From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre
Stirling was an officer different to any other. A stooped, lanky figure, an unlikely pioneer of a regiment that would become famed for physical strength, he limped around the camp, making a point of getting to know each of the men. Most of the recruits were used to being disdained by their officers, bullied by their NCOs, and generally treated as a lower life-form. Stirling was exquisitely polite to all. ‘He did not bark orders,’ marvelled Johnny Cooper. ‘He asked people to do things.’ While many officers existed in a state of permanent choleric meltdown, Stirling never raised his voice. Riley found him ‘a very quiet chap, very shy’. Most of his recruits had never come across an officer who not only tolerated alternative views, but encouraged them.
Other elements of Stirling’s peculiar character seeped into the unit, including his natural modesty and his talent for extreme understatement. From the earliest days, he insisted that there should be ‘no bragging or swanking’. The members of L Detachment would be carrying out secret, perilous tasks that might well impress other soldiers and civilians, but they should never speak about them outside their own ranks. This was sound military policy, but it also reflected Stirling’s personal allergy to boasting. The men of the SAS were expected to maintain a discreet silence about their activities.
As the mini-camp took shape, Jock Lewes set about devising a training programme of spartan rigour, a regime so severe that many came close to quitting – which was, of course, exactly what Lewes wanted quitters to do.
Lieutenant Bill Fraser seemed slightly baffled by life, too delicate for soldiering – but he had seen some hard fighting. Some of the soldiers considered him ‘a bit strange’, code for homosexual, and nicknamed him ‘Skin Fraser’. He may well have been gay, but it is noticeable that, at a time of intense homophobia in army ranks, most of his comrades in arms (with some notable exceptions) could not have cared less. Fraser was a superb leader.
Stirling’s final choice of junior officer was both inspired and quite odd: inspired because the officer in question would set an unparalleled standard for courage and leadership in the SAS; and odd because he was also given to volcanic explosions of temper and sometimes violent insubordination. He was truculent, troubled and dangerously unpredictable, particularly when drunk, which was often. A celebrated international rugby player, a frustrated poet, and a bar-room brawler, this man was seventeen stone of highly volatile human explosive. At the time when Stirling set out to recruit him, he was also allegedly in prison for thumping his commanding officer.
Robert Blair Mayne, known by all as Paddy, was one of seven children of a prosperous Protestant family from Northern Ireland. Born in Newtownards in County Down in 1915, he had excelled at rugby as a schoolboy, and went on to read law at Queens University, Belfast, where he won the Ireland universities heavyweight boxing championship. Over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and swift, he first played for Ireland’s national rugby team, in the position of lock forward, against Wales in 1937, and went on to represent Ireland on five subsequent occasions. In 1938, he was one of eight Irishmen chosen to take part in the Lions’ tour of South Africa. One reporter noted his ‘quiet, almost ruthless efficiency’. The war interrupted what had seemed destined to be a great rugby career. He signed up with the Royal Ulster Rifles, and then the commandos. After the Battle of Litani River in June 1941, he was mentioned in dispatches for the impressive way he had commanded his troops, achieving his objectives and bringing back a large clutch of prisoners.
All of which makes Paddy Mayne sound like some plastic model of academic, athletic and military virtue. Which he most emphatically was not.
Mayne struck many, on first meeting, as a subdued, almost shy man. After a few drinks, he became boisterous; after a few more, he became argumentative and challenging; quite soon after that, it was time to get out of the bar.
His conduct during the Lions’ tour of South Africa broke all records for drunken misbehaviour, in a sport not noted for sobriety and tranquillity off the field. He repeatedly broke into his teammates’ rooms after midnight and smashed all the furniture to splinters; in the company of Welsh hooker ‘Bunner’ Travers, he headed down to the Durban docks to get plastered and pick fights with the longshoremen; he argued with the team manager, and then disappeared on a three-day bender. One night he found a team of convicts chained up beneath Ellis Park stadium, where they were being put to work erecting stands. This he considered barbaric, so he returned the following night with bolt-cutters and set free at least one, and possibly all of them. In an attempt to impose some restraint on Mayne, he was made to share a hotel room with the fly-half George Cromey, a Presbyterian minister. One night, after an official dinner, Mayne vanished. Cromey was still waiting for him at 3 a.m. when Mayne, in bedraggled evening dress, burst in and announced, ‘I’ve just shot a springbok,’ before dumping a very bloody, very dead South African antelope on the floor. He had run into some hunters in a bar, and gone off for a little midnight game hunting.
This was Mayne the amusing drunk. Mayne the vicious, fighting drunk was a different proposition altogether. In the latter state, he was liable to pick up people who had annoyed him and hurl them quite considerable distances, or simply beat them senseless. He never remembered what he had done the next morning. As one of his closest friends put it, Mayne was ‘a very nice and kind fellow, most of the time, although he could be roused to something else … once he had gone beyond a certain point, drinking, he became somebody quite different.’ Inside Paddy Mayne there was a deep reservoir of anger that welled up in violence; it had found one channel on the rugby field, and another in alcoholic post-match mayhem. On the battlefield, it would produce heroics; off it, Paddy Mayne’s destructive demon could erupt without warning, and with terrifying force.
What was the source of Mayne’s inner fury? He may have been subconsciously rebelling against a rigidly strait-laced Protestant upbringing. He had a strong aversion to the use of foul language. The only person he feared, it is said, was his mother – who was, admittedly, petrifying. Mayne was a deeply literate man, with a particular liking for the darker poetry of A. E. Housman, and he may have harboured dreams of becoming a writer; some have seen frustrated creativity as the root of his anger. There have also been suggestions that he had homosexual inclinations. Certainly, his relations with women were strained, and he never established a long-term heterosexual relationship. ‘How could any woman love a big, ugly man like me?’ he once said to his brother. Male sexual banter on the subject of women could send him into a rage. He was intensely secretive about his emotional life, as he was about much else. Mayne’s sexuality has no bearing whatever on his qualities as a soldier, except to the extent that the repression of his feelings may have contributed to an inner turmoil that made him a most complicated and angry man, but a very remarkable soldier.
Mayne was said to have been in prison, for striking a superior officer, in the late summer of 1941. The story is told that he was playing chess with Eoin McGonigal, his closest friend, when they were interrupted by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, an upper class Old Etonian and the son of Sir Roger Keyes, the Director of Combined Operations. Keyes was a brave man (he would die just a few months later in an abortive attempt to kidnap Rommel, winning a posthumous VC), but he had the voice of Bertie Wooster and exactly the sort of patrician manner that lit Mayne’s very short fuse. A row ensued, Mayne pushed Keyes, who fell over and cut himself on the edge of a table. According to some accounts, the confrontation ended with Mayne running Keyes out of the mess tent on the point of a bayonet. Soon afterwards, Mayne applied to be transferred to the Far East. If he was arrested, there is no supporting evidence in the archives. Stirling, however, told and retold the story of how he had discovered Paddy in prison, and arranged for the charges to be dropped in order to get him into L Detachment. Mayne never denied it.
Mayne did not like posh people. As a militant Ulster Unionist, he was instinctively anti-Catholic. He despised the way certain officers seemed to gain preferment through social connections. So the first meeting between Mayne and David Stirling – an upper-cass, Catholic officer with unrivalled access to the old-boy network – was never going to be easy. According to Stirling, Mayne eyed him with dark suspicion as he laid out his plans and asked the Irishman if he would like to come aboard. Mayne listened, and then began asking questions in a ‘gentle, slightly mocking voice’, with his light Ulster twang.
Finally Mayne leaned back: ‘I can’t see any real prospect of fighting in this scheme of yours.’
Stirling was quick in response. ‘There isn’t any … except against the enemy.’
Mayne laughed. He was hooked. But, before they shook on it, Stirling had one condition: ‘This is one commanding officer you will never hit, and I want your promise on that.’
‘You have it,’ said Mayne.
Stirling was only half joking. He would always remain wary of Mayne’s ‘vicious temper, at times unnatural in its ferocity’. Recruiting Mayne was like adopting a wolf: exciting, certain to instil fear, but not necessarily sensible.