AE 1 – The search for Australias first submarine

By Mark Spencer

I led the first Australian expeditions to Turkey in 1997 and again in 1998 to examine the Turkish discovery of AE2 by diver and museum director Selcuk Kolay. The AE2 was sitting upright on a soft silty sea floor more exposed and in better condition than we could have hoped. E-class submarines are not big (176 ft or 53m long). She sat at a depth of 72 metres.

After returning from Turkey in 1998, I received a call recommending I talk with long-retired salvage diver George Tyers. George was adamant he dived on AE1 in the early ’70s near the entrance to Simpson Harbour. I took his story seriously, but did not want to spend another half year dedicating my energies on another wreck hunt. I
was happy to let someone else discover AE1 and confirm or deny George’s claim.

Six years ago, I heard retired Navy Commander John Foster talk of his 20+ years effort to find AE1.  John was convinced that AE1 would be outside Simpson Harbour somewhere en-route from the Duke of York Islands to Kokopo, east and slightly south of Simpson Harbour. ‘AE1 was never commanded to report back to Simpson Harbour’, said Foster. ‘She was meant to report back to HMAS Encounter for servicing and Encounter was near Kokopo’.  ‘This is why George Tyer’s wreck cannot be AE1’ concluded Foster.

His search concentrated on the deeper waters off the Duke of York Islands and the stretch of water between there and Kokopo. Twice, he accompanied Australian Naval vessels to carry out side-scan sonar and magnetometer searches in the possible tracts of AE1. One tantalizing sonar find was followed up with a ROV inspection, appearing to show the conning tower of an E-Class submarine. The structure was dismissed by naval architects and maritime archaeologists as a natural reef with similar dimensions and profile to a conning tower.

Mid-2008 Foster approached wreck diver John Riley, deep rebreather diver Kevin Denlay and myself as a wreck photographer to accompany him on another expedition to dive on and identify once and for all the two or three Navy sonar contacts that might be AE1.

… read the full story in the October/November 2009 issue #114

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