Solicitors At War: Paddy Mayne remembered

As a solicitor myself, to coincide with Armistice Day and the BBC’s TV series “Rogue Heroes”, it seemed fitting to commemorate Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne, DSO & Three Bars (1915 – 1955) Legion D’Honneur, Croix De Guerre, and, indisputably, the British legal profession’s toughest ever solicitor. Mayne is played by Jack O’Connell in the TV series, although his legal background fails to get a mention.

Warning – this article may contain spoilers, although it seems strange to talk about spoilers when discussing history.

Mayne’s colourful life and wartime heroics have appeared in history books and in fiction many times over the years. But for those who don’t know, his story is worth hearing. “Paddy” Mayne was one of the most highly decorated British soldiers of the Second World War, winning the DSO four times, and became the commanding officer of the SAS. However, his day job was as a solicitor. It is fair to say that Mayne was not a typical lawyer, either then or now. Before the war he was a champion boxer and also excelled at golf, cricket, and, inevitably, shooting. Unlike his portrayal in the TV series, his family were wealthy and prominent landowners, and he rarely swore. As a founder member of the SAS, a tapestry of legends have grown up around Paddy Mayne, but the following facts are generally agreed to be accurate.

Born in 1915 in Newtownards, County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland, he studied law at Queen’s University, Belfast, before completing his Articles at TCG Mackintosh (what we would now call, more prosaically, being a Trainee Solicitor). He joined the firm of George MacLaine & Co in Belfast early in 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War II. At seventeen stone, and a natural athlete, Mayne represented the British Lions and Ireland at rugby union. He might seem almost like a perfect comic book hero from the pages of Commando Comics or Victor. Which he was not. As one of his friends put it Mayne was “a very nice and kind fellow, most of the time, although he could be roused to be something else… once he had gone beyond a certain point, drinking, he became somebody quite different” (‘SAS Rogue Heroes’, Ben MacIntyre, page 37).

Mayne was a troubled man, with what we might today call inner demons – enough of them to fill a circle of Dante’s Inferno. This was evident even before the War. On tour in South Africa with the Lions in 1938, he smashed up hotel rooms and freed a convict who was working on a chain gang, among other antics. Despite, or because of all this, his performances on the rugby field were described by the South African press as “outstanding”.

Alcohol and violence were a constant thread throughout Mayne’s life – before, during and after the war. Difficult though it may be for today’s solicitors and their clients to believe, some solicitors were actually heavy drinkers in those days. This may also come as a shock to modern solicitors who are generally an abstemious bunch, if not completely teetotal. An extremely heavy drinker, almost suicidally so, Mayne was notorious for going into pubs and challenging anyone inside to a fight – which he invariably won. The Solicitors Regulation Authority would probably take a dim view of this type of thing nowadays, but back then the Law Society (of which he became Secretary in Northern Ireland) seem to have been a bit more relaxed. Unsurprisingly, Mayne joined the army even before the outbreak of World War Two, and volunteered to join the newly formed Commando corps in 1941, seeing action against Nazi supporting Vichy French forces in June that year, and being mentioned in dispatches.

The legend is that Mayne then ended up in a military prison in Cairo, apparently for chasing his commanding officer with a bayonet while (inevitably) drunk. Certainly David Stirling told the story endlessly. The more likely story is, if anything, even more bizarre – he was probably dismissed from the Commandos for drunkenly assaulting a fellow officer, who he had accused of shooting his dog. Whatever the truth of the incident, after it he was recruited by his friend David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, to join the newly formed unit.

In 1941 the Allies were facing defeat in North Africa and the whole war. SAS patrols set off to attack Axis airfields behind enemy lines in the deserts of North Africa, driving jeeps armed with machine guns. The raids were intended to destroy enemy aircraft. This was, as it sounds, incredibly difficult and dangerous work. It suited him perfectly, and he led numerous teams into the desert, reportedly personally destroying up to 100 Axis aircraft on the ground.

Mayne soon gained a reputation for fearlessness and coolness under fire. A photograph exists of him calmly reading a book while being shot at in France (presumably not a legal textbook). He was a “natural leader” according to David Stirling. But for all that his men kept away from him when he had taken drink.

On 14 December 1941, under cover of darkness, his squad attacked an Axis airfield at Wadi Tamet. The incident remains controversial to this day. As well as attacking the aircraft, he simply attacked the pilots. Walking into the mess hall with a breezy ‘Good evening’, he and his men opened fire on them as they sat at their dining table. There is no serious suggestion that the attack was a war crime: it was an attack on armed enemy combatants at a military base with no civilians present. Even so, Mayne was severely disciplined by the SAS commander David Stirling. It simply wasn’t cricket, even for the SAS. 

Stirling was captured by the Nazis in January 1943 and imprisoned in Colditz Castle. Mayne, by then second in command, replaced him as commanding officer of the SAS. From there, he led the regiment through Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Mayne led with great distinction, from the front, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) a staggering four times. On 8 August 1944 he led an assault against Nazi forces in France for which he was recommended for the Victoria Cross. This was later controversially downgraded to his fourth DSO.

Throughout the hostilities Mayne’s drinking and disturbing antics continued unabated. The role of commander made no difference. After the Battle of Termoli in Italy in 1943 he was seen charging up a hill with a child’s pram full of bottles of wine. The epic drinking session that followed was livened up by Mayne pulling the pins on two hand grenades and throwing them on to the table. Again, what todays Solicitors Regulation Authority would make of this is best left to the imagination. After VE Day, a rumour that the SAS would be sent to the Far East to fight the Japanese Empire came to nothing. Mayne’s war was over. Although perhaps not his war with himself.

Before the war, Mayne’s only close friend was Eoin McGonigal, whose father was a judge, and who he may have met playing rugby. They served together in both the Commandos and the SAS. McGonigal was killed in action in 1941. There was huge amount of speculation over the precise nature of their relationship, both at the time and since then. No one really knows. But what we do know is that after McGonigal’s death, Mayne, already a troubled man, was never the same again. As the war progressed Mayne became increasingly withdrawn. After the death of his father matters became even worse. He was refused leave to attend the funeral and embarked on an epic bout of drinking and fighting in Cairo. Bizarrely, during this drunken rampage he attempted to find and beat up the war correspondent Richard Dimbleby, thankfully failing to do so.

Mayne never married. He remained on the Solicitors’ Roll until his death on 13 December 1955, when he fatally crashed his car into a parked vehicle after a night of heavy drinking at his local Masonic lodge.

A campaign in 2005 to award him a posthumous VC was unsuccessful. The campaign does however continue, and has been given fresh impetus today by the TV series. Perhaps there is one more battle for Paddy to win?

Michael Large is a Consultant Solicitor at Setfords Solicitors who very occasionally writes about history and law.


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