Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, January 3, 2021

From Coconut to Saddle

On 17th of November 1943 the Australian forces in Papua New Guinea started their operations to clear the next part of the island from the occupying Japanese forces. Their target would be Sattelberg (Translation: Saddle Mountain). The terrain leading up to the objective was a series of steep ridges, and a grinding eight-day battle would follow.

Infantry and Matilda's move forwards.

The day started with a move towards Coconut Grove, the first of the ridge lines. At first things went well. The lead unit had a tank troop in support, which had advanced under cover of a large artillery bombardment. The Japanese pickets gave way relatively easily as the Matilda armed with a 3-inch howitzer advanced down a track, with the infantry close behind. Then as the Australians neared Coconut Grove the Matilda drove around a bend, and there was a loud explosion. An explosive device had broken one of the tracks. Some sources clam it was a blind 25-pounder shell, others that it was a Japanese mine. The latter is likely due to its position on a blind corner, and the subsequent assault by a Japanese tank hunting team. The Japanese managed to reach the disabled tank and attached a Type 99 magnetic mine. However, the Type 99 was only a charge of explosive and the thick armour of the Matilda withstood the detonation. The crew had to remain inside their tank for the rest of the day, as the Australian infantry worked forward and cleared the area.

A A12 disappears round a corner ahead of the supporting infantry

Across the front the stiff resistance continued, despite repeated flanking moves by the Australians. All of the attacking battalions fell short of their objectives for the first day. The Japanese abandoned their positions on Coconut Grove overnight, and the Australian attack captured the position at around 0700 next morning.

The view from Coconut Grove towards Sattelberg.

The Australians began to move forward, into a carefully laid trap. The Japanese had abandoned their position to draw the Australians into a killing zone. After the Australians had advanced only about 250 yards the Japanese sprung their trap. They had several anti-tank guns sited to deal with the Matilda’s. Unfortunately, the Japanese anti-tank guns were 37mm weapons. The Japanese lack of equipment now failed them and through the day of bitter fighting the Matilda’s who were all but immune to the Japanese weapons managed to destroy most of the ambushing weapons and a kill a significant number of Japanese infantry.

A soldier, injured in the foot is evacuated rearwards.

In the fight to the south the Japanese had better luck. Here they used a large number of field guns to bombard the attacking Australians, pinning them in place and slowing the attack to a crawl. However, the Australians had a field regiment of 25-pounders in support, and the Japanese artillery methodology was never good, so the Japanese guns were knocked out by counter battery fire. They had managed to delay the attack. Overnight the plan changed. The Australians decided to reinforce the southern attack, which was aimed at point 2200. This would lead to two attacks pressing the Japanese who were judged to be close to exhaustion.


So far all the pictures have shown tanks. These pictures show the conditions the Australians were fighting in. The armour support was not able to to join them for much of the fighting.

The Australians ground forward and by the morning of the 22nd were close to Sattelberg. However, they had one last defensive position to clear. The path they needed to advance along was only 150 yards. Above it towered a rugged steep hill, almost a cliff. The Japanese were dug in with machine guns and could freely drop grenades onto the Australians. All day the lead company tried to batter its way through, but each attack was repulsed. As light fell, short of their objective and exposed to the enemy the lead company was ordered to fall back to a more defensible position. Then the platoon commander of one of the company’s leading platoons, asked for permission to have one last crack at the enemy. His name was Sergeant Thomas Currie Derrick.

The road up to Sattelberg. The Japanese were dug in on both flanks. Able to pour fire down onto the enemy, or simply drop grenades.

Sgt Derrick had been born in 1914, to poor parents, he’d led an unremarkable life, dropping out of school and job hopping for many years. Eventually, he found stable employment and married in June of 1939. He enlisted in July 1940. He’d first seen action at Tobruk, and had been at Tel el Eisa, where he had charged a pair of Axis machine gun nests silencing them with grenade, then tackled, and destroyed two tanks with sticky bombs and ended the day by capturing around about 100 PoW’s. He’d later fought in North Africa, at the second battle of El Alamein. Derrick had commandeered a Universal Carrier and standing in its rear armed with a Thompson SMG had directed it on a wild charge that knocked out several Axis MG nests. The Australians fought until early 1943, after which they returned home before heading to the Pacific. Now he felt he could tackle with the Japanese positions.

Sgt Derrick, pictured at Sattelberg.

Sgt Derrick moved forward of his lead section to tackle the MG nest that had them pinned, he quickly silenced it with his grenades. He then ordered his second section to begin its flanking manoeuvre. It too quickly ran into Japanese positions, six of them, on the rocky vertical hillside. Sgt Derrick went forward alone and again using grenades silenced all six positions, forcing the enemy to withdraw. This enabled the Australians to gain a foothold on the ridge. Linking back up with his first section, he brought up his third, and both sections advanced. There were three remaining enemy positions to clear out. Sgt Derrick cleared all of them with grenades. His method of doing so was to race forward to within 6-8 yards, then grenade the Japanese position into submission. On one occasion this failed, and he had to return for more grenades. In total he made his mad dash four times in this part of the action, and ten times overall. For his actions he was awarded a Victoria Cross to go with the medals he had won in the desert.

Some of Derrick's men at Sattelberg after they had captured it.

He remained in action until the leg of the campaign was finished, then a period of leave and hospital stay for malaria followed. Sgt Derrick was then promoted to officer, and after completing training in November 1944 he was granted more leave. After that he re-joined his unit in the fighting for Borneo. In May 1945, after heavy fighting Lt Derrick was with his platoon in a position overnight, when a Japanese machine gun opened fire. Lt Derrick sat up to check his men were ok, when the machine gun fired a second burst. Five of the rounds hit Lt Derrick, badly wounding him. A Japanese attack followed shortly afterwards, and despite his wounds Lt Derrick continued to issue orders. At dawn the Japanese attack had been repulsed, and the wounded began evacuating. Lt Derrick insisted that all other wounded be evacuated first, before allowing himself to be removed. When being carried to the rear he met with his officer commanding and gave a report. Lt Derrick died during his second operation at the field hospital on 24th May 1945.


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