The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the bravery which was displayed by Lt Col Blair Mayne during the Second World War and calls on the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.
I ask Members to imagine, with me, for a brief moment, a scene of terror. The air is filled with the screams of dying and the stench of the dead. You are gasping for breath as your lungs intake gulps of gunpowder-tinged air. You are lying in a ditch. The enemy is firing so often without break that the rat-tat-tat of bullets merges together. You know that each searing breath may well be your last. The officer that you look to for direction is dead. Deep in your heart, you believe that it will take a miracle to lift you from this scene of hell.
Suddenly, you hear a different sound: the roaring of an engine. With your last vestige of energy, you lift your head. With stinging eyes, you make out the form of a jeep that is cutting through the madness and mayhem. The man on board fires at the enemy like an avenging angel. He slows the jeep down at the ditch. On his way past, he calls: “I’ll pick you up on the way back.” Nothing flowery; no grand words — just a promise that gives you hope that, perhaps, it is not the time for you to die.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
With a hammering heart, you watch as the man on the jeep forces the enemy to retreat, despite the fact that it holds all of the advantages of position, men and firepower. As the enemy retreats, the jeep turns around. This time, it stops. The avenging angel jumps to the ground amid a hail of bullets and holds out his hand.
Shaking, you grasp the hand as you are bundled in with your 11 comrades and wildly driven to safety. As you look to see what form your angel takes, you see that it is that crazy Ulsterman. It is “Paddy” Mayne, and everything falls into place. It is a man who is known for bravery and courage and for leading men to victory. A man who is and, in your eyes and the eyes of your surviving family, will for ever remain a hero of epic fame.
That story is the true story of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne’s actions as seen from one of the men who was saved by Colonel Mayne, or “Paddy”, as he was affectionately known. The story does not take into account the fact that, before Colonel Mayne and Lieutenant Scott had driven the jeep into oncoming enemy fire, Mayne had summed up the situation. Ever a man of initiative and action, he entered the first house that had formed the enemy defences and, after checking to ensure that the enemy was dead, he moved out into the open and fired into the next house, taking out those behind the enemy fire before moving in to ensure that none of the enemy remained.
After ensuring that clean sweep, he turned his attention to how best to save the trapped point men of the squadron. He noted that the enemy was well ensconced in the forest, and, with no way to surround them, he departed on what seemed to be a suicide mission in order to rescue those men. Not only did “Paddy” manage to rescue his colleagues, but he forced a retreat from the enemy.
It has been said that a level-one award such as the Victoria Cross (VC) is only given when the chance of death is 50% or more. A report from Brigadier Calvert, dated 11 June 1945, said:
“There can only be one explanation why Colonel Mayne was not killed by what had already proved deadly and concentrated fire: the sheer audacity and daring which he showed in driving his jeep across a field of fire momentarily bewildering the enemy.”
He also said:
“Colonel Mayne from the time he arrived dominated the scene. His cheerfulness, resolution and unsurpassed courage in this action was an inspiration to us all”.
Undoubtedly, it was a suicidal mission to rescue his comrades and ensure that the enemy retreated further. Colonel Mayne’s mission was a complete success. In the words of Brigadier Calvert:
“Not only did he save the lives of the wounded but he also completely defeated and destroyed the enemy.”
Ninety-six per cent of the people who have been awarded the Victoria Cross have been assisted in the actions for which the award was made. Colonel Mayne’s story is the stuff of which legends are made. It is the stuff of which many of us dreamed as young boys and acted out in our gardens. Blair Mayne was certainly a hero of mine as a young child, many years ago. His actions were those of a man who put others first and went above and beyond the call of duty. There is no doubt that his actions on that day were heroic and worthy of recognition and commendation. That is why Brigadier Calvert recommended that Mayne be awarded the highest award, the Victoria Cross. Mayne was informed that he was to be granted that well-deserved accolade, and he informed his mother accordingly, which made her even more proud of him.
I shall explain why I have told that war story, which could — and probably will — be made into a blockbusting film about a founding member of a covert special raiding squadron, a hero many times over, who is reputed to have single-handedly downed 130 enemy planes and was commended for the highest military award. The reason is that, six months later, a terrible mistake occurred. That mistake stripped Blair Mayne of his hard-won honour and much of his self-esteem.
The award of the Victoria Cross by the 1931 royal warrant is bestowed upon those who display acts of conspicuous gallantry and for a signal act of valour in the presence of the enemy. Mayne more than attained that standard, but the mistake lies with the word “signal”, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:
“an event or statement that provides the impulse or occasion for something to happen.”
It was not a planned event, and Mayne certainly qualified for the award. However, the word “signal” was misread as “single”. Mayne had been accompanied in the jeep by Lieutenant Scott, who provided covering fire, and, therefore had not acted single-handedly, which meant that he was deemed to be ineligible for the award. That mistake by a high-ranking civil servant — Jack Ganning, a military secretary — resulted in Mayne being stripped of the award. Instead, he was given a third bar on his Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
As evidence that Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne was supposed to get the Victoria Cross, on his citation, “VC” was marked, but stroked out, for the commendation. That is important evidence, and it clearly demonstrates that he was meant to receive the Victoria Cross.
We are not the only people who cannot understand why that medal was not awarded. King George VI asked how it was that the Victoria Cross eluded “Paddy”, and he enquired into why the award was downgraded. When he asked Winston Churchill to explain the demerit, Churchill was said to have been shocked and saddened by the glaring omission.
Enquiries were also made by several officers, who also could not understand what had happened. They did not have the access that we now have to the files, which clearly show a mistake between a few letters in the words “single” and “signal”. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, Major General Sir Robert Laycock, who, at the time, was a serving officer in the forces, wrote a letter in which he stated that Blair Mayne deserved a Victoria Cross and would have received one had the proper authorities known their job.
As a consequence of someone’s misreading of a word, Blair Mayne did not receive the greatest honour that this country can bestow. No matter how much being awarded the highest French accolade meant, to have been given, and then stripped of, his British honour haunted Mayne for the rest of his life. For that reason, I ask the Assembly to do all in its power to put right that wrong and ensure that a true war hero — one of Ulster’s and Newtownards’s special sons — is finally given that which is rightly his — the Victoria Cross.
I am not asking for a precedent to be set by this posthumous and retrospective award. The Ministry of Defence paperwork provides clear evidence that he was commended for the Victoria Cross and informed that it was his. I ask only that the mistake be rectified and that his honour be properly restored to him and his hometown, Newtownards, which is eternally proud of its courageous soldier.
The memory of Blair Mayne lives on in Ards people’s hearts, and, in the Public Gallery, we are joined today by people from the Blair Mayne Research Society in Newtownards, including Barry Abbott from England, who has been industrious in his research. People from all over the world are taking an interest in this matter. The Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales will debate the same motion, and it is also intended to raise the matter in the Houses of Parliament. In this Assembly, in Blair Mayne’s home country, I ask Members to support the campaign.
There is a statue of Blair Mayne in Newtownards town centre, and his image now adorns walls that once boasted murals depicting paramilitary paraphernalia. It is time that the memory of a man who lived for his colleagues and his country was restored to its full glory through the restitution of the Victoria Cross.
King George VI asked him how it was that he had not received the Victoria Cross, and he answered in a manner that sums up this courageous and honourable man:
“I served to my best my Lord, my King and my Queen, and none can take that honour away from me.”
Let us do better today and restore and replace that which was his.
I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “bravery” and insert:
“of many men and women in His Majesty’s Forces during the Second World War, including that which was displayed by Lt Col Blair Mayne; and calls on the Ministry of Defence to reconsider previous recommendations made on their behalf for the application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.”
We owe no apology to the Mayne family for debating this motion in the House; however, I must say that we have drawn a crowd. In this debate, the nationalist, non-unionist interest is unsurpassed, and I thank Mr Attwood and Dr Farry for their attendance. There is only one member of the SDLP, one member of the Alliance Party and Mr Deputy Speaker, who, dare I presume, would not be here either if he had not been required to do his job. Five DUP and three Ulster Unionist Party Members have attended to debate this major issue.
Having said that, and having proposed the amendment, I am mindful of the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne was not alone in not receiving proper recognition for his considerable deeds of bravery and heroism. Research indicates that few Victoria Crosses were awarded to anyone during 1945. By that stage, the Allied Governments had decided that the war against Germany had been won, and all that remained to be done, in effect, were mopping-up operations.
It seemed that the Government needed heroes no longer and were turning their attention to the construction of the post-war world. Research also indicates that the vast majority of Victoria Cross recommendations were downgraded, or even ignored, by the awards committee.
Many heroes deserve to be recognised, just as Blair Mayne deserves to be recognised — for example, Group Captain Willie Tait, known as “Tirpitz Tait” after his most famous exploit, raiding the German Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz in Norway. He was awarded four Distinguished Service Orders and two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs). Many people like Willie Tait and Blair Mayne should have been awarded the Victoria Cross but were not; hence the wording of our amendment.
The failure to award the VC in no way diminishes the deeds of “Paddy” Mayne. He needs no VC to be remembered as a hero. In fact, he never exhibited any concern about the failure of the authorities to award him the Victoria Cross. Like most men of courage, he rarely mentioned his exploits after the war.
“That this House recognises the grave injustice meted out to Lt Col Paddy Mayne, of 1st, SAS, who won the Victoria Cross at Oldenburg in North West Germany on 9th April 1945; notes that this was subsequently downgraded, some six months later, to a third bar DSO, that the citation had been clearly altered and that David Stirling, founder of the SAS has confirmed that there was considerable prejudice towards Mayne and that King George VI enquired why the Victoria Cross had ‘so strangely eluded him’;”
The motion continues:
“and therefore calls upon the Government to mark these anniversaries by instructing the appropriate authorities to act without delay to reinstate the Victoria Cross given for exceptional personal courage and leadership of the highest order and to acknowledge that Mayne’s actions on that day saved the lives of many men and greatly helped the allied advance on Berlin.”
“Paddy” Mayne was a controversial figure — heroes, and particularly military heroes, often are. His exploits, which were outstanding, showed the kind of heroism that this country badly needed in the dark days of World War II, when it stood at the edge of a disaster, facing an implacable and dangerous enemy with a human rights record that has blackened the history books ever since. The small-minded people who denied Blair Mayne the award did not understand the spirit that makes ordinary men admire the heroism of the likes of “Paddy” Mayne. Even the King, who normally never commented on such matters, enquired as to why the Victoria Cross so strangely eluded Blair “Paddy” Mayne.
Historical wrongs have been righted before. Men who were suffering from shell shock were wrongly shot as traitors in World War I, and that wrong was righted in so far as it could be. Apologies were rightly given for the slave trade and its impact on Africans. Therefore, why can the Ministry of Defence not bend a little and give proper recognition to one — indeed, all — of this country’s heroes? Is the Ministry of Defence trying to pretend that it can never be wrong? Surely it must realise that its continued petty-mindedness on the awarding of a VC to Blair Mayne and on its treatment of other heroes diminishes the Ministry in all our eyes.
My colleague Alan McFarland and I gave considerable thought to introducing our amendment.
We received correspondence from the Blair Mayne Research Society on the motion. On the basis of that correspondence, we felt that our amendment was appropriate.
In its letter, the society — an organisation formed in 1996, at the request of Ards Borough Council, to research the life and times of Blair Mayne in conjunction with the erection of a bronze statue of him in Newtownards town centre — offered these valuable and significant comments:
“It may be necessary to suggest at a distance of over 60 years that Paddy Mayne deserved a Victoria Cross, but how do we separate Paddy’s deeds from Willie Tait and many other brave men and women who fought and, indeed, sacrificed their lives for the freedom we all enjoy today? The answer is, we can’t. So, in supporting a VC request, we must include all the others who were recommended but never awarded … Blair Mayne himself never felt bitter or sore about the denial of a VC. Indeed, like all heroes, he never really talked about it. The family have been gracious with regard to a Victoria Cross, with his brother saying: yes, he should have got it during or just after the war, but to award it now, who will they pin it on? … Victoria Crosses are won on the field of battle, not in committee rooms or debating chambers. Support, if agreed, should be given to all, not just a few. How can we decide, just as that Awards Committee in 1945 decided, who deserves and who does not?”
With or without a Victoria Cross, Blair “Paddy” Mayne will always be a hero — the history books will confirm that. So, too, will many other brave men and women, who, like Blair Mayne, have been overlooked and denied the Victoria Cross. This amendment is not intended to detract from Blair Mayne’s war record. We fully support the reconsideration of an application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. In doing so, however, we ask the House to do as we have done, which is to recognise that there are others equally deserving.
I did not meet or know Blair “Paddy” Mayne, but I guess that, if he was about to hear this debate, he, being the man that he was, would not only be proud to see what was being done in recognition of him, but probably feel quite embarrassed, too. Most certainly, though, he would be the first to say that others should be considered also.
I endorse the campaign to recognise the heroism that was shown by Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne, otherwise known as “Paddy”. As a man from the town of Bangor, I speak with some trepidation. I declare, however, that I was born in Newtownards and lived there for perhaps a week. I am, therefore, capable of riding two horses at the same time.
I appreciate the real pride in Newtownards in the local hero, “Paddy” Mayne, who has been recognised through the erection of a statue. Locals also feel that it would be appropriate to recognise his deeds in the customary way of the British armed forces: through the award of a VC.
I appreciate the significance of the Victoria Cross. One of the sons of Bangor, the Hon Barry Bingham, was awarded the VC during the First World War. He was a resident of Bangor Castle long before it became the headquarters of Bangor Borough Council and, subsequently, North Down Borough Council. He was recognised for his heroism during the battle of Jutland in 1916, when he was a commander in the Royal Navy. He later became a rear admiral.
Many years ago, the honourable Barry Bingham’s Victoria Cross was bought by North Down Borough Council, and it was displayed at North Down Museum until someone was caught walking out with it in a pocket. However, it has now been put under lock and key, because it is a very valuable piece of memorabilia. We recognise the importance of recognising courage.
As Mr McNarry said, it is important to acknowledge that “Paddy” Mayne was a flawed character in many many different ways. However, it is fair to say that there have been many flawed characters throughout history. Indeed, most of our heroes have deep flaws. In fact, a certain amount of recklessness is required to merit a Victoria Cross or other medal, as conventional wisdom and procedures must be set aside to do the unconventional in order to achieve the objectives of protecting the lives of one’s comrades and defeating the enemy. In that context, it is appropriate to recognise the contribution that was made by “Paddy” Mayne.
Equally, we should recognise Private William McFadzean, who I believe — but I stand to be corrected — was the first resident from what eventually became Northern Ireland to receive the Victoria Cross during the First World War. Indeed, he was a teenage tearaway, but when he threw himself on top of a live grenade to protect his comrades, his only concern was for the lives of his comrades. His actions are reflected in the way in which “Paddy” Mayne conducted himself in his contribution to the war.
Aside from “Paddy” Mayne’s bravery, his role in the formation of the SAS during the Second World War should also be recognised. That was very much an improvisation to meet an evolving set of needs.
Mr McNarry touched on the argument that has been made about politicians trying to second-guess decisions that were made by the military up to 90 years ago. However, as can be seen from the so-called shot-at-dawn campaign, with the passing of time and perspective of history, matters can appear in a different light. There are occasions when decisions that were made for the best reasons at the time need to be reconsidered in the light of history. It is only through the study of history that we can see events in a fuller perspective. For those reasons, there are significant grounds for calling on the authorities to reconsider this case and do the appropriate thing with respect to the award of the Victoria Cross. I support the motion.
I thank my fellow party colleagues from the Strangford constituency for securing the debate. Northern Ireland is such a small country, but it is particularly blessed with iconic heroes, whether in sport: David Healy or George Best; in music: Van Morrison; in science: Lord Kelvin: or, indeed, the inventor of milk chocolate, another Strangford old boy, Sir Hans Sloane. We can be proud of our mark on the world.
In the military world, there are few who could match the exploits of Blair Mayne. Given his almost unimaginable bravery and ability during the Second World War, it is hard to believe that he did not receive the Victoria Cross during an already heavily decorated career.
When one reads about Blair Mayne, it is like reading about a fictional hero in a ‘Boy’s Own’ comic. Sometimes, there seems a need to double-check the books to ensure that it is not some work of fiction. Blair Mayne was honoured with a DSO with three bars, the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre, and, as my colleague has stated, his denial of a Victoria Cross was queried by King George VI.
We have heard about the incident for which Blair Mayne was recommended for the Victoria Cross in 1945. The tales of bravery that accompany the awards of the Victoria Cross always astound me, displaying as they do amazing selflessness in the face of enemy onslaught.
I have read and heard about our own Blair Mayne, and his exploits surely rank among the acts of other recipients. He was, allegedly, denied the highest military honour as a result of the military establishment’s prejudice against him — that transgression must be rectified.
After taking out a farmhouse full of enemies and avoiding heavy enemy gunfire three times, Blair Mayne, without concern for his own safety, risked his life to single-handedly rescue a squadron of his troops by lifting them individually into his jeep — how can such bravery not merit the highest possible military honour? Throughout the Second World War, he continually redefined bravery and is credited with assuring the SAS’s future and consolidating its position as a permanent part of the UK defence forces.
Even if the motion does not result in a posthumous award to this Ulster icon, it is appropriate that the House considers his exploits and bravery and that it acknowledge his place in the pantheon of the heroic. Flawed as he was, Blair Mayne was a true leader of men and an outstanding soldier. I support the motion. Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne should take his rightful place among Northern Ireland’s 11 other recipients of the Victoria Cross.
In this country, we sometimes have a habit recognising people’s achievements, such as was the case with George Best, after their death. As was the case with Professor Frank Pantridge — who made a huge contribution to the world of medicine by designing the portable defibrillator — achievements are often not recognised because faces do not fit. Similarly, Harry Ferguson’s contribution to engineering was never recognised; neither of those individuals fitted into the society in charge during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, the same applies to Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne.
Blair Mayne was not an ordinary soldier, and Mr Shannon eloquently described his bravery and his contribution during the Second World War. The SAS and Blair Mayne were made for each other. His characteristics and qualities were ideal for membership of an organisation that tackles the most difficult circumstances and is required to demonstrate a degree of bravery that borders on foolishness.
Blair Mayne had numerous qualities. He was well built, intelligent, and exceptionally brave, and he had an excellent physique and level of fitness, all of which resulted in a phenomenal soldier. Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Bond accomplish fantastic acts. However, those acts are in the movies and on television — Blair Mayne accomplished them in real life during the Second World War.
At the time of the desert campaign, Rommel was one of the most skilled commanders in the German army, and he was exceptionally difficult to get the better of. However, Blair Mayne and his SAS colleagues destroyed 400 enemy planes in the desert. Their efforts in infiltrating enemy lines and destroying those planes contributed greatly to Rommel’s defeat during that conflict.
He was then sent to Italy and southern Europe, and he later fought in France and Germany. It was there that this period of exceptional bravery, which Mr Shannon described, became so evident.
It is regrettable that an amendment has been tabled. It is, unfortunately, a generic amendment that refers to a great number of people as opposed to other, particular individuals. The Victoria Cross is awarded on a limited basis, and only a limited number of people are entitled to receive it. It is evident from the paperwork that Blair Mayne was one of those who should have received the Victoria Cross. To table such a generic amendment, suggesting that others deserve the award and without being specific, damages the motion greatly.
I was somewhat disappointed that a Strangford representative should table such an amendment, given that the motion is about Newtownards’s greatest son. I have some interest in war history, and I believe that Blair Mayne was one of the people who was most entitled to receive the Victoria Cross.
In Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne we had a man who was not only a qualified lawyer and international sportsman, but an example of what a soldier of any nationality should be — courageous, knowledgeable of battle strategy, with an almost unhealthy disregard for his own safety, and above all, protective of fellow members of his unit. Those are characteristics that all soldiers can aspire to, but few can achieve or emulate what Blair Mayne did.
Blair Mayne’s war record attests to the tributes that I described, but, for whatever reason, he was — and has been — overlooked consistently for an award that he was most definitely entitled to, many times over. Indeed, I believe that Blair Mayne should join Lieutenant Colonel Martin-Leake, Captain Chavasse and Captain Upham as a multiple winner of the Victoria Cross, such were the number and heroic nature of his actions during the Second World War.
Blair Mayne, along with Sir David Stirling, was a founding member of the SAS, and after Sir David was captured, the SAS, under Mayne’s sole leadership, fought some courageous and dangerous missions on the island of Sicily, mainland Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Norway. Lieutenant Colonel Mayne, as always, led from the front and was in the forefront of the fighting. This was a man who knew what leadership required. The very action that triggered his nomination for the Victoria Cross was to save comrades who were trapped by enemy fire. That was leadership in its truest form — leading by example. That is also heroism in its truest form.
“most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour, self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”
The citation for actions on 9 April 1945 at Oldenburg in Germany for the Victoria Cross, which was surprisingly refused, shows that it is obvious that Blair Mayne’s actions can be placed easily within the criteria for this highest of bravery awards. His citation read that his:
“brilliant leadership and cool calculating courage” was:
“a single act of supreme bravery”
The citation continued, saying that his “unsurpassed gallantry inspired all ranks”.
It seems that other reasons or considerations denied Blair Mayne the award that he so thoroughly deserved, as his citation was downgraded — if that is an appropriate term to use — to a third bar to his DSO. I saw two comments with regard to the debate that, in particular, focused my thoughts as to why this true hero was denied at least one Victoria Cross. His co-founder of the SAS, Sir David Stirling, described the failure to award the VC to Blair Mayne as “a monstrous injustice”, and King George VI apparently asked why the VC “so strangely eluded” Mayne. I can only agree entirely with those comments.
It is time that the Victoria Cross, which Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne so justly deserved, was awarded to him in recognition of his heroic actions and the lives that he saved on, at least, one occasion in 1945.
I hope that the motion will receive unanimous support from the Assembly, as Blair Mayne saw only the colleagues he was rescuing from certain death and nothing else. He defended democracy and showed extraordinary courage and leadership, yet he maintained a loyalty to his fellow soldiers that cannot be surpassed — all with disregard for his own safety.
I support the motion, and I look forward to reading about Lieutenant Colonel Blair Mayne VC.
I speak somewhat cautiously, given that many people — inside and outside the Chamber — have an appreciation of Blair Mayne’s life beyond anything that I can contribute. However, in such a debate, it is important to acknowledge something that everybody knows. The British Army weaves in and out of the lives of many nationalist families in this part of the world. It is part of our history, and acknowledging that must be part of our understanding of the past.
My father’s brother and brother-in-law fought in the Second World War, and I am named after a member of the First Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, who lies in an unmarked grave in west Flanders and whose name is recorded on the memorial at Nieuport. Therefore, the British Army has been involved in my family’s history, and in the history of many other families on the nationalist side.
This is neither the time nor the place to talk more generally about the British Army and the SAS, because it has woven into the lives of members of the nationalist community in a negative manner. As I said, this is not the time to probe that further.
I agree with Stephen Farry. An unusual feature of heroes is that they tend to have flawed backgrounds. Last Friday was the anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a man who has had particular impact on my life. He certainly had a flawed background, but — perhaps like the man about whom we talk today — he rose to the moment and to the challenge of circumstances in a way that belied his past conduct.
I note that there is division between the unionist parties on the way in which to resolve this matter. It is not the SDLP’s role to take sides in this matter. For that reason, we will not participate in the vote, although we acknowledge the merits of the arguments that have been put forward by the amendment and the motion.
It is worth reminding Members that, on 9 April 1945, two armoured jeep squadrons of 1 SAS had been tasked with clearing a path forward for the Fourth Canadian Armoured Division near Oldenburg in Germany. An incident occurred, and, within around 48 hours, a citation had been written for a Victoria Cross by a chap called Major Michael Blackman — whom I knew in the 1980s — and a Captain Derrick Harrison.
The citation describes the incident. A squadron under Dick Bond had been going forward and Lieutenant Schlee’s jeeps had been hit by the enemy. They had bailed out, with two men injured, and the whole convoy had stopped on the road. “Paddy” Mayne stopped before he reached the killing zone and observed the situation. He then cleared a nearby house, because enemy fire was coming from a second house. He grabbed a Bren gun and went to the second house, killing and wounding the enemy and firing into the woods. He and one of his young officers then jumped into a jeep.
The pair headed up the road in the jeep and through enemy killing ground, while firing at Germans in the woods. They drove back down before going back up for a third time. On this occasion, they stopped where, the citation says his comrades were under fire. “Paddy” Mayne had been driving the jeep. He jumped out, loaded the wounded into the jeep and drove them out of the firing line to safety. That left the enemy with the option of either retreating or being killed, and the squadron moved on. By and large, that is what the citation describes. The story was passed from the brigade commander, Mike Calvert, to the Canadian generals and to General Montgomery. “Paddy” Mayne was then recommended for a Victoria Cross.
However, it soon emerged that the situation had not been quite like that. I will outline what is now believed to have happened. Schlee had been hit and Bond had moved forward in an attempt to find out what was going on. Bond and his driver were shot by a German sniper. Therefore, at the scene there were two bodies, including the squadron commander, and two injured members of the forward troop. Mayne came forward again and assessed the situation in the manner of a good commander. He got a Bren gun and headed off in the jeep with his driver, a Belfast chap called Billy Hull. That pair cleared the first building and Mayne moved the jeep up the road to open fire on the second building. He jumped into another jeep with Lieutenant John Scott. With a ·50 Browning machine gun in the front and twin Vickers in the back, they went up and down the road suppressing German fire along with the other jeep.
It is a brilliant story of outstanding bravery. Indeed, it is in the mode of H Jones in the Falklands War. On that occasion, the attack had bogged down. Jones, the commanding officer, jumped up; his troops jumped up with him, moved forward and the situation was saved. That, too, was a demonstration of outstanding bravery. However, Mayne’s rescue of the prisoners took place when he had driven back up the road. Scott was firing in the woods to make sure that there were no Germans firing at them; there were not. It was at this stage that Mayne loaded the wounded troops and the two bodies into the jeep and drove them to safety. Therefore, the stories of Mayne and Jones are slightly different.
It is worth reminding Members what the Victoria Cross is awarded for. The first criterion of their award is in recognition of an act of outstanding bravery that helped to turn the course of a battle. As Michael Blackman explains, this event did not, in itself, turn the course of the battle. Therefore, the Victoria Cross could be awarded to Mayne based on the second criterion: the rescue of a comrade from an impossible situation without regard for personal safety. It could be argued that Mayne was accompanied by Scott. Indeed, it is argued that Scott did all the shooting while Mayne’s role was merely to drive the jeep.
Therefore, there is an issue as to whether Mayne had any single-handed involvement in the rescue. However, an eligible candidate for a Victoria Cross does not have to have acted single-handedly. Leonard Cheshire received a Victoria Cross in recognition of his participation in endless missions against Germany. Guy Gibson received a Victoria Cross for leading the Dambusters. Victoria Crosses are not only awarded in recognition of single acts of individual bravery.
The difficulty in Mayne’s case lies in the discovery that the initial citation of events had been over-egged. There might have been reluctance further up the line to take the story at face value and, therefore, it was degraded. A book titled ‘Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross’ is worth reading and provides some interesting explanations. It explains that those proposed for Victoria Crosses sometimes came up with the rations. Henry Gallagher and Father Willie Doyle in the First World War and Corporal Jimmy Barnes and Major Desmond White in the Second World War were all highly recommended for a Victoria Cross but did not receive one.
I thank my colleagues and other Members for their contributions to the debate on this very important issue. I am grateful for the general quality of the contributions because it makes my job easier. There is very little left to be said about Blair Mayne — although that has never stopped me in the past.
As has been said most clearly by my colleague Michelle McIlveen, the life story of Lieutenant Colonel Robert “Paddy” Blair Mayne reads like something from a novel. Anyone who has studied Mayne’s life story will realise that he achieved much more in 40 years on this planet than most of us would achieve in 400 years.
He was a solicitor; he was an Irish universities heavyweight boxing champion; he gained six caps for Ireland and toured South Africa — one of the most difficult tours of all — with the British Lions. He was a scratch handicap golfer, I understand — a single-figure handicap golfer, certainly — at Scrabo Golf Club. Anybody who has played Scrabo Golf Club and lost a bag-full of balls will know that that in itself is merit enough to receive some sort of an honour around the town.
The concentration today has rightly been on Blair Mayne’s heroism in a time of war, a time when this country —and, indeed, our whole way of life and civilisation — faced its darkest threat. His service in uniform is the very epitome of gallantry and bravery. As has been said by nearly all Members, Blair Mayne was a founding member of the SAS, serving in various theatres of war, including North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.
Some of the particular acts of heroism that have been mentioned are so unbelievable as to strike you as something from a film — the sort of films that we all watched as children and even watch to this day. During the raid on Tamet airfield — for which he received his first Distinguished Service Order — he single-handedly destroyed 14 aircraft. He was reputedly responsible for destroying more enemy aircraft than any fighter ace. What makes that all the more extraordinary is that he did it on the ground behind enemy lines, not in a plane.
He was parachuted, as has been said by Mr Poots, behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France after D-Day and was awarded three bars on his DSO. That has rightly given him an honoured place on the long list of Ulster military heroes alongside the likes of Montgomery, Alanbrooke and others.
He is the very definition of a local hero. It was when I attended Regent House school, his alma mater — that is where the similarities end between him and I — that I first learnt of his wonderful story. Blair Mayne was born and bred in Newtownards, lived there pretty much all his life, died in Newtownards and is buried there to this day. He has been commemorated by the commissioning of a splendid statue that stands in the square in Newtownards. Last Friday in Newtownards, I had the privilege, along with Mr Shannon and others, of attending the unveiling of a mural of the most famous picture of Blair Mayne. That mural is on a gable wall where once there was a loyalist paramilitary mural, and I think that it is right and proper to replace that awful blight on our past with something good from our past.
I want to comment briefly on the remarks made by Alex Attwood. We appreciate his contribution to the debate and the very fact that he has been here throughout. We are grateful for the tone and manner in which he conducted his comments, which were gratefully received by those of us on this side of the House and outside this Chamber.
I come now to the amendment. Of course we will all honour any and every act of heroism, whether by Blair Mayne or by some of the other names mentioned. We honour the service of those men and women from this part of the world who are in uniform around the world serving our country and defending our way of life and our freedoms.
To pick up on some of the points that Mr McNarry made, Blair Mayne may not have complained that he did not get a VC, but he certainly won it and deserves to get it. I would not be so arrogant as to surmise what a man who has been dead for over 50 years would think of the motion or the amendment before us today — all I know is that he deserved the VC and, therefore, he should get the VC. Whether there is someone to pin it on is irrelevant.
Mr McFarland’s contribution did not particularly honour the service of Blair Mayne in the way that it should have done — the case of Lt Col H Jones in the Falklands was mentioned. That was another instance of the posthumous awarding of the VC. Whether there is a body to pin it on or not, Blair Mayne deserves that VC.
Some clarity is needed, and I have a quotation that will provide that clarity. Blair Mayne changed the entire course of the battle in which he was involved. To quote from the actual citation:
“the survivors were unable at that time to influence the action in any way until the arrival of Lt. Col. Mayne. The Lt. Col. continued along the road all the time engaging the enemy with fire from his own jeep. Having swept the whole area very thoroughly with close range fire he turned his jeep around and drove down the road again, still in full view of the enemy. By this time, the enemy had suffered heavy casualties and had started to withdraw.”
He was awarded the VC — it is in the citation, the recommendation, and the commendation given by the commanding officer. It is only right that he should receive it. Does the Member agree?
I agree with what the Member has said.
Members on this side of the Chamber do not support the amendment. We are not dishonouring other people whose citations for VCs were downgraded or not given at all. We honour those people, but this has been a long-standing, ongoing campaign, focused on the figure of Blair Mayne. To dilute that in any way does a disservice, and that is why the DUP holds fast to the motion.
As Mr Shannon and others have said, the citation is there — and it begs the question as to why the Victoria Cross was not awarded. It is the premier award for gallantry in this country and it is not dispensed willy-nilly. What Blair Mayne did was far from routine. It was in no way ordinary, and it was not everyday behaviour — it was the sort of behaviour of which most of us are totally incapable.
He was absolutely extraordinary in his bravery, and he was rightly recommended for the VC in the citation that Jim Shannon just read — he spoke earlier of the mistake that was made. Although Blair Mayne was a maverick, and not everybody’s cup of tea within the military establishment, he was clearly deserving of the VC for which he was recommended.
Mr McNarry spoke earlier about the righting of wrongs, and sometimes one can be beleaguered when one hears our Government apologising for this and that. It is high time that this wrong was righted. Lt Col Blair Mayne’s face may not have fitted — he may have been a flawed character. In listening to what has been said about him today, it is easy to forget that he was human, and, therefore, he was flawed. The stiff-upper-lip attitude that has sometimes characterised the military in this country in the past will no longer suffice. It is high time that the rightful award of a Victoria Cross was made to Blair Mayne.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly recognises the bravery which was displayed by Lt Col Blair Mayne during the Second World War and calls on the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the application for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]