Mutinous five due places in Aussie larrikin pantheon
Mutineers: A True Story of Heroes and Villains
By Robert Hadler
Wilkinson Publishing, 320pp, $29.99, PB
Reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
Any tale of mutiny on the high seas is bound to get some attention. In fact, one of the most famous stories in maritime history was about a mutiny, the one on the Bounty under Captain William Bligh.
But mutinies didn’t just happen in the days of sail and many people wouldn’t be aware that just after the Great War, we had our own naval mutiny – in Fremantle.
Melbourne-based Robert Hadler’s latest tale of derring-do, Mutineers, is the story of that mutiny when five young Australian sailors were ringleaders of a rebellion against British imperial authority.
It wasn’t a violent affair but it was one of the most unsettling in the chequered history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), which was, at the time, under the command and control of the Admiralty in London.
Mutineers is a fascinating story of five working-class teenagers from Sydney and Melbourne who sparked a domestic political confrontation and diplomatic crisis after they led a revolt on board HMAS Australia, the first flagship of the RAN.
In essence, the mutiny on the battlecruiser in Fremantle Harbour on June 1, 1919 involved a rebellion against the authority of the captain, Claude Cumberlege.
The five young ringleaders had joined the RAN seeking adventure on the high seas but quickly became disenchanted with the naval life. This was due to a lack of action against the enemy, brutal Arctic conditions in the North Sea and the harsh British naval discipline applied by the autocratic Royal Navy officers in charge of Australian warships at the time.
The leader of the mutineers, Dalmorton (Dal) Rudd, had become a war hero after volunteering to take part in a British raid on a German submarine base in Belgium in 1918. For his courageous hand-to-hand fighting, Rudd was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal.
His younger brother, Lenny, who idolised Dalmorton, and their three friends, Bill McIntosh, Pitta Thompson and Ken Paterson, were willing participants in organising a rebellion of almost a hundred crew, who simply wanted to stay another day in Fremantle to thank the local community for their warm welcome.
Yet the five ringleaders were charged with mutiny under British naval law and sentenced to several years in Goulburn jail with hard labour. The Australian government, unable to overturn the sentences, had to lobby the British government to release the five prisoners.
As well as being an illuminating story about these young blokes, Mutineers documents the use and abuse of power by Australia’s military and political leaders at a critical time in our nation’s history.
Hadler explores how the severe jail sentences handed out by a naval court martial in Sydney provoked a political furore several months before the federal election of December 13, 1919.
The two most senior naval officers in the RAN threatened to resign when the Australian government, led by pugnacious Nationalist Party prime minister WH (“Billy”) Hughes, pressured the British Admiralty to allow the five to be released early in time for Christmas.
After serving slightly less than six months in prison, the Fremantle Five were freed on December 20, 1919, in part thanks to Hughes, who had won the general election in a canter. Three of the five mutineers went on to serve in WWII. Pitta Thompson fought in Malaya, Lenny Rudd in the Middle East and Dal Rudd in New Guinea. One of these three rebel sailors, Dal Rudd, served with the United States Small Boat Service, while, after being captured in Singapore, Thompson became a prisoner-of-war for four years in Changi.
Of the remaining two mutineers, Ken Paterson, committed suicide during the Great Depression, and the other, Bill McIntosh, for a while turned to a life of petty crime. Yet, as Hadler concludes, with the conspicuous exception of Paterson, the naval mutineers “led long and relatively happy lives”.
Thanks to Mutineers, the exploits of the Fremantle Five are now a richly deserved part of Australian naval history.
Hadler has a talent for bringing history to life and his expertise in the field of naval history is invaluable.
Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald AM is the author of 42 books, most recently a memoir, Fifty Years Sober, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
The Australian, May 31, 2021, p 10.