The night of December 14, 1941, was bitterly cold in the North African desert. Midway between El Agheila and Tripoli, Libya, was the German and Italian air base outside the town of Tamet. Situated on the southern Mediterranean coast, it was a vital installation, supporting the Afrika Korps, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Panzer Army Afrika. Tamet was a plum target for Commonwealth forces.
The base was shut down for the night. About 30 German and Italian airmen were eating, drinking, playing cards, and socializing in the wooden building that served as the officers’ mess. Preoccupied as they were, the pilots were flabbergasted when the door shattered under the impact of a booted foot. Filling the entrance was the silhouette of a huge man in British uniform with a submachine gun jammed against his right hip. As he opened fire, screams of terror and pain filled the room. By the time the Tommy gun’s drum of 50 rounds was empty, the room was splattered with blood and littered with dead and dying men. As suddenly as he had appeared, the massive enemy soldier was gone. He was Lieutenant Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS), and he was far from finished with Tamet.
After Mayne and the five other members of his commando squad galloped into the stygian blackness of the surrounding desert, the base’s terrified, bewildered personnel spent almost an hour shooting at each other in the poor light. The initial attack had come at 2140 hours. Just after 2300, Mayne and his men crept back to the airfield and commenced planting explosives on the German and Italian aircraft parked around the base’s perimeter. They also booby trapped fuel and ammunition dumps and telephone poles. Just before midnight, Tamet erupted into volcanic fury as plastic explosives pulverized planes and ignited fuel and bombs. For the time being this pivotal Axis installation was utterly out of commission.
This first raid on Tamet was heralded a new style of warfare that would be a spear in the heart of Nazi Germany’s North African military presence. Paddy Mayne would be the executioner of this campaign, but only he knew how far he would carry the crusade. The Germans certainly did not anticipate the degree of devastation coming at them, and neither did the British. Mayne did not bother telling either side what he had in mind—he would show them.
Born in Newtownards, Ireland, on January 11, 1915, Mayne was already a member of the Queen’s University Officer Training Corps at the time of the 1938 Munich crisis. The following February he was commissioned into the 5th Light Anti-Artillery Territorial Regiment even though his superiors had evaluated him as “unruly and generally unreliable.” When war was declared in September, Mayne was left behind when his unit was sent to Egypt. The snub made an impression on the fearless and lethal but hard-drinking and undisciplined young soldier. When No. 11 Commando accepted him the following spring, he eagerly threw himself into the training regimen.
While Hitler’s armies overran continental Europe, Mayne was in Scotland enduring brutal physical training, becoming a weapons expert, learning map reading, swimming in full kit, rock climbing, practicing unarmed combat, using explosives, and learning how to organize transportation in all situations. Mayne was a deadly warrior by the time he was sent to the Mediterranean Theater in the summer of 1941.
Mayne’s unit participated in the abortive Litani River raid in Syria in which 120 Commonwealth soldiers were killed. After the survivors were sent to Cyprus for rest, Mayne became angry at his commanding officer, 24-year-old Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, for not including him on the roster of a raid to abduct Rommel, which was never carried out. When Keyes imprudently approached Mayne in the mess hall one night, the resentful young Irishman rose from his chair and knocked his colonel senseless with a roundhouse right to the jaw. His next commanding officer, Colonel David Stirling, would be much wiser in utilizing Mayne’s deadly talents.
Hastily organizing the best available talent into the new SAS, Stirling relocated his unit to the North African mainland. Arranging to work in cooperation with the better publicized Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), Stirling and Mayne were ready for devastating special operations by late 1941. The inaugural raid on Tamet set the standard for ensuing SAS depredations. Realizing the Nazis and Fascists would not be expecting another raid on Tamet for a while after the destructive December 14 assault and would likely pack it with aircraft and supplies, the SAS returned to this mark on the 27th. The second visit resulted in 27 warplanes blown up along with several fuel dumps, three trucks, and two trailers crammed with vital spare parts for aircraft. Axis forces in the desert were already beginning to dread the night.
The sprawling Commonwealth land offensive of late 1941 had driven the Germans out of Benghazi, forcing them to ship supplies and reinforcements to the port of Bouerat, 350 miles to the west. A foray against Bouerat happened to fall at a time when the harbor was empty, and Mayne and his commandos found nothing to destroy but 18 fuel drums and a few food caches. The raiding party returned home in time for Rommel’s early 1942 counteroffensive that carried his forces all the way back to the Gazala Line, from which he had been driven two months earlier. In the midst of all this momentous military action, Mayne was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Rommel’s Offensive Resulted in Capturing 33,000 Prisoners, Including 5 Generals, and a Huge Haul of Tanks, Artillery, Food, and Medicine.
Now promoted to captain, he led his men in crucial attacks on Benghazi harbor and the adjacent airfields. On March 15, he set out to assail an airfield called Berka Satellite. Accompanied by two corporals named Rose and Bennett, and a Private Byrne, he reached the target at 3 am the next day. The commandos blew up the base’s fuel dumps, 15 aircraft, and a stack of 12 torpedoes. Escaping cleanly, they missed their rendezvous and had to walk 30 miles across the sweltering desert to the next LRDG pickup point.
On May 26, Rommel launched a pulverizing offensive, capturing the long-standing Allied bastion of Tobruk, bagging 33,000 prisoners, including five generals, and a huge haul of tanks, artillery pieces, food, and medicine. By the end of June, the British Eighth Army had been shoved all the way to El Alamein, across the Egyptian frontier, and was just 60 miles west of Alexandria.
After the aerial pounding he had inflicted on the British at Malta, Kesselring assumed the island was finished as a major threat and called off his warplanes. The Royal Air Force took full advantage of the respite and rushed large shipments of pilots and Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes to Malta. With the German supply lines being ravaged by warplanes, Luftwaffe units were forced to withdraw from the support of Rommel’s eastward advance and again target RAF airfields on the island. With Axis air power thus diluted, Mayne and Stirling realized their attacks on enemy airfields were imperative to further reducing Rommel’s priceless tactical air support.
The SAS swiftly outfitted a fleet of jeeps for mobile warfare. Welding two Vickers, rapid-firing machine guns facing forward on the vehicles and a swiveling .50-caliber Browning machine gun in the rear of each jeep, the commandos transformed the machines into devastating, high-speed gun platforms. By the end of July 1942 the unit was wholly motorized.
On July 4, even before the transformation was complete, an SAS convoy set out to raid the airfields scattered in the Bagush/Fuka region, 100 miles behind enemy lines. Reaching Bagush on the night of July 7, Mayne and three men blew up 22 aircraft with plastic explosives. This was far fewer than they had sabotaged, and Mayne growled, “Damn, we did 40 aircraft. Some of the bloody primers must have been damp.” Not about to leave the job undone, Mayne and Stirling charged their vehicles onto the airfield and opened up with their Vickers guns, firing 1,200 rounds per minute apiece. Stunned by this new assault after they assumed the saboteurs had departed, the Germans ran for cover as the raiders shot to pieces 12 more of the Luftwaffe’s precious warplanes.
The largely overlooked effectiveness of the SAS is demonstrated by comparing this night’s work with one of the RAF’s greatest victories during the Battle of Britain. On September 18, 1940, England’s renowned legless Wing Commander Douglas Bader and his squadrons had garnered international headlines by downing 30 German planes. Mayne and his marauders destroyed 34 on the night of July 7, 1942, contributing mightily to the Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein in October. Yet, outside the immediate area, no one took note.
The clinical detachment and unselfishness with which Mayne approached his duty is typified by his encounter with a superior, Maj. Gen. David Lloyd Owen, after a raid on the German airfield at Fuka. “How were things tonight?” asked Owen. “A bit trickier tonight,” replied Mayne. “They had posted a sentry on nearly every bloody plane. I had to knife the sentries before I could place the bombs.” When Owen asked how many of these guards Mayne had killed that night, the casual reply was, “Seventeen.” Far from demanding recognition and reward for this mass throat cutting, he never mentioned it again. Had Owen not asked, the incident would have been recorded as just another night’s work for the SAS. It is possible nobody but Mayne would have ever known about it.