Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, the Irishman who helped found the famed SAS, was a World War Two hero, a capped rugby star and Queen’s University boxing champion, who was also a troubled young man who would die at the age of 40 after a heavy drinking session.
Mayne’s incredible life story is back in the public eye thanks to the BBC TV series SAS Rogue Heroes, which features the Newtownards man’s exploits in the North African desert during the war.
While entertainingly told, the series has come in for some criticism from members of Mayne’s family who objected to his depiction as the stereotypical “drunk Irishman”, adding that there was much more to him than that.
We spoke to Damian Lewis, author of the book ‘SAS Brothers in Arms’, who is arguably in a better position to tell Mayne’s story as he was granted access to his personal possessions and records by his family.
“About ten years ago, his family actually approached me via a mutual acquaintance and asked if I’d be interested in going to have a look through his war chest and all the memorabilia that they kept hidden in their home in Northern Ireland. I didn’t know anything like this existed so it was a tantalising proposition.
“I flew over there and lo and behold, there was this incredibly rich trove of materials brought back from five years behind enemy lines. I walked into this room and there was this massive wooden trunk among many other things with the words ‘Colonel Blair Mayne DSC’ and his address stenciled onto the lid.
“It was stuffed, not only with maps, documents and letters kept from all through the war but also photographs and undeveloped negatives.
“He was a keen photographer and among the booty captured during various operations he took cameras from enemy soldiers on these raids. It was an extraordinary find.”
The result is The Sunday Times bestseller, which reveals the true Blair Paddy Mayne, the man behind the myth and the legend.
According to Lewis, a documentary maker and author of some 15 books, there is no doubt that Mayne was a bit of a rogue who didn’t always fit the bill as a well-rounded soldier.
But as Lewis, who is also a veteran war reporter who has covered some of the nastiest conflicts of the last 20 years, explained, it was hardly surprising, considering what he had been through.
“The unit was designed to operate far behind enemy lines. The initial targets were the German and Italian airbases as air power was crucial in the desert.
“There was one raid and to get onto the air base and he had to kill every single sentry, up close and personal. He never really spoke about what happened on these raids but onto occasion when he was asked about this one, it emerged that he had killed every single one of them. There were 17, and that was just on one raid. Can you imagine what that would do to you?
“Mayne was said to be at his most dangerous when he had been drinking. I’ve looked into this and I believe that these young men who had a tough time after the war would have suffered what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I had an expert in PTSD in the UK read the manuscript and she said that not only did she love these guys that she was reading about, but that any one of the episodes they went through would have been a marker for PTSD.
“Back-to-back missions, week after week, through five long years of war, while losing your closest friends who you had fought and lived with. She said it would have been almost impossible not to return without some trauma
“She also said that those who suffered the most were those who were empathetic, and he had that character. He was an incredibly cultured man and a deep thinker who cared about his men.
“He ended the war as arguably one of the most highly decorated members of the British Army but where he really was in his element was with his brothers in arms in the desert. This is a man who was held in such high esteem by the men under his command that they would have walked through the fires of hell for him because they believed he would get them through safely.
“But there were no supports for these men after the war,” Lewis adds. “There was almost a shame and an embarrassment to even admit that you were suffering.
Mayne survived all those dangerous missions throughout the war only to die in a late night car crash after a drinking session close to his home.
“It was a terrible loss,” Lewis adds. “Some people have accused him of being this hard-drinking devil may care Irishman. But you really need to understand what they went through and realise how difficult it would have been to emerge unscathed.
“To judge these men after what they went through after five long years of war is, in my mind, unconscionable.”
Lewis adds that despite his war record as one of Britain’s most highly decorated soldiers, Mayne was “Irish, down to his boots”.
“He was proud of being an Irishman, “Lewis asserts. “When people asked why he, as an Irishman was fighting for the British cause, he’d say he was fighting for the right of all small countries to determine their own destiny to be free.”