WWII: Commander Charles G. Palmer DSC & Bar MID RNZNVR

Commander Charles G. Palmer DSC & Bar MID RNZNVR
Born 30 April 1910, a with a father so prominent in the formation of the Auckland Division of the RNVR, and a love of the sea, it is no wonder that his son Charles Palmer (or Bunty as he was known) joined the RNVR as an Ordinary Seaman as soon as he was able to on 4 February 1929. He was promoted to an Able Seaman in July 1929 and commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant on 19 June 1931. He carried out sea training on HMS Wakakura in 1931 and 1932.


Image Right: Commander Palmer at sea.


When the Queen Street riots broke out 14 April 1932 in Auckland, the RNVR were called upon to support the police in quelling the disturbances. They also provided guards for government buildings and food warehouses. The reservists were sworn in as Special Constables. Bunty Palmer marched to the foot of Queen Street with a RN contingent then proceeded up the street in a show of force to any civilians who wished to start any further trouble. He was directed to stand guard over Pascoe’s Jewellers which had been looted in the riots.


In 1933, Bunty Palmer, to a leave of absence from the RNVR (NZ) and went to England and worked in firms that supplied his father’s company. From 11 January 1934 to 7 February 1934 he served on HMS Hood for twenty-eight days as part of its spring cruise to Spain, Madeira and Gibraltar. The Captain of Hood noted he was a popular officer and took ‘a keen interest in his work and has identified himself enthusiastically with all the Ship’s activities.’  He was promoted to Lieutenant on 19 June 1934 and passed the first navigation examination. In 1935 on return to New Zealand, he spent time training in aboard the cruiser HMS Diomede and in 1936 he undertook mine warfare training in the Hauraki Gulf aboard the minesweeper HMS Leith.


In 1938, he was aboard HMS Achilles when she attended the Sesquicentennial Celebrations in Sydney. The commanding officer Captain Glennie noted that Palmer was ‘most keen and zealous’.


By 1939, Bunty Palmer was running a successful Gymnasium business in Auckland with six locations. In 1939, officers in the RNVR (NZD) were expected to attend 2-3 parades per week and assist with the instruction of the ratings. They would also attend Saturday afternoon classes with their men. Lieutenant Bunty Palmer was called up for duty on 9 September 1939 while he was at the Keane Navigation School held in the Ferry Building in downtown Auckland on a refresher course. he passed the second navigation examination as well. The Navy Board had issued the Naval Mobilisation Emergency regulations on 1 September 1939 outlining how the reservists would be called up for duty.


The Captain’s Motor Boat from Philomel was the first craft to be used for harbour patrols. Lieutenant Palmer and four ratings were assigned to this boat on 9 September and he was tasked with patrolling the eastern approaches to the Auckland Harbour.  One of the crew was Ordinary Seaman Sheffield who would save Palmer’s life in 1943 when the HMS Cromarty blew up. They would patrol from 7pm to 7am along a line from Brown’s Island to Emu point when the channel was closed to all shipping.


Palmer subsequently was given command of the requisitioned fifteen metre diesel launch Wirihana. His duty at this time consisted of night patrols and daytime resupply runs to the Port War Signal Station at Tiritiri Island. One night Bunty Palmer stopped the launch of the General Commanding the Auckland Area and ordered him to reverse course and sail through the access channel so it could be cleared as per the protocol. This did not impress the General but in Lieutenant Palmer’s defence he was trying to sail after 7pm and ran the very real risk of being fired upon by the coastal batteries. He carried this patrol duty for six months.


In May 1940 all RNVR officers were called up for active service. Lieutenant Palmer left for England aboard Empress of Japan with 27 RNVR officers (including J.G. Hilliard) and 200 ratings in a draft sailing with the Second Echelon. He arrived in Britain on 16 June 1940 after serving as crew with the RNVR officers and ratings for the passage from Capetown after the civilians refused to proceed into a war zone. Once in Britain he would be sent for service with the minesweeping flotillas being appointed to command 23 July 1940.


His first command was HMS Pine, a Tree-class trawler as part of the 24th Minesweeping Anti-Submarine Group, consisting of five trawlers. Ten of these ships were made available for command by New Zealand RNVR officers. The ship’s company consisted of four officers and 29 ratings. Part of the function of the flotilla was to escort coastal shipping and sweep for mines during the height of the Battle of Britain. Minesweeping around the British coast was very difficult and dangerous work. For example, in October 1940, the survivors of the minesweeper HMS Hickory were rescued by the Pine at great risk to itself while sweeping large minefields off Falmouth. This task took over two months to complete. In 1941 Lieutenant Palmer was awarded the DSC for gallant and distinguished service in minesweeping duties. The Auckland RNVR officers distinguished themselves by the ‘seamanship, steadiness of nerve, courage and fortitude.’ Palmer relinquished command of the Pine on 31 August 1941. It was during 1941 that he was granted a full watch-keeping certificate.


On 27 October 1941, Palmer was appointed to command HMS Cromarty, a Bangor-class fleet minesweeper launched in 1941 as part of the 14th Minesweeping Flotilla. He was the first Lieutenant RNVR to have a command of a fleet minesweeper. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander on 20 February 1942. Cromarty and the Flotilla was part of the fleet (Force H) tasked with the capture of Diego Suarez, a port on the island of Madagascar, at that time a French Vichy colony. This was successfully seized by 7 May 1942 after a two day assault. The flotilla also supported the landings at Majunga and Tamatave.  The minesweepers cleared a channel to the anchorage at Courier Bay and then continued to sweep for mines during the two day battle with the Vichy forces as well as rescuing downed aircrew.  Cromarty and her sister ship Cromer were described as the ‘outstanding ships of the 14th Flotilla.’ The Flotilla was then sent to the Eastern Fleet based at Kilindini. In September 1942, the Flotilla participated in the capture of Majunga and completed the occupation of Madagascar. Palmer was Mentioned-in-Despatches for his part in the clearance of 57 mines that had been laid in Courrier Bay that enabled the landing craft and transports to enter the bay.

Cromarty and the 14th M/S Flotilla were then transferred to the Inshore Squadron based in Alexandria just as the Battle of El Alamein opened on 23 October 1942. They were designated to provide support to the Eighth Army as it advanced. On 9 November 1942 Palmer was appointed to be Second Senior Officer of the Flotilla. The eight minesweepers in the Flotilla completed the ‘longest continuous minesweeping operation in naval history, covering 1800 nautical miles (3334kms) and opening six major ports. The Flotilla also escorted convoys to Malta. They would sweep for mines in the daylight and fight off aircraft attacks at night.In February 1943, Palmer was awarded a Bar to his DSC for bravery and enterprise in supporting the advance of the Eight Army in the successful conclusion to the campaign for North Africa. 


The 14th Flotilla was then assigned to the fleet supporting the invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY. The Flotilla’s two divisions were assigned to Operation HON ONE. From 9 July, Palmer’s Division of four minesweepers (HMS Cromarty, Seaham, Boston, and Poole) along with trawlers and motor launches swept the approaches to Syracuse, Augusta, and Catalina, and carried out ASDIC patrol around the anchored transports. On 12 July 1943, the Cromarty and Seaham captured the Italian submarine Bronzo and 36 of her ship’s company assisted by the cruiser HMS Uganda.  Cromarty attacked a second contact with HMS Pendant joined by HMS Poole and successfully sank a second Italian submarine. Later on, HMS Boston and Poole attacked a third contact without success.


This success was reported in New Zealand:


A notable exploit by flour fleet sweepers, all under the command of an Aucklander, Lieutenant-Commander C.G. Palmer, D.S.C. RNZNVR is described in a letter which has been received from another Aucklander Lieutenant W.A.E. Leonard, whose success in taking 15 motor fishing vessels 2500 miles from Britain to Sicily recently earned him widespread attention and praise.


Lieutenant-Commander Palmer’s four ships attacked three submarines in less than half an hour while on a Mediterranean voyage during the Sicilian campaign. The sweepers captured on of the submarines, sank another, and attacked the third until it disappeared, although sinking could not be conclusively proved.


Anti-Submarine Screen Formed

While on his own voyage Lieutenant-Commander Palmer sighted three British cruisers going in the same direction. Without any orders he decided that his ships, equipped as they were for submarine hunting, could strengthen the anti-submarine screen of this valuable collection of big vessels and disposed of his little fleet accordingly.

“Within half an hour”, says Lieutenant Leonard, “in the fading light of sunset, one of his [Palmer’s] ships got a contact, went into attack, dropped two patterns of depth charges, forced an Italian submarine to the surface and pursued it at full speed.”

“The first shot from the forward gun hit the submarine’s conning tower, killing three officers and mortally wounding the captain. With both vessels still going at full speed a boarding party of one officer and several ratings jumped aboard the submarine and drove two Italians below to stop the engines.


Two More Discovered

“This done, the Italian crew made a rush and dived over the side, indicating that destructive time bombs had probably been set going inside the hull. Notwithstanding this, a thorough search was made for them, none was found, and the submarine was taken in tow.”

“A few minutes later one of the other ships sighted another periscope and the captured submarine was cut adrift while all ships fought this one until they sank it.  Yet a third was discovered and attacked. It disappeared, but the sinking could not be conclusively proved.”

“Less than half an hour cover all three actions, during which the cruisers sailed serenely on. But for ‘Bunty’ Palmer and his gang it might have been very different. They picked up the derelict submarine again and towed it in to Malta. I saw it there.”


On 19 September 1943 Palmer’s Division opened the Italian port of Crotone. For this and his work during Operation HUSKY sweeping the channels into Syracuse and Augusta Palmer received second Mention-in-Despatches for gallant and distinguished service and untiring devotion to duty in operations which lead to the capture of Sicily by Allied forces.  On 23 October 1943, while sweeping the Strait of Bonifacio between Sardinia and Corsica in preparation for the landing on the southern French coast, HMS Cromarty struck a mine and sunk with the loss of 25 of the ship’s company. Palmer himself was severely injured after being blown off the bridge and onto the after gun position. He was evacuated to a hospital in North Africa, passing through another six and a trip on a Canadian hospital ship  there before being transferred to Sherborne Naval Auxiliary Hospital at Dorset on

24 December 1943. He was placed on the dangerously ill list in November 1943 and only removed from the seriously ill list in January 1944. By 1945 he was walking again.  He recalled the event in a letter to the other surviving officer off the Cromarty:


‘We were preceded by a captured Italian shallow draft sweeper. It was not long after ‘Out Sweeps’ that the Italian cut a mine. Suddenly I saw my forward lookout point ahead, turn and shout. I ordered ‘Hard a starboard’ hoping to clear the mine. We actually struck the mine at 11.23. I remember no more. I lost about [five officers], 20 dead [of the ship’s company] and many others were badly injured. I spent many months indeed years in various hospitals and eventually returned to NZ by hospital ship in March 1945.’


Commander W.A.T. Irvine, Commanding Officer of M/S 14th Flotilla noted of Palmer that ‘no man had a finer 2nd Senior Officer than I did in Bunty. He earned far more recognition that he received, his decorations being very well earned indeed.’


He was admitted to Rotorua Hospital on 13 April 1945 after arriving back to New Zealand aboard the Hospital Ship NZHS Maunganui after being discharged from Sherborne in November 1944 and sent to New Zealand on the Hospital ship Oranje.


On 16 April 1946, Bunty Palmer was discharged and demobilised as physically unfit for Naval Service. He was formally awarded his DSC and Bar on 1 May 1947 in Auckland. On 16 April 1948 he was promoted to Commander in recognition of his ‘distinguished war record and the especially good service [he] performed in the interest of the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve’ and placed on the Retired List of officers of the RNZNVR.  John McEwan remarks in Auckland Rockies that Bunty Palmer ‘typifies the reserve officer at his best, a leader by example in war and in peace; a man of character, charm and distinction.’


His medals were:


MID (Oak Leaf Emblem)

1939-45 Star

Atlantic Star

Africa Star

'North Africa 1942-43' clasp

Italy Star

Defence Medal

War Medal 1939-45

New Zealand War Service Medal


For more information contact:
RNZN Museum
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