The Ferret is the true story of a remarkable yet humble man, Eric Batchelor, from the South Canterbury town of Waimate who became one of New Zealand's highest decorated soldiers of World War II. Through his stealthy and deadly night time operations against the Germans he was secretly dubbed The Ferret by his commanding officers. It was a name he never heard until well after the war.
I interviewed Eric several times during the years as I worked as a journalist in Timaru, usually in the lead up to Anzac Day or some other military commemoration.
Sitting in his homely kitchen he shared stories of his exploits during World War II in his quietly spoken manner. He was always frank with detailed accounts of battles as well as his personal experiences and recollections away from the front lines. He went into details of combat, death and survival few other returned soldiers were willing or able to do.
He joined, and eventually led, a platoon of young South Islanders with a similar background. Several were from the West Coast and had spent their teenage years stalking elusive red deer through some of the most rugged terrain in New Zealand or hunting tahr in the high grassland tops.
They had become excellent marksmen with a rifle and self-reliant bushmen capable of living rough for extended periods. Moving soundlessly through rough country, finding their way in the dark and in wild, cold weather had become second nature to them long before the army turned them into soldiers. It had been the best possible training for infantrymen who were sent out at night after a much more dangerous quarry during the Italian Campaign of World War Two.
By the end of the war in 1945 Eric had been awarded the prestigious Distinguished Conduct Medal twice for his actions on night patrols against enemy positions, the only soldier from the Southern Hemisphere to do so. He was also mention in dispatches for similar actions. His bravery decorations were second only to Captain Charles Upham who was twice awarded the Victoria Cross.
I have drawn extensively on the outstanding official history of Eric’s 23 Battalion by Angus Ross to ensure the chronology of battles and the history of the war in North Africa and Italy, where Eric served, were accurate. However, this biography is not another history of 23 Battalion but the true story of one of the men who served in the battalion, who survived the war and returned to his hometown of Waimate in South Canterbury where he continued to serve his community both in the military, in business and in many volunteer organisations for the rest of his long life. Eric Batchelor died in July 2010 just a month shy of his 90th birthday.
One of the sad threads running through his story was the transition from excitable young men in their late teens and early twenties at the start of the war into hardened old men in their mid-twenties when it was all over. At the beginning some of their pranks and adventures were typical of over exuberant school boys pushing the boundaries of discipline and acceptable behaviour as boys always have. Those still alive four years later had seen and done things beyond the comprehension of people who have never served in the front lines of a world war. Their personalities, attitudes and empathy had irreversibly changed. Nightmares disturbed their sleep, the sounds of gun fire, terrifying closeness of violent death and the screams of dying men never left their memories. Many had difficulty readjusting to a non-violent, non-aggressive role civilian life. Eric was one who made that adjustment, with initial difficulty, and spent the rest of his life in his beloved Waimate.
He was, rightfully, considered to be a local hero, earning the title Waimate Warrior which became the title of a bagpipe tune composed in his honour.
Read an excerpt of the book below:
March 1944 in Cassino, Italy.
Keeping the men fed was a continual and dangerous problem, sometimes more dangerous than the nightly patrols which were sent out to probe the enemy defences.
“At night, runners would bring food up for us, but their jeeps could only go so far. I think they probably had a worse job than we did as they had to move through enemy-occupied territory. Sometimes the Germans would only be a few feet away in the next house, occasionally in the next room! Under the old hotel that we had got into was a German tank right underneath us and every night he’d start his motor to charge up his batteries.”
To ease the boredom, and gather the ever-important information on enemy deployments, more patrols were sent out and occasionally ran into each other in the darkness. At this time Eric and five others had taken up lodgings in what had been a big bakers oven underneath a large hotel. From here they had a good view of enemy movements to and from their positions in the rubble.
Eric often went out on his own relying on his stealth and hunting skills to avoid getting into trouble. It was dangerous activity and several men had been shot and killed by equally stealthy German snipers, but it was better than sitting around waiting for the next shell or mortar bomb to arrive.
“I went out one day to see what I could find around the old post office and a German sniper had a go at me.” These marksmen, armed with a special rifle and telescopic sights, rarely missed, and had killed a lot of New Zealanders, but the bullet meant for Eric went wide and missed. "Then they put in what we called a stonk, a massed bombardment, down on me. They must have thought attack was on, or the German who fired at me got the wind and got a bit excited.”
These close calls had become almost commonplace as the deadly cat and mouse games among the rubble saw many men from both sides killed or wounded, but Eric was fast becoming recognised as an expert with better survival skills than most.
Some of the Germans had established mortar positions hidden away in the ruins, and could bring down bombs on advancing British infantry without their location being seen, but Eric managed to locate one.
"They had been firing for a day or two and it was annoying me that I couldn’t see where it was coming from so I went poking around and saw some smoke coming up from a cellar about sixty yards away. As luck would have it, a tank commander came up at that time looking for a target, so I said ‘come with me and have a look.’
“He whipped his tank around the corner and put three or four shells into the cellar and headed off, and I got out of it pretty quickly.”
Tom O’Connor is a semi-retired journalist, historian, political commentator, author of several books, a Councillor for the Waimate District Council and the chair person for NZ Grey Power Association. The Ferret can be purchased at some local book stores or online at www.tomoconnor.co.nz.
Written by Kirsten Wilson.