The Crews

After the keel of the AE1 was laid down on the 14th November 1911, the building of the submarine was not all smooth sailing. As can be expected with a new design, Vickers found a number of problems creeping in that had to be dealt with, and these all helped to delay the completion date.

Finally, the Naval Representative for the Commonwealth Naval Board in London, was able to advise that, "No. 1 will be ready for delivery in May and No. 2 in June (approx) - Suggests HMAS SYDNEY escort them to Australia as the 3 vessels will be ready to commission on same date (approx)."1



AE1 was in fact launched on 22nd May 1913. She then underwent final fitting and was made ready for trials. She was not actually delivered to Portsmouth by the contractors until 22nd January 1914.
The submariners who were to make up the crews for the AE1 and AE2 came from the Royal Australian Navy as well as the Royal Navy.

As recorded by Australian submariner, Charles Suckling of the AE2;

"September 1913 I found myself with a few other submarine ratings in Barrow-in-Furness Lancashire England, standing by two submarines being built for the Australian Government, HMA Submarine AE1 and AE2, these two submarines were the very latest in submarines. They were both finished about the end of December and we were joined by the rest of the officers and crew and then began a very hard worked period, for a heavy task lay ahead in the long passage to Australia, and extreme care had to be taken in tuning up and trials of engines and machinery." 2

On the 21st November 1912, a "nominal list of Active Service Ratings transferred on loan from Royal Navy for 3 years service in AE1 as from 17/11/13, and list of ratings who will be similarly transferred for service in AE2 and as spare crew from 1/12/13."3 was drawn up.

From this initial list, fifteen names would become associated with the tragedy of the AE1. The only Royal Navy Submariners not on this list, who also perished in the AE1, are Fred Woodland, AB and Henry Joseph Gough. Henry Gough had made the voyage to Australia as spare crew on the HMS Eclipse.

The three officers on the AE1, also on loan to the Royal Australian Navy for three years from the Royal Navy, were Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Fleming BESANT, Lieutenant Charles L. MOORE, and Lieutenant the Honourable Leopold SCARLETT.

This made a total of nineteen Royal Navy submariners. The rest of the AE1 crew were Royal Australian Navy personnel, even though some were English born. There was also one New Zealander, John Reardon, AB.

The only crew photograph known to survive - Chief Engine Room Artificer - Joseph Wilson - AE1 : Studio Photo with the cane as a prop.

It might be prudent at this stage to give a short description of the entry and training requirements of the men on AE1 and AE2.

"In peace time an officer who wished to join the Submarine Service had first to receive a recommendation from his own captain. He then had to produce either a first class certificate for his torpedo examination for Lieutenant or, if he had not that qualification, a certificate from the Torpedo-Lieutenant of his ship to the effect that he showed special zeal in that branch of his duties. If his name was accepted it was placed at the bottom of the candidates' list, and in due time, after an interval which varied from year to year, he was appointed to Fort Blockhouse, the Submarine Depot at Gosport. There the batch of new officers were medically examined, and (The standard being high) the unfit were weeded out and returned to their ships.

For the next three months he went through a course of practical submarine instruction, his training period terminating in examinations which provided another obstacle, the meshes of which prevented certain candidates from proceeding from further.

The officers of the class were then sent as "third hands" to different boats to await vacancies as First Lieutenants. After two to four years as First Lieutenant (the time varied with the number of new boats built), an officer obtained command of an 'A' boat (of 204 tons), from which he rose by seniority to larger and more powerful commands.
The men entered in much the same way, being recommended, of first class character and of excellent physical standard. They went through a less comprehensive training course, but had the same weeding out to undergo, so that as far as possible the "duds" were got rid of before they had cost the country much in useless teaching."4

Thomas Fleming S. BESANT had entered the Royal Navy at the age of 15 years in 1898. Thomas was the third child of five children to Edgar Besant and Mary Evans. (double check this with Dorothy) His eldest sister married but had no children; his elder brother Reginald never married. Younger brother Lionel migrated to Canada and his youngest sister Janette went to Hong Kong. In 1930, a cousin, Arthur Digby Besant, had this to say about Thomas Besant in a monologue called 'The Besant Pedigree' -

"He joined the navy at the early age of 15, that being the practice of those days; and less than two years later, as a young midshipman, he saw active service in China during the Boxer rising. On his return home he began by specialising in gunnery and torpedo courses; but shortly afterwards he decided to devote all his energies and brains to a study of the new field which submarines and hydro-aeroplanes were then opening up to the keenest type of the young school of intellectual naval officers.

He quickly became recognised as an expert in submarine matters, and early in 1914 was selected to command A.E.1., the first submarine constructed here for service in Australian waters. His vessel, travelling under its own power, reached Sydney in May, and was the first submarine to stand the test of a long ocean voyage. The next few months were occupied in cruises and naval manoeuvres

There his submarine A.E.1. mysteriously disappeared and no trace of her has ever been found. War broke out in August and the movements of the vessel in the preceding weeks had not been kept secret. Of her fate nothing can learnt: we can only surmise what happened. Fleming , at any rate, with all his gallant crew, went down with his ship."5

Lieutenant the Honourable Leopold Florence Scarlett, had come out of retirement to be a part of the AE1 crew. He was an old classmate of Thomas Besant's and had been placed on the retired list "Unfit" from the Royal Navy on the 13th June 1913. His condition was listed as "Tubercule of Lungs". [He then traveled to Australia - find out how he got to Brisbane and re-enlisted]

While the AE1 and the AE2 were undergoing refit at Cockatoo Island in Sydney, Besant, in mid June 1914, pointed out in a letter to the Naval Secretary that only "the exact compliment of Lieutenants exists for submarines and if one goes sick then half the submarines would be unable to go to sea". Besant then suggested obtaining a trained officer from the United Kingdom asap.

By the middle of August, the Navy Office had replied to the Navy Secretary that Scarlett, late Lieut, RN, of Submarine Service, now in Brisbane, volunteers for and is recommended for spare Submarine Officer to be borne in HMAS Protector. Protector was the depot ship for the Australian submarines. Scarlett had forwarded a clean bill of health. The navy Office required approval to enter him immediately as a submarine service officer with experience. At this stage an extra officer for AE1 was essential as Britain was into the first week of war.

On 11th August, he was considered cured and medically fit. Once approved for duty however, his seniority had to be sorted out so as not to cause problems with the third most senior officer, Lieutenant Haggard of AE2. This was resolved by giving Scarlett seniority for all time served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy up to 13th June 1913, which was 2 years 7 months and 13 days. Subtracting this time from the date of his appointment to the Royal Australian Navy, his seniority as a Lieutenant in the RAN was dated 27th December 1911. This then made him junior to Haggard whose appointment is listed as 31st December 1910.

Footnotes -
5. "The Besant Pedigree" - Digby Besant