'It was absolutely unbelievable'

16 January 2018 by Claire Hunter

Jim McCabe

Jim McCabe: "It was frightening at times – at a lot of times – but you didn’t worry about it, you just got on with what we were doing.”

It was more than 70 years ago, but 95-year-old Jim McCabe still smiles at the memory. He’d returned to Australia after serving in the Middle East and North Africa during the Second World War, and wanted to do something for his mate Fred Walker.

“I was home on leave, and he’d been sent to New Guinea, so I went to the local little pub and bought a bottle of sherry. And from memory, it cost me three shillings,” he said while visiting the Australian War Memorial as part of commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein.

“I bought a loaf of bread, took the centre of it out and put [the bottle] in, and then wrapped it up and posted it to him. And he always remembered he was in New Guinea – they had been in action at Finschhafen, and it was still going – and this parcel arrived for him. He said, ‘It was the best drink I’ve ever had in my life.’ And it was three-bob sherry.”

McCabe is sitting quietly in the Second World War galleries as he shares his story. He grew up in Nhill in country Victoria where his family were wheat and sheep farmers. Walker was from a nearby town, and the pair had often played football against each other as teenagers.

McCabe remembers hearing the news of the declaration of war when, “a friend and I were sitting outside a girl’s house in a car at 9pm at night and her mother came out and tapped on the window and told us we were at war”.

Thinking it was the right thing to do, McCabe enlisted in the army. But, like many others, he had to lie about his age to get in.

“Yes, very much so,” he said with a laugh. “I put it up three years. You had to be 20 in 1940 and I was 17 … It was the usual thing to do, to follow on.”

His family didn’t know he’d lied about his age until long after the war when his daughter was looking for his army records. She couldn’t find them because she was looking under his actual birth date – “He said, ‘You’d better look under 1919.’”

Jim McCabe

Jim McCabe: "It brings back a lot of memories that I thought I'd forgotten."

McCabe was working as a clerk at a local stock and station agency when war broke out and was already a member of the armoured cars militia.

“When I went to join the army, I told the boss that I was going and he said, ‘Will you give me a fortnight? Will you give me two more weeks of work?’ I said, ‘Why’ and he said, ‘We want you for the yearly report.’ I did all the typing and stuff, and so I joined on the 10th of July.”

He joined the 9th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment, which was formed in 1940 as part of the 8th Division. When the 8th Division was sent to Malaysia and Singapore, the commander mistakenly thought that armour would have limited use in the jungle so the cavalry regiment was reassigned to the 9th Division and sent to the Middle East. McCabe will never forget arriving in North Africa for his first campaign at El Alamein.

“It was hot and we had a few dust storms, which are not good,” he said. “We had reasonable food, but water was a problem. When I was in a Bren gun carrier, we got two gallons of water for the three of us in the crew, and that was our ration for the day, and if it was needed for the vehicle then so be it … We never missed [out], but it made you light on.”

He remembers celebrating his birthday with canned beer. “I was 19 then,” he said. “I had my 20th birthday with the fellow who was just standing there a minute ago. He was having his 21st. It was on the 7th and 8th of October, a fortnight before the push started, [and we celebrated with some] canned beer that we got from some canteen somewhere. We’d never seen … beer in cans [before], and we celebrated very well.

“In those days, the officers got a ration of a bottle of spirits, and I think the sergeants got a ration of half a bottle of spirits each week. The good officers would give it to the corporal’s crew … so you always got a drink. But one of the things about those days was that cigarettes came up with the rations, of course, and every now and again we would get some beer, and for those of us who didn’t smoke, it was very good. There were fellows who smoked who would die for tobacco but didn’t drink, so you could swap your tobacco for their beer.” And did he? “Yep, my word,” he said smiling once again.

McCabe also smiles as he tells how the Allies attempted to fool the Germans into believing an attack was imminent at the Qattara Depression rather than the tiny Egyptian railway stop of El Alamein.

“A fellow that was in our troop had the job … taking imitation guns and vehicles down towards the Qattara Depression,” he said. “They wanted to convince the Germans that that was where the attack was going to take place, because it was obvious there was going to be an attack on the week of the full moon … They would take them down in the daytime so the Germans in the air could see them, and then come back at night, and take another lot down the next day. But they were all dummies, and the attack took place up on the seaside rather than on the Qattara Depression side.”

Jim McCabe

Jim McCabe was one of 23 veterans who visited the Memorial for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein.

On the night of 23 October 1942, a massive artillery barrage heralded the beginning of the main Allied offensive and the start of the second battle of El Alamein.

“The noise and the light from the 10,000 guns, or whatever it was, was absolutely unbelievable,” McCabe recalled.

“It went on all day, every day. We didn’t know a lot what was happening at our level, we just did as we were told.

“It was interesting for somebody who hadn’t been in action before. It was frightening at times – at a lot of times – but you didn’t worry about it, you just got on with what we were doing.”

McCabe formed part of the eyes for the 9th Division, conducting fast paced reconnaissance as a driver in a Bren gun carrier and as a wireless operator in a Crusader tank.

“It was to be an experience more than anything else,” he said. “And other than that, it was part of the job to do … It was safe in a tank [or at least you felt safe, or] you thought you did.”

He still remembers the moment he realised the Allies had won the battle against the Desert Fox, halting the German advance in North Africa. “[It was the] first time we won a battle,” he said. “We pushed Rommel back, [and] it was [a] turning point of the war.”

But the victory was not without cost. In the battles there between July and November, the Eighth Army suffered 30,000 casualties; the 9th Division suffering 5,500 casualties with more than 1,200 dead. Some of McCabe’s best mates were among those who were killed. He has never forgotten them and found their names on the Roll of Honour at the Memorial to quietly pay his respects.

“It brings back a lot of memories that I thought I’d forgotten,” he said. “Both [good and bad] … [We made good friends]: friends for life.”

Mateship meant everything. And like many veterans, McCabe prefers to remember the funnier stories from his time during the war.

“I was just telling this story a few moments ago,” he said, smiling once again. “A great friend of mine who was in the infantry was promoted to sergeant. And while things were quiet, he and some of his platoon decided they would take a day, absent without leave, to Alexandria, which they did. But it happened to be the day that Winston Churchill landed in the desert there, and they called a parade. The sergeant, and … his mates who worked with him, they were missing. The next morning, Sergeant Walker was a private.”

McCabe returned to Australia with the 9th Division Cavalry Regiment in January 1943 and went on to serve with the 2/11th Cavalry Commando Squadron in Borneo. More than 70 years later, he remembers exactly where he was when he heard the war was over, how he felt, and what he was thinking. “Oh, relief,” he said simply. “And how soon can we get home.”

Jim McCabe