime mysteryto rest, and reap the duly deserved credit for making it happen.For corporations the solving of the mystery will generate worldwide media coverageand just in time for the 100 year centenary of the beginning of WW1,…….timing could not be more perfect, just think about it.

Both the 60 Minutes program and also Channel 7 have asked for first option of the story, you can be part of this. Just call.