It is common knowledge within the Melbourne Scuba Diving community that there are 4 British WW1 J class submarines sunk outside the heads. What is not common knowledge however,  is their history and how they came to lie where they are now. Here is a brief history.


The J-class submarines were seven submarines developed by the British Navy prior to WW1. The J1-J6 were built in 1915, with the J4 being the first submarine into service. The J7 was the last built in 1916. The objective for these submarines was to be able to keep up with the Navy’s fleet of ships. However, though more powerful than previous submarines, the J-class subs unable to keep up with the fleet. They each had 3 x 1200 HP diesel engines that turned the propellers at 380rpm, pushing them to 19 kts, and batteries that allowed them to travel at 9 kts submerged.

Service with the Royal Navy

All seven J-class subs saw limited service during the war, operating not as a fleet, but independently, and experienced limited success, sinking a solitary U-boat and damaging 2 German Battleships. The J6 was lost to friendly fire off the east coast of Britain.

On the 5th November 1916, the J1 submarine sighted 4 German Battleships at a range of 2 NM. (to give you an idea, that is the distance between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean.) The J1 fired 4 torpedoes, with 1 torpedo hitting the SS Grosser Kurfurst and 1 torpedo hitting the SMS Kronprinz. Both battleships were significantly damaged.

On the 7th July 1917, the J2 submarine sighted a German U-boat (U-99) and fired 4 torpedoes, with 1 hitting and sinking the U-boat.

On 15 October 1918 J6 was on patrol of the Northumberland coast when she was spotted by the Q-ship Cymric. The captain of the Cymric mistook the lettering on the conning tower of the J6 for U6. Assuming U6 to indicate a German U-boat, the Cymric opened fire on J6. After a number of direct hits, J6 sank. It was only after the survivors were seen in the water that the captain and crew of Cymric realised their mistake and recovered the survivors. Of the crew of J6, 15 were lost. An enquiry found that no action should be taken against the captain. On a side note, U6 had already been sunk previously.

In the summer of 2013, the Polish Navy salvage ship ORP Lech, whilst searching for the wreck of a Polish submarine, surveyed and officially confirmed the identity of the J6.

Australia takes ownership.

Since 1914, the Australian government had been looking to replace the AE1 and AE2 which they lost prematurely. The Australian government spent a lot of time researching options, and the fact that the shipyards in Britain were all tied up with wartime production meant that a quick solution was not going to be found. Infact a party of 10 reasearchers was sent from Australia to England, spending 2 years researching submarine construction before returning to Australia. Before any progress could be made, the possibility of a gift from the English Navy became a reality. The J-class to the English navy had become obsolete and surplus to requirement and following the war, the six remaining J-class submarines were sold to the Royal Australian Navy.

Bound for Australia

The J Class Submarines and a depot ship (HMAS Platypus) left Britain on 8 April 1919, and sailed via Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Aden, Columbo, Singapore, Thursday Island and Moreton Bay. They arrived in Sydney on 15 July 1919. Below are some photos of their trip. Left to right; Aussie troops cheer on the J1 as it transits through the Suez Canal. The HMAS Platypus and the subs at Aden, a frontal shot of the HMAS Platypus and the Subs.

On arrival the need for a program of major maintenance and battery replacement became urgent, given their previous poor maintenance and breakdowns on the voyage out. The J3 and J7 entered a deep refit in early 1920 that was to last more than a year, while the other four boats completed a program of peacetime exercises, cruises and port visits from their new base at Geelong. The HMAS Cerebus which now lies at Black Rock ended up being the support ship to the J-Class subs during their RAN service life.

At this stage it became clear that The J Class Submarines were costly lemons and obsolete. The previous estimation of operating costs were 28,300 pounds per submarine and the refit costs for the J3 and J7 were 73,200 and 110,861 pounds respectively.

In April 1921, a report to the board gave the status of the six submarines as follows:

  • J1 Sydney Battery unsafe and must be replaced (could not dive).
  • J2 Sydney Heavy engine and battery defects, to enter refit when J3 completed.
  • J3 Sydney Most defects made good, new batteries arrived Cockatoo and unpacked.
  • J4 On Service, battery due for replacement December 1921
  • J5 On Service, battery due for replacement February 1922
  • J6 New battery due in May, defects will be made good by December 1921.

In 1921 in an effort to save money, a plan was put in place to lay up 3 boats (J1, J4 and J5) and the following year due to further naval budget cuts the Naval Board had no option but to lay up all 6 submarines.

The scuttling

The J Class Submarines were moved to states of storage and then in 1922 de-stored and sold off for disposal. Four of the submarines were scuttled outside the bay (J1, J2, J4 and J5) and the J3 was sunk as a breakwater near Swan Island. The J7 was the sub in the best condition, as was used to provide electrical power at the Naval base at Flinders (Now Cerebus) Eventually, the J7 was sold off in 1927 and scuttled at Sandringham Yacht Club as a breakwater in 1930.

The propellers for the J3 are on display out the front of the Queenscliff Maritime Museum, and the torpedo gauge from the J4 was removed by the salvage company prior to scuttling and is at a private residence on the Mornington Peninsula.

The wheel from the J2 is on display at the ex HMAS Castlemaine at Williamstown.