01 March 2009

Submarines past, present and future

The recent announcement by the Minister for Defence that Rear Admiral Rowan Moffitt has been appointed to the new position of Head Future Submarine Program in the Defence Materiel Organisation marks the opening of another chapter in Australia’s long and distinguished history of submarine operations, going back almost a century.

Under this major new project, designated SEA 1000, the future submarine is planned to replace the Collins Class submarine beginning in 2025.

The Collins Class submarine represents one of Australia’s greatest technological achievements. As the project neared completion it was the subject of much controversy, most of it undeserved. The history of the project is very well told in Peter Yule and Derek Woolner’s The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin (Cambridge University Press 2008), which documents in a balanced way how a fleet of excellent submarines was brought into service, and the hard-won lessons that were learned along the way.

The Department of Defence is to be congratulated for its support and cooperation in the writing of this history. Apart from its inherent interest, it is to be hoped that it will be studied carefully for the lessons it offers for the future conduct of major military projects in this country. It would be useful to see similar histories of other indigenous projects such as the Anzac Frigate project and JORN (Jindalee Operational Radar Network), the over-the-horizon radar network which represents another great Australian technological achievement.

Australia’s first two submarines, the British (Vickers) built E-Class submarines AE1 and AE2, arrived in Sydney in May 1914. On 14 September 1914 AE1 failed to return from patrol during the attack on the German wireless station at Rabaul and was never seen again. It was the first vessel lost by the Royal Australian Navy.

AE2 sailed to the Mediterranean and on 25 April 1915 played a dramatic role in the attack on Gallipoli. In the early hours of the morning HMAS AE2 entered the Dardanelles on the surface to create a diversion by “running amok in the Narrows”, then enter the Sea of Marmara to cut the supply lines of the Ottoman Army. Her campaign ended five days later when she was fatally damaged in an engagement with a Turkish torpedo boat and was scuttled by her crew without loss of life.

She disappeared from view for more than 80 years until Turkish museum director and wreck explorer Mr Selcuk Kolay found AE2 sitting intact and upright on the bottom in 73m of water.

The Submarine Institute of Australia (www.submarineinstitute.com) sponsored early activity to appraise the wreck and ensure that AE2’s contribution at Gallipoli was duly recognised. Following the obtaining of Government support, the Project has been assigned to the AE2 Commemorative Foundation Limited, a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee.

A survey expedition was conducted in 2007 in collaboration with Turkish participants, and is the subject of an excellent documentary which was broadcast on ABC TV on Anzac Day 2008. It is available on DVD from the ABC.

The story of AE2 is also told in the Vecihi and Hatice Başarin’s Beneath the Dardanelles: The Australian Submarine at Gallipoli, Allen & Unwin, 2008.

The Submarine Institute’s website is a key site for those interested in the past, present and future of the Australian Submarine Service.

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