Derek Lewis Eley
|DOB||November 18, 1917|
|Date of Death||August 13, 2021|
Derek was born in Matlock, Derbyshire on November 18 1917 but soon after birth went to live with 3 sisters (who were friends of his mother) in Chapel-en-le-Frith and it is with these ladies, whom he called his aunts that he grew up. He attended New Mills Grammar School, leaving in 1933 at the age of 16 to become a cashier at Ferodo, a brake-lining manufacturing company in Chapel-en-le-Frith. (Derek was gifted with numbers and even at 102 years old can still rattle off his times tables.)
In May 1939, as war seemed to be looming, there was a call for volunteers for the Territorial Army (T.A.) and Derek was one of 40 men employed by Ferodo who volunteered at Buxton where they were all signed up to the 2/5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters. They were given two weeks off work by the firm to train with the T.A. at Holyhead.
World War II started on September 1 1939 and Derek (as part of the T.A.) was called up two days later, on 3 September, being required to report for duty within hours of the call up. In November 1939 the battalion were transferred to 1/5th Sherwood Foresters and on November 18 1939 (Derek’s 22nd birthday) he landed in Cherbourg with the British Expeditionary Force. As Derek recounted: “That was when the adventure started,” which is an understatement for the events that culminated in the Battle of Dunkirk in May 1940.
During the months leading up to the battle a battalion sergeant was recalled for Officer training and because of his cashier experience in civilian life Derek took over the Colour Sergeant role dealing with logistics (for example paying the men 14 shillings a week) and was soon appointed Lance Sergeant (a military rank given to a Corporal so they could fill a post usually held by a Sergeant). He recalls spending the very cold winter of 1939 – 40 in Lyre, northern France.
By May 1940, as the British Army retreated, the three Sherwood Foresters’ Battalions were totally ill-equipped for the operational tasks they eventually had to perform in the retreat to the Channel Coast. At one period the 2nd, 2/5th and 9th Battalions were together defending the Dunkirk perimeter before the successful evacuation. At the same time Derek (as part of the 1/5th Battalion) joined the 51st Highland Division. Derek’s account of how he was evacuated from Cherbourg by good fortune, the sharp eyes of an officer who saw that they were moving into a trap and a period of fighting was recorded in March 2020.
The 1/5th Battalion were located in England for a year. Towards the end of this time Derek was injured as a result of an ‘unfortunate accident’ (confirmed by his commanding officer Lieut. Col. Harold N.H. Lilly in a testimonial letter – see right) and he missed his initial posting with the Sherwood Foresters to the Far East. The Battalion arrived in Singapore on 29 January 1942 just prior to its capture by the Japanese and suffered horrendously at the hands of the Japanese while working on the notorious Burma-Siam Railway; 450 officers and men of this Battalion died in captivity.
When Derek had recovered fitness he joined up with the regular Sherwood Foresters and set off from Southampton via Durban in South Africa with a destination of the Far East. By the time the ship had reached Bombay in India Singapore had fallen and the Battalion received a signal to turn around and go to the Suez Canal.
Derek recalled: “That was when the 2nd phase of my army career took place.” 100 Sherwood Foresters were sent on courses to Sarafand Garrison (the Aldershot of Palestine) a huge camp which had been established in peacetime and grew throughout the war. Derek was sent with these men to deal with logistics, and it was at this time he was promoted to Colour Sergeant.
Although his allegiance and comrades were in the Sherwood Foresters, Derek had no option when he was transferred to the Psychological Warfare Branch of the Intelligence Corps. Following deployment in Sarafand he was sent to Italy to take part in the Italian Campaign https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/italian-campaign and the ‘Long hard slog’ in Italy which saw some of the most bitter, costly fighting of the war, much of it in treacherous mountain terrain. The objectives of this invasion were to remove Italy from World War II, secure the Mediterranean Sea and force Germany to divert some divisions from the Russian front and other German divisions from northern France, where the Allies were planning their cross-Channel landing at Normandy, France.
Derek’s account of the scale and ferocity of the fighting in Italy was made on a recording in March 2020 and is summarised below. It was triggered by the question about how much was known by troops in italy about the June 1944 Normandy Invasion.
Derek has many anecdotes of his time in Italy. There was one occasion when he was sent to collect an army vehicle, despite the fact that he couldn’t drive and had omitted to tell his commander that vital piece of information. He travelled across the width of Italy to collect the vehicle, and despite a rather ‘jumpy’ start – he reasoned that since he’d watched others drive that he had an idea what to do – he was able to drive the vehicle. The journey back to base for a lone driver was likely to be hazardous – there were still guerrilla fighters who supported Mussolini roaming the countryside – and Derek made a decision based on his own survival and a sense of humanity. Not far from where he picked up the truck Derek encountered 5 deserters from the Italian army (a corporal and 4 privates) who were trying to hitch a lift back home. Derek made the judgement that these men would pose no danger to his personal safety – he’d seen what a defeated army looks like at Dunkirk – and judged that it would be safer to travel together. He stopped and negotiated in broken Italian, some English and gestures that if they did not make any trouble he’d give them a lift 600 kilometres back home to southern Italy. As security, he made the corporal travel in the cab with him and the other 4 got in the back. As the vehicle came near to the destination, Derek (who by now had learned to drive the vehicle competently) stopped and indicated that the Italians got out and ‘disappeared’. They clambered out, saluted Derek and melted away into the woodland, ready to make their way back to outlying farms and villages where they could live safely until the war ended.
For Derek, his war ended in November 1945, when he was discharged. He had been awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) Military Division in July 1945 in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the Mediterranean theatre of war which was presented to him in November 1946. By this time Derek had returned to Ferodo Brake Linings where, as a result of his extensive organisational experience in the army he was offered a position in the Personnel Office. He moved from here to work for Derbyshire Finance, a company owned by the (then) owner of Derby County Football Club, Sam Longson. As a lifelong supporter of Derby County he and Sam became friends, and Derek’s association with the club has lasted until current day. The newspaper report by Derby Telegraph (see link below) records his interview when he was 101 and it captures a flavour of his life. Derek has led (and continues to lead) a full life in Chapel-en-le-Frith and in 2016 he had the honour of having a street in the town named after him whilst still living.