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- March 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE PIRATE OF TOBRUK:A sailor’s life on the Seven Seas 1916-1946
Author: CMDR Alfred Brian Palmer, DSC, MBE, RNR, with Mary E. Curtis – originally published in a different form as “Pedlar Palmer”, Roebuck Society Publication No. 29, Canberra (1981) and (1994) by USN Institute, Annapolis, Maryland USA.
When you need a book that you do not want to put down, this is the one!
Alfred Palmer was born in Sydney to an American veterinary father and Australian mother. He had a passion to go to sea, not shared by his father. Palmer signed on as a deck cadet in a windjammer in Newcastle at age 17, engaged in cargo work during WW I. A comprehensive glossary of nautical terms introduces the reader to his description of experiences in the Roaring 40s and Howling 50s, under sail. Mountainous seas, icebergs and the arduous life onboard are graphically described, until they were forced to abandon ship by a German submarine in the Atlantic, taking to the lifeboat, leaving the ship to sail away unmanned. On being rescued he joined the RN as an officer, but not long afterwards was shipwrecked again (this time as the sole survivor).
Between the wars and the Depression, he had a number of ships but nothing suited him until in 1930 he was offered chief officer billet of the collier SS Balls Head. Here he had his fair share of adventure, intrigue and political fallout when he was tasked with ferrying Australian greyhounds to China (for the illegal dog racing circuit). By 1939 he was living in Shanghai in the lap of expatriate luxury. Despite minor warnings in the area and being beached at the time, he was rudely awakened to WW II, when, without warning, the British Consulate tracked him down and requested he rejoin the Royal Navy. He headed off to Hong Kong to join a gunboat enroute for Singapore. Here he transferred to the submarine tender HMS Medway. In this ship he created quite a name for himself as a “can-do” officer.
Earning good reports from Medway, he was destined to command a number of smaller vessels in the Mediterranean, and particularly in the Tobruk area. His first challenge was X39, an old diesel barge from 1915 which needed 3 hours to warm up before proceeding seaward. Other commands included captured Italian schooners, where he took calculated risks and greatly contributed to the war effort by his audacious actions. Off Tobruk he was captured by the Italians and then spent a lot of the war in and out of POW camps, both in Italy and Germany. During one escape (he had many) he leaned out of the window of a moving train and nearly tore off one of his arms. On recapture the arm was amputated, but that did not stop him from trying again. His efforts became legendary amongst other POWs (and guards) of all 12 camps in which he was incarcerated.
The Pirate of Tobruk is a book that brings to life the exploits and adventures aplenty. His citation for the MBE reads: “… outstanding courage and devotion to duty”: for the DC, General Sir Archbald Wavell said: “… untiring efforts, handled his ship with marked skill, displays outstanding seamanlike ability under adverse circumstances and worthy of the highest praise.” Major John Devine (author of “Rats of Tobruk”) wrote: “A Dinkum Aussie who was helping to win the war by ferrying under merciless bombing attacks, everything that nobody else would think of carrying and who always had his ship patched up quickly and ready for sea.” Everything in the 200 pages is true. His experiences on Seven Seas made keeping a diary impossible. However, he leaves a legacy of the indomitable spirit of a man who loved life, encouraged others to give their best, and sought in his own way to leave the world a better place. He did not appear to harbour grudges or speak ill of people, turning unfortunate circumstances into memorable stories of human spirit. With laconic style and swashbuckling descriptions of life in the early to mid 1900s, this is a rattling good story of variety, danger, courage and deprivation which Palmer faced during and after both world wars.