December 21, 2017

Australia's HMAS AE1 Submarine Found After 103 Years

The wreck of HMAS AE1, Australia's first submarine, has been found 103 years after it was lost on September 14, 1914 in waters just north of Australia. AE1 was the first Allied [1] submarine lost in World War I. AE1's disappearance marked Australia's first WWI disaster. AE1 had 35 crew, drawn from Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

[1] Germany's SM U-15 was the first submarine sunk in WWI, on August 9, 1914. 

The 2017 search team succeeded in finding AE1 using survey ship MV Fugro Equator, deep water cameras and a UUV with Side-scan sonar floating 40m above the seafloor. More funding, a reduced search zone due to previous searches, side-scan technology and possibly magnetometers, made the difference.

AE1 was found in more than 300m of water. 300m was way below AE1's 61m (see sidebar) "test depth" so the end likely came quickly, from extreme water pressure, in an implosion. 

The discovery solves Australia's oldest naval mystery.

That finding AE1 took 103 years may be an indicator how difficult and prolonged the search for Argentina's ARA San Juan may be.

HMAS AE1 sunk in Papua New Guinea's, Duke of York islands. The search was funded by the Australian government including the Australian National Maritime Museum. Also funded by the Silentworld Foundation and Find AE1. (Map courtesy BBC)

HMAS AE1 was a UK built E-class submarine sold to the RAN. The “A” designates Australian vessel.

At 55m long, 760t (surfaced) and 810t (submerged) AE1 was a large submarine for 1914. Her 3,000nm (5,600 km) range at 10 knots made her semi-ocean going.

HMAS AE1. (Photo courtesy Sea Power Centre via Australia's ABC).

Deep water camera photo of AE1 on the seafloor deeper than 300m. (Image courtesy the Australian Government via the BBC).

There was no concerted search for AE1 in 1914 because Australia was busy fighting WWI and in 1914 there was no sonar gear to search for sunken submarines. Searches for the wreck began in 1976, but found nothing until late 2017. 

From Wikipedia – “Several factors have been identified as increasing the difficulty of finding AE1. 

The volcanic nature of the region has resulted in a rugged and highly variable underwater topography, with a high frequency of wreck-like acoustic anomalies. Much of the region is deep water, limiting the number of techniques and tools that can be used to locate and verify shipwrecks. 

Volcanic activity can also disrupt the local magnetic field, affecting the operations of magnetometers. Eruptions and underwater earthquakes cause the underwater landscape to change, and have the potential to break up or bury a shipwreck. 

Due to heavy military activity around New Guinea during World War II, along with the disposal of ships in later years, there are large numbers of other shipwrecks (both located and unknown) in any potential search area.”

The Australian Government has (or is) designating the AE1 site a war grave, in cooperation with the Government of Papua New Guinea.



Anonymous said...

Beware the metal scavengers!

"Dozens of warships believed to contain the remains of thousands of British,
American, Australian, Dutch and Japanese servicemen from the second world war have
been illegally ripped apart by salvage divers, the Guardian can reveal.

An analysis of ships discovered by wreck divers and naval historians has found that
up to 40 second world war-era vessels have already been partially or completely
destroyed. Their hulls might have contained the corpses of 4,500 crew.

Governments fear other unmarked graves are at risk of being desecrated. Hundreds
more ships – mostly Japanese vessels that could contain the war graves of tens of
thousands of crew killed during the war – remain on the seabed."


Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous [at 22/12/17 7:57 AM]

To give much needed context to your selected quote: carries :

By Oliver Holmes, Monica Ulmanu and Simon Roberts, The Guardian [with smart graphics mostly dysfunctional] November 3, 2017:

"The world's biggest grave robbery: Asia’s disappearing WWII shipwrecks Exclusive: the unmarked graves of thousands of sailors are threatened by illegal metal salvagers"

"...The UK’s Ministry of Defence demanded Indonesia protect the ships in its waters. “A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives onboard should be allowed to rest in peace,” a ministry spokesperson said.

Since then, divers in Malaysia have sent photos to the Guardian showing the destruction of three Japanese ships that sank off the coast of Borneo in 1944 during the Pacific War. And one of Australia’s most treasured ships, light cruiser HMAS Perth, has also been ripped up.

Dan Tehan, Australia’s [Minister fo Veterans’ Affairs] told the Guardian: “The HMAS Perth is the final resting place for more than 350 Australians who lost their lives defending Australia’s values and freedoms, so reports the wreckage has been disturbed are deeply upsetting and of great concern.”

James Hunter, from the Australian National Maritime Museum, was one of the divers who discovered the Perth was “60 to 70% gone”.

"...Large “crane barges” have been photographed above wreck sites, often with huge amounts of rusted steel on their decks. At the seabed, divers have found ships cut in half. Many have been removed completely, leaving a ship-shaped indent.

Cambodian, Chinese and Malaysian-registered vessels have been spotted above shipwrecks. In some cases, their crews have been arrested. In one case, the looters had acquired a letter from a Malaysian university which said the work was authorised as “research”...."

"...Sources: US Navy, Royal Navy, Australian Department of Defence, Dutch Ministry of Defence,,"



Ztev Konrad said...

To discourage the grave robbers, they should make it clear its only a small submarine, even though the displacement was around 750t, thats the water dispalced by air , mostly. The weight of steel could be as little as 100t, unlikely to be worthwhile from 300m even using grabs on barges.

Ztev Konrad said...

Very good book length feature on the E class and others in THE DEVELOPMENT OF HM SUBMARINES
FROM HOLLAND NO 1 (1901) TO PORPOISE (1930) by the UK Submariners association Barrow Branch.
which is web archived at

Peter Coates said...

Hi Ztev [at 22/12/17 12:53 PM]

Thanks for reference some good Christmas reading.

Another Brit sub reference I'll be reading is a hardcopy of "Royal Navy Submarine 1945 to 1973 (A-class - HMS Alliance)" Its part of the Haynes Owners' Workshop Manual series. Mail order through abebooks.

Have a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.