An Adventurer Returns
The remarkable career of Lt.-Comdr. A. B. (Pedlar) Palmer, the recently repatriated Australian P.O.W
By G. KINGSFORD-SMITH
AMONGST the group of Aus-
tralian prisoners of war who were repatriated to England from Germany last week was one of the most col- ourful figures of this war. Thousands of men of the Navy, Army, and Air Force knew ' Pedlar ' Palmer during the dark days in the Mediterranean.
In his captured Italian schooner Maria Giovanni he plied up and down the Libyan coast taking her through minefields and shoal waters that no normal ship would ever risk. In that
strange campaign, the first British offensive in Libya he followed our troops in all then advances and when the tide turned he served them in the "Tobruk ferry service." But these were by no means the only adventures in "Pedlar" Palmer's amazing career.
Alfred B Palmer was born in Syd- ney in 1898 and at the age of 16 he first went to sea as an apprentice in one of the sailing ships plying between England and Australia.
The war was not many months old when they were off the French coast near Calais en route to London. But at this stage he made his first en- counter with the Germans and when he reached England the following day it was after a long wet trip in a life
boat. He immediately joined the Navy, after a bit of manipulation with his age and he contrived to get sunk twice more before the end of the war once by shell-fire and once by a mine.
As if this weren't enough the ship in which he was taking passage back to Australia in 1910 was wrecked in the Pacific near South America. It had no radio and the survivors spent three months on a small island before they were rescued "... which seems the peak of romance for so many" as he laconically remarked afterwards.
In the next 13 years he served in almost every type of ship from sailing vessels of 130 tons to a luxury liner of 30,000. He circumnavigated the world over 20 times, and he became a master mariner. He was awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society for diving into the swift muddy Irrawaddy River to rescue an
officer of the s.s Dan Sun.
"WHEN the depression began he was
with the Australian Common wealth line and before long he found himself "on the beach." As he re- marked philosophically. All that money ever said to me was 'good bye';
so before long he was trying to sell cars and towel machines for a living. This didn't work too well and for a while he move the Point Piper bus.
By 1932 he was thoroughly fed up and he jumped at the chance to join several others in a venture to take a shipload of greyhounds to China. As there were very strict Chinese laws against the import of greyhounds this was a rather risky undertaking.
They nearly got away with it but after they had the dogs off the ship and into lorries on their way to Shanghai, they were discovered by the Customs police. The vessel, the s s Ballshead was confiscated and sold at auction. an auction which created quite a stir in China at the time. She was not exactly a valuable vessel but she represented their en- tire wordly assets and it was only by a bit of quick thinking at the sale that they were able to recoup them-
selves at all
Palmer stayed in China for the next seven years and travelled in most parts of China, Japan, and Korea on a variety of jobs. At one time he was a company commander in the Chinese Lancers and when this war began he was a sergeant in the Anglican Divi-
sion of the Shanghai Defence Corps.
He had received a decoration for
bravery in this unit during the Japan- ese invasion of Shanghai.
He immediately volunteered for the Navy again; was made a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve: and ap- pointed to the river gunboat Cock- chafer. The following year ho joined H.M.S. Medway, one of Britain's most modern submarine mother-ships. He sailed with her from Singapore to the Mediterranean shortly before Italy
entered the war.
In December, 1940. the Australian Sixth Division was making its famous assault over Hellfire Pass to Sollum and Bardia. On Christmas Eve Palmer arrived at the battered Sollum jetty in command of "X39." She was a slow and lumbering "X-lighter," a distant forebear of the landing barges of to-day, bringing petrol, am- munition, and food for the army.
Sollum. at that time, was experien- cing almost constant attacks by bombers and torpedo planes, and fire from the heavy guns at Bardia. Before they could finish unloading X39. the water lighter, alongside, received a direct hit. A number of soldiers and sailors were killed and wounded, and Palmer was slightly wounded in a hand. But they beached the lighter and finished unloading her.
A week after this, the Australian destroyer Voyager (herself later sunk off Timor) captured a 400-ton three masted schooner named Maria Gio- vanni, which was trying to escape from Bardia harbour with Italian senior officers and Australian prisoners on board. Under the guns of the Voyager the prisoners took over from their captors and sailed the vessel back to Sollum, and later to Alexandria. There it was decided to commission her under the White Ensign, and Lieutenant Palmer was given com-
The fitting-out was a slap-dash
affair, and within a few weeks she sailed with a cargo of explosives for the army which was advancing to- wards Tobruk. From then on "His Majesty's Ship. Maria Giovanni" became a familiar figure up and down the coast. She was fitted with Italian Breda 20mm. cannon and machine-guns - they could help them- selves to captured ammunition at any of a dozen points along the coast. There were Italian charts on board; and Italian food was much easier to get than British. I remember seeing Sub-Lieut, Liddell, the first lieutenant and only other officer, killing sand flies in his cabin with an Italian fly- spray. Italian prisoners of war often loaded her with motley cargoes. For a while it was almost a Charlie Chap- lin war. Our supply organisation was terrible - but at that time we were only fighting Italians.
Palmer soon earned his nickname of "Pedlar" as he loaded captured Italian gear at one point on the coast and took it for the use of our troops at another. Officially he was pro- moted to the rank of lieutenant-com- mander. It was amazing what the Italians left behind. On one trip back to Alexandria the Maria brought a Fiat car and a motor hike for use in case they got leave. The crew con- sisted mostly of sailors, but one or two soldiers served with him for a long time, and on several occasions Italian prisoners of war offered their
services. But when Rommel's first offensive began the scene changed. German bombers supplemented the Italian, and every trip to sea became a nightmare.
"Pedlar" and his Maria knew their way around the coast better than any- one else, so when the Navy was called upon, to supply our beleaguered garri- son in Tobruk she was one of the first ships to form the "Tobruk Ferry Ser- vice" which became so famous.
Using sail to supplement her auxiliary engine, she would take a chance on shoals and mine-fields when she proceeded close inshore. She was
heavily laden with unpleasant cargoes such as detonators, acid, and petrol. The authorities cheerfully regarded her as "expendible."
In letters to his sister, Mrs L. E. Morse of Roseville, Palmer often showed his happy-go-lucky slant on life "You should have been with me. It was great fun. The old tub was loaded to the scuppers with ex- plosives." he said describing one trip Of another he wrote: "Our ship was marked down by them that trip. We had 104 prisoners on board from Tobruk. Some of them were Jerry tank crews. They grinned in a superior sort of way when the bombers came over. But when the stuff began to drop, it took the grin off their faces. Boy what a trip."
He complained of one raid when a near miss blew open the cage and the ship's canary got away. Three times he was slightly wounded but he was
never out of action.
They shot down three planes with their Italian guns. Palmer seemed to really enjoy a fight. One of his crew recalled the lime when things were particularly thick and he encouraged them with, Now by heck, you've got to fight, or you and I will be meeting upstairs pretty soon - and I know none of us can play the harp."
Congratulations on your bird of yesterday. Good shooting" said one signal from the senior officer of the
But any man would be proud of a signal from "G.O.C. Tobfort" which read "Splendid shooting, and may you complete the brace of birds next time. Many thanks for the consignment Will you dine with me tonight?"
especially when the G.O.C. was General "Ali Baba" Morshead, and the invita- tion to dine was to his dug-out in Tobruk. The consignment by the way was a few bottles of beer and some mousetraps (a luxury item), which he had slipped in with his cargo of ammunition. Later he had the honour of taking General Morishead
out of Tobruk.
On September 3, 1941 Palmer was
awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for "... untiring effort out- standing seamanship and courage." said General Wavell. Other senior officers were just as complimentary.
The Maria Giovanni made 20 trips to Tobruk during the siege: a number beaten only by the record 28 trips of the Australian destroyer Vendetta, and one or two other destroyers.
Then in November just a few days before the start of the big British offensive her luck changed. A near miss from a 10001b bomb did a lot of damage. She was in a sinking condi- tion when she ran aground on the Italian-held coast. Some of the crew were drowned and Palmer was wounded in the hand and deafened in one ear. The survivors were taken prisoner by an Italian destroyer.
Palmer was taken to the prison hos- pital at Palma. Little was heard of him for a long time but one of his later letters mentioned that he had been given some books bv Mussolini's on in law, Count Ciano whom he had known in Shanghai many years before
Later news came through that he had tried to escape with other prisoners and had been shot in the arm. He mentioned in a letter that his arm was injured and after that another prisoner always wrote his letters for him. But just before his release it was heard that his arm had breen amputated. This must have been a terrible blow to so active a man but letters to a cousin In Eng- land were still cheerful. He asked her to send for some of his clothes which he had left stored in Egvpt.
Perhaps he will wear them when he goes to Buckingham Palace to re- ceive the decoration he earned three
Those of us who know "Pedlar" Palmer cannot feel that his adven- turous career has ended yet.