Submarine Essentials

Australia's Submarines

The First World War

The First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty from 1904 to 1910, Sir John Fisher, introduced the world’s first “all-big-gun” battleship. He also foresaw the immense revolution that submarines would bring to offensive warfare and it was largely with this support that Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin included submarines amongst the first vessels to be ordered for the Royal Australian Navy.

When the first units of the RAN were assembled in Sydney in 1914 they included two submarines, the AE1 (Australian “E” class) and AE2. Australian could never afford a battleship and operated but one capital ship, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia. Despite some interruptions, the RAN did maintain its early commitment to submarines and has, for almost 50 years, operated among the most advanced conventional submarines in the world.

In early September 1914, less than three months after arriving in Australia, AE1 and AE2 joined the fleet to attack the German wireless station at Rabaul. On 14 September, the day after German forces capitulated, AE1 failed to return from an offshore patrol and was never seen again. It was the first warship lost by the RAN and its crew of 35 were Australia’s first significant losses of the First World War.

Soon after, major German forces had been driven from the Pacific and the AE2 was dispatched to the Mediterranean as the only escort of the second convoy of the 1st AIF to the Middle East. In the early hours of 25 April 1915 AE2 evaded heavy Turkish defences along the narrows of the Dardanelles that had proved impenetrable to several surface ship and two submarine attempts.

During the operation AE2 caused a Turkish battleship firing across the peninsula at the Gallipoli landings to cease its bombardment and retreat and it then torpedoed and damaged the Turkish gunboat Peykisevket. The Turks were discouraged from supplying the Gallipoli peninsula via the Sea of Marmora and had to divert ships to hunt for the submarine.

AE2 was damaged by a Turkish torpedo boat on 30 April and was scuttled by its crew. Yet the example it set was soon followed and by the end of the Gallipoli campaign British and French submarines had sunk over 200 Turkish vessels, disrupting supplies for Turkish troops on Gallipoli and dislocating Turkish communications.

AE2 Suez Canal
AE2 in the Suez Canal 1914.

Between The Wars

Without submarines at the end of the war, Australia accepted a British offer of six J class submarines now surplus to the Royal Navy’s needs. Unfortunately, their war service had told and they required extensive refits when they arrived in Sydney in July 1919. The last refit was completed in May 1922 but, by this time, the post war mood, economic malaise and reduced defence budgets had undermined enthusiasm for the boats. All the J submarines were laid up by 1922 and then sold for scrap.

Nonetheless, the Australian government remained committed to a submarine force and in late 1924 it decided to buy two vessels of the new O class, with a view to moving toward a flotilla of six. Unfortunately, the O class proved mechanically unreliable and were not ready for RAN service until mid-1929. Once again events intervened. The economy was moving into depression and government expenditure was being ruthlessly slashed. In May 1930 HMA Ships Oxley and Otway were placed in reserve and a year later returned to the Royal Navy, in which they served under their Australian names.

So Australia did not operate submarines during the Second World War, but did become a base for sustained submarine warfare. Between 1942 and 1945 Fremantle was the largest submarine base in the Southern Hemisphere. Submarines operating out of Fremantle and Brisbane roamed throughout the south-west Pacific, around the Philippines and through the South China Sea.

For more information see:
Australian submarines : a history / Michael W.D. White

The Potential Realised: After the Second World War

Submarines became more potent weapons after the war, as conventionally powered designs became true submarines, submerged for all of an operation, rather than part-time submersibles. By the 1960s, with nuclear propulsion and the first deployments of the sub-surface launched Polaris nuclear missile, submarines had become a strategic threat.

The RAN was assisted in the essential task of learning to fight submarines by the Royal Navy’s fourth submarine flotilla, which was based at Sydney after 1949. However, when Britain announced that the squadron would be gone by 1969 Australia was forced to re-enter the submarine business. In January 1963 an order for four British Oberon class submarines from was announced. These were delivered between August 1967 and July 1970. In 1971 two more Oberons were ordered, being delivered in 1977 and 1978.

RAN Oberon (pictured above), HMAS Oxley, HMAS Otway, HMAS Ovens, HMAS Onslow, HMAS Orion, HMAS Otama

The Oberons proved to be excellent vessels and demonstrated the increasing versatility of submarines. Amongst other things, they conducted daring missions in the North Pacific that provided important intelligence during the Cold War.

Between 1972 and 1981 the Oberons’ obsolete sonar and weapons systems were replaced through the locally devised and managed “submarine weapons update program.” As a consequence, the RAN became the first navy able to fire the Harpoon anti-shipping missile from a submerged conventional submarine.

As the Oberons approached retirement, the lack of an immediate replacement that replicated the older boats’ performance led Australia to develop a unique new design and to build it locally. The six Collins class submarines that were commissioned between 1996 and 2003 are among the three larger types of submarine built after World War II and the most advanced type of conventional submarine when they entered service.

HMAS Collins
HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Waller, HMAS Dechaineux, HMAS Sheean, HMAS Rankin

The construction program was a major achievement for Australian industry, using an advanced modular construction process that allowed large and small companies from around Australia to participate. The vessels were delivered within budget (Peter Yule and Derek Woolner, The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin, Cambridge University Press, footnote 8, p.348.) and with one of the better schedule performances of contemporary defence acquisition programs (The Cost of Defence: ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2006-2007, Figure 4.11: The long wait, p.112).

As a developmental program, the Collins suffered many early teething problems but these were overcome through a combination of the work of the RAN, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and a unique and effective alliance with the US Navy.

Being the parent navy for a new class of submarine has proved to be challenging for the RAN. However, operating the Collins submarines has provided Australia with the experience it needs to move into a new class of submarine that will extend Australia’s century long tradition of successful submarine operations.