Military History

The Highest Honour #14 | Tom Derrick | Mark Donaldson

By The Cove April 18, 2021


Lieutenant Thomas Currie Derrick VC, DCM (1914 - 1945, 31yo)

Tom Derrick was born on 20 March 1945 at Medindie, South Australia. He held numerous jobs and prior to enlistment he worked at a vineyard at Winkie. Derrick volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force on 26 June 1940 and enlisted on 5 July.

On 17 November 1940 Derrick had embarked for the Middle East with the 2nd/48th Battalion, which was to be the most decorated unit in the A.I.F. In that distinguished company Derrick was outstanding.  At Tobruk, Libya (April to October 1941), his enthusiasm and aggression in patrolling enemy positions brought him promotion to Corporal, and he was probably recommended for a Military Medal on 1 May 1941. An officer at this time described him as 'resourceful, brave, aware, humane, forever bending over backwards for his men'.

At Tel el Eisa, Egypt, on 10-11 July 1942 Derrick ran forward through a barrage of grenades, destroyed three machine-gun posts and captured over a hundred prisoners. He then inspired the defence against a counter-attack, wrecking two tanks with sticky grenades. Awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he was promoted to Sergeant on 28 July 1942. At El Alamein in late October he showed his customary leadership and daring during a week of violent battle. Only forty-one of his battalion still stood at the end of that week, and whilst Derrick had been slightly wounded he destroyed three more machine-gun posts, and those who saw him were certain he had earned a V.C.

The 2nd/48th returned to Australia in February 1943 and trained in North Queensland and Papua before helping to capture Lae, New Guinea, in September 1943.  By 24 November 1943 the battalion was attacking the heights of Sattelberg, overlooking Finschafen. Late that afternoon, while leading the advance platoon, Derrick confronted an almost vertical slope of thick jungle hiding Japanese machine-guns, and above that an open patch stretching menacingly 100 yards (91 m) towards the crest. He was told to withdraw, but he decided to go on. Covered by his mates, he scrambled hands and feet up the cliff, hurling grenades into enemy posts and clearing them out with his rifle. Even in peacetime the climb is barely possible, yet Derrick cleared ten machine-gun posts, stopping just short of the crest as dusk fell. It was one of the most astonishing feats of the war. He was awarded the V.C. (22 March 1944). In North Africa he had remarked that his Distinguished Conduct Medal had come in a Comforts Fund parcel; now he said that his achievement was due mainly to his mates.

In February 1944 the 2nd/48th again returned to Australia, and in August Derrick was posted to an officer-training unit. On being commissioned to Lieutenant in November 1944, he became one of the few second A.I.F. men promoted from the ranks who rejoined their old battalions. On 1 May 1945 the 2nd/48th took part in the landing at Tarakan, Borneo, and soon pushed inland. On the 22nd/23rd Derrick led his platoon against a small hill, code-named Freda, thick with enemy defences. His skill and courage that day might easily have won him another V.C., but by night the enemy still held the highest knoll. Derrick spread out his men, then lay down on the jungle track to rest. At about 3 o'clock next morning a Japanese light machine-gun, on a fixed line, fired a burst down the track. Derrick sat up to see that his men were O.K., the gun fired again, and five bullets caught him in an arc from his left hip to his right chest. 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. In 2008 a major bridge over the Port River was named in his honour after a community campaign involving the local newspaper and RSL sub-branch.

Corporal Mark Donaldson VC

Mark Donaldson was born on 2 April 1979 in Newcastle, New South Wales. He joined the Army on 18 June 2002 where he was allocated to the Royal Australian Infantry. From February to April 2004, Donaldson completed the SASR selection course, and was posted to 3 Squadron in May 2004.

The actions for which Donaldson's Victoria Cross for Australia were awarded took place on 2 September 2008. Patrolling with Afghan and US forces, they were ambushed by a well-prepared and larger Taliban force. The ambush began with sustained machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire, causing several casualties. Donaldson deliberately exposed himself to fire from the Taliban fighters in order to draw their attention away from the casualties, allowing them to be moved to cover. 

When the patrol attempted to withdraw, the number of casualties was such that the unwounded personnel (including Donaldson) had to make their way on foot, beside their vehicles, as the casualties filled the vehicles. As they set off, it was realised that an Afghan interpreter attached to the patrol was wounded, and had not been loaded into the vehicles. Donaldson immediately crossed the 80 metres or so of open ground between the convoy and the interpreter, under heavy fire, and then carried him back to the vehicles where Donaldson administered first aid. The patrol eventually broke free of the ambush after two hours. See the 60 minutes interview here.

After being presented with his VC, Donaldson requested permission to remain a member of the SASR and participate in operational postings. This was approved by Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, and Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie. Donaldson subsequently served in Afghanistan for a four-month period in 2009, made a brief deployment to the country in early 2010 and deployed again in 2013. He was also promoted to the rank of Corporal in 2010 after completing a junior leaders course.

Donaldson is married to Emma, and has a daughter and a son. He has written a memoir called The Crossroad, which was published by Macmillan in 2013. Emma had described him as being "married to the army". Donaldson says of himself: "I don't see myself as a hero, honestly. I still see myself as a soldier first and foremost."


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Biography

The Cove

The home of the Australian Profession of Arms.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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