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‘This cast a great gloom over us’

Somewhere off the coast of an island east of Papua New Guinea lies Australia’s greatest unsolved maritime mystery. On 14 September 1914, Royal Australian Navy submarine AE1 was on patrol near the Duke of York Islands. At 3.20 pm it reported nothing unusual to the accompanying destroyer HMAS Parramatta. The submarine headed off to continue patrolling and was never seen again. It disappeared without a trace.

In what was Australia’s first military action of World War I, between 11 and 12 September, Australian forces had fought and beaten German and Melanesian troops for possession of the German colonies in the region. The Australian naval forces were tasked with patrolling the area on 13 and 14 September.

Photograph of submarine AE1, c. 1914. Photograph by Allan C Green. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, H91.250/1435

Just east of Duke of York Island visibility was reported at five nautical miles in an afternoon haze, which was common to the area. There were no credible reports of German forces and the weather was calm. AE1 had had some mechanical issues, but was still able to head out on patrol.

There were strong currents and potential unknown navigational hazards, but nothing unusual was noted by the numerous Australian forces in the area.

At 8.15 pm Commander Stoker on submarine AE2 reported to the flagship HMAS Australia that AE1 had failed to return to harbour. In a period of just a few hours AE1 had vanished. There was no debris, no oil slick, no distress message; nothing.

Despite searching by the Australian naval forces for several days afterwards, and many investigations in the years after, there is no conclusive evidence as to the fate of AE1 and the 35 officers and crew. Many theories have arisen over the years.

Wireless radio operator John Brown who served on what he described as the ‘old tank’ HMAS Protector in early 1914 was one of many at the time who had a theory about the submarine’s disappearance. Brown thought that engine trouble was the cause. But he rather wistfully noted in his diary that ultimately, because of the deep waters where the vessel disappeared, ‘nobody will ever know how those lads died…’

John Harrison Wheat on board AE1’s sister submarine AE2, recalled how when AE1 did not return and searches by the naval forces did not ‘reveal the slightest trace of anything… [that] this cast a great gloom over us.’

Why was AE1 in New Guinea?

In the 1880s Germany—which had already been trading in the area—claimed the north-eastern part of New Guinea as a protectorate and in 1884 established German New Guinea. By 1885 Germany and Britain (with a little help from the Colony of Queensland) had divided eastern New Guinea between them.

By 1914 the ‘Imperial German Pacific Protectorates’ had expanded beyond the eastern New Guinea mainland to include the Solomon and Marshall Islands and Nauru. In the central Pacific the Germans had also colonised part of Samoa establishing a broad reaching, if somewhat overstretched series of island colonies that gave some credence to German claims of having a vast empire to rival the British.

Map of the world showing colonial possessions and commercial highways, 1910. From The Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912. The University of Texas at Austin

As early as 1911 Australia and New Zealand were commencing strategic military and political planning in the event of war with Germany—plans that were also concerned with limiting Japanese expansion in the Pacific. This planning totally ignored home defence and focused on a swift seizure of German Samoa by the New Zealanders and German New Guinea by the Australians.

Embarkation of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) for New Guinea, 19 August 1914. Australian War Memorial Collection, A03272

In fact, Australia and New Zealand had pretty much divided up the Pacific Ocean between them, drawing a line down the middle and each taking control of separate parts of the German colonies. Australia had already colonised Torres Strait, then part of eastern New Guinea, and now, after Federation, there was a growing feeling of responsibility for upholding British interests in the Pacific—what has been described as a form of ‘sub-Imperialism’.

In August 1914 when war broke out in Europe, planning became reality and an Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) was quickly created. One thousand men enlisted in Sydney and made up the 1st Battalion. Another 500 naval reservists and ex-sailors were recruited. Unlike the Infantry battalion of recruits, many with limited experience, most of the naval brigade had prior military training and experience.

But the conquest of German colonies by the AN&MEF was by no means straight forward. Although the Australian force was superior to the Germans and their Melanesian ‘police-militia’, the AN&MEF met unexpected resistance at the Battle of Bita Paka.

Still, the Australians had assembled the most powerful naval force in the region and from the first troop landings on 11 September 1914, it only took a matter of days to establish control over much of the German protectorate. While the Japanese took control of Micronesia, Australian forces completed the conquest of the remaining German areas with the occupation of Nauru by 6 November.

A contingent of the Australian Naval Expeditionary Force to New Guinea being inspected by a Japanese Admiral at Rabaul wharf in 1914. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection, 0004152

While Japan was an ally of Great Britain and hence Australia, and supported operations in the Pacific and was part of the naval escort for the First AIF convoy from Albany in November, this alliance was always an uneasy one. Japan, like Australia, had imperial ambitions in the Pacific that would have significant ramifications in the future.

As the whereabouts of the German East Asia Squadron—which included the heavy cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruiser Emden—were at this stage unknown, almost the entire RAN fleet was sent in support of the venture. HMAS Australia—the heavy cruiser that was even on her own feared by the Germans—supported the New Zealand conquest of German Samoa and then returned to rendezvous with the AN&MEF off New Guinea. The submarines AE1 and AE2 and their support vessels joined the flotilla and it made for the centre of German colonies in the area—and the site of radio communications facilities—Rabaul on the eastern tip of New Britain.

Charles Bryant, Australian squadron in Blanche Bay, New Britain, 1924. Courtesy Australian War Memorial, ART07546

After the Battle of Bita Paka, the main German heavy ships still remained unlocated. Rabaul had seemed a likely place for the Germans to concentrate, but fears of the superiority of HMAS Australia had led the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to head east towards South America.

But this was not known and while the occupation of Rabaul went on, the submarines were paired with a destroyer each and sent out on patrols. On 13 September AE2 went out with HMAS Yarra. With orders to return by nightfall, Yarra could not follow up on the sighting of an unidentified ‘steamer’ south of Duke of York Island.

AE1 vanishes

On Monday 14 September AE1 was directed to patrol with HMAS Parramatta (interestingly, Australia’s first commissioned modern warship still lies visible in the mangroves of the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney where some of its hull was used as accommodation during the Great Depression).

AE1 had a fault with the ‘starboard shaft’—it had several failings of the starboard engine clutch during the maiden voyage from the UK to Australia. What this meant was that AE1 could not go astern on the surface, and the starboard engine was completely unavailable when diving.