Robert Blair Mayne was born on 11th January 1915 in Mount Pleasant, the family home, near Newtownards, Co. Down. He would go on to help set up the Special Air Service (SAS) and become one of Britain's most decorated soldiers.
Known as Paddy, his actions – on and off the battlefield – became the stuff of legend. Mayne was the son of William Mayne and Margaret Boyle Vance. Margaret was born in Holywood, Co. Down and outlived her son dying on the 25th February 1956 in Newtownards, Co. Down.
Like many prosperous Co. Down and Belfast families, the Vance’s had a background in linen. Margaret’s grandfather, Gilbert Vance, was a linen merchant in Belfast. Margaret was known as a strong determined woman. Throughout Blair Mayne’s life, it was to her that he turned for support.
Another influence from his maternal side was his name. Mayne took his name from his mother’s cousin, Captain Robert Blair of 5th Battalion Border Regiment. He received a posthumous Distinguished Service Order after losing his life in World War One. On his father’s side, he was descended from Gordon Turnbull who led the famous “Scotland Forever” charge at Waterloo.
Blair Mayne was the second youngest of seven children born to William and Margaret. He had two older brothers, Thomas and William. His younger brother was Douglas, and he had three older sisters, Molly, Barbara, and Frances.
Pre-war Sporting Career
Mayne attended Regent House Grammar School in his hometown. There his talent for rugby union shone through. By the age of 16 years old, he was playing for both the Regent House 1st XV and the local Ards RFC squad. He also showed a natural ability for cricket and golf, and perhaps not surprisingly as a marksman in the school rifle club.
After school, he studied law at Queen’s University Belfast. His plan was to become a solicitor. While studying there he took up boxing. By August 1936, he was Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion. Soon after followed the final of the British Universities Heavyweight Championship. Mayne lost out narrowly defeated on points.
In 1937, he won the Scrabo Golf Club President’s Cup with a handicap of 8. Later the same year, he won his first international rugby union cap in a game against Wales. He would go n to win five more caps for Ireland as a lock forward before being selected for the British Lions tour of South Africa in 1938. He played in seventeen of the twenty provincial games and all three international tests. On his return to Belfast, he joined Malone RFC.
With war looming in 1939, he graduated from Queen’s University Belfast. He joined George Maclaine and Co in Belfast in his first role as a solicitor. For the previous five years, he had been articled to TCG Mackintosh. In March 1939, he enlisted in the Territorial Army in Newtownards, Co. Down and so began the career of the fearsome commando.
Having trained with Queen’s University Officer Training Corps, he received a commission in the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery. April 1940 saw his transfer to the Royal Ulster Rifles.
Following a call from Churchill to form a “butcher and bolt” raiding force in the wake of the Dunkirk Evacuation, Mayne volunteered. He joined the newly formed 11th (Scottish) Commandos. He saw action with them as a Lieutenant leading his men against the Vichy French at the Litani River in Lebanon.
This was to be the campaign that would lead to Mayne’s incarceration. The battle was brutal and bloody. One hundred and thirty officers and men, around a third of the strike force were wounded or killed. Lieutenant Robert Blair Mayne placed the blame with the ineptitude of his commanding officer. By mid-1941 reports suggest Mayne struck his senior and was possibly awaiting court-martial and maybe even dismissal.
The Special Air Service
Robert Blair Mayne was one of the founders of the Special Air Service or SAS. Over seventy years later, the influence of Mayne is still evident in the SAS training and procedures. His leadership on the Litani River brought him to the attention of founding member Captain David Stirling. He was a Lieutenant in the Scots Guards and had the idea of a small commando team to take the fight to Rommel in the desert.
He has been and always will be a legend. If you look at the foundations of the Special Air Service, he was instrumental in that. We have the SOPs – standard operating procedures and many of those are fundamental and must never change. Many of those arise from Paddy’s operations during the war. He’s just a byword for what goes on within the SAS and he is part and parcel of what we are today.
Andy McNabb – author of Bravo Two Zero.
There was only one man Stirling wanted to lead this crew. Mayne would become a legend in the SAS but his beginnings were somewhat inauspicious. At the time Stirling wanted to recruit him, Mayne was in prison for assaulting a superior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keys. He was sprung from prison with a promise that he would not assault his next commanding officer and one of the most famous military regiments was born.
From November 1941 to the end of 1942, Mayne participated in night raids behind enemy lines in Egypt and Libya. The SAS destroyed hundreds of German and Libyan planes on the ground.
Stirling was captured in January 1942 and the 1st SAS Regiment split. Major Mayne took command of the Special Raiding Squadron and led the unit through Italy until the end of 1943. January 1944 saw Mayne promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and he became overall commanding officer of 1st SAS Regiment.
From then, he would lead the SAS through the final brutal campaigns of the war. Victories in France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Norway followed as the special forces fought alongside Allies and resistance fighters.
He was known for his fearless leadership and pioneering tactics. Among them, the use of Jeeps in hit and run raids and his impressive tally of destroyed aircraft. Some would claim he personally took out 130 enemy planes.
Second World War Honours
During the course of the Second World War, Mayne became one of the most decorated soldiers in the British Army. He was one of only seven British servicemen to receive the Distinguished Order with three bars on four occasions during the Second World War. After the war, the French government awarded him the Legion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre. He became the first foreigner to receive this dual honour.
- Companion of the Distinguished Service Order
As Lieutenant in the Middle East on 24th February 1942.
- 1st Bar
As Captain (Temporary Major) in Sicily on 21st October 1943.
- 2nd Bar
As Major (Temporary Lieutenant Colonel) in Normandy on 29th March 1945.
- 3rd Bar
As Lieutenant Colonel in North West Europe on 11th October 1945.
- 1939 – 1945 Star
- Africa Star with 8th Army Bar
- Italy Star
- France and Germany Star
- Defence Medal
- War Medal with Mentioned in Dispatched Oak Leaf
- Mentioned in Dispatches
With 11th (Scottish) Commano at Litani River during Operation Exporter in June/July 1941.
- Legion D’Honneur
- Croix De Guerre with Palm
Regarded as a fearsome combatant, Mayne received the Distinguished Service Order four times. He also received a citation for the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. For this award, he was turned down. Even King George VI expressed surprise at this decision. His recommendation for the VC came after he single-handedly rescued a squadron of men in 1945.
The men from the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had become trapped by heavy gunfire behind enemy lines near Oldenberg in north-west Germany. Showing “brilliant leadership and cool, calculating courage”, he executed a “single act of supreme bravery”. This action drove the Germans from the village. Armed only with a Bren Gun, he burst into houses, wounding many soldiers.
Under fire, one by one, Mayne lifted the men to his Jeep and brought them to safety. He then destroyed the enemy gunners farmhouse position and continued to shoot from the hip. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself signed off on the recommendation. Still in the line of fire, and in full view of the Germans, he seized a Bren gun and burst into several houses, killing and wounding enemy soldiers. He then jumped into a jeep and cleared a path by shooting from the hip at the enemy.
His cool and determined action and his complete command of the situation, together with his unsurpassed gallantry, inspired all ranks.
Victoria Cross Citation
Despite the heroics and bravery displayed throughout the war, the Victoria Cross eluded Mayne. His fearlessness behind enemy lines was equal to his fiery hair-trigger temper. This, combined with his disregard for authority, was a likely contributor to this omission.
This is a man who did not conform to military law and the people who were in charge of him. He was a rogue soldier. He liked to do things that he thought were right and that he thought would be productive and that didn’t always sit well with his superiors.
Captain Doug Beattie – Royal Irish Regiment.
Beattie is among a group of people who have campaigned for posthumous recognition of Mayne’s bravery. Others include Derek Harkness who set up the Blair Mayne Association and former MP Jim Shannon.
There are many opinions to why Blair Mayne never received the Victoria Cross. Most who saw or heard of his heroics agreed he was a surefire candidate. His lifestyle, disregard for authority, involvement in unorthodox special operations and maybe even the fact he was Irish all reportedly stood in his way.
Even David Stirling, founder of the SAS, who first recruited Mayne thought he sometimes went too far. There are reports of Mayne coming upon German and Italian soldiers drinking in a mess hut and killing each one.
Secret Memoirs of Blair Mayne
Secret memoirs of Mayne were published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the SAS formation. These stories had remained hidden since 1946. The diaries include operation reports from the first SAS missions; tales of daring in North Africa beginning in 1941.
There was a softer side to Paddy Mayne outlined in the diaries. On returning from a mission he had gone drinking in his tent and began reading from James Joyce. Stirling returned soon after and it was expected the two Titans would clash.
As Stirling tells it, Mayne confided in him that all he’d ever wanted to do was write. Stirling sat down next to him, poured another whiskey and confessed all he had ever wanted was to paint. Two giants of men, ruthless on the battlefield discussing their love of the arts over a dram.
Life after the War
The Mayne family had a history in the Masonic Lodges of the local area. His father William had joined in 1904. Mayne joined Eklektikos Lodge no. 542 in Newtownards on 25th September 1945. On joining, his occupation was listed as ‘Army’. He got his second degree on 28th May 1946 and his third on 24th September the same year. By 1954, he was Master of Eklektikos Lodge. From February 1948, he was also a member of Newtownards Lodge no. 447. His profession according to their documentation was ‘Solicitor’.
Blair Mayne spent a short period after the war with the British Antarctic Survey in the Falkland Islands. His time there was cut short due to a crippling back injury from his army days. The condition would get worse in the years after his return to Northern Ireland.
He returned to the Co. Down town of Newtownards and resumed work as a solicitor before serving as Secretary to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. The mundanity of work in a post-war world depress Mayne and he withdrew becoming more isolated in his latter years. The back pain that ended his career in The Falklands even prevented him watching his beloved rugby at Ravenhill.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne died aged 40 in a road accident. The incident occurred on Mill Street in his hometown on Newtownards, Co. Down on 14th December 1955. He had been drinking and playing poker in a local pub with friends. He left and went to a friend’s house in the nearby town of Bangor, Co. Down, drinking more and leaving shortly after 0400hrs. On his way home he crashed his Riley sports car, known locally as “the big red fire engine”.
As news of his death spread, the town came to a standstill. Thousands of mourners attended the funeral on 16th December 1955. His death was mourned throughout Northern Ireland and beyond. In 1997, a statue at Conway Square outside Newtownards Town Hall was dedicated in the presence of an SAS guard of honour.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne’s grave is in the family plot at Movilla Cemetery, Newtownards, Co. Down. On entering the main gates, it lies to the left of the old abbey.
His legend lives on both in his home country and around the world. A mural dedicated to the memory of “Colonel Paddy” stands at the junction of Queen Street and Upper Movilla Street in Newtownards. Even a road in the town has been named in his honour.