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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Australia's First Submarine Lost with All Hands

Australia is slowly crossing off its list of unsolved war mysteries, yet one stubborn wreck seems determined to stay hidden despite new interest in finding it.

Australian Submarine AE-1 missing since 1914 (

With the recent finding of AHS Centaur off Brisbane, the location of HMAS Sydney in Western Australia and the return of the last two Vietnam MIAs, Australia’s military sleuthing seems on a roll. Yet, the tiny 55m (181ft) submarine AE1, the Royal Australian Navy’s first submarine, lies somewhere in Papua New Guinean waters.

Commissioned in the UK in early 1914, the British E Class submarine sailed to Australia with her sister ship, AE2, arriving in Sydney on 24 May 1914, just in time for the outbreak of WW1. The pair sailed north to the then German New Guinea in the company of other RAN vessels to secure the surrender of the small German contingent in Rabaul, New Britain.

On 14 September 1914, she failed to return from routine patrol and after a search involving several vessels, no trace of her was ever found. It was presumed she had either struck a reef or suffered one of several mechanical failures common in early submarines.


Either way, she was listed as lost with her entire crew of 35. Since that fateful day, the mystery of AE1 has never faded for the family and friends of the missing. An association was formed and is headed by Commander John Foster RAN (rtd) with patrons and members among Australia’s most distinguished naval men.

Despite several ‘red herrings’, improved technology and a renewed interest by the RAN, AE1’s final resting place remains a mystery. The persistent evidence supplied by former salvage diver, George Tyers, 82, keeps the team’s hopes alive. Tyers is adamant that he located the wreck of AE1 in 1971 when clearing a fouled anchor while salvaging another wreck, a Japanese transport, Keifuku Maru, nearby in the mouth of Simpson Harbour, Rabaul’s port. Rabaul was occupied by the Japanese in WWII and was a major military base and hence bombing target.

Tyers’s evidence has always conflicted with Foster’s research, which suggests AE1 lies near Kokopo (to the SE) where her support vessel, HMAS Encounter, was waiting for her. But the recent acquisition of Encounter’s logs shows she had indeed moved to Simpson Harbour on the morning of AE1’s loss, thus adding weight to Tyers’s claim he had sighted the AE1 in about 60m of water inside the harbour. Since 1971, the dormant volcano awoke in 1994 with such ferocity the entire town was evacuated.

Vast amounts of volcanic debris were spread over the town and inside the harbour, covering many wrecks and relics and altering the shoreline radically. Wreck diver and filmmaker, Mark Spencer, dived on the Keifuku Maru in October 2009 and subsequently found it to be buried under about 30m of volcanic ash. Presumably AE1 would also be similarly buried and Spencer’s team were not able to prove or disprove the existence of wrecks in the area with their existing sensing equipment. The area now requires further investigation with more powerful and sophisticated magnetometer equipment able to penetrate the sea floor.  (Source:digitaljournal)

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