“In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife.”
– William Ewart Fairbairn, Get tough!: How to win in hand-to-hand fighting as taught to the British commandos and the U.S. Armed Forces
Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the difference between conventional and special operations units than that most personal of weapons, the knife. Reflecting a dual-purpose need, the conventional force standard issue knife is designated “fighting/utility” and is most famously exemplified by the KA-BAR. While special operations units also carry the KA-BAR, the knife that epitomizes them and their mission – to the level where it has been incorporated into the badges and patches of a number of special operations units – is the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.
The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife is a stiletto with an overall length of 11.5 inches and a double-edged blade of 7 inches. There are a number of variations that include such differences as minor changes in the length of the blade, the design and shape of the pommel, manufacturer’s stamps, and handles that have different grip patterns and materials (metal, wood, and compressed leather washers).
The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife was designed by William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes, and was based on the Shanghai Fighting Knife they designed while serving as constables in the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP), the multinational police force of Shanghai’s international community. Prior to World War II, Shanghai had the reputation of being the most dangerous city in the world.
For Fairbairn of the Royal Marines, his education in survival in the streets of Shanghai began shortly after he joined the SMP in 1907 when, while on patrol one night, he was ambushed and beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized. Upon his release, he went into Shanghai’s red-light district and found Professor Okada, whose business nameplate read: “Jiu-Jitsu Teacher and Bone-Setter.” Tutelage under Okada inspired an insatiable interest in hand-to-hand combat for Fairbairn and he went on to learn Chinese Pa-Kua, European boxing, French Savate, Sikh Indian wrestling, Kodokan Judo, and other forms of unarmed fighting.
Very little is known about Sykes’ background (there are unconfirmed reports that he worked for the British secret service in the 1920s and 1930s). What is known is that he was a crack shot skilled in the use of a wide variety of firearms, an expert sniper, and that he and Fairbairn probably met in 1926 and quickly hit it off. Unhappy with the SMP knives they were issued, they custom made out of British bayonet blades the Shanghai Fighting Knife (only about two dozen were ever made).
The two men resigned from the SMP in 1940 and returned to England. Though Fairbairn was 55 years old and Sykes was 57 years old, they were in excellent physical shape and volunteered their services to the military. They quickly received commissions as close combat trainers for commandos and Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents. Recognizing that these troops would need a special knife like the one they had created in Shanghai, Fairbairn and Sykes received approval from the British War Ministry to design one, and were recommended to contact the Wilkinson Sword Company. The result was the first-pattern Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, an all-metal stiletto with a distinctive S-shaped hilt, carrying the Wilkinson Sword Company trademark on one side of the ricasso, and the inscription “The F-S Fighting-Knife” on the other, an unusual branding of military equipment. Eventually official patterns were manufactured.
Their relationship ended early in 1942 when Sykes discovered that Fairbairn planned to participate in a commando operation in order to study how their training stacked up to actual combat conditions. Horrified over the possibility of someone with Fairbairn’s vast knowledge of commando and SOE secrets falling into enemy hands, Sykes reported Fairbairn to their superiors, who promptly grounded Fairbairn, who subsequently never forgave Sykes.
Sykes retired in April 1945 with the rank of major, and died a month later of heart problems. Fairbairn also retired at the end of the war with the rank of major and went on to train police forces in Cyprus and Singapore. Fairbairn died in 1960, at the age of 75.
At the request of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) chief William Donovan in 1942, Fairbairn became a trainer of OSS operatives and a number of training films were made of his lessons. Two that can be seen on YouTube are:
“Fairbairn and Applegate conducting OSS Training” www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhUdTeo7gYA&feature=player_embedded#! What is noteworthy is that everyone in this film is wearing a mask.
Another film on YouTube shows Fairbairn demonstrating an attack with his Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWSLXXdg9Bw