‘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 Two. 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 Two 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.
‘The Ferret’ is available for purchase via the author’s website tomoconnor.co.nz and some local book retailers.