Birth of the AE1

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. The submarine was built by Vickers Son & Maxim at the Naval Construction Works, Barrow-in-Furness, County Lancashire, England.

Her keel was laid down on the 14th November 1911.
The British Admiralty had gained much experience with the ‘D’ class submarines and made a further step forward in the design of the ‘E’ class; of which two would go to Australia under prior agreement 1 and be given the classification numbers AE1 and AE2, meaning Australia ‘E’ Class submarines, numbers one and two.



Type: E Class Submarine
Displacement: 660 tons (surfaced), 800 tons (submerged)
Length: 181 feet
Beam: 22 feet 6 inches
Draught: 12 feet 6 inches
Builder: Vickers Ltd, Barrow-in-Furness, England
Laid Down: 14 November 1911
Launched: 22 May 1913
2 sets of 8 cylinder diesel engines, battery driven electric motors
Horsepower: 1,750 (surfaced), 550 (submerged)
Speed: 15 knots (surfaced), 10 knots (submerged)
Armament: 4 x 18-inch torpedo tubes

Complement: 35

These submarines were further sub-classified into type ‘E1’ – this meant that the Australian submarines were part of the initial batch of ‘E’ boats to be built, (there were five being built when Henry Stoker saw AE2 at the docks in December 1913). This sub-classification also included the English submarines E1 to E8. These boats had different dimensions, displacement and stability from the later built boats. The 'E' class boats were part of the Admiralty’s 1910 – 1911 building programme.

One of their features lay in the provision of broadside torpedo tubes, one on the port side and the other to starboard. This allowed the submarines to fire at right angles to their bow headings, giving them greater fighting options. So, “This introduction involved a considerable increase in the dimensions as compared with earlier classes, but with the increase of size came also increased endurance, habitability, speed and power.” 2

Of course this does not mean that the AE1 had any great luxuries or was without problems. She and the AE2 were stuck with whatever faults had been built into them, and only some were repaired during the course of their service. The other ‘E’ class boats of this batch had the great fortune to be near home base, so they had the advantage of seeing their problems ironed out over a period of time. A good example of this was the retro fitting - in Malta - of a 12 pounder deck gun on a retractable pneumatic / hydraulic mounting, 3 to the English / Atlantic based E1 type submarines, but which the Australian boats had to do without. 4

In fact - Lieutenant-Commander Henry H. G. Stoker, Captain of the AE2 from her commissioning, and until fourteen months later, had this to say in his book "Straws in the Wind"; "AE2 carried no gun - at that date no British submarine was fitted with a gun." 5 and also "We longed for a gun to enable us to remain on the surface and give them [the Turks] fight." 6 It would do well for us to remember this salient fact when we get to the Rabaul disappearance of AE1.

The ‘E’ class submarine hull was well sub-divided by transverse bulkheads which helped to strengthen these boats even more than the previous classes and enabled them to withstand greater ambient pressures. The ‘E’ class boats were then able “ dive to much greater depths than had been considered safe or desirable.” 7

The maximum pressure that these boats could tolerate is difficult to ascertain. However, some 'E' boats accidentally went deep enough to allow the ingress of water through their riveted plates.
This depth would have been around 150 fsw (feet of seawater), which the AE2 experienced purely by accident after she lost her trim while on a sortie, in April 1915, in the Sea of Mamora, (Marmara) Turkey.

"Closing off the forward tank, and stopping the movement of water ballast from aft to forward, we endeavoured to catch her at 50 feet, but now again the diving rudders seemed powerless to right her, and with an ever-increasing inclination down by the bows she went to 60 and then 70 feet, and was obviously quite out of control. Water ballast was expelled as quickly as possible, yet down and down she went - 80, 90 and 100 feet. Here was the limit of our gauges; when that depth was passed she was still sinking rapidly. We could not tell to what depths she was reaching." 8

It is interesting to note though, that the depth gauges inside these submarines were only capable of recording a maximum depth of 100 fsw. This would have been somewhere between half and two thirds of its designed maximum depth.

These boats had good seaworthiness and the AE1 and AE2 proved this fact by using their own motive power for approximately half the voyage from Portsmouth to Sydney - a little over 7,700 miles, with the other 4,700 odd miles being under tow.

The 'E' class boats had an extensive superstructure, and the provision of a navigating bridge which was placed well over the conning tower made this type of submarine comparatively easy to navigate in the roughest weather. With the development of wireless transmission equipment, "the 'E' class received a good installation, the aerial being carried on [wooden] masts which folded to the deck when submerged." 9 This was the first time that wireless telegraph had been installed in an allied submarine.

One of their two periscopes was designed for varying magnification and was able to search the sky for aircraft. The other periscope was the standard single power type instrument used for lining up an intended target. These additions helped to make these boats effective scouting craft and very useful for all kinds of patrol work. It was in this patrolling role that both AE1 and AE2 became infamous.

1. The 1909 conference of Colonial Premiers / 1909 Imperial Conference
2. G. Gibbard Jackson, "The Romance of the Submarine" - pp 138
3. Antony Preston, "Submarine Boats"
4. Commander Henry H. G. Stoker, DSO, RN, "STRAWS IN THE WIND"
5. Commander Henry H. G. Stoker, DSO, RN, "STRAWS IN THE WIND" - pp 124
6. Ibid - pp 127
7. G. Gibbard Jackson, "The romance of the Submarine" - pp 138/9
8. Commander Henry H. G. Stoker, DSO, RN, "STRAWS IN THE WIND" - pp 136/7
9. G. Gibbard Jackson, "The Romance of the Submarine" - pp 140