JOHN (SONNY) NEWTON McCABE (1917-1972)
World War II (28 Maori Bn)- No 80495
Eldest son of John and Ngäpeka (Rebecca) McCabe. - Grandson of Wi Taiawa
I whänau mai a Sonny McCabe i te tau 1917 ki Gumtown i tata rä ki Whitianga. No Ngäti Manuhiri tona iwi ki Ömaha. Sonny enlisted for service in the Army in August 1941. One of four brothers who served, Sonny was the only one to volunteer for the 28th Mäori Battalion.
On the 11 June 1943 Sonny was posted to the Mäori Training Battalion in Egypt and embarked with the Battalion to Italy as a member of A Coy. On the 22 October the Battalion landed at Taranto in Italy and was immediately deployed. He commented, “In the desert I nearly pegged out with pneumonia which took me nearly four months to get over, but I landed in Italy in time for the first attack with the 8th army. My luck has held in four attacks, but may stop any day.”
On the 17 January 1944 the 28th Mäori Battalion was ordered to deploy to Caserta just south of Cassino. The New Zealand Division’s primary objective was to seize the railway station at Cassino, clear the town and then advance northwards up Route 6. The code name for the attack was ‘Operation Avenger.’ On the 17 February A and B Coy of the 28th Mäori Battalion crossed the start line about 375 yards south of the objective, sometime between 0930 pm and 1130 pm. To reach the railway station both companies would have to cross the Gari River and enter onto high ground prior to the station. To the left they would strike a piece of high ground, known as the ‘hummock,’ and to the right and beyond was the railway station and the town.
The approach to the objective was swampy which made the going difficult and A Coy was held up at the Hummock by wire and intense machine gun fire. Sonny McCabe recorded his thoughts during this time, “on the 19 February two companies of the 28 Bn were picked out to do the attack for the 5th Army on the Cassino railway station which we were to hold till daylight when the bridges would be built and our tanks and armour would relieve us.” On the right B Coy had fought its way through the mine field, wire and machine gun fire to reach its objective in the rail yard area, but it was achieved at great cost.
The situation for the Battalion became more precarious when at about 3am the moon exposed both company’s positions and they came under heavy enemy fire. Around 7 am the first of the German counter-attack to retake the station commenced. The initial German attack failed because of artillery fire, however both companies were now coming under severe pressure. By 3.15 pm on the 18 February the Germans again counter-attacked with infantry and tanks. Both companies were already in a precarious situation, having suffered heavy casualties, they now heard the sound of approaching tanks. They were without any means to deal with this new threat as they were without any anti tank weapons. Sonny commented on the developing situation, “half of our boys were killed in the attack at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Jerry attacked us with tanks, we had run out of ammo and were helpless.” Some time between 3.30 pm and 4 pm it became obvious that both company positions were now untenable as Sonny commented, “our tanks and armour would relieve us but daylight came and the bridge had not been completed. Then we knew we were done.”
The first warning of disaster became apparent when survivors of A and B Coy began returning to their lines around 4pm, Sonny fills in some of the story, “so we ran forty of us reached the first river and only five of us came out. I was the last to reach safety. Three chaps who ran with me were killed and I was shot through the right leg, the bullet hit the bone and blew the calf off my leg.” During the withdrawal he crawled into a swamp near the Gari River for cover. Shortly after he was approached by a German soldier who saw him and aimed his rifle at him with the obvious intention of finishing him off, however on seeing that Sonny was wounded this soldier lowered his weapon and walked away. From this point onwards it took Sonny two days to crawl back to the Battalion position.
The losses sustained by the Battalion appear to have been significant with only about 66 men returning over a period of days. Sonny commenting from hospital, “I’m nearly ok but I’m still a bit lame, but we have lost so many men that they do not leave you out very long and a lot of us who are not fit are back again.” Although I have been in hospital have only missed one attack with the Division, that was the second attack on Cassino and our company did not go in as there are now only 16 left.”
Sonny together with his brother Roy revisited Cassino and walked over the killing ground of the 17 and 19 of February, “I showed Tup where we attacked and how I escaped and the place gave us the shudders. The Mäori Battalion were burying our dead, the chaps who were with me on the night and day of the 19 February. There were 40 of us left and only 5 came out. I was one. I think that it was god who saved me on the 19th. I never prayed so hard as I did that day. I was lucky as I went to Holy Communion just before the attack.”
Because of the heavy losses suffered by the Battalion many letters were written home in an attempt to prevent other family members from joining the Battalion. Sonny, writing to his brother Jim in the Pacific commented, “I think of the old days on the PWD and wish that you were with me, but its much better to be separated. In our Bn I have seen brothers together in the infantry and its no good they nearly die worrying about each other and when one goes its terrible. In March 1945 Sonny was posted to the War Graves Concentration unit and in March 1947 he returned to New Zealand. He died on the 20 March 1972 at Hamilton.
Ref: 28th Maori Battalion Reunion Annual 2002
Sonny McCabes Medals