From The Vaults

31 October 2022
Irish Warrior: The Paddy Mayne Story

To coincide with the new BBC drama, SAS Rogue Heroes, we're looking at the story of Blair Mayne, the Ireland International rugby player who went on to be recruited into the Special Air Service.

Robert Blair Mayne was born in Newtownards, County Down in 1915. He attended Regent House Grammar School and was selected for the school XV. He developed as a tough second-row forward with Ards RFC and studied law at Queen's University Belfast.

Along with rugby, Blair played cricket and golf and his stocky build, height and long reach allowed him to become Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion boxer in 1936. The following year, at the age of 22, he was selected to play rugby for Ireland against Wales at Lansdowne Road in the final round of that year's Home Nations Championship.

A try early in the second half from AH Bailey, converted by Sam Walker, nudged Ireland into a 5-3 lead and Mayne was one of several Irish forwards whose tackling kept the Welsh backline at bay for the remainder of the match. Ireland finished the season in second place to England.

Ireland's first match of the 1938 season came against England at Lansdowne Road and Mayne retained his place. In a wind assisted game of two halves, England raced into a 23-0 half time lead. Ireland struck back with four second half tries, including one for Mayne who pushed over from a line-out. The damage was already done however, and England won an eleven try match 36-14.

Despite his try, Mayne was omitted from the next match against Scotland who defeated Ireland at Murrayfield in another high scoring contest. Scotland went on to claim the Triple Crown as Mayne was brought back into the Ireland side to face Wales in Swansea. A tighter defensive performance followed, but Wales won 5-3.

The side won their first two matches of the tour before being introduced to the boot of the great Gerry Brand who twice inflicted defeats on the tourists at Newlands for Western Province. Brand would play in the first test at Ellis Park, as would Danie Craven and Boy Louw. Brand's boot was perhaps decisive again, contributing 14 points as the Boks ran out 26-12 winners.

In between tests the tourists, like all tourists, were introduced to the sights and sounds of their host cities. Being of an adventurous and independent nature, Mayne would often take these matters into his own hands. On one occasion, after a game against Natal, he returned late at night with the head of an antelope which he deposited on the bed of one of his sleeping team-mates.

On other occasions, he and Travers were known to have visited the local docks in order to pick fights with the local sailors and in one bizarre incidence in Johannesburg he is reported to have freed a convict labourer who was engaged in the construction of Ellis Park Stadium.

These frequent indiscretions were enough for Mayne to eventually go missing entirely from the touring party, only to reappear on the docks ahead of the team's departure for home. His full disappearance only took place, however, after Mayne had put in the performance of his life in the third test at Newlands.

The tourists had lost the second test and so a series win was assured for the Springboks. Furthermore, the British side had picked up a number of injuries and this partly explained why eight Irishmen, including Mayne, were selected for the final test at Newlands in mid-September.

Craven's side won the toss and with the wind at their backs cruised to a comfortable 13-3 half-time lead. In the second half Mayne and the British pack took control of the game. A converted try and penalty brought them within two points of the Boks, before a try from Bob Alexander put the tourists in the lead.

Having had such success in the third-test, Mayne and his Irish colleagues went into the 1939 Home Nations Championship with a spring in their step. A tight opening game at Twickenham was scoreless at half-time before JWS Irwin scored a try nine minutes into the second half, which McKibbin converted. Mayne and the Irish pack then defended resolutely to hold out for a 5-0 victory.

Ireland then headed home to take on Scotland at Lansdowne Road. A wet, muddy contest was settled by two unanswered tries from Torrens and Moran to give them a 12-3 victory. They headed to Belfast one win away from a first Triple Crown since 1899.

30,000 fans crammed into Ravenhill but they and Mayne were to be disappointed. A tough Welsh pack, that included Mayne's old friend Bunner Travers, took control of the match and helped the visitors to a 7-0 victory, with fly half Willie Davis scoring all of the points. Despite this, the future looked bright for Mayne and a young Irish side, but world events were about the intervene and unbeknownst to Mayne, he had played his final game for Ireland.

When War broke out in 1939, Mayne joined the Royal Ulster Rifles but in the course of his training he would volunteer for a newly formed Special Service Brigade, the Comandos. Posted to Syria in 1941, Mayne's unit would take part in the Battle of Litani River, where they engaged the Vichy French. After capturing all of his objectives and multiple prisoners, Mayne was Mentioned in Despatches for the first time.

However, the Ulsterman had clearly retained much of the rumbustious nature that had characterised his time in South Africa and, although reports are vague, he is believed to have been imprisoned for striking a commanding officer. Regardless Mayne was recruited to the Special Air Services, better known as the SAS.

By 1943 the theatre of operations had moved into Sicily and mainland Italy and Mayne had been made a commanding officer of the SAS. His unit paved the way for the allied landing with an amphibious assault that resulted in the capture of 450 enemy combatants and the neutralisation of up to 300 more. For this, he was awarded a Bar to his DSO.

In 1944 Mayne was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given sole command of the 1st SAS Regiment. He led SAS operations in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Germany as the Allied Forces liberated western Europe. He was awarded a second Bar, his official citation crediting the SAS's 'striking success' to Mayne's 'fine leadership and example, and his utter disregard for danger'.

Part of Mayne's success can be attributed to his renegade flexibility on the battlefield in which he would simply respond to events as they unfolded. He was recommended for a Victoria Cross (VC) in 1945 after driving his jeep directly into a fortified German position in Oldenburg and annihilating the snipers that had pinned down his men. His free-spirited approach may not have been to everyone's taste however and six months later his VC was subsequently downgraded to a fourth DSO to the consternation of many, including King George VI.

After the War, Mayne was awarded the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre by the French Government. Added to his four DSOs, he is one of the Second World War's most decorated soldiers. He helped lead an expedition to the Falklands and Deception Islands in 1945 before returning to his home in Newtownards the following year. There he settled down to a, perhaps, quieter life as a solicitor and then as Secretary to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. He was tragically killed in a road accident in 1955 at the age of 40.

In 2005 a group of more than 100 House of Commons MPs recognised the injustice of the downgrading of Mayne's VC and proposed that it be posthumously reinstated. The British Government declined to do so. The Blair Mayne Association and others maintain that Robert Blair Mayne is deserving of the VC for which he was recommended but did not receive. Their campaign is ongoing.

In 2016 a book by Ben Macintyre called 'SAS: Rogue Heroes' drew attention to Mayne and his commanding officer David Sterling for their roles with the SAS in the Second World War. In 2022, the BBC produced a television series of the same name in which Blair Mayne was played by Jack O'Connell.