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Melbourne’s bayside beaches are not renowned as the resting place of shipwrecks but  there are two; one well known and the other almost unknown.

The well known one is the former HMVS Cerberus bought for the Royal Victorian Navy in 1871. She was a semi-submersible iron clad monitor acquired to defend the colony against a Russian invasion which never happened. A more comprehensive story about this ship appears in my post of 2nd April, 2021 titled IN DEFENCE OF VICTORIA.

I believe that she was built in Tyne, not Liverpool

Cerberus was sunk at Half Moon Bay, Black Rock, a southern bayside suburb, in 1924 and used as a breakwater where she still lies very visibly today. Following Federation she was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and re-named HMAS Platypus 11 in 1921 and tasked as a submarine tender for the six newly acquired J Class submarines which had been gifted to the RAN by Britain.

That then leads to the story of the other wreck which is virtually unknown, the submarine known as J7. The J Class submarines saw service with the Royal Navy in WW1, J7 having been completed in 1917 was the last of this class to be built.

She now lies at the Sandringham Yacht club as a breakwater and forming part of the club’s protected marina. I was a member of this club for many years and most Saturdays I walked along the stone wall breakwater never realising that part of where I was walking was, in fact, the wreck of a submarine. I was not the only one oblivious to this fact as dozens of members doing the same thing each Saturday are equally oblivious of it as I was.

Following the end of WW1 six J Class subs remained and they were all gifted to the RAN by Britain. They sailed to Australia under their own steam and were all refitted at Garden Island and Cockatoo Naval dockyards in Sydney at a cost of 407,000 quid. They were in poor condition when they arrived and the refit was necessary to keep them seaworthy. 

HMS Submarine J7 off the River Tyne prior to sailing for Australia in February, 1919.

All six boats were stationed at Geelong and there were hopes in the RAN to use them as the nucleus of a permanent submarine flotilla following the loss of the submarines AE1 and AE2 early in the war. However, the decision at the League of Nations to downgrade the navies of the major participants in WW1 and curtail new capital ship construction undermined those ambitions.

By 1924 they were deemed to be an obsolete class and subs 1,2,4 and 5 were scuttled in Bass Strait, 4 miles off Port Philip Heads. J3 & J7 were retained as being the two in the best condition of the original six. J3 was scuttled as a breakwater at Swan Island near Queenscliff. The conning tower of J4 was removed before she was scuttled and erected on the St.Kilda pier to be used as a starting tower for the St.Kilda Yacht Club. That pier was demolished in 1956 to make way for a more modern starting post for the Melbourne Olympic Games yachting events. The conning tower is presumed to have been converted to scrap. One of the diesel engines was also salvaged prior to the sinking and was used for many years as a stand-by generator at the Radio Australia Station at Shepparton. It was still functioning in 2004.

J7, the newest and best preserved of the original six boats, was taken to Western Port Bay and used as a power supply source for the Flinders Naval Depot. She served in this role for many years and later the engines were removed and continued to be used as a secondary lighting source at the base until 1972.

What remained of J7 was kept at anchor lying off Cowes. In 1929 the hull was towed by a tug around to Footscray, a Melbourne suburb, where any remaining parts of value were removed and the empty hull was sold to the Ports & Harbours Department which then sunk it as a breakwater at the Sandringham Yacht Club where she rests today unidentified and un-noticed by the owners and crews of the boats she was intended to protect. 


HMAS J7 Submarine 1919 | Towards the end of 1914, early in W… | Flickr

In 2020, Engineers Australia conferred a Marker award to the J Class submarines under its Engineering Heritage Recognition Programme. This program recognises significant historical engineering projects and normally marks the site with a plaque. However practical difficulties and safety have denied a physical marking.

I came across this story by pure chance. One of my grandsons is a marine mechanic and he was working on a boat at the Sandringham Yacht Club marina when he noticed the remains of this submarine and followed up on it.

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