Thomas (Tom, 'Diver') Derrick
Died from wounds, Tarakan, Borneo
Thomas 'Tom' Derrick was the eldest child of David and Ada Derrick. He had 1 brother and 5 sisters. His father emigrated to South Australia from Dublin, Ireland. A former soldier in the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF), David had a job with the South Australian Harbour Board. The family lived in Port Adelaide.
Derrick's family had little money. He left school as soon as possible to find work to help support his family. Some of Derrick's early jobs included labouring in the building industry, working at a bakery, and then fruit picking at a farm near Berri. He was eventually promoted to farm manager and worked there for 9 years.
Derrick met Clarance Violet 'Beryl' Leslie at a dance while he was home visiting his family in Adelaide. Derrick was smitten with 16-year-old Beryl, and married her in May 1939. Beryl made daily trips to the post office for news of her young husband during the war.
Derrick enlisted on 5 July 1940 at Glossop, South Australia. He was 26. After basic military training in the Adelaide Hills, Derrick prepared to embark for the Middle East with the 2/48th Australian Infantry Battalion. The unit sailed for Palestine on RMS Stratheden.
More than 80 decorations for bravery were awarded to members of the 2/48th. This included 4 of the 21 VCs won by Australians in World World II, Derrick's VC, and 3 awarded posthumously:
- Private Arthur Stanley Gurney
- Sergeant William 'Bill' Henry Kibby
- Private Percival 'Percy' Eric Gratwick.
Derrick served with distinction at Tobruk, Tel el Eisa and El Alamein. He received a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) serving at Tel el Eisa and was promoted to sergeant.
Army life appealed to Derrick, and he had a diverse range of interests. He found the history of places such as Jericho and the Dead Sea fascinating. He wrote poetry and collected butterflies. Derrick was well-liked by those he fought beside. He could be relied upon to organise gambling or a spur-of-the-moment race or game but be completely focused when the fighting began.
In February 1943, the 2/48th was recalled to Australia. For the next 6 months, Derrick's unit prepared for a different type of warfare in the jungles of New Guinea. The 2/48th sailed for Milne Bay in August. In September, Derrick took part in the recapture of Lae.
In November 1943, Derrick's unit was involved in fighting at Sattelberg in Eastern New Guinea. It was here that Derrick earned the VC for his 'dogged tenacity' in difficult terrain.
Australian troops could not advance because Japanese soldiers, perched on a steep cliff, directed machine-gun fire down on them. Several attempts were made to climb the jungle-tangled slope. But each one was unsuccessful due to the dense terrain and Japanese grenades and machine-gun fire.
Derrick asked for one more go. It was a difficult climb and under a constant fire of bullets.
Commander of the 2/48th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ainslie, attributed the successful recapture of Sattelberg to Derrick's actions. He recommended the South Australian for a VC.
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.
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.' Lt. Col. Robert Ainslie, 1943
[NAA: B883, SX7964]
Derrick returned to Australia in February 1944. He began officer training and became a lieutenant in November.
Derrick took part in the landing at Tarakan, Borneo, in May 1945. In the early hours of 23 May, Derrick's unit came under Japanese machine-gun fire. Derrick was wounded while he was checking on his men. He was shot in the hip, stomach and chest.
A recount of Derrick's final hours:
He lay back quietly, and, after a time, said to a mate, 'I've had it. That's that. Write to Beryl'. He continued to direct operations until mid-morning. Then they carried him back, his grin and his courage never deserting him. He died on 24 May 1945 and was buried in Labuan war cemetery, plot 24, row A, grave 9.
[Bill Gammage, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1993]
Derrick is remembered as one of Australia's finest soldiers and leaders. His portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial, where his medals, including his VC, are displayed.
Other public memorials include:
- a rest area on the Remembrance Driveway, between Sydney and Canberra
- Derrick Memorial Reserve, Glanville, South Australia
- Derrick Street, Campbell, Australian Capital Territory
- Tom 'Diver' Derrick Bridge, Port Adelaide, South Australia.
- Australian War Memorial, undated. Lieutenant Thomas Currie Derrick, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10676280 viewed 7 Sep 2020.
- 'Derrick, Thomas Currie (Tom) (1914–1945)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/derrick-thomas-currie-tom-9958/text35204, viewed 7 Sep 2020.
- Gammage, Bill. 'Derrick, Thomas Currie (Tom) (1914–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/derrick-thomas-currie-tom-9958/text17643, published first in hardcopy 1993, viewed 7 Sep 2020.
- Macklin, Robert. Bravest: Australia's Greatest War Heroes and How They Won Their Medals. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin, 2011. Print.
- National Archives of Australia: B883; SX7964; 6407287; 1939 - 1948; DERRICK THOMAS CURRIE : Service Number - SX7964 : Date of birth - 20 Mar 1914 : Place of birth - ADELAIDE SA : Place of enlistment - Unknown : Next of Kin - DERRICK BERYL
- Wigmore, Lionel, and Bruce A. Harding. They Dared Mightily. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1986, p 16. Internet resource.