Derrick VC in his own words
The wartime writings of Australia's most famous fighting soldier of World War II
Mark Johnston (Ed)
Moss Vale, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2021
Paperback 448pp RRP$39.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, July 2021
A most intriguing soldier with all the traits of larrikin, rebellion against authority, drinker and inveterate gambler. At the other end of the spectrum, he was a self-made man who, in a crisis, was intent on not letting both those under his command and his side down while possessing the capacity to display incredible compassion. Those around him and his superiors had incredible respect for his knowledge and skill as a soldier.
Despite having very little education, during the war he wrote a huge number of letters to his family and the mates he made during military courses. In addition, he kept a daily diary for each of his five years in combat. The diaries contained records of letters written and received and description of military actions (to the point of being almost neglectful in describing his own role), with, deaths and wounding of his sections and platoon), weather, dust, food flies, rain, and criticism of his superiors. He displayed a keen interest in other theatres of the war such as Russia and the Japanese advance in South-East Asia.
On 10th July 1942, the first day of the First Battle of El Alamein, Tom’s section captured 100 Italian prisoners and three Fiat machine gun posts. This resulted in him being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. His diary entry: ‘my own section I was particularly pleased with’! Sixteen months latter at Sattelberg, New Guinea, on 21st November, as a sergeant he was given a new platoon to command. On the 24th, after refusing to withdraw from an attack on a seemingly impossible position, he asked for ‘another 20 minutes’, then led this platoon on to capture a key Japanese stronghold. This action resulted in him being awarded the Victoria Cross. After officer training back in Victoria the following year, he was commissioned lieutenant. He returned to his battalion and landed on Tarakan where he fought until dying of wounds on 24 May 1945.
Very few of Tom Derrick’s letters have survived, and many parts of his diaries are illegible. Mark Johnston has used his incredible research skills to produce a virtually complete account of Tom’s service life. A 21-page Introduction examines each of the major military phases Derrick experienced, including how others saw and reacted to him, and how he mellowed with time and experience. A summary of his Record of Service also precedes his diary entries.
Every daily entry includes Tom’s location, rank, and posting in his beloved 2/48th Battalion. The entries are ‘footnoted’ where necessary to explain actions, military terminology, slang and colloquialisms. Whenever a soldier is first mentioned (often by nickname), his Service Number, rank, full name, date of birth, pre-war occupation, unit joined, (and often, subsequent war service) have always been provided.
This meticulously researched and edited text is a great credit to Mark Johnston. Every detail has been included with all the explanation needed for a lay reader to easily follow Tom Derrick’s amazing years as one of our finest combatants. His name has now been placed ‘front and centre’ in Australia’s war history.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this copy for review.