'Brought Our Men Home': New Evidence Helps Solve Australia's Oldest Naval Mystery

HMAS AE1 disappeared with all of its crew on board in 1914 and its fate remained a mystery for over a century.

On September 14 1914, Australia's AE1 submarine went missing without a trace with all 35 crew members on board.

It was the first Allied submarine to be lost in  the First World War, and has since been dubbed "Australia's oldest naval mystery."

In December 2017, more than a century since it disappeared the submarine was discovered off the coast of the Duke of York Islands in Papua New Guinea, more than 300 metres below the surface.

Now, a new report released on the 104th anniversary of its loss, is providing a first insight into the tragic fate of the submarine and its crew.

Image courtesy of: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM and Curtin University

Evidence from a team of international experts who analysed high-resolution imagery from the wreck site, has revealed that a critical ventilation valve in the hull was left partially open prior to diving and was a 'root cause' of its demise.

According to the report when the submarine dived, the opening would have allowed water to flood the engine room, likely resulting in a loss of control before the submarine descended.

Fin and implosion rubble over control room. Image courtesy of: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM and Curtin University

The report determined that at a certain depth the forward pressure hull partially imploded and would have killed the crew instantly.

"We believe that once the water started to enter the submarine, the situation would have very quickly got out of control," the report said.

"Issuing the orders and undertaking the actions necessary to arrest the situation and recover would have been extremely difficult against the noise and confusion arising from the inrush of water into a rapidly sinking submarine, probably compounded by the loss of lighting and propulsion."

It's unclear why the valve was left partially open and the researchers said it's unlikely to ever be known.

Image courtesy of: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM and Curtin University

The report also found the submarine’s bow and stern torpedo tube caps were either partially or fully open.

While evidence suggests this was done intentionally the reason behind it remains unclear.

Source: Australian National Maritime Museum

On Friday the volunteers who helped find the wreckage were praised by Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, who led the successful search and follow up examination.

“We followed in the footsteps of Commander John Foster and others who have searched over the years, spurred on by the patient vigil of the descendants in Australia, UK and New Zealand who have never forgotten their menfolk lost in AE1," Briggs said.

"Australians say ‘we will remember them’; today we have done that for the crew of AE1.”

Vera Ryan, the niece of Jack Messenger, one of the crew members on board AE1 expressed her gratitude on behalf of descendant family members.

"We felt that our men had been brought home, to be remembered with their ship mates, the men of AE2; to be united with them as the pioneers of the RAN Submarine Service; the men who established the traditions of RAN Submariners. The tradition of care for and of each other even beyond companionship,” Ryan said.

Flags commemorating the lost crew of AE1. Image courtesy of: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM and Curtin University

Australian National Maritime Museum Director and CEO Kevin Sumption thanked the team of volunteers, including retired submariners, maritime achaeologists, naval historians and specialists, who spent years searching for the doomed submarine.

Interim full 3D model of the wreck of HMAS AE1. Image courtesy of: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM and Curtin University

The successful mission to find the lost sailors was a $1 million operation  funded by the Australian Government, the Silentworld Foundation, the Australian National Maritime Museum and Find AE1 Ltd, and used Furgo Survery’s ‘Furgo Equator’ vessel and search technology.

The exact location of the submarine has not been revealed.

Image courtesy of: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM and Curtin University