Robert Blair Mayne was a founding member of the Special Air Service or S.A.S. during the Second World War. Born on 11th January 1915 and known as Paddy, he was the son of William Mayne and Margaret Boyle Mayne (née Vance) of Mount Pleasant, 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 herself was a strong determined woman, and throughout Blair’s life, it was to her that he turned for support.
Mayne took his name from his mother’s side of the family too. Specifically from a cousin, Captain Robert Blair who served in 5th Battalion, Border Regiment. Captain Blair had received a posthumous Distinguished Service Order for his service in The Great War. On his father’s side, Paddy was a descendant of Gordon Turnbull who led the famous “Scotland Forever” charge at Waterloo.
Robert Blair Mayne was the second youngest of seven siblings. He had two older brothers, Thomas and William. His younger brother was Douglas, and he had three older sisters, Molly, Barbara, and Frances.
Mayne attended Regent House Grammar School in his hometown of Newtownards, Co. Down. 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 R.F.C. team. He also showed a natural ability for cricket and golf. Not surprisingly given his later career, he showed great promise as a marksman in the school rifle club.
After school, Mayne studied law at Queen’s University, Belfast, planning to become a solicitor. While studying, he took up boxing and once again excelled. By August 1936, he was the 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 on to win five more caps for Ireland as a lock forward before selection for the famed British Lions tour of South Africa in 1938. On his return to Belfast, he joined Malone Rugby Football Club.
During the 1938 tour, Mayne’s antics became the stuff of legend much to the despair of the team’s management. Harry McKibben who played centre in the team, told stories of how Mayne would smash up hotel rooms, leaving them barely more than a pile of kindling. When not causing mayhem in hotels, Mayne was often found in pubs around the docks in Durban. There, he and Welsh hooker Bunner Travers would dress as sailors, drink, and pick fights with the local longshoremen.
At the Ellis Park stadium, new stands were under construction. Convicts from a nearby prison were hard and work. Mayne and Travers befriended them. One of them had received a seven-year sentence for stealing chickens. The jovial pair nicknamed their new friend “Rooster” and later returned with a set of clothes and a pair of bolt-cutters to set him free. When re-apprehended the following day, Rooster was still sporting a jacket with Mayne’s name stitched inside.
The Lions’ management then paired Paddy with fly-half George Cromey, a Presbyterian minister. Even the preacher couldn’t calm the Ulsterman, however. Paddy snuck off in the middle of the night armed with a rifle and a lamplight for a late-night hunting trip. At 0300hrs, an excited Mayne broke down Cromey’s hotel room door, still in his tux and cummerbund, with a dead antelope draped over his shoulders. Mayne decided to deposit the animal outside the South African manager’s room, with a note: “a gift of fresh meat from the British Isles touring team.”
Even Paddy knew he would be in trouble for this escapade. He disappeared, laid low, and turned up still in his suit to meet the team as they boarded the ship home three days later.
With war looming in 1939, Mayne 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 T.C.G. Mackintosh. In March 1939, he enlisted in the Territorial Army in Newtownards, Co. Down and so began the military career of one of the British Army’s most decorated soldiers.
Mayne was a member of the Officer Training Corps during his time at Queen’s University, Belfast. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he was commissioned to 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery. In April 1940, Mayne transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles.
Following the fall of France in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a call to form a “butcher and bolt” raiding force. 11th (Scottish) Commando formed, and Mayne joined the new unit. He saw action as a Lieutenant, leading commandos against the Vichy French at Litani River, Lebanon. The battle was brutal and bloody. Around a third of the strike force, more than 130 officers and soldiers, sustained injuries, were captured or killed. Mayne placed the blame on the ineptitude of his commanding officer. Reports suggest the fiery Lieutenant struck his superior. Locked up, perhaps awaiting court martial, Mayne’s career trajectory was to take an unexpected turn.
In 1941, David Stirling, an officer in the Scots Guards floated the idea of a small commando team to take the fight to Rommel in the Desert. Among those that Stirling wanted for this crew was Paddy Mayne. Mayne’s heroics and leadership at Litani had brought him to the Scotsman’s attention. The problem, of course, Mayne was languishing in a cell having struck Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keys. Released after promising not to strike his future commanding officers, Mayne played a key role in establishing what would become the Special Air Service.
Decades later, the influence of Mayne is still evident in S.A.S. training and procedures.
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.
From November 1941 to the end of 1942, Paddy took part in and led night raids behind enemy lines in the desert. The Special Air Service became a scourge of Axis forces, destroying hundreds of planes in airfields around Egypt and Libya.
Mayne took command of 1st S.A.S. Regiment in 1942 following the capture of founder and leader David Stirling. A later split of the S.A.S. saw Mayne take command of the Special Raiding Squadron (S.R.S.), a unit he led through the Italian campaign of 1943. January 1944, saw the Ulsterman promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, taking command of 1st S.A.S.
From then, Paddy led the S.A.S. through the final brutal campaigns of the war, fighting alongside Allied troops and resistance fighters. Victories in France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Norway followed.
Mayne cultivated a reputation for fearless leadership and the use of pioneering tactics. Among these was using Jeeps in hit-and-run raids in the desert. The proof of his success lay in the impressive tally of destroyed aircraft, with some reports suggesting he personally took out 130 enemy planes.
A display of artefacts including writings, weapons, and uniform worn by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair "Paddy" Mayne, S.A.S. at War Years Remembered museum in Ballyclare, Co. Antrim.
During the Second World War, Mayne became one of the most decorated soldiers in the British Army. As a Lieutenant in the Middle East on 24th February 1942, he received the Distinguished Service Order. Over the next three years, he received three bars to the award, first as Captain (Temporary Major) in Sicily on 21st October 1943, again in Normandy on 29th March 1945, and finally as a Lieutenant Colonel in northwest Europe on 11th October 1945.
The British Army issued Paddy with the 1939-1945 Star, the Africa Star with 8th Army Bar, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal, and the War Medal. An Oak Leaf added to the War Medal indicated he was Mentioned in Dispatches during Operation Exporter on the Litani River with 11th (Scottish) Commando in the summer of 1941.
Following the end of the war in Europe, the French government awarded the Ulsterman the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.
Mayne also received a citation for the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded by the British. This came after he single-handedly rescued a squadron in 1945. King George VI was among many people surprised that Mayne never received the prestigious award. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had signed off on the recommendation.
Soldiers from 4th Canadian Armoured Division had become trapped by heavy gunfire behind enemy lines near Oldenberg in northwest Germany. Showing “brilliant leadership and cool, calculating courage”, Paddy 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. 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.
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.
In 2011, secret memoirs of Paddy Mayne – hidden since 1946 – were published to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the S.A.S. They included tales of daring from North Africa, operational reports from the first S.A.S. missions, but also revealed a softer side of Paddy’s personality.
Once, on returning from a mission he had gone drinking in his tent and began reading the works of Irish writer James Joyce. Stirling returned soon after and it was expected the 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. The two giants of men, ruthless on the battlefield discussed their love of the arts over a dram.
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 of the same year. By 1954, he was the 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. A back injury dating back to his involvement with the S.A.S. in the Second World War cut short his time there. This condition would deteriorate 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 traffic collision. 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. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne’s grave is in the family plot at Movilla Cemetery, Newtownards, Co. Down.
In 1997, a statue at Conway Square outside Newtownards Town Hall was dedicated in the presence of an S.A.S. guard of honour. Paddy’s legend lives on both in his home country and around the world. A mural dedicated to his memory stands at the junction of Queen Street and Upper Movilla Street in Newtownards. A road in the town is named in his honour, although plans to rename the local leisure centre sparked controversy.