By Jeremy Miles
Just down from Oxford where he had experienced nothing more combative than the occasional tussle on the sports field and the cut and thrust of the debating society, John Palmer suddenly found himself facing the horrors of war.
As a young officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve he spent the best part of six years on highly dangerous convoy escort duties.
He saw action during the height of the Battle of the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.
Like so many of his generation he learnt to live with fear, to accept the fact that at any moment, night or day, he and his comrades could be victims of a deadly attack. He watched others die from hypothermia, burn in blazing oil and drown in the depths of the unforgiving ocean.
But with luck on his side John Palmer survived the war and at the end of hostilities found himself boarding the first enemy U-boat to surrender. He sailed her into Portland, struck by the dignity of her Captain and crew.
Fifty years later, in May 1995, Palmer, by then Sir John Palmer, and a former President of the Law Society, was reunited with the Captain of that German submarine. Heinz Shroteler, had gone on to become a noted painter and sculptor and invited Palmer and his wife Mary to meet him at his home near Dusseldorf.
It was a moving occasion for these two highly civilised, intelligent men who had both had the skill and luck to survive against appalling odds.
“It was difficult to believe that fifty years previously our job was to kill each other,” says Palmer. “I found it hard not to display the emotion which I felt. I believe he felt the same. The futility of war could not have been better illustrated.”
This book taken from Sir John’s wartime diaries is a fascinating description of what life was like for a young officer compelled by circumstance and duty to endure horrors that he could never have dreamt of.
There is no sensationalism, just a story of quiet dogged optimism conquering the psychologically corrosive effects of being at war. The gnawing fear, the devastating violence of conflict, extreme weather conditions and unwelcome visitors that included everything from rats to cockroaches. People like John Palmer had the generosity of spirit and inner resolve to cope with unspeakable situations.
Anyone with a knowledge of war will know that there are things that he’s left unsaid but as Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach says in his Foreword this book is “a valuable contribution to history.”