SAS: Rogue Heroes – the Real-Life Paddy Mayne Controversy

A new BBC World War Two drama from the creator of Peaky Blinders has reignited a real-life campaign for justice

Jack O'Connell in SAS: Rogue Heroes
Photo: BBC/Kudos/Robert Viglasky

WARNING: this article contains SPOILERS for SAS: Rogue Heroes

SAS: Rogue Heroes – a historical drama depicting the fascinating true story of how the famed Special Air Service was formed – is now available to stream on BBC iPlayer. The six-part series has been created by Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight, and is based on the bestselling book of the same name by historian Ben Macintyre.

Tune in, and you’ll meet Paddy Mayne, one of the founding members of the SAS (played by Skins star Jack O’Connell), a rogue hero whose history is still mired in controversy.

Why? Because some consider him to be the bravest soldier in history never to be awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest military award for gallantry – and to this day, there’s an active campaign for it to be awarded posthumously.

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A boxer, a Northern Ireland rugby star and reportedly an excellent shot, Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne went into the Second World War with many ideal qualities for a soldier, and also had a reputation as a rambunctious personality.

He proved to be a gift to the newly formed SAS, pioneering the use of military jeeps to conduct surprise hit-and-run raids to destroy enemy aircraft and petrol dumps, and leading several successful missions, some of which we’ll see in the course of SAS: Rogue Heroes. These earned him the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with three bars (each of which are added to the original DSO), making him one of only seven British servicemen to receive this award four times during World War Two. 

Some say Mayne was personally responsible for destroying 100 aircraft, and he’s reputed to have destroyed more German planes during the Second World War than the RAF’s top ace.

After one particularly perilous mission in Germany in 1945, in which Mayne drove a jeep – all guns blazing – in full view of the enemy to rescue two wounded comrades, clearing a path for a Canadian division to advance as he did so, he was recommended for the Victoria Cross. His recommendation was supported by witness statements, including from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, celebrating his ‘brilliant military leadership and cool calculating courage’.

Jack O'Connell as Paddy Mayne in SAS Rogue Heroes
Jack O’Connell as Paddy Mayne (centre) with Jock Lewes (played by Alfie Allen) and David Stirling (played by Connor Swindells)

And yet six months later his Victoria Cross was downgraded to his fourth DSO instead. It’s not known who took this decision, or why, but it remains a wartime controversy that is still ongoing. 

Some say it’s down to Mayne’s reputation as a troublemaker (especially after drinking). This is certainly how he’s introduced in SAS: Rogue Heroes, breaking out of prison in Cairo by dispensing with not one but three soldiers with a wince-inducing ferocity. Even SAS founder David Stirling (played by Connor Swindells in the drama) is said to have thought Mayne overstepped the mark at times, in particular when he reportedly gunned down up to 30 unarmed soldiers in the Libyan desert in 1941. Others argue that downgrading a VC was a standard practice, and Mayne was not alone in receiving this treatment. 

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The ‘grave injustice’ of not awarding Mayne a Victoria Cross was raised as an Early Day Motion before the House of Commons in 2005, signed by over 100 MPs. This EDM went as far as quoting King George IV, who inquired why the award ‘so strangely eluded him’, and confirmed David Stirling believed there was ‘considerable prejudice’ towards Mayne. 

The government ignored the EDM’s call to ensure the Victoria Cross was reinstated, and the fight continues to this day, currently spearheaded by the Blair Paddy Mayne Twitter account which has become especially popular in the run-up to the release of SAS: Rogue Heroes.

They fight to keep Paddy’s legacy alive, and are keen to point out that the ‘muscle for hire’ image many people remember him for doesn’t tell the full story. For instance, they reveal he carried a poetry book called Other Men’s Flowers into battle – and SAS: Rogue Heroes does show this side of him, as we see Mayne reciting poetry in prison during the first episode. They also tell the story of how – when his best friend Eoin McGonigal (played by Donal Finn in SAS: Rogue Heroes) was killed in action, Paddy gave up his leave to go and search for Eoin’s grave, putting himself in considerable danger, and wrote a heartfelt letter to Eoin’s mother sending his condolences.

Regardless of whether you believe Paddy should have received his Victoria Cross or not, it’s undeniable that his story goes beyond what we see in SAS: Rogue Heroes, and – like so many war heroes – Paddy Mayne’s is a life well worth remembering.

SAS Rogue Heroes is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK and will stream on Epix from November 13th in the US