HMAS Waller conducts service over last known position of AE1

Published on LEUT Jack Abbott (author)

Topic(s): HMAS Waller (S75), HMAS AE1

The Commanding Officer of HMAS Waller, Commander Michael Jacobson, prepares to release a wreath over the last known position of the submarine AE1. (photo: Unknown)
The Commanding Officer of HMAS Waller, Commander Michael Jacobson, prepares to release a wreath over the last known position of the submarine AE1.

At the end of August, HMAS Waller conducted a ceremony in St George's Channel, Papua New Guinea, to honour and remember the crew of AE1; the Royal Australian Navy's first Submarine.

The ceremony was led by Waller's Commanding Officer, Commander Micheal Jacobson, CSM, and was attended by all off-watch personnel.

The ceremony was conducted at 1100 hours, three nautical miles north east of Berard Point, between the islands of New Ireland and Duke of York in the vicinity of the last known position of AE1. This position was reported by HMAS Parramatta (I) on the afternoon of Monday 14 September 1914 after losing sight of AE1 on that fateful day. AE1 was never to be sighted again, and the story as to what occurred to AE1 and her crew remains unknown to this day.

The ship's company of HMAS Waller was fallen in on the submarine's casing and a wreath was laid by the Commanding Officer. This was followed by the Ode and the names of the crew of AE1 being read aloud by the Executive Officer. One minutes silence was observed where only the sound of the water lapping against the pressure hull could be heard. It was a moving ceremony and one which all of those in attendance will not forget anytime soon.

The crew of HMAS Waller conduct a memorial service on the submarine's casing, over the last known position of the submarine AE1.

The crew of HMAS Waller conduct a memorial service on the submarine's casing, over the last known position of the submarine AE1.

AE1 was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Thomas Beasant, Royal Navy, and her crew comprised mostly of Royal Navy Officers with a mixture of RN and RAN sailors. She was of the first batch of E-class Submarines built in England between 1911 and 1913 in which the Australian Government paid £105,415 ($160,000).

Her first and subsequently last tasking was given to her in August 1914, which was to sail from Sydney to join the Australian Fleet in Rabaul (then German New Guinea) along with AE2 to locate and destroy the German Pacific Fleet. Once in Rabaul, AE1 along with AE2 and two destroyers were tasked with patrolling the southern approaches to Rabaul in order to guard the Australian Fleet's anchorages.

At 0700 Monday, 14 September 1914 AE1 sailed from Rabaul and, after rendezvousing with HMAS Parramatta, steamed north east into St Georges channel. AE1 was last sighted by Parramatta at 1520 and she was never to be seen or heard from again.

Lieutenant Stoker, Commanding Officer of AE2, was the first to raise the alarm later that evening when AE1 did not return from patrol. A search was conducted overnight by a number of vessels which continued through to the 15th however no trace of AE1 or her crew has ever been found.

Prior to sailing, AE1 had a significant defect on her starboard main engine clutch which greatly affected her operationally. This has left historians perplexed as to why she was dispatched to sail when AE2 was alongside and serviceable.

Since her disappearance, there have been a number of theories presented by each with varying conclusions as to what actually happened to AE1. The most credible being that AE1 deviated from her orders in order to investigate the sighting of a German warship by HMAS Yarra the day prior. A combination of strong currents, minimal operational training, defects and poorly charted reef waters is said to have contributed to the loss of AE1 after she struck a navigational hazard. Another possible scenario, based on the personal diary entry of a German POW, is that AE1 was sunk following her involvement in armed action with a German steamer.

Whatever the fate of AE1, no solid evidence has ever been provided to determine what occurred to the first submarine commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy resulting in what is believed to have been the first loss of an Australian Naval unit in the First World War.