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MW6 - Salamander Bay Naval history

The feature sign and submarine styled seating of the Mariners Walk Heritage trail is located in Bob Cairn Reserve which can be accessed if you continue walking along the Wanda Head pathway. At end of path you can either walk along beachfront or public reserve frontage. Alternatively you can return to your parked car in Randall Drive, turn left into Soldiers Point Rd, then left again past shops into Foreshore Drive. Follow Foreshore Drive down to the waterfront and turn left into Cook Pde where you can then park in front of Bob Cairn Reserve. Amenities are available in Bob Cairn Reserve including toilets, seating and BBQs.

Bob Cairns Reserve, corner Foreshore Drive and Cook Street, Salamander Bay.

Salamander Bay

In the 1930s map shown, Salamander Bay was made the focal point of all navigable marine space within Port Stephens. That was an attribute which possibly persuaded Britain’s Admiral Henderson in 1911 to describe it as “a very good harbour”.

It is a simple but effective illustration of how the deep water area could be used at that time between Salamander Bay and Tomaree/Yacaaba Headlands. Beagle’s original hydrographic work in 1839 was upgraded by the Admiralty in 1845 and has certainly been superseded by natural events since then, particularly when the original Myall sand spit was washed away and the channel was changed. Nevertheless, later hydrographic work still shows sizeable water depths right up Salamander Bay to Soldiers Point.

The actual start of building a Naval Base at Salamander Bay back in April 1916, had considered this deep water. The country’s only two submarines were delivered in 1914 and had no formal base; it had been recommended in 1911 that further development for other Naval vessels could take place there, and that would seem to have been possible. The disastrous losses of the only two submarines so early in World War 1, in addition to the movement of the War effort to Europe, quickly put paid to those efforts to complete the project.

As to the actual location of the proposed submarine base, nothing remains today to demonstrate that. A 1911 map in Armstrong’s original 1989 book indicates Lord Jellicoe saw three alternative sites, A, B or C, centred on Wanda Head. The revised 1996 edition shows those same alternative sites plus an undated map indicating a jetty and some buildings, more or less centred on the present Bob Cairns Reserve. From a panoramic photograph (seemingly identified by Jan Winn) in Armstrong & Morrisons’ later book Port Stephens, the Ultimate Experience, that jetty and some buildings can be seen east of Wanda Head, imprecisely. It is therefore fairly certain that Bob Cairns Reserve is at the former location Naval Base Jetty. However, there seems to be no evidence of that work remaining other than perhaps, the access road (which is now the western end of Foreshore Drive) which could have been completed as a specific part of a submarine base.

HMAS Australia

The Australia hull was constructed at John Brown & Company’s Clydebank yard and the battlecruiser’s armament was supplied by Armstrong and Vickers. Total cost was estimated at £2 million but it is reported in fact that the project came in at £295,000 under budget. Australia was commissioned on 21 June 1913.

Australia (it was one of the three light cruisers also bought to form the First RAN Fleet), sailed for Australia on 25 July 1913 and rendezvoused with the rest of the fleet on 2 October in Jervis Bay. On 4 October, Australia led the rest of the fleet into Sydney Harbour and responsibility for Australian naval defence was passed from the Royal Navy to the Royal Australian Navy. On 27 July 1914, however, whilst on a training cruise, it received word that British Admiralty thought there would be imminent and widespread war in Europe. On 3 August, the RAN was placed under Admiralty (British) control.

The British Empire declared war on Germany on 5 August 1914. The RAN immediately swung into action and Australia headed north to rendezvous with other RAN vessels south of what was then German New Guinea. The invasion force mustered off Louisiade Archipelago on 9 September and included the vessels Australia, Sydney, Encounter, Parramatta, Warrego, Yarra, Submarines AE-1 and AE-2, Berrima, a store ship, three colliers and an oiler. It was during one of the searches that followed, the submarine AE-1 disappeared without trace.

Australia went on to serve in the Atlantic theatre of the War; it became the only RAN ship to transfer from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Strait of Magellan. In doing so, it later fired its first shot in anger; a warning shot which caused the German auxiliary Eleonara Woermann to stop and be captured; it was later sunk when the captured ship was impeding Australia’s progress.

Deployed then to the North Sea, Australia’s time there mainly consisted of blockading the German High Seas Fleet and also on training exercises. On 22 April 1915, whilst patrolling in heavy fog north-west of Horn Reefs and zig-zagging to avoid submarine attack, Australia collided with her sister ship HMS New Zealand. Damage was slight but while at Devonport, she had actually missed the infamous Battle of Jutland.

With the Armistice on 11 November 1918, the German High Seas Fleet was subsequently interred at Scapa Flow (Orkneys, Scotland) and Australia was set to guard ship to the SMS Hindenburg. On 22 April 1919, she sailed for home and was paid off into reserve in December 1921. The 1922 Washington Naval treaty limited the number and size of capital ships each nation possessed and Australia was one of the battlecruisers nominated for disposal. In early 1924, the ship was scuttled 25 nautical miles north-east of Sydney Heads in 270 metres of water. That wreck is now protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

HMAS Yarra

One of the first three (Yarra, Parramatta and Warrego) destroyers of six ordered and built for the Royal Australian Navy in 1909-1916, Yarra was commissioned on 10 September 1910 and departed Portsmouth on 19 September 1910 (as a Royal Navy ship) for the voyage to Australia. It served in Australian waters during 1911-1914. After War broke out and as part of Vice-Admiral Patey’s fleet which went to New Guinea to counter the German Pacific Squadron, Yarra later took part in the capture of German possessions in the South-West Pacific. She was present at the formal surrender of German New Guinea to Australian forces on 13 September 1914.

In October 1915, Yarra left to serve in the Western Pacific and sailed from Singapore on the Far East Patrol, returning to Sydney in May 1916. She then served on Australian Coastal Patrol until May 1917 - transferred to the Mediterranean on 9 June 1917. Sailing in flotilla, she went to Brindisi, Italy on anti-submarine patrol protecting transports to and from Albania.

Later, Yarra served in the Black Sea before returning to Malta and then Plymouth by 8 January 1919. On 6 March 1919, in company with HMA Ships Melbourne, Huon, Parramatta and Warrego she sailed for Australia meeting up with Swan and Parramatta at Malta. All arrived in Darwin on 26 April 1919, with the Yarra spending the rest of her seagoing days in Australian waters, being used as a training ship. On 30 September 1929, she was transferred to Cockatoo Island Dockyard, stripped of useful fittings and then scuttled off Sydney Heads on 11 June 1930.

Submarine AE-1

Part of the new Navy thinking, this submarine was the first such unit to be purchased by the fledgling Commonwealth of Australia Government. Prime Minister Deakin, ignoring the negative advice given him in Australian and British defence circles, went ahead in December 1910 and paid just over £105,000 each for AE-1 and its sister ship AE-2, taking delivery of both in January 1914.  These “new” weapons were commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy just 6 weeks later. The “E-class” submarines had been developed from earlier British designs, having themselves been based on the American Holland boats of the 1890s. The designation “A” was added to give them their Australian designation.

Their pioneering voyage from England to Australia commenced on 7 March 1914. Both were still largely top-secret experimental craft with the need for constant attention to defects and as-yet non-performing machinery. Sailing via the Suez Canal, Colombo and Singapore, both met up with HMAS Sydney in Singapore and escorted home, sailing into Sydney on 24 May 1914.

War between Britain and Germany was declared on 5 August 1914 and Australian ships were immediately directed to attack the German Pacific Fleet. AE-1, under the control of its English-born commander Lieutenant T. F. Bessant, RN, along with its sister ship and a number of other Australian vessels, responded. On 14 September 1914, AE-1 and the destroyer Parramatta were patrolling near Cape Gazelle off New Britain. Both were exchanging visual signals until shortly before 3.30pm, when AE-1 was last seen.  Parramatta returned to AE-1’s last position but did not sight the submarine. Assuming it had returned to harbour, Parramatta made for Herbertshohe, anchoring at 7pm. Fleet Commander Rear Admiral Patey ordered a search and after two days, nothing further was found.

To this day “the cause of her disappearance is still a mystery” with AE-1 and her entire crew disappearing. No wreckage or bodies were ever found during the search that followed.

Submarine AE-2

Like its sister ship AE-1, Submarine AE-2 participated in the combined efforts to attack the German Pacific Fleet and in the process, helped shut down the various German radio bases operated in New Guinea and in Samoa. Saddened with the loss of their sister ship, AE-2’s commander Lieutenant H.G.D. Stoker, RN and his crew were soon to face dangers of their own. Stoker convinced the Australian Naval Board and the Minister for Defence, that the remaining submarine would be best deployed in the northern hemisphere.

In company with Sydney and the Transport Berrima, AE-2 joined the second contingent of the First AIF en-route to the Mediterranean. Along the way it was diverted to join British “B Class” submarines patrolling the Dardanelles, where there had been several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the heavily mined straits and allow the allied fleet into the Sea of Marmara and threaten Constantinople (Istanbul). This strategy was interrupted by the subsequent plan to land an invasion force on Gallipoli.

A British submarine E15 had already tried, failed and was destroyed but Stoker had his own plan approved. After a false start and on 25 April 1915 (now Anzac Day), AE-2 “entered the Straits at about 8 knots”. Stoker had been ordered to “generally run amok” as a diversionary action to cover the Anzac landings. On the surface to conserve his batteries, he became a prime target for the Turkish guns. Fired upon at 4.30am, AE-2 dived to 70-80 feet and proceeded through the minefield, wires scraping the sides.

Coming to periscope depth, AE-2 was spotted and fired upon. Stoker avoided being run down by a destroyer, fired off a torpedo and disabled a small cruiser. He ran aground but cleared that, only to run aground on the opposite bank. The boat was damaged but he continued on his course. Then, while waiting on the bottom to avoid two boats dragging a depth charge-ladened cable, he chose to surface at 9pm to recharge the batteries and discharge the fetid air after sixteen hours submerged. They managed to send off a signal of their success, one to offset the grim news of the faltering invasion at Gallipoli.

After a rainy night on the surface they continued on, just missing to torpedo another Turkish ship and finally entered the Sea of Marmara. Six more days of “cat and mouse” and several more unsuccessful torpedo attacks followed but he continued to avoid being shelled and rammed. On 29 April AE-2 met up with a British submarine E14 and together they plotted to attack some Turkish boats pursuing them. In so doing, AE-2 dived and then shortly after went out of control, rising to the surface and became easy prey to Turkish guns. He dived again but she could not be controlled and so he rose to the surface and was fired upon.

On 30 April 1915, with no surface gun, Stoker was unable to fight back. He surfaced, ordering all hands on deck. Opening all valves Stoker, helped by Lieutenant Haggard, scuttled the submarine. Successfully abandoning their ship, all the crew were picked up by Turkish boats to spend the rest of the war as POWs. Four of the crew died in captivity.

The above information and research has been undertaken by the Port Stephens Historical Society.