Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne DSO & 3 Bars (11 January 1915 – 14 December 1955) was a Northern Irish soldier, solicitor, rugby union international, amateur boxer and polar explorer.
EARLY LIFE AND SPORTING ACHIEVEMENTS
“Paddy” Mayne was born in the County Down market town of Newtownards, the second youngest of seven children. The Mayne family were prominent landowners, and owned several retail businesses in the town. He was named Robert Blair after a second cousin, who at the time of his birth was a British Army officer serving in World War I. The family home, Mount Pleasant, is situated on the hills above Newtownards.
He attended Regent House Grammar School. It was there that his talent for rugby union became evident, and he played for the school 1st XV and also the local Ards RFC team from the age of 16. While at school he also played cricket and golf, and showed aptitude as a marksman in the rifle club.
On leaving school he studied law at Queen’s University of Belfast, studying to become a solicitor. While at university he took up boxing, becoming Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion in August 1936. He followed this by reaching the final of the British Universities Heavyweight Championship, but was beaten on points. With a handicap of 8, he won the Scrabo Golf Club President’s Cup the next year.
Mayne’s first full Ireland cap also came in 1937, in a match against Wales. After gaining five more caps for Ireland as a lock forward, Mayne was selected for the 1938 British Lions tour to South Africa. While the Lions lost the first test, a South African newspaper stated Mayne was “outstanding in a pack which gamely and untiringly stood up to the tremendous task”. He played in seventeen of the twenty provincial matches and in all three tests. On returning from South Africa he joined Malone RFC in Belfast. In early 1939 he graduated from Queen’s and joined George Maclaine & Co in Belfast, having been articled to TCG Mackintosh for the five previous years. Mayne won praise during the three Ireland matches he played in 1939, with one report stating “Mayne, whose quiet almost ruthless efficiency is in direct contrast to O’Loughlin’s exuberance, appears on the slow side, but he covers the ground at an extraordinary speed for a man of his build, as many a three quarter and full back have discovered.”
His legal and sporting careers were cut short by the outbreak of World War II.
WORLD WAR II
In March 1939, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Mayne had joined the Territorial Army in Newtownards. After training with the Queen’s University Officer Training Corps, he received a commission in the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery. In April 1940 he transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles. Following Churchill’s call to form a “butcher and bolt” raiding force following Dunkirk, Mayne volunteered for the newly formed 11 (Scottish) Commando. He first saw action in June 1941 as a lieutenant with 11 Commando, successfully leading his men during the Litani River operation in Lebanon against the Vichy French Forces.
It was after this particularly brutal and confused action, in which 130 officers and men, around a third of the strike force, were wounded or killed, that Mayne reacted violently against what he believed was the ineptitude of his Commanding Officer, whom he considered inexperienced, arrogant and insincere. Some sources state that Mayne struck him, and was awaiting court-martial and almost certain dismissal.
However, his leadership on the raid had attracted the attention of Captain David Stirling who recruited him as one of the founder members of the Special Air Service (SAS). From November 1941 through to the end of 1942, Mayne participated in many night raids deep behind enemy lines in the deserts of Egypt and Libya, where the SAS wrought havoc by destroying hundreds of German and Italian aircraft on the ground.
Following Stirling’s capture in January 1943, 1st SAS Regiment was reorganised into two separate parts, the Special Raiding Squadron and the Special Boat Section (the forerunner of the Special Boat Service). As a major, Mayne was appointed to command the Special Raiding Squadron and he led the unit with distinction in Italy until the end of 1943. In January 1944 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed commanding officer of 1st SAS Regiment. He subsequently led the SAS with great distinction through the final campaigns of the war in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Norway, often campaigning alongside local resistance fighters including the French Maquis.
During the course of the war he became one of the British Army’s most highly decorated soldiers and received the Distinguished Service Order with three bars, one of only seven British servicemen to receive that award four times during World War II. Mayne pioneered the use of military Jeeps to conduct surprise hit-and-run raids, particularly on enemy airfields. By the end of the war it was claimed that he had personally destroyed 130 aircraft.
In recognition of his leadership and personal disregard for danger while in France, in which he trained and worked closely with the French Resistance, Mayne received the second bar to his DSO. Additionally, the post-war French Government awarded him the Legion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre, the first foreigner to receive such a dual honour.
It has often been questioned why Mayne was not awarded a Victoria Cross, and even King George VI was to express surprise at the omission. The answer almost certainly lies in Mayne’s abrasive attitude to some of his superiors, combined with the Army hierarchy’s askance view of the unconventional attitudes and tactics of the special forces.
In 1945 Mayne was recommended for a VC after single-handedly rescuing a squadron of his troops, trapped by heavy gunfire near the town of Oldenberg in north-west Germany. After the squadron became pinned down and sustained casualties, Mayne rescued the wounded, lifting them one by one into his Jeep before destroying the enemy gunners in a nearby farmhouse. However, although the VC recommendation was signed by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Allied 21st Army Group, Mayne instead received a fourth DSO.
Major General Sir Robert Laycock, Post War Chief of Combined Operations, wrote :
|“||I feel I must drop you a line just to tell you how very deeply I appreciate the great honour of being able to address, as my friend, an officer who has succeeded in accomplishing the practically unprecedented task of collecting no less than four DSO’s. (I am informed that there is another such superman in the Royal Air Force.)You deserve all the more, and in my opinion, the appropriate authorities do not really know their job. If they did they would have given you a VC as well. Please do not dream of answering this letter, which brings with it my sincerest admiration and a deep sense of honour in having, at one time, been associated with you.||”|
An Early Day Motion put before the House of Commons in June 2005 and supported by more than 100 MPs also stated that:
|“||This House recognises the grave injustice meted out to Lt Col Paddy Mayne, of 1st SAS, who won the Victoria Cross at Oldenburg in North West Germany on 9th April 1945; notes that this was subsequently downgraded, some six months later, to a third bar DSO, that the citation had been clearly altered and that David Stirling, founder of the SAS has confirmed that there was considerable prejudice towards Mayne and that King George VI enquired why the Victoria Cross had `so strangely eluded him’; further notes that on 14th December it will be 50 years since Col Mayne’s untimely death, in a car accident, and this will be followed on 29th January 2006 by the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Royal Warrant to institute the Victoria Cross; and therefore calls upon the Government to mark these anniversaries by instructing the appropriate authorities to act without delay to reinstate the Victoria Cross given for exceptional personal courage and leadership of the highest order and to acknowledge that Mayne’s actions on that day saved the lives of many men and greatly helped the allied advance on Berlin.||”|
AFTER THE WAR
After a period with the British Antarctic Survey in the Falkland Islands, cut short by a crippling back complaint that had begun during his army days, Mayne returned to Newtownards to work first as a solicitor and then as Secretary to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. Suffering severe back pain, which even prevented him from watching his beloved rugby as a spectator, and ill at ease with the mundanity of post-war life among provincial lawyers, Mayne became reserved and isolated, rarely talking about his wartime service.
On 13 December 1955, aged 40, he had been drinking and playing poker in a pub not far from his home in Newtownards. He later left, and went on to a friend’s house where he drank some more. He drove homewards in his Riley sports car at 4am. The car collided with a lorry parked with no lights in the middle of the road just a short distance from his home. The town of Newtownards came to a standstill and his death was mourned across Northern Ireland.
During the 1938 Lions tour it is said that Mayne relaxed by “wrecking hotels and fighting dockers”. He was allegedly under arrest for knocking out his Commanding Officer when David Stirling came to recruit him for the SAS however this has later been proved to be false and was recruited whilst actually residing in a hospital in Cairo recovering from Malaria. It is supposed incidents like this, as well as resentment and suspicion by some senior officers in the British Army of the SAS’s unorthodox behaviour and unconventional tactics, which are cited as the reasons why his Victoria Cross was downgraded.
Many urban legends of his post-war years exist in Belfast and Newtownards. These mostly tell of incidents in which, after drinking for several hours, Mayne would challenge every man in the bar to a fight, which he would invariably win. Other accounts describe him as a courageous leader of his men and a ferocious opponent. Mayne is also described as growing increasingly withdrawn as the war progressed, preferring books to the company of friends. This tendency was said to have become more marked after the death of his father during World War II. Mayne was refused leave to attend the funeral and a apocryphal story has him embarking on a drinking binge and rampage in central Cairo in an effort to find and beat up Richard Dimbleby. In the course of this, Mayne is said to have smashed up a half-dozen restaurants, beat up a squad of Redcaps and a Provost Marshal. This incident has also been proven to be false when David Dimbleby had actually been in London for 9 months prior to the suposed incident. Michael Asher in his history of the early SAS, believed this to be an exaggeration or confabulation of several incidents. Asher also describes Mayne as complex, empathetic, and intelligent, though with a terrible, frightening temper that came out when he drank.
Mayne was inclined to remonstrate with colleagues in the armed services who showed little or no understanding of the complex politics of Northern Ireland.
A lifesize bronze statue of Blair Mayne stands in Conway Square, Newtownards, and the western bypass of the town is also named in his honour.
In 2003 a temporary British Army base in Kuwait, occupied by the first battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, was named after him – Camp Blair Mayne. It was there that Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, 1Royal Irish Regiment’s commanding officer, gave his celebrated address to his troops on the eve of the Gulf War.
A film of Blair Mayne’s life has long been mooted. Eddie Irvine has become executive producer for the film. Three books have been written about Mayne, the first beingColonel Paddy by Patrick Marrinan (1960). Rogue Warrior of the SAS: the Blair Mayne legend was written by Ray Bradford and Martin Dillon (1989, updated 2003) features a foreword by David Stirling. Paddy Mayne by Hamish Ross (2004) has sought to debunk the numerous myths and legends concerning Mayne’s character and exploits, preferring a more circumspect account based on tangible evidence. Ross’ book is the only biography endorsed by the Mayne family. Another book, SAS: The History of the Special Raiding Squadron: Paddy’s Men by Stewart McClean was published in early 2006.
Stirling’s Men: the inside history of the SAS in World War Two, by Gavin Mortimer [Cassell, 2004], also features extensive accounts, both of Mayne’s exploits and of his character, by many soldiers who served with him in the SAS.