The turbulent character of Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne is undoubtedly a talking point among SAS Rogue Heroes audiences. Portrayed in the BBC series by Skins star Jack O’Connell, the real-life soldier famously had a fearless image and remains, to this day, a controversial figure in history. Read on to learn more about his life, of which only one small portion is covered in the BBC drama.
Paddy Mayne was born in 1915 to a wealthy family in Newtownards in Northern Ireland. He was a gifted sportsman, most notably a rising star who represented both Ireland and the British Lions at rugby. Mayne was (in)famously known for being a rowdy drinker, and his antics — alcohol-induced or otherwise — during the Lions tour to South Africa in 1938 included destroying hotel rooms, picking fights with locals, freeing a convict he had befriended, sneaking out of an official dinner for a late-night hunting trip, and abandoning the bloody antelope carcass in the hotel.
Mayne studied to be a solicitor at Queen’s University of Belfast, where he also took up boxing, winning the Irish Universities Heavyweight Championship in 1936, later reaching the final of the British Universities Heavyweight Championship. After graduation, he joined George Maclaine & Co., but his legal and sporting careers were interrupted by the start of World War II.
From the 5 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Mayne was transferred to the 66th Light AA Regiment, and then to the Royal Ulster Rifles. He later volunteered for the No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, where was a second-lieutenant in the Syria–Lebanon campaign. It was his friend and fellow officer in the No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, Eoin McGonigal, who recommended Mayne to Captain David Stirling (portrayed by Connor Swindells in the series), the founder of the Special Air Service, then still named ‘L Detachment’. As the story goes, Mayne happened to be under arrest at the time for hitting either his commanding officer or a fellow officer, and he was recruited straight from his cell when an intrigued Stirling went to visit.
In the approximate two years spent under Stirling’s command in the SAS, Mayne participated in numerous night raids in the deserts of Egypt and Libya. His first major success was leading an attack in Tamet, in which 24 aircraft were destroyed, along with fuel tanks, ammunition, and telegraph poles. According to the National Army Museum, it was also during this raid in which Mayne personally wrenched out the control panel of an enemy aircraft, which became a bit of an SAS legend. This ensured the survival of the SAS, which had been under fire for botching up an operation in North Africa.
After Stirling’s capture in 1943, Mayne led the SAS through their final campaigns. It was claimed that he had a personal tally of destroying more than 100 aircraft in his career, collecting the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with three additional bars along the way, making him one of the most decorated soldiers in the British Army.
After the war, Mayne never married or had children. He died in 1955, aged 40, after crashing his car in a drunk-driving accident. There is still debate about if Mayne should have received the Victoria Cross — the highest military award for valour, with many continuing the campaign for him to be honoured posthumously.