Norman Joseph Derrington

Norman Joseph (Derry) Derrington, 9/3/23 -- 27/3/01


QX 12327: WW 11, Malaya Campaign, 16 Platoon, D Co. 2/26 Battalion,
27th Brigade, 8th Division

1/400067 : Korean War, K Force, B Co. , 3 RAR,
27th British Commonwealth Brigade


FROM THE SHARP END OF TWO WARS: Malaya 1941-42 and Korea 50-53

Norman Joseph (Derry) Derrington (9/3/23-- 27/3/01)


- Survival's costly price -

I am stuck with the Foul visions of two wars Until the day I die


Part 1: Malayan Campaign

Derrington fought in the front line of two brutal, abortive wars:the humiliating fall of Singapore that ended the British Empire in Asia and the stalemated Korean War that cost up to 5 million lives and left Korea still divided and still technically at war.

Whilst many World War 2 volunteers had fought in World War 1, it would not be expected that a man would survive the Singapore prisoner of war camps and slavery on the Thai-Burma Railway and then volunteer again for another war. Derry did, and the real reason became clear to him only at the end of his life.

In telling the Derrington story in the context of two campaigns, the aim is principally to further understanding of two different wars and most importantly give voice to Derry, a typical digger, viewing war from the sharp end, which became a motif in his writing. In war literature, we are repeatedly reminded that the experience of war is incommunicable. For Derry there was the need to express what happened, what haunted him. He found a way with his pen. When he returned from the Korean War, he "deliberately and mentally walked away from war" to Europe, where he remained for 37 years. Consequently, unlike many veterans who attend reunions and tell and adjust their waries, Derry's memories remained, as he says, "untainted" from the influence of others' yarns. The "foul memories" and "bad nightmares" continued though. In Scotland, he bought a little boat, and took up fishing to help him come to terms with his slow-to-diminish nightmares, which are a phenomenon now recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While he was in Scotland, he engaged with his sharp end memories and began shaping them into verse, a digger's sort of verse. With Derry's permission, his story is told, using his own words. His is a universal voice, bringing us in touch with the incommunicable - the horror and, lest we miss it, the exaltation.

Derrington, truly a symbolic digger, could have stepped out of the ranks of World War 1. In 1940, 17 year old Derry was desperate to become a soldier; he remembered, "I wanted to prove my manhood. "His platoon commander, Ron Magarry, told me that Derry's eagerness to go away with 2/26th made it easier for him to "pull him into gear" for he was "a bit of a villain. "I think I detected a sign of emotion when Ron went on to say that Derry became "one of the best soldiers I ever served with. "Derry himself admitted that "I was not the regimental barrack square type" which would be the boast of any self- respecting digger! He could have been aspiring to the heroic, like the Masefield image that "they [diggers] walked and looked like Kings in old poems. "The Anzac legend has the power to inspire young, impressionable men."

From the back of Dingo, a place that actually exists in Queensland, Derry enlisted in the AIF when he was only 17. He was the youngest in the Queensland battalion, the 2/26th,of the 27th Brigade, 8th Division, AIF. Coming from the bush, underage, and keen to fight are common markers of the AIF volunteers of the two World Wars.

The photo we see is the only one available of Derry in uniform in either of his wars. It was taken in 1945, after he had been freed and returned home. He wears the campaign ribbons, and his 2/26th battalion's colour patch. We should note the sling of his chin strap for that could alert us to a certain irreverence. His youthful face, though, belies the deep-seated mental scars. I questioned Derry about the so-young face to hear, "I was not as mentally youthful as I looked."

Derrington thumbnail

The following anecdote furthers our understanding of the soldier poet we are to follow through two wars. Always for the digger, in or out of uniform, there is the game to be played about nonconformity(or is it insubordination) especially with the British. During Derrington's absence overseas, one day in Kent, his fishing prowess was called upon. He was instructing in the art of casting a line at a fishing school. Who should turn up for instruction but the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, with his bodyguard. Heath, failing to catch on, was told by the digger instructor, "That's not the bloody way I showed you, was it?"Sir Edward, nevertheless, signed a photograph of the occasion.

To comprehend Derry's experience more fully, the Malayan Campaign (the 8th Division's embarrassing war) is outlined to provide a necessary context. That Singapore fell in 70 days so shocked Britain that an enquiry was demanded. Churchill agreed to an enquiry but one never eventuated. Churchill, himself responsible for the flawed so-called "Singapore Strategy," said it was Britain's "most humiliating defeat. "On December 8th 1941, concurrent with Pearl Harbour, the brilliant Japanese Commander, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, "the tiger of Malaya," landed his 30000 strong force in Malaya. Then on 10th December, the Japanese sank the two Royal Navy ships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Alarmed, Churchill ordered that the British defenders should "fight to the finish. "Supported by 180 tanks and Zeros, the Japanese, many taking to the roads on bicycles, began their assault. They moved quickly on the conveniently well-built British roads and pressed the early-seized initiative until Singapore fell. The Yamashita victory is described as "one of the greatest, swiftest victories in history. "Though numerically superior, the British force of 85000 (comprising British, Australian, Indian Gurkha and Malay units) fought desperately but could not halt the invaders. Singapore was jeopardised not only by the defence concept but also by an incompetent High Command, fraught with internecine conflict:General Arthur Percival, the GOC, was at odds with both the Third Indian Corps Commander, Sir Lewis Heath, and the Australian Force Commander, Lt. Gen. H. G. Bennett.

By8th February,1942, the Japanese were securely on Singapore Island, and on 15thFebruary,Percival capitulated. Yamashita claims he bluffed Percival into immediate and unconditional surrender, by an ultimatum that he Yamashita had the military power to destroy the British if they did not surrender immediately. Yamashita's gamble saved him. His situation was perilous for his forces had run out of ammunition. So on 15th February, at 6. 10 pm, at the Ford Motor Company,Percival signed an unconditional surrender for a cease fire at 10. 00 pm, losing an Empire and an army that went into captivity for three and a half years. Ironically, the British force itself was also out of supplies and water- on account of Japanese bombing and land action. Disorder had set in, as witnessed by one soldier, "no one knew where the front line was. "It is unlikely the British could have saved Singapore if they had resisted further, for in reality their fate had been sealed long before 15th February. The Japanese battle losses were 10000 compared with the British much larger loss of 138000 which does not reflect well when defence is theoretically the easier to fight.

First, the fighting on the Malay peninsular is outlined so that the Australian role is better understood. It is to be borne in mind that a Japanese landward attack on Singapore was unprepared for. It was not only unforeseen but, according to Churchill in 1940, an improbability. The British unpreparedness, let alone the superior planning of the Japanese, left the British disadvantaged in the fighting in Malaya. For brevity's sake, some significant Australian battles fought by the 2/30th Battalion (27th Brigade) and the 2/19th(22nd Brigade) and Derry's 2/26th Battalion, will be discussed. The diggers' performance in these actions, all led by outstanding Australian Battalion commanders, was inarguably exemplary and calls into question the British High Command's allegations of desertion and lack of "discipline. "

The Australians were positioned in the Tranji area in Johore in January 1942, waiting and wondering what confronted them. Not surprisingly, Derry's writing contains a strong vein of bitterness. Most of it derives from the prisoner experience; some from the gap of understanding that exists between those at the sharp end and others, the uninitiated. Some of the others he sardonically alludes to as the"false heroes .. the ones who shout the most and shoot the least. "The Malayan campaign gave reason for bitterness. It seeps through Derry's writing as in his, "the order for withdrawal came from behind. "

It was not until 14th January that the Australians actually went into action, as the initial defence in the north was the responsibility of the British and Indians. None could have anticipated the speed with which the Japanese overcame the numerically superior British units. It was clearly a case of superior leadership. Yamashita seized airfields; wherever possible he confiscated abandoned materiel; he used barges at sea and craft on rivers. On the main route, Japanese tanks and troops (many on bicycles) relentlessly pressed the initiative by tactics of infiltration and encirclement. Having superior Zeros and control of the airfields, the Japanese could, unopposed, bomb and strafe withdrawing troops necessarily bound to moving down the trunk road that ran through jungle and rubber plantations. Subject to such a juggernaut, the British were forced into a series of withdrawals that meant diminishing morale and the inevitable loss of the will to fight.

On 7th January 1942, the situation had deteriorated badly at the debacle of the Slim River Battle where the 12th and 28th Brigades of the Indian 11th Division were "all but" wiped out. 3,200 troops surrendered and the Japanese benefited from seizing vast amounts of supplies, and armaments including artillery pieces. As a consequence, General Wavell who became Supreme Commander on 3rd January was "appalled" at the loss of central Malaya, and ordered a withdrawal to Johore. Indicative of the power of the Japanese unhalting advance, was the fall of Kuala Lumpur on 11/1/1942when the desperate defence by the Argylls and the Gurkhas could not hold it.

Wavell, losing faith in General Heath at Slim River, put the withdrawal under the command ofLt Gen. Bennett who with the 8th Division was positioned in the Johore State on a line from Segamat in the centre to Muar in the west, in readiness for action.

The Australians entered the campaign, dashingly, in an action of attack and not defence in an army that was generally withdrawing. Black Jack Galleghan's 2/30th Battalion was given the task of setting up an ambush at the selected site of the Gemencheh River Bridge, near Gemas, in Johore State. On 14th January "some 300 cycling Japanese" crossed the bridge. The hidden Australians- B. Co of 2/30th -- allowed them "into the planned 'killing zone' -- After another 500 cycled by, the Australians [blew] the bridge and in a furious action accounted for about 700 Japanese and the destruction of several tanks. "By late evening, B Co "with 8 dead and 80 wounded" rejoined the battalion. This account is at variance with that of2/30th Battalion Association's enemy dead as 300 and their own casualties as 17 killed, 55 wounded and 9 missing. They had conducted in the Malayan campaign the only ambush, and inflicted the "biggest single setback" to the Japanese.

Another action, an "epic" feat, is illustrative of the Australians' capabilities, especially when well led. On 18th January in the Muar area, the Australian 2/19th Battalion led by Lt Col C. G. W. Anderson went to the relief of the endangered Indian 45th Brigade in the Bakri area. Anderson set up a perimeter and gathered into it the remnants of the badly mauled Indian Brigade and the imperilled 29th Battalion (27 brigade). This group acquired the title Anderson force that, once consolidated, began a fighting withdrawal under punishing artillery fire and bombing attacks. Anderson himself, single-handed, extinguished two machine gun posts. When the formidable Imperial Guard charged the rearguard, Anderson brilliantly launched a counter attack during which the Indian Brigade Commander, Brigadier H. C. Duncan was killed. On the 21st,"fully surrounded," he faced a blocking force. Again, he boldly attacked just before nightfall to save the situation. But while attacking he had to deal with Japanese tanks that had breached his rear perimeter. He successfully called down artillery fire on them. By this time Anderson force was at the end of its limit -- nearly out of ammunition and hampered by many severely wounded. On 22nd January, still commanding exemplarily, Anderson ordered all materiel be destroyed and issued a withdrawal plan of small parties, his only hope of his troops eluding capture. But for the Colonel's skill and courage his force could have been annihilated. The survivors amounted to 271 from his own 2/19th Battalion, 130 from 2/29th Battalion, and but a few survivors from the decimated 45th Indian Brigade. Lt Col Anderson (an MC winner in World War 1) for his exhibition of courage, let alone leadership, was awarded a V. C. He was the only senior commander in the Australian Army in World War 2 to be so honoured.

It is to be noted that a British unit failed to obey an order to go to the aid of the encircled Anderson Force. This controversial incident, that remains under examination, could be seen as an indicator of the breaking down of morale and the inevitability of defeat.

Derrington 's own story is picked up again on 27th January with the 27th Brigade, according to orders, accelerating its withdrawal down the "main trunk road. "The 22nd brigade was in such difficulty it took "to the jungle" from which it is reported "less than 100 men and officers" made it to Singapore. The 2/26th (27 Brigade) earned praise for its "great gallantry" on 29th January at the 31 mile peg of the road. Derrington reports that his 16 platoon commander, Lt RonMagarry "invited" his men to attack a threatening Japanese held feature with the added exhortation, "somebody's got to stop them. "In an extended line with rifles and bayonets they attacked. After 25 minutes of vicious hand-to-hand fighting the objective was gained and 300 of the enemy were accounted for. Magarry, the 16 platoon commander, when asked for recommendations for gallantry could not single any out as "all were deserving. "Derry dryly reported,"The boss got an MC, Terry Parker got a DCM and I got a bloody stammer. "I can verify the stammer for he still had it in 2000. Derry also commented that Magarry's MC "should have been a VC. "

Derry, with aspirations of proving his manhood, learned only too soonthe realities of war for the "poor bloody" infanteer who "walked alone except for his comrades"at the sharp end or "the arse end" as he wrote in a moment of bitterness. There the view is no larger than a section, and "fear tightens fingers on the trigger, sets bowels churning. "He learned, too, he was only"a small cog in a huge implacable machine" where one became "concerned only with safety and survival of self and mates. "

The British unable to halt the Japanese were by 31st January at the Causeway. Those last across were 80 surviving Argylls, their two surviving pipers playing "Blue Bonnets over the Border"and the very last, their brave, renowned C. O. , Lt Col I. Stewart. To halt the Japanese, Indian sappers then blew a 70-foot wide gap in the Causeway, but unfortunately, at the same time, they cut the vital, main water supply. On Singapore Island, Percival had to quickly come up with a defence plan as there were no fixed defences on the north of the island to withstand the uncontemplated landward invasion. Again Percival was out-generalled. Falling for some Yamashita feints he hastily planned for a NE Japanese landing, whereas Yamashita had skilfully planned a surprise landing on the NW of the island. The Japanese main landing west of the Causeway had the object of the airfield and supply depots. The Australians took the brunt of the Japanese assault and were commended for their fierce defence of that area before they fell back. Then the situation quickly fell apart, in dramatic events, like the fatal bungling of Percival's vital contingency order. What Percival intended was that in the event of the city centre being jeopardised, there should be an immediate withdrawal. This unfortunately was misread and acted upon as an order for IMMEDIATE withdrawal. Consequently the British evacuated the west of the island, leaving it open to the Japanese, creating inevitable confusion, and the break-down of order.

The tragedy of Singapore can be ascertained from these eyewitness accounts. A resident, Lin Chok Fu, reported that at Buket Timah, the site where British vital supplies were stored and targeted by the Japanese, Chinese had voluntarily gone to the support of British soldiers being overwhelmed by Japanese. For revenge, the Japanese returned to the village and massacred the Chinese community. Fu also reported how British soldiers "retreating down Holland Road" were victims of an atrocity. "Their heads and legs were cut off, leaving only the torsos which were thrown into a drain. " Other soldiers were stripped, bayoneted and "hung on trees" by wire. On the 25th February, surrender day, the same witness saw many dead, "mostly Indian [soldiers] lying all over the place" [and] at least a few hundred Indian and British soldiers were killed behind [the Polytechnic]"

An even worse incident was reported by a British soldier, Daniel Fraser of the Royal Engineers, who saw the consequences of the massacre of the staff and patients at theAlexandra Hospital, though it was flying the Red Cross.

Given the confused fighting, the absence of a front line, let alone the atrocities being perpetrated, there is little wonder that a lot of soldiers could have been detached stragglers who may have been mistaken for deserters. In Elphick's book "Pregnable Singapore," many of British allegations of the Australians' "desertion" are set out. A vicious one is that of British Major J. C. K. Marshall who alleged,"The Australians were known as daffodils -- beautiful to look at but yellow all through. "Elphick, though, does report some who are without bias such as the Argyll's C. O. Lt Col Stewart who said there were as many British "early getaways" as there were Australian. Challenging the British bias are observations of Japanese commanders. General, Fujikawa reported in "F. Kichan" that as early as the 13th February there was a massive desertion of Indian troops. And Simson records that Colonel Tsuji had observed how bravely the Australians fought, especially their anti-tank gunners.

There is evidence of Australian units that remained intact. There could well have been others but Black Jack's 2/30th stood, and so did the 2/26. th Ron Magarry recently confirmed that the men of 2/26,even though they had lost their revered C. O. ,Lt Col A. H. Boyes, a veteran of WW1, on 11th February,they remained at their posts, vowing to "fight to the last round and the last man. "

It is known that 3000 escaped on the last boats that left Singapore on the 13th February. After the surrender, though General Bennett handed over command and secured his own escape (some reports saying by a confiscated sampan and others by air), General Percival himself and most of High Command became, along with the troops,prisoners of war. General Wavell, had on February 11th ordered the remaining British aircraft to be sent to the East Indies and at Percival's request he had by the 15th rescinded Churchill's and his orders to fight to the last.

On 1st June, 1942 General Wavell reporting on the debacle, alleged that the Australians' desertion was a primary cause of the loss of Singapore. This report was not released until 1992. Elsewhere, Wavell had expressed the British World War 1 perception that Australians were "undisciplined. " With that label, which had become myth, the appearance of a few straggling diggers could easily and conveniently be made the agents of disaster or as it has been suggested, scapegoats. The truth is still to be determined, but a close look at the fighting record indicated above, and the battle statistics, suggest that the Australians were fighters not deserters. The 8th Division constituted but 14% of the British force but it took 73% of the battle deaths.

Their arms laid down, their hearts leadened by their sense of "disgrace," the diggers joined the other captives to march for 36 hours -- to Changi.

So well has the media, and the heroic stories, like Weary Dunlop's covered the hell of captivity that there is no need to repeat it. Derrington's memories that became nightmares and the subject of his verse are of value. His themes get to the essence of the captives' experience:the barbarity of the Japanese; the physical suffering; but above all, the glow that surrounds his memories of diggers ready to lay down their lives for a mate. It could be this experience alone that enables Derry - and many other diggers -to say, "I have no regrets. "

It is from the Thai-Burma site that Derry's former "boxing weight" of 86 kilograms was reduced to 36 kilos, and from where his most searing memories come:

"Septic sores; Cholera vomit; No skin at all from calf to sole; Monsoon dimples; In knee deep mud; The fires flare; On cholera Hill; To burn the dead; And scar the souls; Of those Who did not die; . "

From "Gloire de La Patrie"

As well, there are many images of the "brutal guards" the "broken bodies and broken minds of the young men ageing " and the "wraiths of men struggling through knee-deep mud" with excrement pouring down their legs. But what "stands bright and clear" is the "starving men who scraped some pitiful grains of rice to one side of their eating tin so a sickly feverish mate could regain some little strength and survive .. . "

One such sacrificial memory is of George, "Aboriginal George", once a stockman from the outback, who saved Derry's life by foregoing his couple of spoons of rice. Thereafter Derrington would find that his ghost appeared every time he saw"dark" faces around "rusty shacks. " That is how memory works, ready to be triggered any time, any place, to return the past to haunted men.

Not all memories were bitter. One in particular was the kind that stood "bright and clear" for cherished mateship and "unbreakable bonds. "On 9th March, 1944, Derry's mates, mindful he had come of age, with a hammer and nail, forged a key from a piece of a downed Zero. This artefact of symbolic significance and, no doubt produced with a certain ironic satisfaction, is to be seen on display at the War Memorial, Canberra.

Ingenuity, unselfish caring and indomitable spirit account for Australians' high survival rate. An incident given by a survivor of the 2/26th demonstrates the Australian spirit and the digger style. In No. 1 Camp at the infamous rail site where cholera had broken out, Dr. Bruce Hunt speaking from a tree stump delivered his famous speech: "Listen you bastards, never in the history of Australia have 1500 men been in a worse situation than you are. I have bullied these little yellow bastards into giving us two days to clean up our camp. We must work like slaves, as this is our only chance for any of us to get out of here alive. Cholera has broken outand there is no vaccine for a few days. My plan is we must scrape every inch of the top soil in this camp into heaps and then burn bamboo on each heap to kill the cholera germs. We must dig really deep latrines and make them fly-proof. You catch cholera by eating shit which is more often than not carried by flies. All water must be boiled, and eating utensils sterilised by placing them in the fire for a few seconds. Until the cholera vaccine arrives this is all we can do. " Dr Hunt is still remembered when the march"Sussex by the Sea" is heard, for Hunt used to say,"They are playing that for me. " He, himself, died of cholera before vaccine arrived. His mates, out of respect, volunteered for his cremation party, but were hardly prepared for the shock of seeing him "placed on the pyre. "

Derrington was one of the 2646 Australians out of the 15384 who were to survive Japanese brutality. It could wrongly be thought that once the war ended and the captives were freed the suffering would be over. Far from it. The anxious families at home first had to wait to learn where their loved ones were or whether they were still alive. Then what followed was not anticipated. Homecomings proved to be painfully difficult. Four years of absence and three and a half years of silence had formed an unbridgeable gap between those returning and all others. None could comprehend the horrors that changed the captives so profoundly. How could minds accommodate such memories of atrocities, of shame, of death, of loss of mates and what was probably more painful in a different kind of way - the haunting yet uplifting memories of heroism and of sacrifice, like Derrington's memory of George. To widen the gap were the devastating changes at home, like the girl who did not wait. Not only loved ones had changed but Australia had also changed.

"Black Jack' Galleghan understood that homecoming was the next battle soldiers had to face, and he understood the need to attend to their morale. First he sent a message home heralding their arrival in October 1945,"I want to say to the parents and loved ones of the troops I have commanded that they have men of whom they may be justly proud. The men have borne hardship and oppression with a spirit that could never be broken. It is the spirit of their fathers of Anzac. "To the men he said, "You are not going home as prisoners, you will march down Australian streets as soldiers. " Galleghan's understanding was not enough to assuage their sense of being failed Anzacs. Their homecoming is a topic in itself. The recently published study of it by McKernan, "The War Never Ends," fully covers the diggers' battle as survivors who were to bear endlessly their physical and mental wounds and the shadow of shame.

On Anzac Day, 8th Division marchers should stride proudly. Watchers may recognise the significance of their Gemas and Muar actions, and they may fill with sadness for their suffering;they could, too, draw inspiration from their indomitable spirit as fighters and as survivors.

Derrington left no written trace of his homecoming experience. In 1950, he volunteered for the war in Korea, the "forgotten war," the first war for the Royal Australian Regiment. There, he would serve in 3 RAR, which joined the Argylls and the Middlesex to form the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade.

Olwyn Green, widow of Lt Col Charlie Green, C. O. 3 RAR, who died of wounds 1/11/50, author of "The Name's Still Charlie" UQP,1993

Principal References:

Derrington:letters, verse and interviews

Begbie, Richard, The Living Memory of Horror, " Canberra Times"Occasion of opening of re-modelled

WW 2 Gallery (date missing on cutting)

Cody, Les, Ghosts in Khaki:History of 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion Hesperian Press, W. A. ,1997

Braddon, Russell, The Naked Island, Werner Laurie, London, 1952

Dennis, Peter et al (eds) The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, OUP,

Ebury, Sue, Weary: The Life of Sir Edward Dunlop, Viking 1994

Elphick, Peter Singapore: The Pregnable Fortress Hodder and Stroughton, 1995

Magarry, Lt. Col Ron The Battalion Story: 2/26th Infantry Battalion, 8th Division, AIF -- a unit history

Mant, Gilbert The Singapore Surrender Kangaroo Press (rep) 1992

McKernan, Michael The War Never Ends UQP, 2001

Rivett, Rohan D, Behind Bambo,: An Inside story of the Japanese Prison Camps, Angus and Robertson, 1946

Simson, Ivan,Singapore, too little, too late,Leo Cooper, London, 1970

Note: Derrington'spoems have been included in the 2001 RMC anthology The Warrior Poets: An Anthology of poems by Australian Soldiers 1901-2001 available from History Protocol Cell, RMC, Duntroon ACT 2600

The photo was provided by Pam, Derry's widow who told me that it is the only one she has of Derry in uniform. He met and married Pam in England where he went soon after he was discharged from 3RAR in 1951.

Simson (p155)Figures come from Yamashita's diaries quoted in "A Soldier Must Die" byJohn Deane Potter. From the same source comes Yamashita's revelation of his "bluff that worked" and how he faced odds of 3 to 1

Simson (p. 148) quoting Colonel Masanobu Tsuji in "Singapore, The Japanese Version" published by Constable London, 1962.

The Indian troops in particular have been described as ill-equipped and under-trained.

Sims (p 36)Brigadier Sim's book contains an excellent military analysis of the campaign.

http://www.britain-at-war.org uk/Malaya_and_Singapore/html/body_chronology_of_ malaya. htm The incident is under investigation so the name of the unitis deliberately withheld.

Simson (p. 108)

Simson p 151

Magarry, p. 238-9

McKernan, p. 132

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