Most superheroes have an origin story but, in real life, special forces origin stories can end up portraying their protagonists as superheroes.
That, at least, would appear to be the case with the SAS.
Hatched in the desert and borne out of the necessity of World War 2, ‘the regiment’ was started by the 6’5” ‘Phantom Major’ David Stirling.
The principle was simple: To use small bands of elite soldiers who could operate by stealth behind enemy lines, destroying aircraft, supplies and hopefully also enemy morale as a by-product of causing vast mayhem.
One perception of the unit at this stage is as a motley band of scruffy and rebellious commandoes striking out of the darkness at the Nazis.
The latter part of that is true, the former needs qualifying – all the men were disciplined operators drawn from commando units.
They sometimes grew out unkempt beards because they were in the desert and away from camp for long stretches.
It, of course, helps glamourize things more that Stirling himself was captured and eventually transferred to the infamous Colditz Castle after multiple escape attempts.
In his absence, responsibility for the SAS passed to his second in command, the larger-than-life Irishman Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne.
As origin stories go, Mayne’s is a whopper. Known to be a terrific soldier with tremendous battlefield intuition, Mayne was allegedly recommended to Stirling by his friend Eoin McGonigal.
He was brave, unconventional and a force to be reckoned with – the perfect man for the nascent SAS.
There was just one problem: He was languishing in prison for striking his superior officer Geoffrey Keyes (or perhaps it was for threatening him with a bayonet?).
Curiosity sparked, Stirling went to meet Mayne in his jail cell.
An account of their initial meeting appears in Alan Hoe’s biography of the SAS founder.
At first, Mayne was reluctant to join Stirling’s unit, known at that point as ‘L Detachment’:
“’I can’t see any prospects of real fighting in this scheme of yours’. There was undisguised scepticism on his face.
“’There isn’t any. Except against the enemy’. It was the right reply because Mayne began to laugh.
“’All right. If you can get me out of here I’ll come along’. He extended his huge hand.
“’There’s one more thing’, Stirling said, ignoring the hand. ‘This is one commanding officer you never hit and I want your promise on that’. He reached out for the hand.
“’You have it’. A legendary partnership was sealed in that moment”.
It wasn’t just the partnership that became legendary. On the heels of his stunning military successes, a number of stories about Mayne sprang up.
Born on January 11, 1915, he’d been a solicitor and a Lions rugby player - a rising star - before the war, one apparently known for tearing up hotel rooms and scrapping with dock workers whilst on tour.
His pugilistic impulses also allegedly flared out of control in response to the ‘cushy’ reporting being done by correspondents like the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby, who was supposedly safely ensconced in Cairo whilst men like Mayne were doing the hard graft of actual soldering.
During a drunken escapade, he’s said to have gone out looking for Dimbleby in order to beat the hell out of him.
And it wasn’t just his fists.
There are tales of him shooting the floor around the feet of a bar owner who overcharged and was rude to him, and the 2004 documentary ‘SAS Warrior: The Life of Paddy Mayne’ reports that an intoxicated Mayne once unloaded his pistol into a drinking companion.
The murder is said to have been covered up.
There’s even a story about him taking a grenade out in the middle of a busy café, placing it on his table, and pulling out the pin.
And of course, the other thing many have no doubt heard about Mayne is that he was denied the Victoria Cross.
After being recommended for the VC, he was given the lesser honour of another bar to his existing DSO (Distinguished Service Order).
The Mirror reports:
“Some say it was because hot-headed Mayne, who’d become Lieutenant Colonel by the end of the war, had punched the second in command in his battalion during one heated exchange. Others say it was down to a technicality - because the raid in question was multiple acts of bravery, not a single act.”
But many of these stories are untrue, or at the very least they require contextual explanation.
That’s the position taken by Hamish Ross, whose biography ‘Paddy Mayne: Lt Col Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, 1 SAS Regiment’ aims to set the record straight on one of the more impressive figures in British military history.
First, the myths.
These began during the war when newspaper reports of early SAS missions compared Mayne to a famous contemporary book hero, the fictional spy Bulldog Drummond.
Perhaps a tad unfamiliar to modern readers, the description of one Drummond novel in the Guardian sounds preposterously escapist.
Nicholas Lizard tells us that the hero - a partial inspiration for James Bond – faced not just villainous master criminals but an assorted array of other antagonists including trained gorillas, savages with poisoned darts hiding on wardrobe tops as well as booby traps and acid baths.
With Drummond as a literary equivalent, it’s no wonder hyperbole quickly worked its way into the backstory of Paddy Mayne.
Myths about participants in the war also grew in the years following it.
Hamish Ross told the Forces Network that if a news report about a UFO in Northern Ireland had appeared in the press, a tangential story about Paddy Mayne leading a platoon to attack it could easily have come next.
He also said that “the other element is from within the unit by veterans who did not actually know Paddy at all and were content in being associated with him in the wild colonial boy image”.
Ross goes on to say in his book:
“There was also a strong oral tradition which developed around the SAS desert raids. One of the most frequently cited stories concerned an attack on a building containing enemy troops that Mayne carried out during his first successful raid on an airfield.”
In this episode, Mayne is said to have coolly gunned down the occupants. The account appears in Alan Hoe’s biography of Stirling:
“Paddy spotted this Nissen hut (a hanger) affair and sneaked up to it. He obviously heard something inside because the next thing we knew he’d dragged the bloody door open and was letting rip with his tommy-gun. Screams from inside and the lights went out.”
But this, Ross says, is likely inaccurate:
“Over the decades, however, the storytelling tradition became corrupted to such an extent that when it appeared in the official biography of David Stirling, it was in the form of a vivid eyewitness account by someone who did not even take part in the raid (but who was with Mayne two weeks later when he raided the same airfield again). Indeed, this particular operation turns out to be almost a case study of the way Mayne’s reputation has become dramatised and isolated.”
As he points out, Stirling was not looking for a modern-day incarnation of a Viking berserker.
On the contrary, the founding philosophy of the SAS (then known as L-Detachment) indicates a need for extreme heroism but also extreme professionalism:
“An undisciplined TOUGH is no good, however tough he may be. Most of ‘L’ Detachment’s work is night work and all of it demands courage, fitness and determination of the highest degree and also, and just as important, discipline, skill and intelligence and training.”
An undisciplined tough might have beaten up Richard Dimbleby, struck his commanding officer or even murdered a comrade while in a drunken stupor.
Mayne didn’t do any of these, not only because he was not an undisciplined tough, but also because circumstances would have made it impossible.
Dimbleby had been recalled by the BBC from Cairo in June 1942, months before Mayne is alleged to have set off there to beat him up.
The kernel of truth here, Ross says, maybe that Mayne, like his comrades, was angry the press had been making heroes out of individuals like him in their early accounts of SAS raids without naming and thereby giving credit to, the unit as a whole.
Likewise, the story that Mayne was imprisoned for striking his superior officer, Geoffrey Keyes because he wasn’t selected for a raid to kidnap or kill Erwin Rommel makes no sense.
The SAS were drawn from Nos 7, 8 and 11 Commandos, operating around the Mediterranean in 1941. (Commandos were units containing around 500 well-trained troops). Keyes and Mayne were both in 11 Commando, which was decimated in a mission in Syria earlier that year.
By the time it was reconstituted and the Rommel Raid conceived, Mayne had already left the unit.
In any case, it’s just as well Mayne did not participate – the mission failed (because Rommel wasn’t there) and Keyes, along with many others, didn’t make it back.
Instead, Mayne, would meet Stirling in North Africa months before, and not in a prison cell either.
It was he who, in fact, recommended his friend Eoin McGonigal to Stirling, not the other way around.
As for the hushed-up murder tale, this doesn’t appear in Hamish Ross’ book, but when asked for comment, Ross said “incredible, the British army kept records of its personnel and even in wartime they couldn’t hush-up that sort of thing”.
The odd thing is that life in the SAS during World War 2 was perfectly exciting enough.
There simply wasn’t any need to make up tall tales. Mayne himself said as much in a letter:
“(T)here is no use writing this stuff, people think you are shooting a line – the most fantastic things happen every time we go out.”
A perfect example of this occurred around the time Mayne wrote this. He and Stirling had decided to drive a truck with five comrades right up to an enemy encampment in the desert.
They had a German speaker with them and used him to bluff their way in.
When the man was asked for the password, Mayne, who didn’t speak any German, related later what he understood the general direction of the conversation to have been:
“How the – do we know what the – password is, and don’t ask for our – identity cards either. They’re lost and we’ve been fighting for the past seventy hours against these – Tommies. Our car was destroyed and we were lucky to capture this British truck and get back at all. Some fool put us on the wrong road. We’ve been driving for the past two hours and then you so and sos, sitting here on your arses in Benghazi, in a nice safe job, stop us. So hurry up, get that – gate open.”
It wouldn’t be a nice safe job much longer. Mayne, who had a pistol resting on his lap, waited as one of the guards stepped closer to inspect them. Luckily the bluff worked because Mayne realised at the last minute he’d forgotten to cock it.
Once the gate was open, they proceeded to blast the hell out of the trucks and tents that they found within the camp, before also blowing up their own truck (by mistake) and hot-footing it out of there.
By this point, of course, they’d found their stride, but it had been a difficult learning curve.
L-Detachment’s first mission called for dropping 60 men by parachute behind enemy lines.
But wind conditions were awful and they were scattered hopelessly wide, isolated in the desert and miles from their targets.
Most were either killed or captured (one of the dead was Mayne’s friend Eoin McGonigal).
Fortunately, there was a solution right under David Stirling’s nose.
The Long Range Desert Group were themselves a kind of special operations unit conducting reconnaissance and the occasional raid of their own.
A portion of their men and vehicles were next allocated to assist L-Detachment, and from that point forward Stirling’s force would be conveyed to their targets by their comrades in the LRDG.
Gavin Mortimer’s book ‘Stirling’s Desert Triumph: The SAS Egyptian Airfield Raids 1942’ features an exchange between Mayne and one of his subordinates during a mission rehearsal in one of the 30cwt Chevrolet trucks they’d be using:
“’What direction are we driving in?’ (Mayne) suddenly said, turning to the front gunner.
“The man stared at the stars, trying to figure out which star was which. At length he replied:
“’North-east, I should say, sir’.
“’Ha!’ exclaimed Mayne. ‘You wouldn’t get far if you had to walk back.’
“Changing gear, Mayne cast a sideways glance at his gunner and said quietly: ‘Mind you’re certain of your direction by tomorrow night’.”
At first, Stirling’s men were dropped off some distance from their targets and then approached on foot.
The favoured method for destroying German planes in airfields – the main objective – was to attach and then detonate Lewes bombs.
These had been created by one of their comrades, Lieutenant Jock Lewes.
But then a new method of operation was stumbled upon.
During a raid on Bagoush airfield, in the Quattara Depression, Mayne had put bombs on 40 aircraft but only 22 of them went off.
After examining some charges left over, he found that the primers had been inserted into their plastic sleeves too early – they’d been in there too long and had become damp.
From this problem came a series of solutions: They should just drive the LRDG vehicles right up to the target from now on to save time; they should, therefore, make sure the vehicles had machine guns mounted for protection; in fact, why not just drive the vehicles into the airfields and use the machine guns to destroy the planes instead?
This all came together in the raid on Sidi Haneish airfield on July 26/27, 1942.
Two columns of nine jeeps each burst out of the night and whipped around the rows of Luftwaffe planes, riddling them with bullets before high tailing it back out into the darkness. 30 aircraft were left in ruins.
But the history of the SAS and Paddy Mayne wasn’t all spectacular desert raids.
Following the capture of Stirling and the migration of the war to Sicily and Italy, the nature of the fighting changed.
So too did Paddy.
L-Detachment had been re-designated as 1 SAS Regiment on September 28, 1942, and now Mayne, promoted to Major himself, was its standard bearer in Stirling’s absence.
Contrary to his reputation as a stereotypical action hero, Ross says that Mayne’s side as solicitor now emerged as he came to be, in Ross’ view, probably a better administrator than Stirling.
To be sure, an authoritarian side also emerged, but this too seems indicative of his care and commitment to professionalism, training and mission prep. He seems to have cared very deeply about men killed under this command and worked extraordinarily hard to prevent their deaths.
The SAS’ next incarnation as ‘the Special Raiding Squadron’ (SRS) was certainly very successful, as it worked its way over defensive positions in Sicily and then up the western side of the Italian peninsula. These actions are noteworthy for two things: Difficult objectives achieved and relatively low casualty rates, a testament to Mayne’s careful stewardship.
Augmented by the American landing in the east at Salerno on September 9, 1943, one of these actions took place at the Biferno river, behind which the Germans were making a stand.
The SRS, along with Nos 3 and 40 Commandos were dispatched to Termoli to outflank them.
No 3 Commando would establish a beachhead allowing No 40 Commando to capture the town and its harbour whilst the SRS continued on to take bridges.
The subsequent fighting would be the stuff of Hollywood Second World War movies, featuring trucks set ablaze and Germans spilling out in alarm, along with encounters with hardened German paratroopers and skirmishes around farm buildings.
Despite the stiff and professional resistance, the Special Raiding Squadron lost only one killed, three wounded and 23 as MIAs.
In return they inflicted casualties of 23 killed, 17 wounded and 39 captured, as well as taking ground north of the Biferno.
Mayne’s successes were reflected in an address given to his men by General Dempsey, Commander of XIII Corps:
“Let me give you six reasons why I think you are as successful as you are. Six reasons which I think will perhaps bear in mind when training newcomers to your ranks to your own high standards.
“First of all, you take your training seriously. That is one thing that has always impressed me about you.
“Secondly, you are well disciplined. Unlike some who take on the specialised and highly dangerous job, you maintain a standard of discipline and cleanliness which is good to see.
“Thirdly, you are physically fit, and I think I know you well enough to know you will always keep that up.
“Fourthly, you are completely confident in your abilities – yet not to a point of overconfidence.
“Fifthly, despite that confidence, you plan carefully.
“Last of all, you have the right spirit, which I hope you will pass on to those who may join you in the future.”
Next up was France. Here the SRS would be upgraded to 1 SAS proper, a battalion-sized force of about 1,000 men, as it served in the Special Air Service Brigade alongside 2 SAS (led by Bill Stirling, David’s brother) and two French parachute battalions and an independent Belgian parachute company (about 200 men).
Just as Mediterranean operations had required the SAS to work under different circumstances and terrain, so too would a return to parachuting and work behind enemy lines in France test the unit:
“Gone (were the days) when teams of four men with water bottles and a handful of dates, lightly armed – a few grenades in their pouches and Lewes bombs in a haversack – set out to stalk an enemy airfield.”
They would need more equipment - not only more of what they’d had before, but more equipment than those used to logistical planning for the airborne troops seemed to realise.
Resupply by the RAF was thought about, as were jeeps – better for getting men around but harder to conceal.
Men on foot might prove more stealthy in the new rubber-soled boots, but these left distinctive footprints that could be tracked and, in any case, problems had shown up in training (the uppers were known to separate from the soles).
Training patterns also needed adjusting. Early on Mayne had fought to prevent the SAS from being turned back into a regular Commando unit.
Now he was fighting amalgamation with the PARAs.
Maroon caps were issued and his men instructed to wear them instead of their sand-coloured berets – Mayne told his men to hid the SAS berets in their packs until they could don them later out of sight of officials.
On a more practical level too the SAS was butting up against what, by that point, had become conventional methods of training paratroopers.
The latter had to learn to land in large groups during the daytime in open country, ready and able to engage in battle immediately.
SAS parachutists needed to land in small teams, quietly and at night.
Mayne and other planners also had to try and read the likely response of civilians.
There appeared to be considerable support for Petain, whose Vichy regime had collaborated with the Nazis.
Would SAS operators encounter a hostile population when they landed in France?
Or would the spirit of resistance that was also present define their reception?
How might this be impacted by theoretical Nazi reprisals on French civilians for actual or perceived collaboration with the SAS?
All this had to be considered.
Policy was decided by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) and by 21 Army Group, with it being decided that Mayne’s men would operate in groups as small as six to as large as squadrons (practically company-sized units).
An account of one of the first missions makes it clear they were right to worry the local populace might be unpredictable:
“Mike Salder was Assistant Intelligence Officer and later described it succinctly: ‘It was part of a diversion that included dummy parachutists, and they went in to add a bit of body.’
Six members of 1 SAS, three from A Squadron and three from B Squadron, accompanied their ‘Michelinmen’ comrades to earth within the first hour of D-Day.
In general terms, it was a futile idea and costly for the team who carried it out.
They attempted to do some local damage, but it was of no significance. They were alternately helped and betrayed by local people before being captured by some German paratroops.”
Other attacks were more successful, impeding enemy movements and sabotaging trains and train lines (on the Limoges to Poitiers route a railway bridge was blown).
Successful air strikes the SAS called in no-doubt bolstered the growing confidence of the resistance in the SAS.
Despite these successes, the situation remained:
“In the Limoges [area], when the local resistance leader was at the height of his power in August 1944, a local prefect reported, ‘Here the war has given way to civil war’.”
Mayne was desperately trying to keep abreast of the situation, even supplementing what reports he could get from his wireless set with hand written notes sent by homing pigeon. One soldier, frustrated with this unreliable method, sent a message that simply read:
“Bugger this for a game of soldiers.”
Jokes aside, there was also some deadly-serious news coming through. One report concerned SS troops coming into the area:
“The 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Reich, was progressing northward towards the Normandy front, dragging the harrows of barbarism through the French countryside. In the quiet village of Iradour-sur-Glane, in response to the harassment of the Resistance, a unit of Das Reich herded women and children into the church, rounded up the men of the village and shot them, then set fire to the church. In all, over 600 men, women and children perished.”
A nearby SAS unit subsequently got into a battle with the SS. They killed 20 of the enemy but 32 of the SAS were captured.
Given the same treatment as the locals had been, they were taken into a wood and shot.
Accounts varied with regards to whether the SAS, having moved position to avoid being detected, were disadvantaged by being relatively lightly armed (i.e. because they’d left their heavier weapons behind in the rush).
An officer supports this notion: “A Colt automatic (pistol) is definitely insufficient. Every man should have some long-ranged weapon, either a .30 carbine or a Bren gun.”
Their next battle was more successful, with the SAS successfully rescuing a few downed American airmen and calling in an airstrike to knock out an enemy force of about 1,500.
There was also another attempt to kill Rommel, with six men from 2 SAS parachuted in to do the assassination (after the 1941 raid had failed).
But here too Rommel was not where they needed him to be, having been wounded in his car during an air attack. (Ironically, it was the Germans themselves who would kill him.
He was forced to commit suicide after being implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944).
Mayne himself was involved in some of the war’s latter action, earning himself an extra bar to the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) he’d picked up years before.
In fact, his service with the SAS would end as it began, with his commander Bob Laycock – who had been the one to recommend him to David Stirling – writing to congratulate him on his DSO:
“My Dear Paddy,
“I feel that I must drop you a line just to tell you how very deeply I appreciate the great honour of being able to address, as my friend, an officer who has succeeded in accomplishing the practically unprecedented task of collecting no less than four DSOs. (I am informed that there is another such superman in the Royal Air Force).
“You deserve all the more, and in my opinion, the appropriate authorities do not really know their job. If they did they would have given you a VC as well.
“Please do not dream of answering this letter, which brings with it my sincerest admiration a deep sense of honour in having, at one time, been associated with you.”
“Yours ever, Bob Laycock.”
Unfortunately, Mayne would not live long after the war, dying at the age of 40 in a car crash in 1955.
Looking back at his legacy, many have wondered why he didn’t get the Victoria Cross, as the report in the Mirror speculated.
Hamish Ross sees no conspiracy though - in fact, his book lays out a common-sense case for precisely why one would expect Mayne not to have won the VC: Because doing so required independent witness testimonies of a recipient’s brave deeds from high-ranking officers. Special forces work, by its very nature, made reaching this bar highly unlikely. Heroism would have been commonplace, but, for the most part, it was clandestine and often independent of senior officers.
Not only that but Ross informed the Forces Network separately that research aimed at demythologising Mayne would appear to be resonating at higher levels. In Hereford in 2007, there was a memorial service to Mayne. Guests included Ross, Mayne's family, members of the current SAS as well as some vets from 1 SAS, one of whom was Mayne's comrade Mike Sadler. Unveiling the event was a future monarch of the realm.
There are, though, a few incredible stories about Mayne that are true.
He did, in fact, spend 48 hours under open arrest when his temper flared out of control at a bar manager who’d overcharged him while he was in Cyprus:
“So he summoned the manager and the manager proceeded, unwisely, to be rather rude to him. So he forcibly stood the manager in the middle of the wooden dance floor and emptied his revolver around his feet.”
Most interesting of all, it turns out that the unlikeliest of stories about Mayne is also not apocryphal.
The grenade incident in the busy café really did happen, although it wasn’t the random act of recklessness it sounds like.
On the contrary, Mayne was making an important point.
Whilst responsible for French troops who were part of the Special Air Service Brigade in 1944, he’d been horrified by reports of improper handling of grenades.
The French troops simply hadn’t been as familiar with infantry training as they should have been.
So Mayne used the incident in the café to show it was possible to completely control a grenade if one knew what they were doing.
Maybe that, or maybe he really was a superhero after all.
For more, read Hamish Ross’ book ‘Paddy Mayne: Lt Col Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, 1 SAS Regiment’ from The History Press.
To learn about early SAS desert raids read ‘Stirling’s Desert Triumph: The SAS Egyptian Airfield Raids 1942’ and look at ‘Kill Rommel! Operation Flipper 1941’ for an illustrated account of the failed commando raid (both books by by Gavin Mortimer). Pick up ‘Operation Market-Garden 1944 (1): The American Airborne Missions’ by Steven J Zaloga and ‘Operation Market-Garden 1944 (2): The British Airborne Missions’ by Ken Ford for more on paratroopers during the Second World War. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history titles.
Cover image: Paddy Mayne statue in Newtownards (image: Albert Bridge)