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Maxwell Derbyshire (1915–1980)

by A. J. Sweeting

This article was published:

Maxwell Derbyshire (1915-1980), soldier, was born on 27 June 1915 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Adye Russell Derbyshire, labourer, and his wife Louisa Sarah, née Pinnington, both Tasmanian born. When Max was a boy the family moved to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, where he received further schooling and worked as a coach and motorcar trimmer. In 1933-39 he served in the 56th Battalion of the Militia and rose through the ranks to lieutenant.

Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 9 April 1940, Derbyshire joined the 2nd/2nd Battalion in Egypt in October. During the offensive in the Western Desert, in January 1941 he saw action in Libya in the battle of Bardia and the capture of Tobruk. Moved to Egypt, his unit was then sent to Greece where it disembarked on 22 March and took up defensive positions in the north. On 16 April the battalion withdrew to the Piniós Gorge and engaged in fierce fighting against German armoured forces. Driven from their positions, the Australians made their way south in fragmented groups. Derbyshire was one of those taken prisoner. After two attempts, he escaped on 30 June.

Befriended by Greeks in the Athens-Piraeus region, Derbyshire joined the nascent underground movement. The genial Australian—dark haired, slim and 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall—became an almost legendary figure. He took part in daring acts of sabotage and set 'a striking example of tenacity and cool courage' for which he was awarded the Military Cross (1943). His exploits became known to the Gestapo and he was forced to change locations frequently. In December 1942 he joined nine others who planned to leave Greece. For three days and two nights he marched on bleeding feet, through mud and snow, to a rendezvous north of Athens. Having been rowed (by two drunken boatmen) across the strait to Euboea, he embarked in a small caique. Although twice sighted by the enemy, his party reached Turkey whence he travelled to Egypt. He returned to Australia in January 1943.

Rejoining the 2nd/2nd in North Queensland in June, Derbyshire was promoted captain on 21 June 1944. The battalion arrived in New Guinea in December. Derbyshire led 'A' Company throughout the Aitape-Wewak campaign (February to August 1945). For his bravery and resourcefulness he won a Bar to his M.C. From October to December his company was detached to Merauke, Netherlands New Guinea, to counter anticipated trouble from Indonesian nationalists.

Back home, Derbyshire decided to remain in the army. On 19 January 1946 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Wagga Wagga, he married Belle Amy Edney who was to predecease him. Employed mainly in training duties in Australia, he also had postings as an observer with the Far East Land Forces in Malaya (1950-52) and with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in Japan and Korea (1955-56). He was promoted major in 1955 and ended his service at the Infantry Centre, Ingleburn, New South Wales, where he was briefly officer commanding. On 28 June 1962 he was placed on the Retired List as lieutenant colonel.

Settling at Lurnea, Derbyshire ran a cleaning business before working for Fair Deal Real Estate Pty Ltd. He died of coronary vascular disease on 24 December 1980 at Liverpool and was cremated. His wife June survived him, as did the two sons of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • S. Wick, Purple Over Green (Syd, 1977)
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

A. J. Sweeting, 'Derbyshire, Maxwell (1915–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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