AE2: House of Secrets

A submarine is a deadly thing. A battleship may ride in majesty on the waves, and in a moment be torn by a torpedo hurled by the stealthy, invisible foe beneath the water. You may see everything else around you, yet miss the submarine. It is because this type of vessel is so valuable in time of war that such pains are taken to guard its secrets.[1]

Sydney Morning Herald, May 1914.

In 1912, when AE2 was laid down in Barrow-in-Furness by Vickers, submarines were a revolutionary naval technology. For a young nation, building its navy from scratch, in hindsight the decision to acquire submarines seems remarkable. In Stoker’s Submarine, historians Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley chronicle strong opposition to submarines in both the British and Australian Naval Command before the outbreak of World War I.[2] The decision by the Australian Government to acquire a submarine capability was a political one that owed much to the convictions of Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin.[3] Although it had been intended originally to purchase a larger number of ‘C’ class submarines, two newer diesel powered ‘E’ class submarines designated AE1 and AE2 were eventually purchased.

Picture of 'E Class' Drawing 1
Building the 'E Class' Drawing 1/2
[NAA: MP551/1, 109/2]
Picture of AE1 and AE2 at Malta
AE1 and AE2 at Malta
[NAA: J3109, 1/706]
Picture of 'E Class' Drawing 2
Building the 'E Class' Drawing 2/2
[NAA: MP551/1, 109/52]

AE2 was launched on 18 June, 1913 and commissioned into the RAN at Portsmouth, England, on 28 February 1914. She was placed under the command of Lieutenant Commander Henry (H.G.D.) Stoker, RN. As a leading edge technology in warfare, submarine secrets were guarded jealously. On the arrival of AE1 and AE2 in Sydney on Empire Day, 24 May 1914, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported their arrival under the byline of a 'House of Secrets'.[4] AE2 featured two innovations in submarine warfare – a gyro compass to assist with underwater navigation and a Marconi Wireless.

Picture of Naval Representative 55th General report
Fitting of wireless and compass - Portsmouth
[NAA: MP1049/1, 1914/0132]

World War I submarines were capable of limited independent operations and their strategic value at the outbreak of war was unclear. For the thirty two crew of an E-class submarine, life was cramped and the fear of death due to misadventure or equipment failure, omnipresent.

Picture of Stoker, Petty Officer, Henry James Elly Kinder
Stoker Petty Officer Henry James Elly Kinder [AWM: P01075]. Extract from typescript memoir describing submarine life and physics
[AWM: PR01466]

At the outbreak of war, in operations to secure Rabaul from suspected German Naval forces on 14 September, 1914, AE1 was inexplicably lost, becoming Australia’s first war time naval casualty.

Picture of Able Seaman John Harrison Wheat [AWM: P01075]
Extract from a diary kept by Able Seaman John Harrison Wheat [AWM: P01075] that includes the pre war history of AE2 and loss of submarine AE1
[AWM: 3DRL/2965]

AE2 remained in the Pacific area of operations until the defeat of German Pacific Squadron at the Battle of the Falklands in 8 December 1914. With German naval power in the Pacific severely affected by the loss of capital ships, AE2 in principle became available for re-deployment to other theatres of operations.

In Stoker’s Submarine, Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley report that Stoker lobbied the Commonwealth Government’s Minister for Defence, The Hon. Senator George Pearce, to allow AE2 to accompany the Australian Expeditionary Force (AEF) to the Middle East, with the expectation that AE2 would serve with the Royal Navy in Mediterranean or European waters.[5] AE2 departed Sydney in late December 1914, to link up with Australian troop ships carrying the AEF to the Middle East.

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  1. ^ a Brenchley, F. and Brenchley, E. (2001). Stoker’s Submarine. Sydney. Harper Collins. pp.21-22.
  2. ^ a Ibid., pp.7-8.
  3. ^ a Ibid., p.8.
  4. ^ a Ibid., p.21.
  5. ^ a Ibid., p..31.