Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Single-handedly rescuing his squadron after they were pinned down by heavy gunfire, Paddy Mayne’s life reads like a wartime page-turner. Matthew Scanlan tells the remarkable story of this SAS legend, wartime hero and Freemason

The dark days of the Second World War saw many a hero come to the fore, but none quite as remarkable as Paddy Mayne. Rugby international, commando and a founding father of the Special Air Service (SAS), Mayne was one of the most decorated Allied soldiers of the war, winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) four times, as well as the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’Honneur. But while his warrior exploits are comparatively well known, few people are aware that this extraordinary man was also a Freemason.

Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne was born on 11 January 1915 in Newtownards in County Down, Ireland, and showed an early love and aptitude for sport. Excelling in many areas, Mayne not only became the Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion in August 1936, but was also capped playing rugby for Ireland six times, and in 1938 was selected to play for the British Isles Touring Party of South Africa.

Mayne was already a member of the Territorial Army when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and he soon received a commission in the Royal Artillery. In April 1940 he transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles before volunteering for the newly formed No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, with whom he saw his first action, attacking Vichy French forces in Lebanon. For his courageous and clear-minded leadership, Mayne was mentioned in despatches. However, he soon lost interest in the Commando and in August 1941 joined a revolutionary new outfit that was being formed in North Africa by former Scots Guards officer David Stirling.

The aim of this unit, known as L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade, was to operate behind enemy lines, obtain intelligence, disrupt Axis communication routes and attack enemy airfields. After some initial setbacks, Stirling struck upon the idea of utilising the well-established Long Range Desert Group to transport his force into action with heavily armed vehicles. It was an idea that would establish the new unit’s credibility, and later render them the stuff of schoolboy legend.

On 5 December 1941, Mayne helped to lead a successful attack on Tamet airfield near Sirte in Libya. The raiders destroyed fourteen enemy aircraft and damaged a further ten, and for his part in this audacious attack Mayne received his first DSO. But he did not rest on his laurels, and just three weeks later, as General Claude Auchinleck pushed Erwin Rommel’s forces back past Benghazi to Agedabia, Mayne and his men returned to the same airfield where they then destroyed a further twenty-seven planes.

Over the next fourteen months, as the North Africa campaign ebbed and flowed across the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian deserts, the SAS mercilessly harried German and Italian airfields, and it is estimated that they either destroyed or immobilised upwards of four hundred enemy aircraft. Mayne reportedly destroyed around one hundred aircraft himself – more than any fighter ace during the entire war – and, on occasion, even resorted to ripping out some of the cockpit controls with his bare hands.

In January 1943, Stirling was captured by Axis forces in southern Tunisia and soon thereafter the 1st SAS Regiment was renamed the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), with Mayne, now a major, in command. As the North Africa campaign drew to a close, the SRS went on to play a significant role in the Allied invasion of Sicily and on 9 July 1943, in an action somewhat reminiscent of the Hollywood film The Guns of Navarone, it attacked and destroyed two Italian coastal batteries at Capo Murro di Porco to help ease a path for the landing of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Two days later, the SRS also spearheaded the amphibious landings mounted at the ancient Sicilian port of Augusta, forty-seven kilometres north of the cliff-top battery they had just disabled, and for his part in this action Mayne received a first bar to his DSO.

In early September 1943, the SRS pushed on and mounted an attack at Bagnara Calabra in Calabria, helping to establish a bridgehead on the Italian mainland for the Allied advance. A month later they also helped to capture the town of Termoli, although at a terrible cost to the regiment.

This capture signalled an end to Mayne’s Italian campaign, and on his return to England the SRS was subsumed into a larger SAS Brigade, with Mayne as its lieutenant colonel. The main focus of the brigade was to support the Normandy landings, what we now know as ‘D-Day’, which eventually took place on 6 June 1944. In August 1944, Mayne was dropped by parachute into occupied France where, deep behind the lines, he harassed the enemy in his inimitable way and for his actions he was awarded a second bar to his DSO.

As the Allies pushed into Germany in the spring of 1945, Mayne and the SAS worked in conjunction with the 4th Canadian Armoured Division in the capture of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. It was during these closing days of the war that Mayne single-handedly rescued a squadron of his men after they became pinned down by heavy gunfire. The incident occurred near the German town of Oldenburg and, according to several sources, Mayne rescued his men by lifting them one by one into his jeep before despatching the German gunners in a nearby farmhouse. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross, which was personally endorsed by Field Marshal Montgomery, but it was controversially downgraded and instead Mayne received a third bar to his DSO – an act seen as a grave injustice by many.

On 27 March 1945, Eklektikos Lodge, No. 542 (IC), held a ballot for Mayne to be initiated as a Freemason. Accordingly, Mayne was initiated on 25 September 1945; the lodge records modestly give his vocation as ‘Army’. After bailing out of an expedition to the South Atlantic due to serious back problems, Mayne returned to Newtownards in 1946 where he received the second and third degrees on 28 May and 24 September, respectively. An enthusiastic Freemason, two years later he joined a second Newtownards lodge, Friendship Lodge, No. 447, and served as Worshipful Master of his mother lodge in 1954.

With his war years now firmly behind him and the SAS officially disbanded, Mayne tried to settle back into the routine of domestic life but with some difficulty. Physically, he was not the man he once was, and he suffered terribly with his back. However, an intelligent and sensitive man, Mayne took up gardening, found solace in books and he greatly loved Irish culture. He regularly propped up the local bars to enjoy singing, storytelling and poetry recitals, just as he had done with his men under the desert stars in wartime, but herein also lay his Achilles heel: he loved to party, often excessively.

On the night of Tuesday 13 December 1955, after attending a regular meeting of the Friendship Lodge, Mayne continued drinking with a masonic friend in the nearby town of Bangor, before finally making his way home in the small hours. However, he never reached his destination. At about 4am he was found dead in his wrecked red Riley Roadster in Mill Street, Newtownards, having reportedly collided with a farmer’s vehicle. News of his death reverberated across Northern Ireland and, at his funeral, hundreds of mourners turned out to pay their respects and to see him interred in a family plot in the town’s old Movilla cemetery.

Following his passing, his masonic jewel was preserved for many years by an old school friend, before it was eventually presented to Newtownards Borough Council where it can now be seen preserved in the Mayoral Chamber of the Council Offices.

We would like to thank the Mayne family, the SAS Regimental Association and all who helped in the preparation of this article

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