THE DAWN OF A LIONS’ YEAR IS ALWAYS A TIME TO TINGLE BUT THE JOY OF THE TOURISTS LIES AS MUCH IN THE MEMORIES AS IN THE ANTICIPATION. ONLY DICKENS CAN BOAST QUITE SO MANY ENDURING CHARACTERS, NONE MORE REMARKABLE THAN BLAIR MAYNE. SO POUR YOURSELF A LARGE SCOTCH AND MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE. THIS MIGHT TAKE A WHILE.
The great Lions’ prop, Ray McLoughlin – so it is said – carried a cosh in his kit bag. No one was quite sure why, possibly because no one dared ask. Peter Wheeler woke up on the first morning of the tour to New Zealand in 1977 to find his room-mate, Moss Keane, firing up a fag and cracking open a can of beer because that’s what he usually did at ‘that time’, ‘that time’ being five in the evening back home in the Ireland he’d just left behind. In 1966 in Australia, one of the English players went ‘off tour’ with a woman he met in bar and wasn’t seen again until the last two matches. His teammates, even today, remain tight-lipped.
It gets better. Ahead of the 1950 Lions‘ tour, Tommy Clifford, a Young Munster slaughterman, arrived in Southampton to board the steamship to New Zealand with three trunks; two full of clothes donated by proud Limerick outfitters and the third crammed with eighteen fruit cakes which he shared with the team. ‘My mother was worried I wouldn’t get enough to eat,’ he said. She needn’t have fretted. One evening on board ship, Clifford sat down for dinner and ate the menu. In all there were thirty-two courses.
Rarely in any sport has one team numbered so many characters or so much talent. The wonderfully named Cherry Pillman, a towering open-side from Blackheath, was such an outstanding footballer he played two Tests on the 1910 Tour of South Africa at fly half. Jack Matthews, a Welsh centre who toured New Zealand with the Lions in 1950 – ‘a cross between a bulldozer and a brick wall’ – once went four rounds with Rocky Marciano when they were stationed together during the Second World War. Rocky escaped with a draw. AE Stoddart captained England at both cricket and rugby – he once made 485 in a club match, a world record at the time – and also ended up captaining the Lions on their inaugural tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1886 after the original skipper, Bob Seddon, drowned while out sculling on the Hunter River.
The history of the Lions is a blood line of barnstormers and buccaneers. Robert Johnson and Tom Crean – two Irishmen from the Wanderers Club in Dublin – were both on the 1896 tour to South Africa and – remarkably – both won VCs in the Boer War five years later. Crean, a doctor, then re-enlisted in 1914 at the age of forty-one and won a DSO in the Royal Army Medical Corps. The man – clearly – was a barnpot. Asked by a bashful friend to broach the subject of marriage with his sweetheart and entrusted with a diamond ring to seal the deal, Crean returned to announce that the ‘sweetheart’ was a ‘withered crone of no intelligence and totally unworthy.’ Worse still he’d traded the diamond ring for several gallons of booze to help his friend drown his sorrows.
Ronald Cove-Smith was another Lion who distinguished himself in Southern Africa as captain of the 1924 tourists; a doctor – another one – he went to every game with a needle and thread, as one teammate put it, ‘to repair all the damage he caused.’ Well into his seventies he was burgled in his Maida Vale home in the dead of night whereupon the police arrived the next morning to find the burglar shaking with fear in a locked cupboard.
But what’s also distinguished the Lions down the years – amid all the mischief and mayhem – has been the disarming one-liners and the wisecracks. When the 1974 squad was eyeballed by tour manager, Alun Thomas, over an anonymous, unpaid, international phone bill of £87, no one blinked. ‘I have the number here,’ said Thomas, playing his ace of diamonds, ‘and it’s Newport 624357.’ The only man on the tour from Gwent was hooker, Bobby Windsor, who immediately jumped to his feet and shouted; ‘Okay, which of you bastards has been ringing my wife?’
And three years earlier in New Zealand, there was Mike Roberts, who – together with JPR Williams and Derek Quinnell – was invited to do the honours at the opening of a new clubhouse at a Greymouth golf course. The three distinguished Lions turned up to find some 5,000 people lining the first hole. Quinnell – immediately – volunteered to caddy, Williams melted into the crowd leaving Roberts, who was a fine second row but no golfer, standing on the first tee holding a driver. Stoically he took a very deep breath, played two vicious air-shots and finally hit a duck hook over the new clubhouse and into a field of sheep. The Club Captain was puce but Roberts was unmoved. ‘Tricky course you’ve got here, skipper,’ he said, tossing his driver to Derek Quinnell and marching off down the fairway.
And then of course there was the Daddy of them all, William James McBride; five tours, seventeen tests, seventy Lions’ appearances, a winning series in NewZealand and, in 1974, the captain of ‘The Invincibles’ who stormed through South Africa unbeaten. The numbers – not least the number ‘99’ – have long since passed into legend but even they don’t truly give you the true measure of the man.
There are no shortage of tap-room tales about the mighty McBride but – unquestionably – the best of them was the night of the Lions’ glorious 28-9 win in the Second Test in Pretoria in 1974, when the captain was summoned from his room at three in the morning wearing just his underpants and his pipe. In the hotel reception area, the bannisters and the furniture were kindling and, as he remembers it, ‘there were a dozen drunken Lions, all out of their tree.’ Someone had set light to a pile of cardboard beer boxes which Bobby Windsor had nobly dealt with courtesy of a fire hose which he’d then – less nobly – turned on the hotel manager who’d arrived to find out what the hell was happening to his lobby. McBride – in just his underpants, let’s not forget – bit deep into the stem of his pipe before turning to face the sodden, steaming South African beside him. ‘What,’ he said, ‘seems to be the problem?’
Clearly there is something in the water in Northern Ireland. On the one hand you have the likes of Willie John McBride, a legendary, teak-tough, inspirational Ulster second-row from Ballymena and on the other you have the likes of Blair Mayne, a legendary, teak-tough, inspirational, Ulster second-row from Newtownards. Comparisons are always invidious but no Lion before or since – McBride included – has enjoyed the éclat of ‘Paddy’ Mayne. The man was unique.
Born in 1915 he left school to study law at Queen’s, Belfast where he became the 1936 Irish Universities’ Heavyweight Boxing Champion, a surprise to no one since he was a giant of a man and stronger than six acres of onions. Rugby, though, was his game and he played for Ireland for three seasons, each of them memorable. Against Wales at St Helens, Swansea in 1938, Cliff Jones had jinked through half the Ireland team to the try-line and was making his way under the sticks when he ran into Mayne who picked him up like a small child, carried him solemnly to the dead-ball line and dumped him out of play. Apparently, it was like watching someone putting out the cat.
The following year at Ravenhill, Wales came to Belfast where 28,000 watched a Triple Crown decider which went the way of the visitors but not before a Welsh forward had kicked the Irish fly half George Cromey and Blair Mayne had immediately evened the score by breaking the Welsh forward’s nose. Mayne, it should be said, was never thought of as a dirty player but he was always keen to redress a grievance.
However, at half time his sister, Frances, who was up in the stand with their mother, came running down to the touchline. ‘Mum says you’ve got to wipe the blood off that Welshman’s face,’ she said, tossing her brother a handkerchief, whereupon Paddy Mayne – dutifully and a touch sheepishly – walked over to the Welsh huddle and did as he was told. ‘Now, look up into the stand just there and wave to my mother,’ he whispered to the bemused Welshman, ‘because if you don’t I’ll break every bone in your body behind the grandstand after the game.’
Thus did the fabulous but ferocious Paddy Mayne earn his selection for the 1938 Lions’ Tour to South Africa, a crusade known as ‘The Last of the Blue Lions’ since it was the final time they played in their blue shirts. The Springboks back then were widely held to be the best team the country had ever produced – they’d toweled New Zealand by five tries to nil in Auckland in 1937 – but they hadn’t been seen in a home game for an astonishing five years. Throw in the fact that 1938 was the centenary – loosely – of the Great Trek and the visit of the Lions was destined to be some circus.
The tour was four months wide and twenty-three matches long for which the Lions brought twenty-nine players, only fourteen of whom were forwards. The party rattled round the country by train, racking up more than 7,500 miles as they puffed across the veldt and along the coast; at one point leaving Kimberley at 2125 on a Saturday evening and arriving in Salisbury, Rhodesia at 0730 on Tuesday morning. Expenses were one guinea a week and, according to a newspaper report of the time, the tour made a profit of £13,837.3s.3d, which in 1938, was an indecently tidy sum.
To no one’s surprise, the Springboks had the three-Test series wrapped up in the first two games but the Lions – heroically – fought back to win the Third Test at Newlands, 16-21 – shades of 2009 – in what the Lions’ skipper, Sammy Walker, called ‘a Homeric struggle’. Graciously, Walker was chaired from the field at the end of the game by the Springboks’ Ben du Toit and Louis Strachan, something he later described as ‘the biggest thrill of my career.’
Mayne, unquestionably, was one of the mainstays of the tour. Of the twenty-three matches, he played in a staggering twenty of them – including all three Tests – and was mentioned in dispatches with almost monotonous regularity; Griqualand West, ‘Mayne outstanding in pack … ’; Orange Free State, ‘RB Mayne outstanding in both tight and loose…’; Transvaal, ‘Mayne was untiring…’; Border XV, ‘Mayne was the outstanding forward on the field…’ and in the Third Test, ‘Mayne, magnificent in defence…’ Ironically he was the only player on the tour not to score a single point but in every other respect he was more than conspicuous.
His party trick, according to centre Harry McKibbin – another tourist from Queen’s University, Belfast – was to burst into bedrooms not just without knocking but without actually opening the door; this was usually in the middle of the night when he’d just come in from an evening out. He would then smash every piece of furniture in the room with his bare hands leaving his stunned teammates marooned in bed amid a sea of splinters, desperately trying to work out how to explain to the hotel manager the next morning why it was their room looked like an unlit bonfire.
Surprisingly, there are records from that tour showing that sixteen of the party were teetotal: unsurprisingly, Paddy Mayne wasn’t one of them. Sammy Walker, yet another Ulsterman, was woken one night by a kerfuffle in the corridor and went outside to find Paddy holding the Lions’ Assistant Manager, Haigh Smith, in a vice-like grip, cracking his head against the wall and shouting, ‘who’s a bloody Irishman?’ Smith, apparently, had bumped into a stewed Mayne coming back into the hotel and – unwisely – ordered him to ‘get to bed, you bloody Irishman’. Had he known Paddy better, he’d have kept his mouth shut.
The next morning, Haigh Smith – presumably wearing an ice pack for a hat – was all for sacking Mayne. He was, he said, dangerous, unpredictable and insubordinate, none of which – frankly – was disputable. Walker, though, was a persuasive man and the management eventually relented, although the fact that Paddy was the best forward in the country at the time might just have swayed it. As Walker later put it, ‘he was the toughest and the strongest man I have ever known.’
Mayne certainly never forgot Walker’s loyalty and – typically, quickly – he repaid it. Dropping on a loose ball in front of a rampant pack of South Africans in some dust bowl up country, Walker was booted in the back. ‘It was so painful that I momentarily passed out,’ he later said. ‘I lifted my head and saw a couple of stretcher-bearers coming onto the field and I thought, thank god, they’ve come to take me off. Except they ran past me to a big South African forward who was out cold. Next thing I know, Blair’s towering over me and saying, ‘don’t worry Sammy, it’s all sorted.’ Apparently he’d flattened the bloke with a six-inch uppercut.’
Mayne’s partner in crime –Blair always enjoyed some like-minded company – was the Welsh hooker, Bunner Travers, who was a coal trimmer from Newport. In Durban, the two of them dressed up as sailors and went down to the docks – I am not making this up – where they spent several nights touring bars, bordellos and chop houses waiting for the local longshoremen to say something rude, whereupon they’d gleefully wade in, ‘wading in’ – you’ll gather – being Paddy’s idea of a good night out.
In Johannesburg, Blair and Bunner fell into conversation with a group of convicts who were building a grandstand ahead of the First Test at Ellis Park. That night the two of them returned to the inmates’ temporary compound with bolt cutters and some clothes and ‘sprang’ one of the prisoners, a man who’d been jailed for seven years for stealing chickens. When he was – inevitably – recaptured, he was found to be wearing a jacket with Mayne’s name stitched inside the collar, which left the Lions’ management team – yet again – spending an uncomfortable morning helping the local police with their enquiries.
Living with Mayne was like living with a gas leak. In desperation he was ‘roomed’ with George Cromey, a Ballymena boy and a Presbyterian minister. It didn’t work. In Pretoria, Paddy snuck away from an official dinner to go ‘lamping’ – night-hunting – with a bunch of South Africans he’d met in a bar. At three the next morning, Cromey was woken by Blair – in the now time-honoured fashion – taking the door clean off its hinges and announcing; ‘George, I’ve just shot a springbok.’ Cromey switched on the light to find Paddy, still dressed in his tails and his cummerbund, wearing a dead antelope around his neck like a silk scarf.
Cromey – understandably – was a loss for words and terrified. Perhaps sensing that he’d overstayed his welcome, Mayne took himself off to Jimmy Unwin’s room, broke down his door, and tossed the animal onto his bed where the antelope’s horn gashed Unwin’s thigh. In the end, since the Springboks were staying in the same hotel, Paddy – suicidally – inched along the ledge of their team manager’s first floor room and draped the dead antelope over his balcony together with a note which read; ‘A gift of fresh meat from the British Isles touring team’. Once again Sammy Walker had to use all his powers of persuasion to keep him on the tour.
All of this, though, serves as little more than a whimsical prelude to the guts of Blair Mayne’s astonishing story. Back in Belfast after the tour and with war looming, Paddy joined the Queen’s University OTC where he was described as ‘unpromising material for a combat regiment, undisciplined, unruly and generally unreliable.’ In a similar vein some five years later, a teenage Marilyn Monroe turned up at a New York modeling agency and was advised to ‘get married or do a secretarial course.’ It’s hard to say which of these two testimonials was to prove the more stupid.
Eventually Mayne ended up in the Royal Ulster Rifles where – along with his great mate Eoin McGonigal – he volunteered for a new, elite unit that Churchill was dead set on – a ‘butcher and bolt operation’ – and was drafted into No.11 (Scottish) Commando. In June 1940, the new unit mustered in Galashiels, marched to Ayr and transferred to the Isle of Arran for training. This was the kind of unorthodox soldiering that was right up Blair Mayne’s street.
He was put in charge of No7 troop whom – one bleak, midwinter’s day – he marched off a pier and into a lake. He then marched in after them. ‘The coal here comes in very large lumps,’ he reported in a letter home, ‘so to split it we just fire revolvers at it. It cracks wonderfully.’ The unit was posted to Cyprus where all was miserably quiet save for the night Lieutenants Mayne and McGonigal went out for dinner in Nicosia, got ‘stiffed’ on the bill and fell into a heated discussion with the waiter. Mayne ended up emptying his revolver into the floor around the waiter’s feet, a stunt which earned him forty-eight hours open arrest. Frustration was beginning to get the better of him.
He finally got his hands dirty in June 1941 when the Commandos were launched against Vichy French forces in a night ambush on the Litani River in Southern Lebanon. In the twinkling of an eye, Mayne’s section had stormed an enemy position, captured two machine guns and a mortar and taken forty prisoners. It was much the same pattern for the next twenty-four hours, despite being shot at by a troop of Australians and coming under enemy fire while crossing the river. In short Mayne proved to be a force of nature; resourceful, ingenious and utterly fearless.
It was at this point that his name caught the attention of David Stirling, a Captain in No.8 Commando – restless, energetic, ambitious – who was trying to think laterally and get away from – as he put it – ‘all the fossilised shit which since time immemorial had clogged the middle echelons of military command.’ Stirling wanted free rein to form a unit which could operate in small groups deep behind enemy lines in the desert. He finally got the nod from the C-in-C, Middle East, General Auchinleck – he actually got it by sneaking under a fence at GHQ in Cairo and barging into Auchinleck’s office – to form something called the Special Air Service with six officers and sixty NCOs. His shopping list of officers had Blair Mayne at the top of it in block capitals.
Depending on which version of the story you believe, Paddy, at this point was (a) in prison after knocking his commanding officer unconscious or (b) in Egypt suffering from malaria after knocking his commanding officer unconscious. Wherever he was, Stirling tracked him down and outlined his plan. Mayne was initially suspicious but in the end agreed to join and, in turn, recommended McGonigal. ‘I had to make a deal with him that this CO wasn’t for hitting,’ Stirling recalled. ‘He undertook that – I thought – somewhat reluctantly.’
Initially it was a shoestring operation. The new SAS base in Kabrit consisted of two tents, a three-ton truck and a swarm of flies, so the first raid was on a neighbouring New Zealand camp while the Kiwis were out on exercise. Four sorties brought them tents, lamps, kitchen utensils, a washbasin, a bar, a whopping great mess table, a woven grass carpet and a piano. God knows why they wanted the piano but it was a start. Parachute drills involved learning how to jump off the three-ton truck at 30mph and on one exacting, training exercise, Mayne ended up holding a bleating private over a small cliff with one hand. The private was too busy fainting to make any further noise.
The SAS strategy was simple; drop deep behind enemy lines close to unsuspecting targets, shoot them up and get taxied home in jeeps by the LRDG – the Long Range Desert Group – who were a Reconnaissance Squadron. The first targets in November 1941 were two airfields – Tamimi and Gazala – on the coast west of Tobruk where it was hoped they could wipe out Rommel’s entire force of Me109s. It looked set to be an explosive debut.
And it might well have been had they got there. Instead they took off on a moonless night in a pitiless storm and gale-force winds and were dropped like pieces of confetti. Kit went astray, men were missing, planes were shot down and the entire operation became a masterpiece of confusion. Mayne and ten others finally joined forces and laid up in a wadi up six miles from Tamimi Airfield at which point the heavens re-opened and the wadi – almost instantly – turned into a lake. Detonators were soaked, kit was washed away and the position quickly became hopeless. Mayne – typically – was still for having a crack but reluctantly, he and his unit withdrew and slogged two days through the desert before finally making contact with the LRDG and a dry packet of cigarettes.
The raid had been a fiasco. Of the sixty-four men who’d set off only twenty-two came back – Mayne’s great friend, Eoin McGonigal was among those lost – and the debrief was grim; colleagues killed, wounded or captured amid mounting political pressure on the fledgling unit. Not everyone at GHQ in Cairo shared Auchinleck’s enthusiasm for the SAS renegades and the stench of scepticism was almost overpowering.
Stirling, however, was having none of it; besides, the fix seemed obvious enough. If the LRDG could ferry them out then why couldn’t they ferry them in, which is how the Special Air Service in North Africa – effectively – became the Special Jeep Service, thanks largely to Lieutenant Mike Sadler, a navigator so good he could – seemingly – drive blindfold through the desert all night long and drop you within six inches of any German in North Africa. Resupplied and replenished, the SAS pinpointed two more airfields, Tamet and Sirte, Mayne leading the raid on one and Stirling the other. Stirling – frustratingly – got to Sirte to find it’d been abandoned but Mayne’s six-man crew at Tamet hit the jackpot.
Sneaking under the wire, they fixed time-delay incendiaries in fuel dumps, bomb dumps and in just about every plane on the airfield. When they ran out of explosives, Mayne climbed into the cockpit of one aircraft and – almost unbelievably – ripped out the dashboard with his bare hands. They shot up the officers’ mess and most of the officers in it before scarpering into the night to wait for the fireworks, which did not disappoint. The fireball lit up the desert for miles around and the SAS was in business.
Burglars – if you’ve ever met any – work to a very simple pattern; they turn over a house, they wait for you to claim on the insurance and then they hit you again when you’re finally breathing out. The SAS in North Africa worked in much the same way. So ten days after the first raid on Tamet – this was now Christmas Eve 1941 – Mayne led a second devastating attack on the same airfield, knocking out twenty-seven planes, three lorries, two trailers full of aircraft spares and several petrol dumps. Things got a bit hairy when one of the fuses went off prematurely and, ‘silhouetted by explosions and fireballs’, Mayne and his crew had to shoot their way out, the small compensation being that on the drive home with the LRDG they managed to bag a gazelle for Christmas lunch.
Suddenly everyone was taking notice of the new unit, most obviously the stunned Germans and the more pleasantly surprised Allied High Command who promoted Mayne to Captain and awarded both him and Stirling DSOs. Indeed in the next twelve months the SAS wreaked havoc behind the German lines in North Africa, hitting supply dumps, railway lines, airfields and convoys. At their peak, they were running sixteen raids a week and terrorising the enemy, who whatever the time of day or night and however far behind the lines they were, began to feel like sitting ducks.
Paddy himself knocked out more than a hundred planes, an astonishing achievement in a single year if you consider that the RAF’s top ace – Jimmy Johnson – shot down thirty-eight enemy aircraft during the entire war. More than that, though, Mayne quickly developed an aura. Back in the mess with too many whiskies inside him he was an undisciplined tough but in cold-eyed combat he was bold, ruthless and blessed with an extraordinary ability to read a moving situation and act decisively. His men – not surprisingly – worshipped him.
Sober or soused there was nothing he liked better than a tear-up. On one occasion he and his men ambushed an enemy convoy, as Mayne put it, ‘blowing hell out of them – short, snappy and exhilarating’ before making off into the desert. Except that fleeing over an escarpment, they ended up having to shove the jeep up a hill – it was carrying half a ton of equipment including forty pounds of explosives – at which point they noticed a smell of burning. Someone had trodden on a pencil fuse, which left them roughly twenty seconds to abandon ship. Mercifully they all got far enough away before the jeep was blown to kingdom come but it was a long walk home.
By the beginning of 1943, the job in North Africa appeared to be done. Montgomery had won a famous and decisive victory at El Alamein and thoughts were turning towards Sicily and Italy. The SAS, though, had lost Stirling – he was captured in Tunisia and spent the rest of the war in Colditz – and more than that, were in danger of being lost as a regiment. How – if at all – would hit-and-run raids in the wide-open desert translate to the coming, coastal assault on Italy? Mayne, by now a Major and in sole command of the SAS, spent a week at GHQ in Cairo fiercely fighting his corner against those who, even then, couldn’t see a use for him or his men.
It’s testimony either to Mayne’s quiet powers of persuasion – he was after all a lawyer from Queen’s University – or to his ‘trumpet-tongued’ eloquence – he was a hugely intimidating presence – that he won the argument. The SAS remained and was split in two sections – the Special Boat Squadron, who were sent to the Aegean – and the Special Raiding Squadron who under Mayne’s command were to be in the vanguard of the assault on Sicily. It was a watershed for the regiment.
It was also a difficult time for Paddy personally. For a start he was refused leave in January 1943 to fly home for his father’s funeral, a slap in the face which vexed him deeply. There was also a bizarre grudge against the broadcaster and war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby, who in Mayne’s words was a ‘bullshitting so-and-so who reports on the thunder of tanks and big battles from the lounge of a Cairo hotel.’
Determined to make this very point in person, he set off on what was described as a ‘rampage’ around Cairo, at the end of which his LRDG colleague, David Lloyd Owen, remembers Paddy ‘throwing a Provost-Marshal and two military policemen down the steps of the Shepherd’s Hotel.’ Once again he was under close arrest – this time in Kasmiril Barracks – and once again he was spirited back to his regiment as strings were pulled backstage. Not for the first time, his immortal abilities when sober had saved him from his all-too-human shortcomings when drunk.
So once again the SAS – or the Special Raiding Squadron, 1 SAS, as it was now known – was under the microscope. Mayne took his team to Palestine and flogged them; mock attacks, cliff-climbing and, down on the Mediterranean, endless night exercises storming ashore in landing craft. Derrick Harrison, a captain recalls that during all these manoeuvres, Paddy was in the thick of it, invariably starting out last yet somehow getting there first. For a giant of a man, he was, said Harrison, ‘incredibly light on his feet’.
The first hit out was in July 1943 in Sicily; specifically capturing and destroying a costal defence battery at Capo Murro di Porco, south of Syracuse, and continuing thereafter ‘at the discretion of the commanding officer.’ They went in with the bayonet; as Mayne put it in a letter home, ‘like terriers after rats.’ An hour after hitting the shoreline he and his men had overrun the battery, killed or wounded fifty, captured fifty more, destroyed four coastal defence guns and three anti-aircraft guns and all without so much as a scratch of their own.
As invited – and under Mayne’s unique direction – they then ad-libbed their way up the coast, overrunning machine-gun emplacements and flushing out snipers. It was the speed and the ferocity of the assault that did for the enemy. By the end of the day they’d killed around 250, taken three further batteries and rounded up 500 prisoners. Mayne had lost one man killed and two wounded.
By any measure, the action had been a jaw-dropping success and proved – if it needed proving – that the SAS could adapt to any terms or conditions. General Miles Dempsey described the raid as ‘brilliant’, so impressive that they were ordered in the next day further up the coast at Augusta Harbour. This was hazardous given there were troops from a Panzer division in the area and the assault was to be in broad daylight, something the Navy formally advised against. Undaunted, Mayne was the first man on the beach and the SAS secured the town in a grim house-to-house firefight. ‘It was like Dante’s Inferno in there at times,’ said one veteran. ‘If a building was occupied we used grenades. You threw a couple in and then smashed through the door and sprayed the room with fire. There weren’t many prisoners.’
Once the dust had settled, the SAS liberated a piano – they seemed to have had an unhealthy obsession with pianos – while Paddy and an explosives expert by the name of Sergeant Deakins attended to a safe on the first floor of the shell-shocked Post Office. The haul consisted of some receipts, six silver spoons, a cameo brooch and a gold ring. Mayne – nobly – gave them all to Deakins.
The rather better news was that – to no one’s surprise – Paddy was given a Bar to his DSO. ‘It was Major Mayne’s courage, determination and superb leadership which proved the key to success,’ read the citation, ‘personally leading his men from the landing craft in the face of heavy machine-gun fire’ and in the case of Augusta, mortar fire too. Mayne’s aura was becoming nigh on impregnable.
By October the Allies were into Italy and heading towards Rome. The SAS were entrusted with a landing on the Adriatic at Termoli where they were to hold two bridges. On the second day of the operation with both bridges secure, the Germans counter-attacked and hit a truck of SAS soldiers killing twenty-nine of them. It was a chilling moment. In the ensuing rumpus, Mayne single-handedly outflanked a German mortar position and killed twelve of the enemy, indeed the official history of the SAS, says that the – doubtless enraged – CO ‘conducted a minor war single-handed …… he seemed to have a charmed life but possibly some part of his ‘lick’ was his amazingly quick reactions.’ Chalky White, who served with Mayne through Sicily, Italy and beyond put it even more simply; ‘he was the best professional killer I’ve ever seen,’ he said, before – somewhat controversially – adding; ‘indeed the best thing that happened to the regiment was when David Stirling was captured.’
The SAS were sent to Molfeta near Bari to unwind, which for some in the unit would prove to be more frightening than the fighting. True to form, Paddy went on a two-day whisky diet, wrecked the mess and tore the iron railings clean off a balcony. ‘In action he was superb,’ said Lieutenant Jonny Wiseman, ‘but out of action we were terrified of him. He was completely unpredictable. At one point he said he was taking off to Naples in a jeep. He got about five miles and turned it over. We found him underneath it, unharmed.’
By January 1944 he was a Lieutenant Colonel, in command of a – now – combined SAS Brigade and itching to play a signature role in the liberation of France. He disappointed no one in the days after the Normandy invasion; like some kind of phantom just turning up wherever he was required, seemingly from thin air. He’d be in England; then he’d parachute in behind the German lines; then he’d ghost back and forth through the retreating German positions to link up with the Allied advance and then turn up back in England again. He was elusive, inspiring, brutally effective and – seemingly – indestructible.
Once, a plane carrying him to France cartwheeled on take off. Somehow he walked away, rustled up another one and parachuted in. On another occasion he jumped with a wind-up gramophone strapped to his leg because he was ‘missing his music’. And these were hair-trigger times given Hitler’s edict that any captured SAS soldiers were to be summarily executed by the Gestapo. And many were: thirty-four in July and thirty-one in October. The war was getting almost personal.
But most of the time Blair’s boots were on the ground in France where the SAS brief was familiar; sabotage, intelligence gathering and linking up with the Maquis and the Resistance to run amok. In the company of one such – rather rag-tag – crew of Maquis, Paddy and a lieutenant, Monty Goddard, ambushed a hefty German convoy, which included several, heavily-armed troop trucks and a staff car. Mayne unloaded a Bren gun, which emptied the trucks, while Goddard shot up the front of the convoy before mounting a one-man frontal assault. He was cut down in the road.
With the Maquis in the woods with the jeep, that left Paddy alone against a platoon of Germans who’d taken cover in a ditch and who were now regrouping. He fired another full magazine at the trucks, which exploded. In the commotion he tossed a succession of grenades into the ditch with one hand while the Bren gun blazed away in the other, covering his retreat into the trees where he and one of the Maquis escaped on foot. They had no other option given the others had disappeared with the jeep.
If you get a chance, look up ‘Bren gun’ on the Interweb. It’s a mounted light machine gun generally used on a bipod by a two-man crew: it’s well over a yard long and – fully loaded – it weighs around twenty-five pounds. Mayne was firing it one-handed. When he got back to the rest of his unit – alone – the look on his face did not encourage questions. He would have felt the loss of Goddard deeply and – indeed – the only time he talked about the incident afterwards, he described it as ‘a bit of a scrap.’
This was the other side of Blair Mayne. On the sauce in the mess, he wouldn’t hesitate to throw any of his men through the nearest sash window and – indeed – he often did. But his respect for the soldiers who served with him ran deep and when colleagues were lost, there were always personal letters to loved ones, which many later said were a huge comfort. The SAS, to him, was family.
But then again his sense of humour could be – at best – dubious. As Paris was liberated Paddy and a group of SAS die-hards made for the city to savour the moment, staying at Claridge’s Hotel and dining out on the Champs-Elysees. Except that at the end of the meal, Paddy produced a hand-grenade, pulled out the pin and laid it gently in the middle of the table where it started smoking.
Diners scattered, some – ridiculously – diving under table-cloths but one or two just sitting there stoically as waiters scrambled for the safety of the kitchen and women screamed. Mike Sadler – the ace desert navigator – said he thought the end had come. ‘Blair was so unpredictable that the thought crossed my mind he’d decided to end it all there and then. Presumably he’d simply tampered with the detonator. It was a cruel joke.’
For all that, Mayne and the SAS were drowned in richly deserved bouquets after the liberation of France. General Browning said that in the view of the top brass, ‘they’d done more to hasten the disintegration of the German 5th and 7th Armies than any other single effort.’ Paddy was awarded a second Bar to his DSO – ‘it was entirely due to Lieutenant Colonel Mayne’s fine leadership and example and his utter disregard of danger that the unit was able to achieve such striking success‘ – and the French awarded him a ‘Croix de Guerre’ and a ‘Legion d’honneur’; ‘an officer of great worth whose courage and daring demand the respect of all. He has greatly deserved the recognition of France.’
Back at the SAS’s new training base at – the commandeered – Hylands House near Chelmsford, Mayne and his men prepared for the advance into Germany. It was here that Paddy – for a bet – tried to drive a jeep up the marble staircase until the lady of the house – who clearly had a soft spot for him – came out in her nightgown and clipped him round the ear. Profusely apologetic, he escorted her back to her room and bade her goodnight.
Coincidentally, one of the regiment’s best-loved characters Corporal ‘Ginger’ Jones was recuperating at a nearby hospital where Paddy, being Paddy, stopped by to see him. Ginger was desperate to get back to the unit but when Paddy asked the hospital the question, he was told ‘no’. Back at Hylands House, there was a small council of war and the next night Ginger – mysteriously – disappeared from his ward. It wasn’t until the next morning that anyone at the hospital noticed he’d gone.
In the last months of the war the SAS was thrown into Northern Germany, punching holes ahead of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division who were advancing towards Oldenburg and Kiel. In truth, jeep warfare in this terrain wasn’t healthy – too much woodland, too many ambushes and too many snipers – and the regiment was to sustain some of its heaviest losses. But Paddy drove straight to the front line from Chelmsford in one hit, having got one of his signals’ boys to fix a PA system to his jeep so he could broadcast rude words to the retreating Germans.
Once again, Mayne was here, there and everywhere and still – seemingly – indestructible. Spreading a map over the front of his jeep to gauge his position, a sniper pinged a bullet into the bonnet, missing Mayne by inches but leaving a neat hole in his map. Half-an-hour later the sniper was dead. On another day he was rounding a corner in a jeep when he came across a German machine gun position and, with no time to do anything else, simply drove clean over the top of it. And then there’s the photo of his unit under mortar fire in a forest where a row of helmets are taking cover in the undergrowth. Blair Mayne is on the edge of frame leaning against a tree.
Much as the Canadians came to love the SAS – ‘our little friends in the mechanized mess tins’ – they couldn’t grasp why the senior officer was always out in the field and out of contact; the more so since Mayne was now a marked man. Holed up in a farmhouse, he and his section were ambushed and in the firefight the SAS captured a German officer who, through an interpreter, said he’d been briefed to find Mayne and kill him. He even knew that his target had been ‘a famous rugby player’.
The dangers of this part of Germany and this stage of the war were reinforced in early April when an SAS squadron was ambushed near Oldenburg. The Squadron Commander, Dick Bond, was shot dead by a sniper – so too three others – and his men pinned down in a ditch under heavy fire from two entrenched positions, a house and a nearby wood. Radioed to assist, Mayne and L/Cpl Billy Hull attacked the house on foot and then, with Lieutenant John Scott riding shotgun, Mayne made two passes up and down the road in an armoured jeep in full view of the enemy, firing at both German positions. On a third pass, while Scott provided covering fire, Paddy dragged the wounded from the ditch and they retreated down the road.
Even by Mayne’s remarkable standards, this was an extraordinary act of heroism and he was recommended for a VC. He didn’t get it. Instead he was awarded a third bar to his DSO and in the seventy years since, the row over why he was refused a VC has rumbled on; indeed in 2005, 100 MPs signed an early-day motion calling on the MOD to reconsider. The MOD refused.
It was clearly a snub bordering on an iniquity. David Stirling later described the decision as ‘a monstrous injustice’; Major General Sir Robert Laycock, the post-war Chief of Combined Operators, wrote to Paddy saying, ‘the appropriate authorities do not really know their job. If they did, they would have given you a VC as well.’ Even King George VI was said to have enquired why a Victoria Cross had ‘so strangely eluded him.’
And it remains a very good question. The most obvious answer, perhaps, was that someone in the MOD thought Mayne was too much of a maverick; another theory was that the words ‘for a signal act of valour’ – the VC’s requirement – were misread as a ‘single’ act of valour and Scott’s presence in the jeep thereby ‘disqualified’ Mayne. The one other theory is that in their eagerness to get Paddy a – let’s face it – richly deserved VC, those writing the citation over-egged the pudding.
But if that one action wasn’t sufficient, he could easily have been awarded a Victoria Cross on a cumulative basis. Group Captain Leonard Cheshire was given a VC in 1944 on the back of a citation which read: ‘in four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition, he maintained a standard of outstanding personal achievement; his successful operations being the result of careful planning, brilliant execution and supreme contempt for danger … he displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader.’ Every single one of those words could just have equally applied in spades to Blair Mayne.
After the surrender of Germany he mopped up in Norway and then signed on for the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey in Antarctica. But by 1946 was back in Newtownards as the Secretary of the Incorporated Law Society of Northern Ireland and looking increasingly like a square peg in a round hole. He could scarcely have found anything more diametrically opposed to his raucous life in the SAS.
By all accounts his back was playing up badly – a chronic injury sustained in Italy – and the five aspirins he took to relieve it – combined with the five gin and tonics he was said to knock back before lunch – weren’t helping. He’d acquired a red Riley Roadster – a 2.5 litre beauty – and was known to weave in and out of lampposts on late night journeys home from the Belfast Arts Club. An old friend from No 11 (Scottish) Commando, Tommy MacPherson, went to Newtownards to see him and said; ‘I thought he was depressed. I thought he was just dead bored and finding life a little purposeless.’
Certainly the scrapes continued. In Dublin for a rugby international, he tried to force his way into what he thought was an old drinking club but which, in fact, was the home of an Irish senator whose son, in the ensuing kerfuffle, suffered a broken nose. It was a tough one to keep out of the papers. Back in Northern Ireland he was said to force the locks on closed pubs and help himself or, alternatively, to challenge any man in the bar to a fight which he would invariably win. He fell out with his brother, he – reputedly – found sleep almost impossible and he tried to find solace in poultry farming and gardening. It was no avail. In five brutal, unforgiving years of combat, he’d done too much, seen too much and lost too many.
It wasn’t until after Vietnam that the long-term effects of front-line combat first began to be explored or understood so we can only speculate on the scars the war left on Paddy Mayne. Psychologists since – men such as Jonathan Shay – have suggested that back in civilian life ‘the quality of reality just drains from the here and now … the dead become more real than the living.’ Certainly, you wonder just how many demons Blair Mayne was living with in the years after the Second World War. Add to that trying to deal with a life as a living legend – he was a very private, unassuming man – and you can begin to understand how difficult life might have become.
On the night of the 14th December 1955, he was drinking at the Friendship Lodge and – at four in the morning – was driving home from Bangor to Newtownards when his Riley Roadster ran into a parked truck. His body was found early the next morning. There were those in Belfast who, on hearing the news, thought that if there’d been a collision between Blair Mayne and a truck, they’d be burying the truck but at his funeral two days later – he was just forty years old – the procession was a mile long and took an hour to pass crowds that, in places were four deep. Today a by-pass around Newtownards is named in his honour, together with a statue in Conway Square.
Had the war not intervened, Paddy Mayne might well have become one of the greatest and most influential rugby players these islands have ever produced. As it turned out, he gave far more to his country than that. Andy McNab is a former SAS soldier – now a best-selling author – who says Mayne’s boot marks are all over the regiment’s training manual to this day. ‘He has been and always will be a legend,’ says McNab. ‘lf you look at the foundations of the Special Air Service, he was instrumental in that. We have SOPs – Standard Operating Procedures – and 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.’
David Stirling went even further; ‘He was among the outstanding military heroes of the Second World War … on the one hand there was his great capacity for friendship; his compassion and gentleness displayed … in his deep concern for the welfare of all of his men … on the other hand there was a reverse side to his character which revealed itself in outbursts of satanic ferocity … quick-tempered, audacious and vigorous in action but not one who took kindly to being thwarted, frustrated or crossed in any way.‘
It’s easy to present Blair Mayne as a reckless thug. But he was far, far, sharper than that; a man who under the most intense pressure could calculate the risks and fearlessly follow his outstanding instincts. He could adapt to any circumstances or terrain, persuade others that they could do the same and make good on all promises at all times. As one who served under him put it; ‘David Stirling will always be seen – rightly – as the founder of the regiment but Paddy Mayne will always be seen as the true SAS warrior of his time … an exceptional individual from whom come myths and folklore. I am in no doubt that he’ll be talked about in messes and barrack rooms as long as there is an SAS … he was a soldier’s soldier – he was human and he had his flaws – but he commanded total respect and loyalty. I think his men would have followed him anywhere without question.’
It’s hard at times to separate the man from the myth; tough too to consider that when the war finished, he was still only thirty. And yet there was clearly something supernatural about him; as one SAS veteran put it; ‘no matter how black things looked, once Paddy appeared it was magic.’ There are few, in any walk of life, who are quite as special as that.
01 JANUARY 2017
This piece is a distillation of the hard works of several others; not least Hamish Ross’s ‘Paddy Mayne: Lt. Col. Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, 1 SAS Regiment’; Martin Dillon and Roy Bradford’s ‘Rogue Warrior of the SAS: The Blair Mayne Legend’; Steve Lewis’s ‘Last of the Blue Lions: the 1938 British Lions Tour of South Africa’ and Stewart McKinney’s, ‘Roars from the Back of the Bus: Rugby Tales of Life with the Lions.’ The photograph of Blair Mayne belongs to the Imperial War Museum.