This is the story of Australia's first submarine. She was the AE1. A - for Australia; E for 'E' Class submarine, and the number 1, as in the first submarine for the Royal Australian Navy. 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. The submarine's were built by Vickers Son & Maxim at the Naval Construction Works, Barrow-in-Furness, County Lancashire, England.
AE1 Specifications - Length 181ft, Beam 22.6ft draft 12.6ft, displacement 660tons surface and 800tons submerged , speed 15kts on the surface and 10kts submerged, armament 4 only 18inch 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
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 ANMEF landings first occurred on 11 September 1914, at
Kabakaul near 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.
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.
When the search for AE1 was launched, HMAS Yarra and 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
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
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
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.
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
Let’s look a little closer at some the official findings:
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 reef leaving 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; everyone is 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
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 AE1
had 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.
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 Germans? Some Facts...
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.
there is the Kolonialgesellschaft a small 73 ton steam schooner usually refered
to as the ‘Kolonia’ or simply the KG. She was found by the HMAS Warrego on a
reef off Cape Lambert smouldering 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
if the 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.
German sailor Wilhelm Reuschel left behind when the SMS Planet visited Rabaul, he
actually bragged that he was in command of the KG and 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.
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
As there are no survivors, no bodies, flotsam or oil in 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 sub was forced to do an emergency crash dive and this
ultimately leads to her loss. And I believe the most logical conclusion is that
the KG was involved.
is important to understand that the AE1 although 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
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
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 KG on 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 fire on 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
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.
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 route taken by the Parramatta less
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 Islands and
stranded only to be found a few days later by the HMAS Warrego smouldering,
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 forced Commander Besant to order a crash dive. There also is a good
possibility the sub will also be found in less 600ft of water. The AE1’s safe
diving depth was a little less than 200ft, so taking into account the usual
safety margin anything over 600ft would cause the sub to implode, 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. If in 600ft or less water, I have the crew to
dive her and film her.
- The tropic Seas - a 48ft little ship.
- Two 16ft tenders, one a 16ft aluminium and the other a 17ft fiberglass dive tender.
- 10 years’ experience in navigating dangerous PNG waters and 45 years seagoing experience Master 5.
Tropic Seas is a 48ft steel motor
cruiser built in Cairns by Vince Vlasoff a locally famous crocodile hunter,
game fisherman and identity. This vessel is probably the most famous small ship
ever to work out of Cairns. Amazingly Vince “acquired” the steel to build his
boat from the old US base at Iron Range, near the Lockhart in 1946. This was
the steel that the Americans used to clad their bulldozers and other machinery
before sending it off to New Guinea. Interestingly he also built the underwater
observatory at Green Island with the left over steel and it has only been out
of the water once in 40 years.
The boat was first used for crocodile
hunting trips to the Cape, the boat was also used to locate and salvage Captain
Cooks cannon and also later the anchor, it was also the first Marlin Boat to
operate out of Cairns and many famous people, including actors and movie stars
have been on board.
The vessel is Qld registered and also has Australian
registration (#859580) allowing it to travel overseas.
Most of the handling is done from the
fly bridge, visibility is excellent especially when navigating the reef or
rivers and also when coming along-side, all controls are here, including
engine, gearbox and off course steering.
The boat has four comfortable bunks in
the forecastle with air-conditioner, shower and electric marine toilet;
opposite the toilet on Std side is a storage room. The Saloon which
incorporates the galley is large and comfortable approx. 4.8m by 3.5m, the
galley has all modern appliances, standard gas oven/stove with extractor fan, full
size fridge freezer, (with deep freezer in dive room) and microwave. There is
plenty of storage space in the galley, under and behind the built in lounge and
on the Stb. side.
There is one double cabin aft of the
saloon that my wife and I use, this has a spare bunk above, wardrobe and plenty
of storage for linen and other bits and pieces, there is also a very handy
pantry cupboard. To the rear there is a compressor room and dive storage facility;
this could easily be converted back into an extra large double cabin. The
lazarette is large and used for general storage and spare parts.
The back deck is a big comfortable area some
5.5m by 3.5m and large clear side curtains protect you in the rain, there is a
built in bench with sink and draws which also houses the two gas bottles and
usually fishing and diving gear. The stainless steel duck-board is large and
easy to use; there is a special S/S ladder for divers and swimmers to enter the
On the top deck there is a 2.55m dinghy with 4hp outboard and a two ton hydraulic
crane. Engine room has easy access via two large trap doors and easy to get round
in or work in. there is an 8kva gen-set and all the usual engine room bits
including two large Ryco fuel filters with change over switches, day tanks, and
also another water tank.
Much of the specialised equipment is at hand, latest
navigational gear, autopilot, and a magnetometer. What is still missing from
our arsenal is a bottom profiler and deep-water camera or possibly a rove with
winch and side scan sonar. The bottom profiler is an absolutely necessary piece
The planned departure is the 10th of November, this is the middle of the doldrums when the seas are usually the calmest and we can expect to have the quickest voyage, and it’s also the best time weather wise to be in Rabaul for this sort of operation.
The trip from Cairns to Rabaul will take about 8 days, I’m expecting to clear customs into New Guinea at Alotau.
- To locate Submarine AE1’s wreck site.
- When found, to inform the Australian nation and Government and the British Government.
- To inform the descendant relatives of the ships company of AE1.
- To investigate the possible cause of loss by visual means or remote operating vehicle inspection.
- To determine its physical state and its security.
- To facilitate dialogue between the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea to enable agreement over security.
- To obtain a suitable memorial in a public place in Rabaul New Guinea to commemorate the loss of AE1 and her ships company.
- To ensure that naval history and Australian Heritage records include the results of the find and the assessment of the loss.
Book Review by Bob Halstead.
This amazing book is a must-read for every diver. Older divers will re-live the crazy wonderful times of their youth, before bureaucrats and lawyers made risk-taking a crime and adventures passive and supervised. Young divers will have trouble believing it all.
But here it is! Routine 300ft (90m) dives on air using primitive scuba, 150ft (45m) free ascents in dive training, power heads to blast troublesome sharks, and fortunes in copper, bronze and brass awaiting the courage and ingenuity of mostly self–taught salvage pirates whose bible was the revered 1963 US Navy Diving Manual.
In his book Fritz Herscheid, writing with a natural, lively, conversational style, describes his fascinating years of adventure in Papua New Guinea (with excursions to the Solomon Islands and Philippines). He moved to Rabaul as a young Automotive Engineer in 1967, but quickly evolved into a diver, businessman, ship’s captain, explosives expert and salvager of shipwrecks, mainly from World War 2.
His research enables him to identify and tell the history of many of the wrecks familiar to tourist divers today. He then describes how and why they now exist without propellers, condensers and most of their non-ferrous fittings. He and his various rival salvagers were a band of pirates indeed, poaching from each other and all doing their best to avoid authority. At this time of course PNG was still a territory of Australia. When PNG became independent in 1975 the new Nation became concerned about the preservation of its war history, salvaging rapidly came to a halt and Fritz had to find a proper job!
Some will no doubt be mortified at the destruction caused by the salvagers but the truth is that no one in the 1960’s really saw these wrecks as the historical treasures they are regarded as today. Tourist diving was virtually non-existent, and the ocean was treated as an ideal rubbish tip. The one major wreck that did escape the salvage pirates, the “S’Jacob”, was bombed and damaged which is why it sank. Today the superstructure is collapsing, time working the demolition job of the salvagers. Fortunately PNG has many aircraft wrecks of no interest to salvage pirates, some ditched in pristine condition and these, being aluminium, have survived the corrosive effects of the sea and remain wonderful historic dives.
Fritz’s hair-raising exploits, though high risk, resulted in few injuries and no fatalities, though he does describe fatalities of a few Rabaul divers from the same era. He confesses his own “near misses” and tells the stories with good humour and sensible caution to others. He certainly made dives outside the limits – but this was not done without precautions, such as careful monitoring of depth, bottom times and decompression stops. I have to tell you, though, that you are going to lose some sleep – but only because this book is impossible to put down. Most of the personalities he encountered are still alive and willingly contributed memories to the book.
The book has a splendid complement of photographs and maps. (I provided a few modern shots of the wrecks. BH). Original photographs of the ships, photos of the wrecks on the bottom and photos of the people and boats involved in the salvage, bring it all to life. The photos, mostly black and white and placed along with the relevant text, are well reproduced. There is a selection of colour photographs and the whole book is printed on quality paper and well bound. At 500 pages it is a significant work – but this is a book you will treasure, and, if you are off to PNG for a dive trip, one you will refer to as it has an appendix with information on all the known divable shipwrecks.
There is true romance, and the trials of marital stress caused by too much diving – something many divers, of both sexes, are familiar with – and a romance of a different kind that may not be so familiar – the romance of operating small ships. Fritz owned several, and loved and cared for them all, even when they tried to sink under him. This is their story too.
I finish this review with some good news (though not necessarily for Authorities) – Fritz has just purchased another boat in Cairns and is fitting it out for more adventures. I can’t wait to read about them. Halstead Diving with Bob Halstead.