b. 07/07/1920 Gillingham, Kent. d. 23/12/1944 Cologne, Germany.
Robert Anthony Maurice Palmer (1920-1944) was born on 7th July 1920 in Gillingham, Kent, the son of an ex-Royal Corps pilot, Arthur Palmer and his wife, Lilian. He was educated at Gravesend County School and Gordon School, before attending Gravesend Grammar School. His childhood was littered with the stories of his father’s flying exploits and his various hobbies became fixated on aviation.
On leaving school, Palmer was employed in the Borough Surveyor’s Department at Gravesend, but on 22nd August 1939 he enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was promoted to Sergeant the next day. Commencing pilot training at No 3 Initial Training Wing, Hastings on 25th September 1939, he moved to Desford ETFS for elementary flying instruction, and then joined No 12 FTS, Grantham on 8th June 1940; graduating as Sergeant pilot on 7th September, and being posted to No 15 OTU at Harwell. On 16th November 1940, he reported to his first operational unit, 75 Squadron, flying Wellington bombers from Feltwell, Norfolk.
His stay with 75 Squadron lasted ten days, in which he flew as second pilot in three missions over Germany to gain experience. He was then re-posted to 149 Squadron at Mildenhall, Suffolk to complete his first tour of operations on Wellingtons as skipper of his own crew. This was achieved quickly and on 13th February 1941 he was taken off operations and posted to No 20 OTU, Lossiemouth in Scotland as an instructor. Here he was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 1st June 1941, and then commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 29th January 1942. His long stay as an instructor frustrated him, and he made frequent applications to return to operations, but they were rejected. Nevertheless, when the first three 1,000 bomber raids were mounted in early 1942, many aircraft were needed, and Palmer was able to skipper a bomber in all three raids on 30th May, 1st June and 25th June 1942.
He was then promoted to Flying Officer in October 1942, and Flight Lieutenant on 28th December 1942, and continued to press the authorities to get back to operations. In 1943, still serving with C Flight of the OTU, Palmer came under the command of Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette DFC, another ex-operational pilot trying to return to a squadron, who later gained a posthumous VC with the Path Finder Force. Bazalgette added his recommendation that Palmer return to operations, and shortly afterwards, on 9th November 1943, he left Lossiemouth on posting to Path Finder Force; going initially to the PFF Mosquito training unit at Warboys, and then joining 109 Squadron on 16th January 1944.
He was awarded the DFC on 30th June 1944, and then volunteered to continue operations, and on 8th December received a Bar to his DFC for having completed 100 operational sorties overall. Two days later, he was promoted to Squadron Leader. Few bomber captains in the RAF ever achieved a total of 100 sorties, and Palmer could easily have opted to be taken off operations having survived such a prodigious tally. He chose instead to stay with his squadron.
On 23 December 1944 over Cologne, Germany, Squadron Leader Palmer was detailed to lead a formation of Lancaster bombers to attack the marshalling yards in daylight and it was the task of his aircraft (serial PB371) to use the "Oboe" radio bombing aid and mark the target as "master bomber".
Palmer flew one of 27 Lancasters and 3 Mosquitoes from 8 Group to attack the Gremberg railway yards. The raid went badly. The force was split into 3 formations, each led by an Oboe-equipped Lancaster with an Oboe Mosquito as reserve leader. During the outward flight, two Lancasters collided over the French coast, their crews all killed. On approaching the target, it was found that the forecast cloud cover had cleared, and because the formations would have been very vulnerable to Cologne's flak defences during the long, straight Oboe approach it was thus decided to allow the bombers to break formation and bomb visually.
Unfortunately, the order to abandon the Oboe run did not reach Palmer, who continued on with his designated role, even though his aircraft was already damaged by flak. Some minutes before reaching the target two engines were set on fire, but disdaining the possibility of taking evading action and being determined to provide an accurate and easily visible aiming point for the other bombers, he managed to keep the badly damaged aircraft on a straight course, made a perfect approach and released his bombs. The Lancaster was last seen spiraling to earth in flames and only one member of his crew escaped.
Just east of Cologne, the bodies of Robert Palmer, Walter Reid and their crews were buried in a village cemetery at Hoffnungsthal; and on 23rd March 1945 came the announcement of Palmer’s posthumous award of a Victoria Cross. After the cessation of hostilities in Europe, the dead crews were re-interred in the British War Cemetery at Rheinberg; and on 18th December 1945, Robert Palmer’s father attended an investiture to receive his eldest son’s gallantry awards. His medals are still in private hands.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: RHEINBERG WAR CEMETERY, GERMANY.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT XIV, ROW C, GRAVE 13-14
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych
National Memorial Arboretum (Andy Wright)