Honouring our heroes: Lieutenant Thomas Derrick

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Take me over the Ocean, back to the tall straight gums
Back to the heart of the bushland, where the busy saw mill hums,
Or drop me off in the city midst the sound of horn and bell.
Take me back to Australia and the sounds I love so well.

- Thomas Derrick, 26 August 1941 

Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Thomas Currie Derrick struggled through dense jungle as he scaled the mountain towards the village of Sattelberg. Dodging machine-gun fire and grenades, he led his platoon up the sheer cliff face. Tom knew this was their last chance to reach their objective, and he was determined to prove it could be done.

A young smiling australian soldier kneeling in the jungle and holding a gun.

Born in Adelaide on 20 March 1914, Thomas Currie Derrick was the eldest son in a large family. They did not have a lot of money, and Tom and his brothers and sisters would often walk barefoot to school. When the Great Depression hit Australia, Tom left school to earn money working odd jobs – he was only 14.

Nicknamed “Diver” by his mates after diving out of his boat to retrieve a lost oar, Tom was always keen for adventure. He married his long-time sweetheart, Beryl Leslie, in 1939, and the following year enlisted for service in the Second World War. Posted to the 2/48th Battalion, he set sail for the Middle East. After a promotion to corporal during the siege of Tobruk in 1941, Tom’s battalion was sent to El Alamein to reinforce the British Eighth Army.

During an attack on the Germans at Tel el Eisa, Tom demonstrated inspirational leadership and courage, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Returning to Australia in 1943, Tom began jungle training in preparation for the war against Japan in New Guinea. All too soon, Tom and his men were facing the challenges of jungle warfare at Sattelberg. Tom’s battalion, the 2/48th, began the attack on Sattelberg on 22 November.

With a landslide preventing the use of tanks, the final assault on 24 November was left to the infantry. For two hours, Tom and his mates struggled up the muddy cliff face against thick vegetation and hidden machine-guns in an attempt to achieve their objective. Time and again, they were met with intense machine-gun fire and grenades, which forced them back. Finally, at dusk, they were ordered to withdraw.

However, Tom was certain they could reach their objective by attacking the position one last time. Without waiting for permission, he returned to the action with his platoon. Tom scrambled ahead of his men, scaling a cliff face that would challenge even a professional climber and, hurling grenades, single-handedly destroyed an enemy post.

Seeing that some of his men had come under heavy fire, Tom pushed forward, throwing more grenades, until the enemy fled. As the rain poured down, Tom fought on, destroying another three enemy posts. The rest of the battalion captured Sattelberg the following morning. For his actions, Tom was awarded the Victoria Cross. Part of his citation read:

Undoubtedly Sergeant Derrick’s fine leadership and refusal to admit defeat in the face of a seemingly impossible situation resulted in the capture of Sattelberg. His outstanding gallantry, thoroughness and devotion to duty were an inspiration.

A soldier fitting the Australian flag to the broken brunch of a tree.

For his action at Sattelberg in 1943, Tom had received a lot of attention, which afterwards amused him greatly. The day after the action, on 25 November, he wrote in his diary:

The colonel had great praise for the splendid work of the platoon and insisted I hoist the flag on the hard fought for town – the next three hours I was pestered by war correspondents and photographers – just like being King for a day and all through disobeying an order.

Tom returned to Australia to undertake officer training and was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1945 his battalion was again called to duty, this time in Borneo. He landed on Tarakan on 1 May, and was soon involved in action against a heavily defended position.

As night fell on 22 May, Tom and his men dug in to the thick jungle floor where they awaited the next attack. It came early the following morning, when machine-gun fire was sprayed into the Australian position. Just as Tom sat up to check on his men, there was another burst of fire, and five bullets struck him across his body.

Despite his own injuries, Tom insisted that the other wounded be attended to first. He died the next day.

 
A group of soldiers surrounding the grave of Lieutenant Thomas Currie Derrick.

Burial ceremony of Lieutenant Thomas Currie Derrick VC, DCM, 2/48th Battalion AIF, at 110th Clearing Station, Tarakan, Borneo (AWM 044970)


In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014–2018) we are sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts through the Honouring our Heroes series.