Australians have paid tribute to the first submariners lost in the Great War as they search for the wreck of HMAS AE1. Sixteen of those lost were Britons.
More than 1,500 people gathered in Simpson Harbour, Papua New Guinea, for a centennial service 100 years to the day that the boat was lost.
Built in Barrow and crewed by 18 Australians, 16 Britons (all her officers, plus men who’d transferred from the RN to the RAN) and one New Zealander, AE1 was the first boat in the Royal Australian Navy, arriving in Sydney just a couple of months before the outbreak of war.
In September 1914 she and her sister AE2 were sent as part of the force dispatched to drive German forces out of New Guinea.
One day after the capture of the key port of Rabaul, AE1 headed out on patrol and was never seen again.
The names of all 35 souls lost when the submarine disappeared were read out.
The service came at the end of a concerted search for AE1’s wreck by the Australian survey ship HMAS Yarra, whose sailors provide a guard of honour for the centenary service.
The crew of HMAS Yarra spent four days scanning difficult terrain on the seabed – a steep volcanic shelf, numerous rocky outcrops littered with the detritus of conflicts past (as well as the actions of WW1, Rabaul was a major Japanese base a generation later).
Using oral histories, data from previous searches, contemporary naval and weather records, and knowledge of the waters around the Duke of York Islands, to pinpoint the hunt for the wreck, concentrating on the waters off Mioko Island, about 20 miles east of Rabaul.
Lt Cdr Brendan O’Hara, Yarra’s Commanding Officer said:
“Locals that lived on Mioko Island spoke of a ‘monster’ – possibly AE1 – that approached the reef and then moved away north-east before disappearing.”
Most of the contacts Yarra picked up were classified as natural objects, but one remains unidentified and will require further investigation, other operations allow.