Rebecca McCabe served with the Women's Royal Navy during World War Two. She was born at 59 Palmer Street, Belfast, Co. Antrim on 31st August 1921 and later moved to 71 Twaddell Avenue, Belfast, Co. Antrim.
She attended Woodvale School in North Belfast until the age of 14 when she left to work for Mourne Clothing Company. The year was 1936 and the business was on Oldpark Road, off the Crumlin Road. Rebecca’s job was rubbing soap along the selvedges of the material so that sewing machines would run faster. She earned 10s, 11½d.
In 1938, she joined her sisters Sadie and Margaret at Ewart’s Linen Factory where they worked as pern winders. Rebecca became a warping apprentice and within two years was running her own machine. Warping was an intensive job; running linen thread from hundreds of spools through a reed onto beams. She would also have needed a keen eye to check selvedges and to watch for “slubs” or bumps or knots in the thread which required cutting out.
Enlistment in 1941
In 1941, Ewart’s Linen Factory was one of many buildings damaged in the Belfast Blitz. Afterwards, McCabe signed up to the WRNS, working in Mackies Factory until her call up in 1942.
Rebecca McCabe found herself based at HMS Caroline from 1942-1944. She was a maintenance Wren, which took many tasks into consideration. These included testing battery banks on trawlers, using hydrometers, and checking electrical contacts. While stationed at the Belfast base, Rebecca McCabe would also have gone out on depth charge practices. Many of the young women ended up with impaired hearing, requiring ear syringing after these exercises.
A Royal Inspection
Only two weeks into McCabe’s time at HMS Caroline, came one of the highlights of her service. In June 1942, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) visited Belfast on board HMS Phoebe. While King George inspected the Royal Navy, the Queen inspected the women at HMS Caroline. Wren Rebecca McCabe had the honour of being in the front row for the royal inspection, captured by Royal Naval photographers.
After two years at HMS Caroline, Rebecca moved on to the Signals Distribution Office at Belfast Castle. This base in the Belfast hills would have offered splendid views over Belfast Lough as the fleet gathered before D-Day.
During the war Rebecca was a soloist in the Royal Naval Choir. They would perform at venues throughout the Belfast area, in particular at the Grosvenor Hall.
After The War
In 1946, Rebecca McCabe married James Simmonds at Crumlin Road Methodist Church. Simmonds was a Londoner in the Royal Navy in 21st Escort Group. He had taken part in the Russian Convoys and had met the young Miss McCabe during their time at HMS Caroline. The couple held their reception at Inglis’ Restaurant in Belfast’s Corn Market. They moved to England shortly after but returned to Northern Ireland in 1973.
In April 2004, Rebecca – known as Betty – attended an event at the Hilton Hotel in Brighton. The evening was a reunion for those who served on Captain Class Frigates. Rebecca attended with her long-time friend Peg Smyth who was also a Wren on HMS Caroline.
Rebecca McCabe passed away on 11th December 2006 having written down much of her story for future generations. She was 85 years old and looked back with fondness on her time with the Women’s Royal Navy. Her husband James had died in 1986.