Dark Secrets: The True Story of Murder in HMAS Australia

by Robert Hadler

Publisher: Wilkinson Publishing 2020

ISBN: 9781925927436

RRP $29.99 (pb)

by Paul Henderson

Dark Secrets is about a young sailor, Jack Riley, who was murdered by two other sailors on HMAS Australia, the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy, in March 1942. The brutal attack was covered up and as the author says “has been hidden for far too long”. As a matter of interest, other cover-ups in the Australian armed forces have occurred on several occasions.

For example, two ships of the Royal Australian Navy, the Voyager and the Melbourne, collided in February 1964. The Voyager was cut in two, with the result that 82 people on board died. The First Royal Commission was held and the Second Royal Commission showed that some evidence was covered up. Over the years cases of bastardisation at the Duntroon military college in Canberra were not disclosed until 1969. More recently, there are allegations of a cover-up of some of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) soldiers in the war in Afghanistan who had allegedly committed war crimes.

Robert Hadler has unearthed a great deal about what happened to Jack Riley in 1942 and what took place after his burial at sea. One feature of Hadler’s book is that he has reviewed events in meticulous research with a huge attention to detail. For instance, there are about 70 pages containing hundreds of endnotes and there is an extensive bibliography. There are also another 15 pages in the index. The degree of research is extraordinary.

The author goes to great length to explain how this murder took place at an extremely difficult time in Australian history. These difficulties included the entrance of Japan into the World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbour – and the bombing of Darwin. There was tension between Australian Prime Minister John Curtin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in getting Australian troops back home. In short, Australia’s leaders had a lot of very serious issues to deal with.

Hadley gives a detailed account of the three men who were involved in the incident on the Australia. All had difficult backgrounds, as their parents dealt with the Great Depression and other matters. The victim, Jack Riley, who was born in Hobart in 1922, watched as his parents struggled financially. One of the killers, Ron Gordon, came to Australia with his parents, both of whom died when Gordon was young. He became a ward of the state. The other killer, Ted Elias, also had a tough life, as his father died at a young age. At some of the trials, mention was made about the difficult times Gordon and Elias had undergone. All three also had something in common; they wanted to join the Navy.

The possible motive for the attack on Riley is carefully examined by the author. It would appear that the two young men who murdered Riley were part of a homosexual group on the ship. Such associations also seem to have been common in other parts of the Navy. Although aware of this, the Australian naval hierarchy seemed to turn a blind eye, not wanting it to become public. This was partly because, at this time, the Royal Australian Navy was under the control of the Royal Navy (RN). Therefore if an Australian sailor committed a murder that person would be trialled by the RN. In those days, the punishment for murder was death by hanging. Australia could not overturn a British military court. Similar things happened to “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock in the Boer War.

A disturbing aspect of the death of Jack Riley was how his parents were treated afterwards. It was some time after the stabbing that they were told Jack was dead. They presumed he died in battle. They were told considerably later that in fact he was murdered, not killed in battle. They then found out he was buried at sea. Later again, via the Hobart paper The Mercury, they discovered the two accused men had appealed their sentence. This was appalling treatment from both the Department of Defence and the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board.

Riley, before he died, said he was attacked because the men Gordon and Alias were homosexuals. The author states that with the shocking conditions under which the sailors worked something could have snapped.

The court martial took place when the ship was a shambles. Lt Rapke defended the two men and the captain, Rear Admiral Harold Farncomb, was the prosecutor. The witnesses on the ship were confused, ill-informed and gave contradictory evidence. They could not identify the three men in the fight. Farncomb made a major legal mistake. Despite all of this, Gordon and Elias were found guilty.

What followed was a struggle between Great Britain and Australia as to who should sentence Ron Gordon and Ted Elias. The Australian naval people, wanted life in prison, but the British had the power to enforce the death penalty. The struggle is interesting to follow. Also, there were different points of view within the Navy, the legal profession, the public service and the political parties. The matter was even referred to the British monarch. After the court martial, the debate about innocence versus guilt dragged on. Understandably, this issue was small fish compared with the events in Europe and Japan.

A strong supporter of the men was Dr H V Evatt, Attorney-General in the Curtin Government. After a long battle in the parliament, the Statute of Westminster was passed in October 1942. This meant that Australia had the legal right to stop British naval law dominating Australian law. Evatt frequently cited the Gordon and Elias situation in the debate, and how it was changed with the new legislation. While the two men remained prisoners, they now had the protection of the Australian Defence Act. The author devotes over 20 pages to this Act of Parliament.

From cover to cover, Robert Hadler gives a comprehensive summary of the trials, appeals (such as the one before Justice Maxwell) and the roles played by prominent politicians and bureaucrats. This is one of the strengths of the book. In most of these cases the original verdict remained unchanged.

However, a breakthrough came when Judge Rainbow (President of the Prisoners Aid Association) became interested and involved in the death of Jack Riley. A great number of meetings and correspondence took place amongst the leading advocates. The debate turned on whether Judge Maxwell had ruled that the sentence the two men received could not be reduced. Maxwell said that he had not so ruled. Most agreed with Maxwell’s statement, including the Naval Board. Things moved quickly, with Gorton and Eliss being released in September 1950 having spent eight years in jail. They returned to normal life.

It is interesting to note the significant number of people who had supported the two men when they were in jail. They came from all walks of life including lawyers, judges, journalists, senior politicians, bishops and senior personnel in the Navy.

This book covers this history in much detail and takes the reader through all its twists and turns. There are still so many unanswered questions. As Hadler writes, the fact that the two men had their sentences reduced “… does not mean that they were innocent. It just means that the motive may never be known and will remain controversial.” The book raises so many unanswered questions.

Paul Henderson is the author of several books on Australian history and politics.