Paddy Mayne and David Stirling

The recent TV series could perhaps have shown a more complex man in Paddy Mayne.
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David Stirling resented Blair Mayne. ‘Paddy’, as the Irishman was known, was the man Stirling wanted to be; the gifted sportsman and superb guerrilla soldier, festooned in medals, respected by his men and admired by his peers.

Stirling struggled to earn either the respect or the admiration of the soldiers in the Special Air Service. He lived in the shadow of Mayne, whose exploits in the Libyan Desert in the winter and spring of 1941/2 were in stark contrast to his own incompetent attempts to destroy Axis aircraft. In two raids on Tamet airfield in December 1941, Mayne and the five men with him accounted for over fifty aircraft. Stirling achieved nothing. Two raids on the airfield at Sirte were embarrassing failures. On the first raid Stirling fell into a slit trench containing an Italian sentry and on the second he led his men into a mine field.

Mayne was becoming a legend and Stirling a liability.

Contrary to popular myth David Stirling is not the sole founder of the SAS. It was his eldest brother, Bill, who had the intellectual drive and the military understanding to grasp in the late summer of 1941 that the Axis airfields were vulnerable to a small, well-trained force of guerrillas. Bill had been one of the early recruits to the Special Operations Executive [S.O.E] in early 1940 and he realised in a short time that the British military was woefully under-prepared and ill-informed of the requirements for irregular warfare.

In May that year Stirling petitioned the War Office to open a guerrilla warfare school, an idea that was enthusiastically endorsed by the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In June the Special Training Centre in the far north-west of Scotland accepted its first intake of students with Stirling the chief instructor.

The centre was an instant success and Bill’s expertise was in demand. In January 1941 SOE asked him to join a mission to Egypt, but it was a short-lived appointment; SOE’s Cairo office was a shambles, an affront to Bill’s high standards. He was headhunted by Middle East HQ as an unofficial assistant to Lt-Gen Arthur Smith, Chief of the General Staff, whose boss was General Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief, Middle East.

Bill Stirling was therefore in the nerve centre of the Allied war effort in North Africa, well positioned to assess and analyse the campaign which, in the summer of 1941, was not going well. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had driven the Allies out of Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya) in April and a British offensive – Operation Battleaxe – to retake the ground had failed in June.

Bill saw in the failure an opening. Rommel’s lines of supply and communication were now stretched precariously thin and vulnerable to attack. A family friend, Captain Michael Crichton-Stuart, was an officer in the Long Range Desert Group, a brilliant special forces unit whose specialty was navigation and reconnaissance, and Bill understood how a guerrilla force could complement their role in the desert.

SAS David Stirling and Paddy Mayne

David Stirling and Paddy Mayne

There was also some input from David, who had been shipped out to Egypt with the ‘Layforce’ Commando force in February 1941. Six months of inertia in North Africa had led him to explore other means of attacking the enemy. Together with another commando officer, Jock Lewes, they had experimented with parachutes in June 1941 but the pair had both been injured on landing. It was while recuperating in a Cairo hospital that Bill and David drafted a document for the small guerrilla force that would become known as the SAS.

It was Bill, however, who handed the document to Arthur Smith, and it was he who also recruited most of the first officers to the SAS once the Stirlings had been authorized to put their idea into practice.

Had it been David selecting the officers, Paddy Mayne would almost certainly have  turned down the approach in September 1941. He had only recently left his commando troop after an altercation with his commanding-officer, Major Geoffrey Keyes. Like David, Keyes had all the worst traits of the upper-class: arrogance, entitlement and indolence. Keyes knew he was Mayne’s inferior as a man and a soldier, and it made him envious. David Stirling would in time bear a similar grudge.

According to Reg Seekings, one of the original members of the SAS, when the war ended Stirling and Mayne ‘weren’t speaking to each other because there were certain people feeding stories to one another, deliberately building up trouble’.

Stirling had been captured in January 1943 and on his release from captivity in April 1945 he assumed he would be welcomed back into the SAS with open arms. On April 21 a signal was sent to Germany over the brigade’s communication channel: ‘David Stirling in great heart, sends many messages and congratulations to all, and hopes to come out and visit you soon’.

Not if Mayne could help it. His laconic reply was sent on April 22: ‘Pleased to hear of David’s release. Hope he has long leave and rest he deserves.’

Mayne had assumed command of the SAS after Stirling’s capture, subsequently leading the regiment into Sicily, Italy and then into France in 1944. That year the SAS had become a brigade; it was a far cry from the small and poorly led unit of the early days. The last thing Mayne wanted was the return of Stirling.

He got his way. After a spell of leave, Stirling was posted to the training battalion of the Scots Guards, his parent regiment, where he remained until July 10 1945. On that date he was appointed deputy commandant of SAS Headquarters. There wasn’t much to do as the SAS were in Norway disarming the Germans. Stirling lasted a week in his post before he relinquished his command; no reason for his abrupt departure was noted on his service record.

The last recorded meeting between Mayne and Stirling was at an SAS reunion in December 1947 in London; a reporter from the Observer newspaper was present and wrote of Mayne that his ‘immense charm and cunning could only be compared to his mountainous physical proportions’. He described Stirling as ‘a sleepy imperturbable Scot’.

Neither Mayne nor Stirling found the return to civilian street easy. The war had scarred them psychologically and physically (they had both sustained back injuries) and Mayne was unable to resume his rugby career. But he was a qualified solicitor and on returning to Newtownards he was appointed the Secretary of Northern Ireland’s Law Society.

Stirling had nothing. He was aimless, lacking a purpose and a status, and he spent much of 1946 drinking with Evelyn Waugh. Twice he tried to publish a wartime memoir, the first time a collaborative effort with other SAS officers, and the second an individual recollection. Neither came to fruition. His manuscript was rejected by a publisher for being prosaic.

Disenchanted, Stirling moved to Rhodesia and launched a civil rights pressure group called Capricorn Africa Society. It was well-intentioned but, like the early SAS, suffered from poor organisation and leadership. It also quickly ran into financial trouble. And then Paddy Mayne died.

His death in a car accident in December 1955 shocked Northern Ireland. He was a hero on the sportsfield and the battlefield. He had his flaws – his binge drinking was legendary – but he was a revered figure for many. Among the hundreds of mourners at his funeral were many former comrades from the commandos and SAS present, but Stirling wasn’t among them. He may have been in Rhodesia but it was curious that when a tribute to Mayne was run in The Times the following week it was written by Brian Franks, a relative latecomer to the SAS, having joined in June 1944. Stirling was the obvious choice to eulogise Mayne given their bond from the regiment’s days.

In fact Stirling had every intention to write about Mayne now that he was dead. In early 1956 he secured the services of the society author Virginia Cowles, an American whose previous biographies included one of Winston Churchill. The PM had been so pleased with the book he sent her a note of gratitude. Stirling knew he could rely on Cowles to do his bidding.

The book was entitled The Phantom Major, and it was an extravagant and embellished account of David Stirling’s war in which he was transformed into Mayne. ‘Stirling became a legend to the men who served him,’ wrote Cowles. ‘There was no trap from which he could not fight his way, no occasion on which he could not outwit the enemy … a blackbearded giant with inexhaustible energy … the dark, shrewd eyes shone with a cold determination.’

Mayne was painted as a sullen, inarticulate and undisciplined Irishman whom only Stirling could bring to heel. Stirling told Cowles that Mayne was ‘under close detention’ for knocking out his commanding officer when he was invited to join the SAS. That was untrue.

But it set the tone for the insidious assassination of Mayne’s character over the next three decades, all of the defamation encouraged by Stirling. He told another biographer in the 1980s that Mayne was prejudiced against Catholics (he wasn’t) and that he had a ‘blockage’ when it came to logistics and administration (that was Stirling, not Mayne, the qualified solicitor well versed in such tasks).

Stirling in 1942

The most damning description of Mayne, however, was the biography Rogue Warrior of the SAS, published in 1987, for which Stirling wrote the foreword and contributed his opinion of Mayne. The book alleges that Mayne was a misogynist and a homosexual. He wasn’t, but Stirling was, and his cunning complicity in spreading such falsehoods was his final and ultimate revenge.

How should Paddy Mayne be remembered? First, as a lethal and instinctive guerrilla fighter, and second as a natural leader. I have been fortunate to interview many SAS veterans who served under the Irishman. Few knew him as well as Mike Sadler, who first encountered Mayne in December 1941 while with the LRDG, and subsequently served in the SAS for three years. He told me: ‘Paddy felt his true vocation in war; he was well suited to war and he enjoyed it…Paddy had controlled recklessness [but] he wasn’t the hard drinking fearless mad Irishman of popular myth. He was intelligent, sensitive and warm underneath.’

Alex Muirhead, an officer in 1SAS from 1942 to 1945, reflected that Mayne could be as combative intellectually as he was in action, but ‘I always found him ready to accept a reasoned argument even in heat of battle. There is no doubt in my mind that Paddy was a great leader and if we had not been successful under his leadership I doubt the SAS would have been reformed’.

Mayne, who was awarded the DSO on four occasions, set himself high standards as a soldier and he expected his men to strive to attain similar excellence. He had no time for wastrels, one reason he disliked Stirling. But what struck me most about the tales I heard of Mayne from veterans was his solicitude for the men under his command. Mike Calvert, who commanded the SAS brigade in 1945 recalled that Mayne ‘was very careful of his men and so would do very good planning’.

He also kept a paternal eye on them away from the battlefield. The anecdote that in my view encapsulates Mayne was told to me by Bob Francis, a 21-year-old when he joined the SAS in early 1944.

The following Christmas Francis decided to propose to his girlfriend in a brief window when she would be on leave in London. But first he had to get leave from the SAS. He went to see Mayne at their HQ in Chelmsford and explained his predicament. The Irishman granted him a week’s leave and then asked if he had anywhere to stay. Francis hadn’t got that far in his planning. Mayne wrote down the name of a small hotel in Kensington, run by friends of his. ‘He told me to go there and I would be taken off,’ remembered Francis. ‘I then started for the door and Paddy asked if I had any money. I had only a little bit. So he reached into his pocket and gave me £10. I’d never seen such a sum. Paddy was a wonderful man.’

Gavin Mortimer is the author of David Stirling: The Phoney Major. You can listen to an interview with Gavin on the Aspects of History Podcast.