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Thomas Currie Derrick, VC, DCM

24 NOV 1943: World War II and Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Thomas Currie Derrick DCM, 2/48th Battalion, is awarded the Victoria Cross at Sattelberg, New Guinea.

Derrick, one of the great Australian soldiers of the Second World War, seized the summit of Sattelberg virtually single-handedly, leading the way for the Australian occupation of the dominating feature.

Thomas ‘Diver’ Derrick was born on 20 March 1914 in Adelaide. He was the eldest son of David Derrick, a labourer, and his wife Ada. The Derricks were not well off and Tom often walked barefoot to attend primary school. He left school at 14, by which time he had developed a keen interest in sports.

During the depression he subsisted on the proceeds of odd jobs; fixing bicycles, selling newspapers and working in a bakery.

In 1931 he travelled to Berri, on the Murray River, looking for work which he eventually found in a vineyard at Winkie. He remained there for the next nine years.

He married Beryl Violet Leslie in 1939 and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 July 1940.

Derrick embarked for the Middle East with the 2/48th Battalion and soon proved himself to be an excellent soldier, gaining promotion to corporal while his unit was in Tobruk. In July 1942 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery and leadership at Tel el Eisa.

At the end of that month Derrick was promoted to sergeant. By October his unit was in action at El Alamein, where he again served with distinction.

Diver Derrick’s unit returned to Australia in February 1943, training in north Queensland and Papua before helping to capture Lae in September.

In November the 2/48th were in action at Sattleberg, overlooking Finschafen. Fighting amidst rugged terrain and under heavy fire from Japanese machine guns, Derrick performed the feat that earned him the Victoria Cross.

Scaling steep cliffs, under fire, hurling grenades and using his rifle he cleared ten machine gun posts, making possible the capture of Sattleberg.

His citations reads: “For most conspicuous courage, outstanding leadership and devotion to duty during the final assault on Sattelberg in November, 1943.

On 24th November, 1943, a company of an Australian Infantry Battalion was ordered to outflank a strong enemy position sited on a precipitous cliff-face and then to attack a feature 150 yards from the township of Sattelberg. Sergeant Derrick was in command of his platoon of the company. Due to the nature of the country, the only possible approach to the town lay through an open kunai patch situated directly beneath the top of the cliffs. Over a period of two hours many attempts were made by our troops to clamber up the slopes to their objective, but on each occasion the enemy prevented success with intense machine-gun fire and grenades.

Shortly before last light it appeared that it would be impossible to reach the objective or even to hold the ground already occupied and the company was ordered to retire. On receipt of this order, Sergeant Derrick, displaying dogged tenacity, requested one last attempt to reach the objective. His request was granted.

Moving ahead of his forward section he personally destroyed, with grenades, an enemy post which had been holding up this section. He then ordered his second section around on the right flank. This section came under heavy fire from light machine-guns and grenades from, six enemy posts. Without regard for personal safety he clambered forward well ahead of the leading men of the section and hurled grenade after grenade, so completely demoralising the enemy that they fled leaving weapons and grenades. By this action alone the company was able to gain its first foothold on the precipitous ground.

Not content with the work already done, he returned to the first section, and together with the third section of his platoon advanced to deal with the three remaining posts in the area. On four separate occasions he dashed forward and threw grenades at a range of six to eight yards until these positions were finally silenced.

In all, Sergeant Derrick had reduced ten enemy posts. From the vital ground he had captured the remainder of the Battalion moved on to capture Sattelberg the following morning.

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 not only to his platoon and company but to the whole Battalion.”

The 2/48th returned to Australia in February 1944 and in August Derrick was posted to an officer training unit. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in November. On 1 May 1945 he took part in the landing at Tarakan, Borneo.

Later that month he led his platoon against a heavily defended position code-named Freda, gaining all but the highest knoll.

That night a Japanese machine gun fired into the Australian lines. As he sat up to check that his men were all right, Derrick was hit by five bullets from the gun’s second burst. He had been lightly wounded before, but recognised that this time his wounds were mortal.

He died on 24 May 1945 and was buried in Labuan War Cemetery. The news of his death spread like a shock-wave through the division. It seemed, as one soldier said, that “the whole war stopped”.

A superb soldier, Derrick has also been described as a sensitive and reflective man – widely respected in the AIF he remains one of its better-known figures. Photo; Lieutenant Reginald W. Saunders shaking hands with Lieutenant Tom “Diver” Derrick, VC DCM at their graduation from the Officer’s Cadet Training Unit at Seymour. More;

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