The arrival of the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) fleet into Sydney Harbour on 4 October 1913 was a great moment in Australian history. Australia now had direct control of the seas around the continent and no longer had to rely on the British Royal Navy.
In early 1914, to complement its fleet of ships, the RAN bought its first two submarines, HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2, from Britain for just over £105,000 each. During the trip from England they frequently broke down and had to be towed by naval ships for one-third of the distance owing to malfunctions. At one point during the trip, when temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius, the submarines were painted white in an attempt to make conditions aboard the cramp craft more bearable.
Notwithstanding problems en route, having completed the then longest submarine voyage ever undertaken, the submarines finally sailed into Sydney Harbour on 24 May 1914.
Three months later WWI broke out and the submarines were called into active service as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF). AE1, along with HMAS Parramatta were called to New Guinea following the capture of Rabaul from German forces. On 14 September 1914, off Rabaul, a mist descended and the AE1 disappeared with its crew of 35, never to be seen again despite numerous attempts to locate it, at the time and since.
The disappearance of AE1 was Australia’s first major loss of WWI and, as such, had a major impact on the public consciousness. Whether AE1 was sunk through enemy action, irreparably damaged by an unseen pinnacle of coral or suffered a mechanical malfunction, will probably never be known. A German news report at the time postulated that its ‘Pacific fleet has not been idle’ though Germany did not claim the submarine’s sinking during the war making one of the alternative theories appear more plausible.
My reader will be aware that it is a common naval practice that burials at sea are accompanied by the floating of a floral wreath, a tribute most likely never afforded to those lost on AE1.
This memorial, adjacent to the Australian National Maritime Museum, in the waters of Darling Harbour, aims to right this position and commemorate the loss of AE1 and its 35 Australian and British crew.
Created by Warren Langley and dedicated on 14 September 2015, exactly 101 years after the loss of the AE1, the memorial, entitled ‘… the ocean bed their tomb,’ takes the form of a six metres diameter stainless steel wreath floating above the water, casting a shadow from day to night reminding us that neither the submarine nor its crew has been located.
The memorial’s title comes from a poem written at the time by South Australian, Anne Almer:
The brave men at their duty met their doom
Sudden and sharp the ocean bed their tomb.
No roar of battle warned them death was nigh;
Silent and sudden they plunged into gloom.
The AE1’s sister submarine, AE2, was lost to enemy action in the Dardanelles campaign in April 1915.
The second picture above is the last known photograph of AE1 taken on 9 September 1914, five days before its disappearance. HMAS Yarra and HMAS Australia appear in the background.
Memorials to both AEI and AE2 can also be seen in the Public Access Prescient at Garden Island which also houses the excellent RAN Heritage Centre (naval museum). Garden Island is sadly overlooked by most visitors. I highly recommend you do not overlook it. See separate reviews.
The memorial is located in Darling Harbour, by the Australian National Maritime Museum, and can be accessed 24/7 free of charge.