VADM Sir Richard Peek, KBE CB DSC RAN ret, 1914-2010
(This obituary is drawn from the reminiscences of Malcolm Baird, Ian MacDougall and Ian Richards, from a report by Mike Taylor, and from information provided by CN’s office.)
Richard Innes Peek (who called himself ‘Peter’ because he disliked the ‘RIP’ monogram) was born in Tamworth, NSW. He joined RANC in 1928. During World War II he served in HMS Revenge, HMAS Hobart (at the Battle of the Coral Sea) and HMAS Australia. As Australia’s gunnery officer at Leyte (where he was wounded) and Lingayen, he was awarded in quick succession the OBE and the DSC.
His commands were the frigate HMAS Shoalhaven, Tribal-class destroyer HMAS Bataan, Battle-class destroyer HMAS Tobruk (twice), fast troop transport HMAS Sydney and aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. For service in Tobruk during the Korean War he received the United States Legion of Merit.
Promoted Rear Admiral in 1964, he commanded the fleet during the height of the Vietnam War. He became CNS, as Vice Admiral, in 1970. Further honours came: a CB in 1971, and a knighthood (KBE) in 1972. He retired in 1973.
The relatively few souls still with us who knew Peek well recall his crystal-clear mind and devotion to the welfare of those under his command. He had an exceptional ability to read people and recognise potential: in 1963 he supported a young supply officer’s application for transfer to submarines, but at the same time encouraged the officer to stretch his talents to the limit by assigning him to tasks well outside his comfort zone. So began the unlikely path by which Ian MacDougall later himself became CNS.
But Peek was an innocent in some ways too. On assuming command of the Fleet he invited a selection of journalists to join him in the cuddy for an informal chat. The refreshments included a plate of prawns, which received the lion’s share of the press coverage. Peek was disappointed that matters of substance failed to receive more coverage than the prawns did.
A stickler for discipline, when the occasion required it he could observe the spirit rather than the letter of the law. In Tobruk he learned that a ‘shady’ investment scheme was operating in a mess deck, with contributions each pay day. Peek stopped the scam but took no disciplinary action; the investments, and their earnings, went to a worthy charity in Victoria.
After retirement he continued to contribute to defence policy until very recently, with experienced commentary and, when he thought it appropriate, trenchant criticism. He was one of a small and select group of prominent people who publicly opposed Australia’s involvement in the second Iraq War.
The pungency of Peek’s buggy old pipes is well remembered, and even stronger were his Borneo cheroots. His love of the weed didn’t seem to shorten significantly his long life.
He is remembered as gentle and considerate with his juniors, both officers and sailors. He stood no nonsense and would fight tooth-and-nail for something he believed in – including on occasions protecting his staff against criticism from above. His morals were impeccable; he observed Christian ethics. He was a man of principle and moral courage.
Peter Peek married Margaret Kendall in 1943; she died in childbirth in 1946. Later he married Catherine Stops, who predeceased him in 2005. He is survived by three children, six grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.
Sir Richard died on 28 August, and was privately cremated on 6 September. His life was celebrated at a memorial service at HMAS Harman on 22 October 2010. CN, VADM R H Crane AO CSM RAN was one of four eulogists; the others were all close Peek family members: daughter Jane, son Matthew, and grand-daughter Catherine. The service was informal and well-attended; several retired officers of flag rank who knew Peter Peek well were among the mourners.
(This obituary was first published in NOCN 83, 1 December 2010.)