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Earlier this year I bought another book about Paddy Mayne "Rogue Warrior of the SAS by Martin Dillon and Roy Bradford. Many elements of it just didn't ring true to me, or match the accounts I had read in other books like The Originals, and one of the authors does have a strong reputation for sensationalist journalism, so I wanted to read yet another source to balance things out. If this review appears to have too much detail on the Dillion book it is because it is mentioned frequently in this one and in fact this can be seen as rebuttal to the previous book - a chance to set the record straight and clear the name of a national hero.
This book chronicles the life of Lt Col. Blair "Paddy" Mayne. The material in regards to his childhood is extremely thin, mainly giving us the names of his immediate family and mentioning that he excelled in sports from an early age, as well as have an interest in literature and the arts. Brief mention is given to his career as an international rugby player, first for the all Ireland team and then the British Lions. This is about all we get of the pre war Blair Mayne, but it has already set the tone for this book. Hamish Ross is only giving us the facts. His account is sketchy here because the available material is limited, but he is sticking to such few details as can be verified by school records and such. There is also a small section on as his career with the Scottish Commandos. At the outbreak of war, Blair Mayne joined a Scottish regiment and ceased to be Blair Mayne - from this point on he would be known as Paddy.
Much of Paddy's life would be shrouded in myth after this point. Stories do seem to grow with each telling, and many of my very favourite stories have been left out - or worse completely debunked. For instance - I always rather liked the story of Stirling coming to Mayne in prison, where he had been placed under arrest for beating his commanding officer senseless. it's a brilliant story - I would have liked it to be true. Sadly the records show otherwise. Paddy was confined when Stirling contacted, and I don't think he was entirely delighted about the fact, although it was in relative comfort. But he wasn't in Prison, he was in a Malaria Hospital convalescing. This is easily verifiable by military records. It appears there was an incident in which his commanding officer reporting being assaulted and punched by Mayne and attempted to have him arrested but the higher ups refused, especially as eyewitnesses supported Mayne saying that he had simply brushed the officer - and the officer had stumbled. This coincided with a massive exodus from the Scottish Commando as a strict but respected CO had been killed and the new officer apparently put in place due to family connections. A letter from the time exists with the officer asking his mother to get Daddy to save his job as his men were requesting transfers in bulk and the units future was seriously in doubt. Stirling happened to be recruiting at the time and many of these refugees from the Scottish Commando found homes in his unit.
I don't want to go into great detail of Paddy's career in the SAS because if you follow military history - you already know all of these details. If you do not, and you choose to read the book, it would be best to find them out as you go along. In short, the SAS accomplished the impossible on a regular basis in their desert campaign, during which with only a handful of men, they destroyed more enemy aircraft than the RAF. It was in the desert that the SAS operated to it's full potential, and it was style of unit that would be recreated when a new SAS squadron was raised - this time for Jungle warfare in Malaysia. The SAS of the desert have become the SAS of today. But that is not to say they could not adapt. They also served with honour and distinction when the unit moved to the European front, This will be covered as well, but it is is clear this is not the same type of warfare they waged in the desert - nor completely the best use of these men at all times. Still, it was Mayne that held the unit together after the capture of Stirling - continually fighting to keep the unit intact and to hold true to their original ideals.
The book concludes with details of Mayne's Antarctic expedition and his return to Northern Ireland. The section on the Antarctic is especially good as this is drawn mainly from Mayne's own journal, and gives the reader a fresh view of the man. Ross debunks the most vicious of myths which portray Mayne as a great man in battle , but unfit for anything else and falling apart as pathetic drunken menace to society after the war. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is evidence that Mayne drank far too much and made a fool of himself on one occasion - and in his own words we can here how deeply ashamed he was of this. Mayne had always put a stipulation on drinking that having a good time was fine - as long as one did not become a nuisance. He had broken his own rule and severely regretted it. I think every man is entitled to one mistaken in a life time - and the scale of things a case of drunk and disorderly is not really such a huge offense.
Ross has been heavily criticised for picking his competition apart - and he does just that. He provides hard evidence over and over proving that many of the myths about Mayne were in false. In some ways this does take something from the flow of the story. Because what Ross is writing is contrary to so much that has been written before, he feels the need to document everything. There are 15 pages in microscopic print of foot notes and sources at the back of the book as well as detailed information through documenting the fact that Ross has solid proof of his conclusions, this is not just opinion. I can understand his reasons for this - but had it not been for the other book - I think he might have been able to write a more relaxed easy going tome. In all honesty, I would have loved to have a few stories from surviving members alongside the military reports which can make for very dull reading. I would have enjoyed a few more anecdotes. Ross only uses eyewitness accounts where he has evidence as well for the war years.
Ross has also been accused of a white-wash of Mayne's name, for not printing the negative aspects. But his detractors fail to mention the previous black-wash on Mayne's name - making him out to be a violent drunk unable to adjust to peacetime life. He has included brief statements from people who knew him well at this time, all of whom give the impression that he adjusted as well as could be expected. He got on with life - helping others where he could, fulfilling his responsibilities as Secretary to the Legal Society with his usual excellence in everything he did - and enjoying life as he found it. For the most part though, Ross relies as he done throughout the book - on verifiable evidence alone. He very well may have had brawls - and in fact I would speculate that he did. But Ross refuses to speculate - if there is no evidence - he is not printing it.
I can only think of two occasions in the book where Ross renders his own opinion without proof. In the first he writes that he could only imagine Mayne walking away from a certain meeting with a smile on his face - and this is just the way I would picture it as well. On the second occasion he completely destroys Martin's speculations on Mayne's supposed misogyny and sexuality - and he has vast amounts evidence to prove it - the most damning against Dillion would be Paddy's own journal thoroughly debunking Dillon's theories. He mentions that much of the evidence he has relied on was available when the early book was written and ventures his opinion that this was done in spite - and although I hesitate to accuse someone of deliberately trying to slander a national hero - I have often wondered exactly the same myself. In short, Ross said exactly what I was thinking, although in a more diplomatic manner and without going to into motive. My husband also proffered a very similar opinion - in the least diplomatic or suitable for print terms.
I have a few other complaints about the book - but I can't blame the author for these. There are some events which are heartbreaking, and I didn't quite get the happily ever after ending I would have liked. This is not a light and easy read, but it is factual, and a real learning experience. This is an absolute must read for anyone with an interest in the early SAS, or military history - but this book has value far above being a historical record of the war , the unit or the man.
In my opinion, the greatest value of this book is the skills it teaches in leadership - even though I am quite sure this was not the authors intention. Both by example, and through his own words on leading men, Paddy sets down exactly what every leader of any kind should aspire to. It gives real insight into why he was so well loved by his men, and how he accomplished the impossible through their complete trust and devotion to duty. The Paddy Mayne of this book does not come across as a reckless hero, but as man inspired to bravery by his devotion to both duty and the well being of those placed in charge. This is certainly something every military officer today should read, although his style of leadership is anything but traditional military - but it should also be read by anyone in a position to lead or direct other - to inspire them to fulfill their utmost potential or perhaps to even find greatness,
You may feel this doesn't apply to you. Most of reading will not be in a position of leading men. But many of us do lead children in a sense. Paddy's recipe for leadership could also be a formula for parenting, teaching, or youth work, as well as suiting those responsible for others on a corporate level. If you are in a position to inspire others - big or small - this book is for you, and as incongruous as it may sound - I would class this as an excellent resource for parenting as well. It may be weighed down by facts at times, but it does set the record straight and I think almost everyone could learn something from this book - not just about history - but about human nature as well. I feel this is a book that if read and applied in life could actually result in a better future, and it contains knowledge I will bare in mind for the rest of my life - especially in regard to parenting and youth work.