Welcome to the first installment of my new history blog. This blog, which will range over centuries and continents, looks at people and events that fascinate me. I’m beginning with a 20th-century soldier who was also a lawyer.
Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne was born in 1915 in Northern Ireland. In the late 1930’s, he was a professional rugby player, legendary for his ferocity on and off the playing field. He would often sneak out of the team’s hotel to go drinking. The night usually ended in a brawl with other patrons of the pub.
Mayne might be remembered only as the bad boy of Irish rugby if not for World War II. He immediately enlisted in the Royal Ulster Rifles, a conventional military unit. Not surprisingly, he didn’t fit in well. Fortunately for Mayne, the Special Air Service (SAS) was created in 1941 and he immediately transferred to it.
The SAS was the brainchild of David Stirling, another misfit serving in a conventional British unit. His idea was to take a small mobile force behind enemy lines in the North African desert to attack enemy supply lines and Luftwaffe airfields. His idea was accepted because in 1941 the British were losing more often than winning.
SAS recruits were trained as paratroopers. They did most of their training on the ground due to a lack of aircraft for training missions. How do you train a paratrooper without jumping out of an airplane? Paddy Mayne is credited with the solution: recruits jumped out of a jeep or truck moving at 30 mph while wearing full-kit (120 pounds).
After training, SAS personnel disappeared into the desert to begin attacking German airfields. A typical attack began with a few men infiltrating the enemy airfield and planting explosives on the planes. In the next phase of the attack, a larger unit would drive on to the airfield in jeeps to strafe the enemy troops responding to the bombs.
When not in combat, Mayne continued his drinking and brawling habits. His insubordinate, hard-living behavior is believed to be the reason he was never awarded the Victoria Cross (the British equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor). After the war, he returned to his career as a solicitor.
Paddy Mayne is a fascinating man because of his contradictions. He was almost superhumanly brave in combat. But he never overcame the demons that triggered his drinking and brawling. He died in a road accident at the age of 40.
His exploits with the SAS are covered in Rogue Heroes (seen above) by Ben Macintyre (2016).
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