At the outbreak of the First World War Charles Palmer was a very well-connected Aucklander. He was President of the Pontsonby Power Boat Association, Commodore of the New Zealand Power Boat Association, and was a member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and the Navy League. Acting as Commodore of the NZ Power Boat Association he volunteered the services of the Auckland members with approximately forty boats to carry out patrols against enemy minelayers or sea-borne saboteurs.This offer was accepted by the Officer Commanding New Zealand Forces in Auckland and from 17 August 1914 Palmer and two boats were ordered to proceed on patrol ‘and close N.E. and E. entrance to all shipping during night periods on account of close proximity of German cruisers.’ He also presented a motor boat for the Hospital Ship Maheno.
Subsequently a squadron of sixteen boats was organised as a patrol service. The duties of this squadron included:
· tendering to all transports,
· transporting defence and military staff,
· tendering warships without motor boats
· patrolling harbour entrances
· conveying military forces to training camps
· patrolling prison camps
· acting as Port War Signalling Officer
· all other duties where water passage was required
In October 1914 Palmer was asked by general Godley to form the squadron into a military force ‘as there being no Naval Authority to do so.’ He also offered boats for service at Gallipoli but the offer was politely declined. On 4 June 1915 the establishment of a Motor Boat Section New Zealand Forces was gazetted as part of the Motor Services Corps. Names of men suitable for commission in this unit were requested to be forwarded to the Commanding Officer of the Auckland District. Naval training was begun at sea with formation cruising. Charles Palmer was granted the rank of Major in his position as the District Senior Officer of the New Zealand Motor Service Corps, Motor Boat Section on July 1915. He served without pay until September 1916 when he applied for a commission as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant in the RNVR. By 1916, in deference to the naval purpose of the Section, the men were issued with a modified naval dress with naval badges and buttons.
In 1916, the Royal Navy sought to expand the RNVR to provide crews for the 500 Motor Launches to serve with the Coastal Command. A Commander Armstrong RNVR was sent by the Admiralty to New Zealand in 1916 to recruit men for the RNVR. He arrived to begin his recruiting drive in September 1916. Charles Palmer was the first officer accepted in New Zealand and was granted a leave of absence from the Motor Boat Section to proceed to Britain to take up his temporary commission as Sub-Lieutenant. Palmer assisted with recruiting of officers and men like Roy Alexander, a motor mechanic who won a DCM at Zeebrugge in 1918 Palmer departed for England on 4 December 1916.
Upon arrival in Britain, Palmer was sent for an intensive four-week RN induction course followed by a four week gunnery course. Upon the successful completion, he was commissioned as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant in February 1917 and assigned to Motor Launch 93. For three months he swept for mines in the Moray Firth. In July 1917 he volunteered for special service in Northern Patrol trawlers serving on HMT Israel Aldcroft and George Brown serving as the senior RNVR officer in a flotilla of four trawlers. He would serve on George Brown until December 1918 and was promoted to Lieutenant for ‘satisfactory work’. He was awarded the RNVR Certificate of Competency in Navigation and Seamanship (First Class) and a Watchkeeping Certificate. He was at this time appointed to command George Brown.
He would be in command for the briefest of periods. On 22 December 1918 he was posted to ML 358 for service with the Rhine Flotilla. The task of the flotilla was to proceed up the Rhine to monitor the German compliance with the terms of the Armistice. The flotilla reached Cologne by February 1919 and remained there for two months. He was then demobilised in March 1919 and repatriated to New Zealand arriving in Auckland on 29 September 1919. When he returned to New Zealand, he resumed duties with the Motor Service Corp from October 1919 to February 1920 when the Motor Boat Service was disbanded. It was this action that drove him to seek the establishment of a volunteer reserve in New Zealand. He saw the ‘absolute lack of any Harbour Patrols or Water transport at the outbreak of [the First World] War…convinced me of necessity for the formation of a NZ Division of RNVR.’
Before returning to New Zealand, Palmer had discussed with other RNVR officers the need to establish an Auckland RNVR. One of those men was a Mr W J Connors and it would be these two men who would be the founding fathers of the Auckland RNVR. As President of the Navy League, Palmer lobbied actively for the establishment of a RNVR in Auckland on a trial basis. In 1960 he wrote of his motivation:
‘The knowledge and experience gained during the first world war gave the inspiration that an RNVR Division was necessary in New Zealand and after my return from active service…I was determined that an RNVR Division should be formed in this country.’
After four years, he saw the fruits of his efforts. In 1924 Captain Hotham, Commanding Officer of HMS Chatham advised Palmer that he could go ahead and form an Auckland Division of the RNVR working with Commander Miles of HMS Philomel. Palmer was gazetted as the Staff Officer on 21 February 1925 and in addition as the recruiting officer. He would serve in this position until 1932. There were 200 men formed into the first unit.
Working from nothing, Palmer found a HQ, outfitted the recruits, organised training including bringing back from England a copy of the Imperial RNVR regulations. He also arranged competitions for gunnery, signalling, boatwork, and rifle-shooting. He was also responsible for the annual inspections and monthly reports. In 1925 the RN New Zealand Division’s report to Parliament reported that if the Auckland RNVR Division was successful ‘an extension may gradually be made to other ports in the Dominion. ’That it was successful and many recruits came forward is due in large part to Palmer’s efforts and determination. He was also fortunate that Jellicoe had identified in his report to the New Zealand government that it would be a cost effective measure to have a RNVR cadre to man a minesweeping force in case of war.
In May 1925 the first parade was held on the Captain Cook wharf. The first official duty was to form part of the Honour Guard for the Untied States Navy Battle Squadron that was due to visit Auckland in August 1925. Philomel provided two cutters for boat drill and the general seamanship training was carried out in the wharf building. In 1926 the now gazetted Lieutenant-Commander Palmer secured the Navy League’s HQ in what is now the Downtown carpark. This continued until the permanent base for the RNVR was established at St. Mary’s Bay. Due to the demands on his time as an officer, he resigned the Presidency of the Navy League.
In Acting Lieutenant Commander Palmer was Second in Command of the Auckland Division of the RNVR. In May 1927, he took a leave of absence and visited Britain. He volunteered at his own expense to visit RNVR HQ and training establishments to investigate methods of training and administration. This offer was accepted by the Navy Board. His report advocated a training establishment on the waterfront.
Upon his return from the United Kingdom he was horrified to discover that a new HQ was being considered that was, in light of his report to the Navy Board, inappropriate. Therefore he pushed for a site that was offered in St. Mary’s Bay by the Harbour Board. Working with the President of the Navy League, Palmer convinced the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister of the need for the site and obtained a grant of £4,000 to build a home for the RNVR.
Here the RNVR and then the RNZNVR personnel served for over 80 years until 2007 when motorway widening required HMNZS NGAPONA to relocate to the Devonport Naval Base.