E Class Submarines
E class submarines, HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2 were the first submarines to serve in the RAN.
The submarines were built by Vickers Limited at Barrow-in-Furness, England, and commissioned into the RAN in February 1914, reaching Sydney on 24 May of the same year.
An updated version of the preceding D-class submarine, the E class was enlarged to accommodate an additional pair of broadside torpedo tubes. The class had four 18-inch torpedo tubes, one each in the bow and stern, plus two on the broadside, one firing to port and the other to starboard. The boat carried one spare torpedo for each tube. No guns were fitted.
AE1 and AE2 were 55.2 m long, with a beam of 6.9 m and a draught of 3.8 m. Originally designed to dive to just 30.5 m, the addition of watertight bulkheads strengthened the hull and increased the actual diving depth 61.0 m. The complement consisted of 34 men.
They had a range of 3,000 nautical miles (5,600 km) while on the surface and 65 nautical miles submerged.
The submarines had two propellers, each of which was driven by an eight-cylinder, 600 kW diesel engine as well as a 313 kW) electric motor. This arrangement gave the E-class submarines a maximum speed of 15 knots (28 km/h) while surfaced and 10 knots (19 km/h) when submerged.
At the outbreak of World War I, AE1, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Thomas Besant, was part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force sent to attack German New Guinea. Along with AE2, she took part in operations leading to the occupation of the German territory, including the surrender of Rabaul on 13 September 1914. The submarine’s involvement was recognised with the retroactive award of the honour “Rabaul 1914”.
AE1 was lost at sea with all hands near what is now East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, on the 14th September 1914, after less than seven months in service; AE1 was on war patrol protecting the Fleet anchorage when she disappeared; it was Australia’s first major loss of World War I.
Although search missions began in 1976, the submarine wasn’t located until December 2017, near the Duke of York Islands, during the 13th recovery mission.
In 2018, a team of researchers headed by the National Maritime Museum director Kevin Sumption concluded that a ventilation valve – likely opened to make the tropical conditions more bearable while the submarine was cruising on the surface – was insecure when the submarine dived, causing a flood of the engine room and total loss of control of the AE1. The submarine subsequently sank below 100 metres and imploded, killing everyone on board instantly.
HMAS AE2 – The “Silent ANZAC”
HMAS AE2, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker, Royal Navy concluded operations against German Pacific Fleet in New Guinea and returned to Australia.
In December 1914 AE2 sailed as the escort to the second AIF convoy from Albany to Suez. In February 1915, the boat joined the British and French submarines in the eastern Mediterranean where they were engaged in operations at the entrance to the Dardanelles.
There had been several unsuccessful attempts by the submarines to penetrate the Dardanelles and each attempt had been thwarted by the very effective Turkish countermeasures and a significant outflowing current which by itself was sufficient to make the journey impossible for the limited battery capacity of the submarines of the day.
AE2 first attempted to conduct a dived transit through the Dardanelles on the morning of Saturday, 24 April 1915, but a hydroplane failure caused the submarine to experience a depth excursion (below its safe operating depth) and this defect required AE2 to return to its base.
However, during the incident, Lieutenant Commander Stoker discovered a counter current running into the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara.
Having prepared the defect AE2 sailed on Saturday evening and dived at the entrance to the Dardanelles early in the morning of Sunday 25 April 1915 just as the ANZACs were preparing to land on the western side of the Gallipoli peninsula. It was Stoker’s intent to exploit the end flowing counter current, although this would require him to operate at or below the safe operating depth for his submarine.
At 8 o’clock that night, HMAS AE2 entered the Sea of Marmara and in so doing became the first submarine to conduct a dived transit of the Dardanelles and to become the initiator of the first submarine campaign in history.
AE2 conducted operations in the Sea of Marmara until 30 April when it was sunk by the Turkish torpedo boat Sultanhisar.
The crew of AE2 survived the sinking and were prisoners of war for the next three and a half years. Sadly, four crew members died during their incarceration.
For a more extensive discussion of the exploits of HMAS AE2 please visit the Royal Australian Navy website https://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-ae2