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Shortly before the unveiling of the statue to the memory of Lt.Col.R.B.Mayne D.S.O. on the 2nd of May 1997 in the town square, a former resident of Newtownards, Mr.Pat McGuinness, was enjoying a short holiday back home with his relations. Pat had left the town in 1953 at the age of 13 but he still kept in touch with his Aunt, Mrs.Phyllis Mullin who lives in Balfour Street. By chance he spotted a small badge on sale in a shop window that was being sold to help raise funds for the statue. Having made his purchase he started to make further inquiries and this led him to the book about the great man written by Bradford and Dillon entitled "The Rogue Warrior". It came as a shock to him when his wife, May discovered that there was a connection between Blair Mayne and their home town of Darvel in Ayrshire.
At the beginning of January 1944 the men of the 1st and 2nd Special Air Service Regiments had returned home from Italy via Algeria together and Mayne and his men immediately set up their new base in the grounds of the LanFine Estate and the surrounding area. They had just played a very large and successful part in the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Africa Corps before spearheading the invasion and capture of Sicily and stsrting the liberation of Italy. During their time spent in Ayrshire they were increased in the numbers to Brigade strength with the added formation of one Belgium and two French regiments. New recruits were arriving almost daily but perhaps one of the regiment's most famous Scotsmen who joined them there was a young man by the name of Fraser McCluskey. Later on he would become better known as "The Parachute Padre" and after the war became The Moderator of the Church of Scotland. When Fraser arrived at Lanfine House early one morning he must have wondered what sort of outfit he was joining as he caught the end of an all night party. This was not a usual occurrence but it was a very special occasion for Blair as his younger brother Douglas was on a brief leave from service with The Royal Air Force and celebrating his honeymoon with him.
The Irvine Valley must have seen some strange sights and noticed a large decrease in the game population over the next few months as the old hands honed their skills and the large numbers of recruits learned many new ones. While he understood only to well the purpose of their stay in Darvel it was a very tame and frustrating time for Blair Mayne and his veterans. The local constabulary and Home Guard were often used to provide the enemy opposition but could not possibly be expected to provide the same level of combat and aggression that they had become accustomed to. But such was their impact that even to this day people still remember them as being one of the best behaved and smartest regiment to have ever been stationed in Ayrshire. These men fought hard and played hard but knew their limits as Lt.Col R.B.Mayne was a stickler for dress and discipline.
Some parts of Darvel have not changed very much since those days in 1944 and Pat was able to retrace their steps, he visited the Lanfine Estate, The Turf Hotel where the officers had dined and the Town Hall which had been used by the ordinary ranks. Further investigations led him to the discovery of some former members of The Regiment who had married and settled in Darvel after the war years, Mr. Jack Nixon and Mr. Douglas Monteith. Pat had no idea how he would be received by these men but he took his courage in his hands and called upon them.
From them his knowledge and interest in Blair Mayne, or Paddy, as they called him grew and so he felt bound to make another trip home for the unveiling ceremony. As he stood among the huge crowd gathered in the town square Pat took quite a few photographs during the ceremony. On his return home he shared them with the men whom he was now proud to regard as friends.
He had also brought with him to Newtownards some copies of The Valley Advertiser, a local publication in the Darvel area that contained an excellent article entitled Local Heroes about Mr. Jack Nixon. A copy was left with Derek Harkness, a man who has dedicated 35 years to researching Blair Mayne and a founder member of The Blair Mayne Association. Having read the article he felt sure that some people in Darvel would appreciate seeing and reading the vast quantity of research that the association has amassed over the last few years.
Initial contact was made with Pat and the wheels were set in motion, he visited Jack and Douglas and they readily agreed to the meeting. Jonathon Coates a well known and respected photographer with The Chronicle was asked by Derek to accompany himself and Stewart McClean, but there was still a fourth seat to be filled. This was an easy decision to make, who better than the nephew and namesake of the Great man, Blair Mayne.
An early start on the 5th September (perhaps too early for Jonathon) and a pleasant journey on the Seacat over to Troon was followed by a short 20 minute drive to Darvel. Pat McGuinness was anxiously waiting for our arrival outside The Turf Hotel and after the initial greetings and handshakes we were taken to his house and treated to an absolutely superb meal that had been laid on for us by his wife May.
The first meeting was at the house of Mr. Douglas Monteith and his wife Jessie and before very long tales, stories and questions were being exchanged. Like so many of his comrades Douglas, or "Monty" as he was known had first seen action with The Commandos before joining a new unit which was to be called The Special Air Service. This was being formed at Kabrit by the then Captain David Stirling with whom he had served in No.8 Commando and Lt. Blair Mayne also a former commando with No.11 (Scottish). Douglas survived the hard and at times dangerous training before fighting through the harsh conditions of the desert campaigns. He took part in many of the most dangerous raids before being selected to join The Special Raiding Squadron who were training at Az-Zib in Northern Palestine close to the Syrian border for the invasion of mainland Europe. Douglas broke into a large fit of laughter as he recalled the day that Field Marshall Montgomery paid them a morale boosting visit near the end of their training to encourage them to "Kill Germans". After his short speech on the deck of their ship The Ulster Monarch someone shouted "Three cheers for Monty", nothing happened, the call went up again, it was met with the same result, silence "So I just stood up on one of the ships capstans, bowed and took all the applause myself, well my name was Monty too".
Although they had no idea of where they were to fight they did know that it would be seaborne as a flotilla consisting of eight L.C.A's (landing craft assault) was assigned to them. After the war one former member of the flotilla later fondly remembered and described Blair Mayne as "The Mad Major Mayne, a giant Irishman and a gentleman"
After the arrival of the landing craft all the men were required to undergo an even more rigorous training regime including learning the new skills of landing from those small assault craft. This brought them into contact with members of the Royal Navy and in particular a ship called The Ulster Monarch which before the war had been a ferry on the Belfast/Liverpool crossing. This was to be used as their mother ship and very quickly a great bond of friendship grew between the squadron and her crew. Much to their obvious delight her Captain, Lt.Commander H.N.Thompson R.N.V.R. also included them in the naval tradition of the daily tot of rum and lime juice. Douglas still has many fond memories of those sailors and in particular the crew of a submarine that had surfaced just of the coast of Sicily. The landing craft that he was on actually ran into the hull of the submarine in the huge seas and pitch darkness just of the coast of Sicily.
After the first raids at Capo-Murro-Di-Porco and Syracuse in Sicily he fought on into Bagnara and Termoli in Italy. In between drawing breaths and answering questions he looked through the photographs and many memories, some good and others very sad were remembered. On more than one occasion while he looked at a particular photograph of a place or a fallen comrade he could be seen to have a quiet thought to himself. One particular incident was the loss of eighteen men in the desperate battle for Termoli in Italy when a German shell scored a direct hit on their truck. Douglas had been standing very close by and he was lifted by the force of the blast and blown back into a wall. He was very lucky to survive, he was badly stunned and covered in blood but thankfully it was not his own. On the Regiment's return to Darvel it was found that he had sustained severe injuries to his ankles possibly caused by parachute jumps and he was therefore unable to continue into Europe with them. He was shattered but was transferred to another unit and this brave man saw out the remaining war years as a dispatch rider.
All to soon it was time to leave and after Jonathon had taken the photographs Blair was called upon to perform the formalities of the occasion. He presented Douglas with a plaque depicting his late uncle Lt.Col.Mayne and invited him to become an honorary member of the Association.
Another short journey brought us to the house of Mr.Jack Nixon which is just across the street from The Turf Hotel. Again we were met with the same warm hospitality and soon the questions started to flow. One of the first things that strikes you when you meet any of these men is their modesty and sincerity, they accepted that there was a job to be done and they just got on with it. Jack had also seen action with the early Commando units and had been a member of No.7 Commando in Africa and Crete before volunteering to join The S.A.S at Kabrit.
Like so many other young men at the start of the war he had lied about his age when he initially joined the army. He had only been a boy of 15 in 1939 and so when he became a member of the Regiment in 1941 he was still only 17. His Commando training was certainly put to the test as he fought through the desert. He too was one of the men chosen to join The Special Raiding Squadron for the invasion of Sicily and Italy. In fact Jack was actually one of the first members of the squadron to set foot on the island of Sicily as he had been landed with the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties prior to the invasion to guide the landing craft carrying his comrades ashore. The weather conditions were atrocious during the landings at Capo-Murro-Di-Porco and all Jack had to guide the 18 officers and 262 other ranks ashore with was a small torch. As he made his way up the cliffs he remembers passing a very young and frightened Italian sentry who never even made a move and it was only after the capture of the gun batteries that he remembered about him. He retraced his steps and found him still standing at attention in the same position. Jack's main weapon was the .303 Bren gun for which he carried about 300 rounds along with 10 magazines and he told us that Paddy Mayne was the bane of his life as he constantly harried him for firing off too many long bursts. He only ever allowed the Bren to be fired in short aimed bursts.
It was during his stay in Darvel that he met his wife Molly on a blind date and they were married in May 1944, 55 years on they are still happily married. They did not have too much time to spend with each other as just before the start of The D-Day landings in Normandy Jack was parachuted into the Lyons area of France to help train and organise the French Maquisards. This was a very dangerous time for the men of the S.A.S. and many of his comrades were captured and brutally tortured before being murdered by the Gestapo. After victory in Europe was secured he had a short stay in Norway to disarm the German troops before he was demobbed from the army in 1946. Each photograph that he looked at recalled another story or memory and we could have spent all day listening to his tales but the time was getting short. Photographs had to be taken and Blair once again presented Jack with a plaque and honorary membership of The Association.
To say that this had been a very memorable day for all concerned would be an understatement and as we made our way back to Pats's house everyone felt that it had been a privilege and an honour to meet and talk to those men. Like all of the surviving men they are getting on in years and many suffer from ill health but their memories are certainly not diminished and their pride in what they helped to achieve is obvious.
Once again May, our charming hostess, was waiting for us and she had been very busy during our long absence. We immediately owned up to the fact that our return had been somewhat delayed by the amount of talking that had taken place. Once seated we were again treated to a most welcome and delicious meal but all to soon it was time to leave. While talking to these man or indeed any other of the men who served and fought with Blair Mayne you are struck with their respect and devotion to this great man. Even after so many years they still class themselves as "PADDY'S MEN". He always led from the front and would have died for his men as they would have done for him.
Both Douglas and Jack expressed to us a desire to visit Newtownards the birthplace and final resting place of their illustrious leader, health permitting. We can only hope that this is possible as we would love to repay all their kindness and hospitality.
*Douglas did manage to make the short journey over to Newtownards where he stood proudly at attention before the statue of Blair Mayne. He had a tear in his eye and we can only imagine the thoughts that were going through his mind. Sadly both he and Jack Nixon have now passed away but through this Association and these pages we hope to keep their memories alive.*
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