- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- Early warships, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This study will deal only with the first six phases. It should be noted that the temporary use of an elderly Dutch boat, K-9, during World War II does not rate consideration in this way because of the limited use for which it was ever intended. Nor does the crucial submarine campaign, partly waged from bases in Australia, by the United States Navy and the Royal Navy against Japan between 1941 and 1945 because this did not directly involve the Royal Australian Navy or the Australian government. But, by examining each of the other separate periods of submarine development, it should become clear that there have been consistent ambitions and recurrent challenges in the history of the Australian navy and its submarines.
Phase One: The Submarine for Local Defence – the First Ideas
The advent of the submersible did not pass un-noticed in Australia and the potential for its employment in local defence was soon identified as the new nation struggled to understand its strategic situation and its own defence requirements. The visionary Alfred Deakin, long a proponent of an Australian navy, publicly proposed the acquisition of submarines as early as 1905. William Creswell, the first Director of the Commonwealth Naval Forces was, however, not initially enthusiastic; his primary focus in the first years of Federation for a new Australian navy was firmly centred on surface torpedo craft.
Given the characteristics of submersibles at that time, Creswell was quite right. In view of the limited capabilities of the first classes of submersible to enter Royal Navy service, he was justified in assessing that destroyer or torpedo boat-type craft would be more flexible for Australian local defence, even for port defence, while having a much better ability for sea keeping and offshore operations in the Australian environment. Submarines were still constrained in range and endurance, had only petrol engines (with all their attendant hazards) for surface running and were not yet particularly reliable. As Creswell noted, they were also very complex to build and thus very expensive for their size. Another factor, and it was an important one, was that surface craft were better platforms for training large numbers of people, particularly when a core of seagoing personnel had to be built up practically from scratch.
Even a dive in a British submarine in 1906 did not immediately change Creswell’s thinking.  Deakin, on the other hand, became progressively more enthusiastic about submarines as he moved in and out of power in Federal Government. When discussions on the future of an Australian naval effort came to a head at the 1907 Imperial Defence Conference, Deakin was soon receiving the benefit of the ideas of Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, who had identified the emerging potential of the submarine as a ship killer in the open sea and the impact that this would have on all major surface ship operations. However, and this was a key point, there remained a gap between Fisher’s vision of submarines and their existing capability which had yet to be spanned. This would require experimentation and resources on a level which a great power like the United Kingdom could afford, but which would not be practicable for a small navy such as Australia contemplated.
The problems of bringing about a submarine based scheme of defence certainly proved too much for the French, who deserve the credit for conceiving the first such program in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. Although theoretically neutral, France had supported Russia and, with the Russian naval defeat of Tsushima, became acutely aware of the vulnerability of French Indo-China to Japanese assault. Submarines appeared to offer the only practicable (and affordable) means of providing protection. Between 1905 and 1907 an emergency building programme of submersibles for the Far East was implemented, funding for submarines more than doubling as a proportion of the construction budget. Although an improved relationship with Japan and strategic priorities closer to home brought about cancellation of the scheme in 1907, another reason for abandonment lay in the actual capabilities of the designs at the time. To provide the necessary speed and endurance, the French submarines had steam power for surface propulsion. They were not a great success and none made it to the Far East.