Dark Secrets – The True Story of Murder in HMAS Australia. By Robert Hadler. Wilkinson Publishing Melbourne, 2020.
Reviewed by Greg Swinden
Murder in the Royal Australian Navy is rare; so when it does happen it becomes a source of much interest and speculation. The 1942 murder of Stoker Jack Riley, on-board the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia at sea and in a war zone, however has been hidden away in the shadows for many decades.
G.H. Gill’s official history of the RAN in World War II was completely silent on the matter as was the history of HMAS Australia (II), published in 1975 by the Naval Historical Society of Australia. It was not until thesis level research was undertaken in the early 1980s, by the then Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) James Goldrick, that the story came to light.
Goldrick’s thesis opened up the topic to greater analysis leading to two 2016 published works; Murder on HMAS Australia by Judith Crosland (who was a post war friend of one of the murderers) and The Drowned Man by Brendan Murray. These two books however are at best history based fiction and make bold assumptions on what the actual people involved said or thought. Robert Hadler’s book is thus what I would consider to be the first widely published analysis of this sordid event and his level of research and ability to clearly explain the events is outstanding.
So what is the book about? On the night of 12 March 1942 the cruiser Australia was operating in the Coral Sea when Stoker Jack Riley was fatally stabbed, with at least 16 knife wounds, by Leading Stoker Albert ‘Ron’ Gordon and Stoker Edward Elias. Before dying the following day Riley states verbally to the ships surgeon, and later to the executive officer, that he was stabbed by Gordon and Elias in order to cover up their homosexual activities. At the time the stigma of homosexuality would see the men discharged from the RAN and ostracized by society.
Both Gordon and Elias were found at the crime scene, covered in blood, by several witnesses who approached the scene for two different directions (Forward and Aft) and saw no one else leaving the scene. Stoker Elias states he ‘found’ the knife used in the attack on Riley protruding from Riley’s body and removed it – but the weapon was never found. In the subsequent court martial both men are found guilty and sentenced to death; despite an excellent defence by Paymaster Lieutenant Trevor Rapke. Of note is no realistic alternative ‘murderers’ are put forward by the prosecution or defence as having conducted the crime.
What follows is the complex legal action to have the death sentence commuted to life imprisonment which, as the RAN came under British control during the war, requires King George VI approval. This acts as the catalyst for the Attorney General (and Minister for External Affairs), Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, to push ahead with Australia enacting the dormant 1931 Statute of Westminster allowing Australia greater ability to govern itself.
In due course Gordon and Elias have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment and are incarcerated in Goulburn Prison. Hadler’s research then follows the ongoing actions by supporters of the two men, including Rapke, to have their life sentences reduced which leads to a second trial in 1944 where the two stoker’s guilt is re-confirmed but the sentences are reduced to 12 years. The matter does not rest there and Hadler continues to describe the actions that finally lead to a reduction in sentences with both men released from prison in late 1950.
Readers should be wary and not consider that this is some form of ‘wrongful conviction’ being overturned; Gordon and Elias were guilty of killing Stoker Riley and found guilty by the court martial in 1942 and the 1944 hearings. The physical evidence was overwhelming and no other men were found with the quantity of blood stains on their overalls (i.e. those who carried Riley, on a stretcher, to the ships sick bay). Also while Riley’s ‘death-bed’ statements to Surgeon Lieutenant Stenning and later to Commander Armstrong were deemed as hearsay no other men’s names were mentioned by Riley.
The book ends describing what Gordon and Elias did with their lives following their release with both men concealing their crime from others, marrying and undertaking gainful employment. This is an interesting period of their life and well worth reading. From a personal view I first heard of the Australia murder in 1989 when an ‘old and bold’ ex Chief Petty Officer Writer Tom Healy, who had served in Australia in the 1950s, told me of the incident. He also recalled that while drinking in a hotel in Kings Cross, with a friend who served in the cruiser in 1942, that Gordon had walked past them. His drinking companion saw Gordon and exclaimed ‘My God – I’ve just seen a murderer’. Believing that Gordon may have escaped from prison they went to the local police station to be informed that Gordon had been released some years before. Rumours later circulated that Gordon, who lead a ‘Bohemian’ lifestyle in Sydney, was a police informant and that James Goldrick ‘may’ have been contacted by NSW Police during his 1980s research and ‘advised’ not to dig too deeply into what Gordon and Elias (who were both still alive at the time) might be doing.
Dark Secrets is very highly recommended. Hadler’s book is well written, easy to read (despite a few odd non-naval terms used) and painstakingly researched but the reader should not forget these two men were guilty as charged; despite some references in the text to a ‘a mystery sailor’ who is alleged to have told others he committed the crime. Gordon and Elias (who later changed his surname to Ellis) lived to relative old age – an opportunity not afforded to their victim Stoker Jack Riley. Was eight years in prison long enough for this brutal crime?