The True Story of Murder in HMAS Australia
Melbourne: Wilkinson Publishing, 2020
Paperback 320pp RRP $29.99
Reviewer: Kevan Sanderson, April 2021
With a Japanese invasion looming, HMAS Australia was leading the ANZAC Squadron on patrol in the Coral Sea on March 12th, 1942. Early that evening a young stoker, Jack Riley, was brutally murdered, stabbed to death, on deck within sight and sound of several crewmen of the approximately 800 strong complement of the RAN flagship.
Dark Secrets by Robert Hadler is sub-titled 'The True Story of Murder in HMAS Australia’ and the blurb misleadingly presents this book as a torrid story of murder arising from illicit homosexual activity aboard the RAN’s flagship. Dark Secrets is really the story of untangling the morass of judicial and political bureaucracy revealed by this crime, and subsequent attempts to overturn or minimize the sentences of the convicted murderers. Riley’s murder and immediate aftermath occupies only six pages of over 200, excluding references and footnotes. Even the court martial, conducted in the difficult circumstances of wartime operations at sea and the subsequent source of considerable controversy, only warrants a mere twenty pages of description. Hadler devotes almost all the remaining pages to the legal and bureaucratic machinations that followed, for eight and a half years, until the eventual release from prison of the murderers.
The context of this crime was unusual; HMAS Australia was at sea during wartime, with Australia’s military subordinated to other sovereignties. Two stokers were convicted under British military law so the matter of commuting their sentences was out of Australian hands until an appeal for clemency was made to King George VI, who downgraded the sentence to life imprisonment. The men’s sentences were reduced several times, and they were freed in September 1950. During the ensuing years friends, family and supporters of the victim and the defendants petitioned government departments for information or sentence mitigation. These actions exposed a bureaucratic Gordian knot of jurisdictional confusion and legal inconsistencies, the untangling of which was hindered by turf wars between Commonwealth departments government priorities fluctuating between military strategy and social justice.
Hadler provides a well-researched and detailed chronology showing the use and abuse of power by political and military leaders and bureaucrats which caused emotional stress to the murderers, their followers and even the prosecutors. In the Author’s Note he lets the key characters tell their story through their own words accomplishing this by interspersing quotes or excerpts from documents between chronological facts and events. It is an effective means of depicting events and key characters’ roles in those events.
Dark Secrets raises many questions regarding the process of convicting the perpetrators but at no point does Hadler suggest they were not guilty, and it reports the final judicial enquiry conclusion that there was no miscarriage of justice. Hadler refers to unprecedented legal and political events but does little to emphasize the effects, and he has little to say about the consequences of this case. The book suffers by failing to explore the issues, motivations and philosophical positions of key characters and adds little to the readers’ understanding.
Sadly, even though Hadler writes in his Introduction, ‘[Jack Riley] was a faceless victim lost to the pages of history’, this book adds little to remedy the situation providing scant justice to the victim and his rights. The major criticism of Dark Secrets is that Hadler essentially minimizes, almost trivializes, the tragedy that is Jack Riley’s murder, whilst emphasizing the bureaucratic chaos to which it led and the rights of the convicted murderers.
I found the author’s choice of Endnotes rather than Footnotes to be tiresome, but this is a matter of personal preference and there is no doubting the wealth of information they provide. In addition to extensive endnotes Dark Secrets includes an index and a very impressive bibliography. There are also many high quality, well annotated photographs of interesting characters in this saga.
For those interested in military history or socio-political and judicial history of Australia, overall, this is a worthwhile and easy read.
The RUSI - Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.