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PostSubject: STAN “SONNY” BISSELL    Thu 20 Aug 2015, 10:47

Phil Matthews

[The Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge, Scotland]

WW2 Close Combat Instructor – Commando Basic Training Centre
Born – 26-10-1906
Died – 2-1-1999

A persistent notion I have come across in my research is the idea that W.E Fairbairn & E.A Sykes were the sole Instructors to all the Allied Armed Forces during World War Two. Just as persistent (and equally mistaken) is the common misconception that it was they alone who taught Close Combat to the ‘Commando’ units who used the deadly Fairbairn-Sykes knife they’d designed together. The work of both laid the foundation for the majority of Close Combat Instruction throughout the Western World up to the present day, however in some cases their notoriety has sometimes left other Instructors works unknown.
I’ve mentioned before that all of my works are only “works in progress” – that is to say I still don’t consider them ‘finished’ and neither is my research on these individuals ‘complete’. Here then is a little information on one of the true “Forgotten Instructors” from WW2.
In order to get to know how Stan Bissell became the Close Combat Instructor at the “Commando Basic Training Center” (CBTC) we need to know a little of the history beforehand.

Prior to the creation of the CBTC it is known that both Fairbairn and Sykes taught their form of Close Combat at a place known as “The Special Training Centre” (STC) at Lochailort in Scotland. (See notes). Individual members from all services such as those of the Auxiallary Units, Home Guard, Navy, Army, ‘Independent Companies’ as well as the future ‘principals’ in the SAS and Chindit’s attended courses there. Indeed the STC was one of the very first (and finest) ‘Joint Service Training Centers’ of the War. These courses weren’t aimed at ‘large group’ instruction (in the form of whole companies attending), rather they were aimed at individuals attending and then passing on what they’d learned to their own units on their return.
The STC with Fairbairn and Sykes was however was only a beginning, as the war progressed the differing services had garnered the knowledge needed and opened their own specialist training centers with their own Instructors. It was therefore decided to close the STC and transfer the remainder of Instructors into other services where they were needed. As of 1942 the STC had ceased to exist (becoming instead a Naval Training Establishment) and both E.A Sykes and W.E Fairbairn had been “transferred” into SOE at their respective camps (UK and USA respectively).
The Army early in 1940 had been tasked by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill to produce “Soldiers of the Hunter Class” (Special Forces) and decided that it’s own specialist training center was to be established not so far away from where the STC had been. It was thought that the extreme weather and rugged countryside of Achnacarry were ideal for training what were to be termed the ‘Commando’s.
From it’s opening in February 1942 the CBTC had the job of training Commando troops from any of the Allied Countries in an early ‘Special Warfare and Advanced Infantry Course’. Originally the course lasted three months in duration but was later shortened to only five weeks toward the end of the war. Close Combat was included as part of the PT syllabus and as such was taught by the team of CSMI Frickleton, SGT Bellringer and a man named Stan Bissell who had the nickname of “Sonny”.
The original CBTC base Commander was a Lt. Col. Charles Vaughn of No. 4 Commando,  (See notes) although the center in the main only accepted “regular” servicemen for selection in 1942 he was tasked with accepting volunteers from another source – London’s Metropolitan Police. One of the volunteers was Stan Bissell who later taught both Armed and Unarmed Close Combat to both Commando and Ranger Troops until the closure of the center at the end of the war. (The CBTC closed on the 31st of March 1946 but training ceased prior to this date). Not a lot is known about the man and even less is in print. This is still a work in progress but I hope it will dispel some myths and shed some light on a man who has been left unknown too long.

Stan Bissell
Born in London on the 26th of October 1906, Bissell started his martial training by learning “Cumberland and Westmoreland” (C&;W) style wrestling after he joined the Boy Scout movement with his two brothers. C&W is a very ‘regional’ style of wrestling with much adherence to rules,(See notes), in particular revolving around the use of what is termed a “back hold”. This was around 1914 or 1915 and Bissell’s Instructor was a man by the name of ‘S. V. Bacon’, an Olympic Champion in 1908 and whom I believe was a Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor during WW1 (See notes). Later claiming that C&W was a “restricted style of wrestling” Bissell studied Freestyle wrestling which allows more grips, holds and throws than the other style. In his time in Freestyle wrestling Bissell won Seven National Wrestling titles and numerous International titles. He also represented Great Britain at the 1948 Olympic Games and after his own competitive career was over coached many other Olympic and Commonwealth Games competitors.
Bissell joined the Police in 1926 and served with the well known branch of that service – the London Metropolitan Police Force. (Met.) He served with distinction and in 1931 he later headed what would now be termed “Officer Safety” and Instructed in both PT and Physical Arrest (Self Defence) skills to all members of that Force at their training Headquarters – Peel House. It is known that the noted Jiu -Jitsu “Instructor” Leopold MacLaglen came to demonstrate to the Met. at some point between the two wars and it may be possible that Bissell was the man responsible for his invitation. (See notes).
Wrestling wasn’t the only art he studied although it was always his greatest love, as with most people of the era Bissell learned boxing but even more interesting for the time period was that he also learned Judo! The London BudoKwai was one of the scant handful of Judo Clubs in Britain at the time and Bissell trained there, eventually he attained a Second Dan ranking in the art. He also competed in Judo and was the captain of a British squad that beat a German Judo team.
The pre-war years are still patchy in my research but as far as I know he competed in the 1930 and 1934 British Empire Games in wrestling, gaining a silver medal both times. As well as this and other competitions he was still instructing the Police until early 1942. This was when the then Commander in Chief of The Commando’s (Brigadier Haydon) asked for volunteers from the Met. Police to try directly for Commando selection. This request was unusual in that it allowed CBTC selection and training without the usual Armed Service enlistment requirement. (See notes)
Over 500 men from the Met volunteered, Bissell was one of those and although by no means the youngest volunteer (he was 35 years old at the time) he not only passed the course but also so impressed the C.O (Lt. Col. Vaughn) that he was asked to join the permanent training staff at Achnacarry.
Bissell taught Close Combat until the CBTC’s closure, he taught Commando’s from the United Kingdom, Canada and other Commonwealth Nations, “Darby’s” Rangers from the United States and a host of members from other ‘lesser known’ Special Forces. Even the Late Col. Rex Applegate attended the course before his training with E.A Sykes!
A little clarification is needed on the subject of what Bissell actually taught as even from the little available in print there is a little confusion from some sources;
Major James Dunning (Former CBTC Staff Instructor) in his book, “It Had To Be Tough” states; “The third feature of the PT’s staff Instruction was the much publicized Unarmed Combat. It was based wholly on the Fairbairn/Sykes programme and routine”
However in the book “The Close Combat Files of Col. Rex Applegate” Melson and Applegate state that after Fairbairn and Sykes left the CBTC: “The depot provided it’s own combat firing and close combat instruction from a former London Policeman at odd’s with what he had been taught by Fairbairn and Sykes, but to the liking of the Depot Commander”
Two very different opinions…
When asked about the matter of “who taught Stan Bissell” the late Peter Robins (Researcher of W.E Fairbairn’s History and Combatives system) had the following to say (See notes): “Bissell taught at the CBTC but he was still tied up with police training in 1940 and 41 when the Special Training Centre at Lochailort was pioneering all that followed, so though I give all credit to Stan Bissell he was not one of those chosen by Fairbairn and Sykes. They never even met.”
Across the world many of the Close Combat Instructors during World War Two were men who were highly experienced and had been involved in other close combat arts for a long time. It has been noted by some researchers that if they didn’t like what they were teaching they could replace or ‘mix in’ techniques that they did. These could be techniques things that they themselves were more familiar or ‘comfortable” with teaching. (See notes)
I have (in the course of my own research) interviewed a few ex-wartime Commando’s about their experiences in Close Combat training and perused the available original material and books from the time and later. It is from these that I have formed my own conclusions as to ‘what techniques’ (See Notes) were taught and also as important “how they were taught” to Commando’s of the CBTC. This is not the place for such technique descriptions, if there is interest I will write another article on what they actually learned and how.
Bissell we are very sure never met either Fairbairn or Sykes (F/S) during or after the war but it should be noted that he did teach some techniques which are very much obviously of F/S origin. (See notes) Although not the “Silent Killing” course it appears that Bissell’s approach of developing a program of Wrestling, Judo and F/S Close Combat for the Commando Units was liked better by Lt. Col. Charles Vaughn than the pure Fairbairn/Sykes Instruction itself.
Darby’s Rangers, commanded by Captain William Orlando Darby also attended the CBTC after their early training at CarrickFergus (Ireland) and were taught by Bissell.
In his book “Darby’s Rangers: We Led The Way” he states: “There was boxing and close-in fighting. There was no particular emphasis on Jujutsu, though the men were given a few good usable holds that each could be expected to remember and utilize when needed.”
A number of ex-trainee’s have attested that they used Bissell’s Instruction to defend themselves, both during the War and afterward, Bissell’s program of Instruction has been proved to fulfill at least one criteria of modern combatives – the need for it to be ‘easily retained’. (See notes).
After the war Bissell stayed in the Met in his old position and reached the rank of “Inspector”. This he was involved in until 1955 when he “retired” to Canada where he lived in Montreal. It was here that he indulged himself in his other great love, that of physical training. At the YWHA there he was the Director of Physical Training but missing home he and his wife only stayed for four years and then returned to England.

[Stan Bissell with H.M The Queen - 1979]

Retaining his involvement in his Police interests Bissell became Head Of Physical Training for the Met. Police Cadet Corps from 1961 until 1970, teaching Fitness and what would now be termed “Defensive Tactics”. He also still kept very much involved in Wrestling, Judo and his love of Physical Fitness, indeed it has been written that up until his mid-eighties he was still regularly performing one hundred press-ups per day as part of his daily fitness regime!
Stan Bissell later moved from London and settled in Codford St. Mary, which is in Wiltshire in the South of England.
The almost forgotten Commando Instructor died there on the Second of January, 1999 aged Ninety-Two. He left a Son who I’ve unsuccessfully tried to track down over the years, if anyone can add any more to this story I’d love for them to contact me.
Stan “Sonny” Bissell was a very remarkable man, his legacy will not be forgotten.

Copyright © 2004 –

Grateful thanks to Paul Gerasymchk for his help and advice as always.
Also thanks to (in no order):
Ed A (USA)
Dennis Martin (UK)
James Farthing (UK)
Phil W (UK)
Mika Soderman (Sweden)
Also my special thanks to:
The late Peter Robins, it was through him that I first learned about Bissell and started the search for more information. R.I.P mate.
Wrestling Association for aid – please visit their website
Special Thanks also to:
 Mark Gittins of Wales for his help and support through the years – it’s always been much appreciated!
John H (UK) – I had to thank you somewhere along the line mate, here’s just a good place as any other!

1. Lochailort began after the disastrous Norway operations early in 1940. Lord Lovat (later of the Commando’s) and David Stirling (later Founder of the Special Air Service) were founders. Apart from W.E Fairbairn and E.A Sykes the other Instructors also included F. Spencer Chapman (later author of “The Jungle is Neutral) and “Mad” Mike Calvert. The “Independent Companies” (later to be renamed “The Commando’s”) had sent a few persons but later sent more trainees to be instructed after their disastrous Guernsey raids.
2. Lt. Col. Charles Vaughn was the Commander No. 4 Commando until he was transferred to be in charge of the CBTC. Upon his transfer Lord Lovat took over command of No. 4 Commando
3. For more info on Cumberland and Westmoreland have a look at the link to the rules here

4. S.V Bacon was also an Olympic wrestler and I believe may have been the originator of the “Bacon Style of Wrestling” favoured by the British Army after WW2. As I have written I also believe him to have been a Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor during World War One. In both these thoughts I may be wrong though and please notice I have only written, “believe” as I have no direct proof. Here I’m making an ‘educated guess’, but that said – I’ve never claimed to be perfect!
5. See “educated guess” above, Bissell was head of training at Peel House during the time that MacLagan showed his demonstration. I have in the past seen a four minute black and white, silent film of the event of him “Training” the Met. I have no idea as to whether or not it is widely available as I believe MacLagen to have been a ‘fraud’.
6. In early 1942 Sir Phillip Game (Metropolitan Police Commissioner) was asked by Brigadier Haydon (Commando Units Commander in Chief) if any of his men might be allowed to volunteer for the Commando Units selection. The reasoning behind the suggestion was that it was thought the fit, disciplined and experienced Police Officers of the Met. stood a much better chance of passing the course than a civilian conscript who had only recently undertaken his Army Basic training.
7. The late Peter Robins met Stan Bissell in 1989 when he was around 80 years old at his home in Codford. He also went to the last Army Commando Association re-union at Achnacarry House where he attended with Bissell’s son.
8. In the book “Commando’s” by John Parker is an account of an early Independent company trainee being lectured on how to kill with a common table-fork! (The eating utensil). Other Instructors preferred to teach the “Gentler” methods of wrestling or Judo (Jiu-Jitsu) to their trainees rather than the Fairbairn/Sykes POI.
9. I had the “privilege” of meeting and interviewing a former WW2 Commando in 2002 who had attended training in Achnacarry in 1943. I’ve put the inverted comma’s before and after “privilege” as after questioning as to whether the person remembered his Unarmed Combat Training he demonstrated both the ‘Palm Down’ and ‘Palm Up’ Edge of the Hand Blow to me (with thumbs flagged). Upon asking if he remembered being instructed in a technique known as the “Chin Jab” he immediately replied in the affirmative, then (without warning) performed said technique on me. I can confirm it was also technically correct but I was glad of him performing it without full power!
10. There is a film clip of Bissell available to download from the British Pathe website, it begins with people wrestling on mat’s in a gym and then moves on to Bissell showing techniques of pistol disarming from front and rear. Wrestling techniques are shown at the beginning and in the disarming of a man of his pistol, it also shows him using an Edge of the hand blow as a finishing technique. Here interestingly the thumb is ‘flagged’ just as in Fairbairn/Sykes instruction. The rest is mostly wrestling techniques a la ‘rough and tumble.’ It’s part of a longer film but at £60 per reel I don’t have a chance to see it at the moment. Any help again much appreciated!
11. Matthew Tempkin (Internet writer on Fairbairn/Applegate Point Shooting methodology) has written of the times his father utilised the techniques he was trained in after the war. ‘Ben’ Tempkin was an original member of Darby’s Rangers who undertook training with Bissell and is still considered a “Tough Man” by US researchers who have met with him, even up until late age. Other’s experiences have been related to me by British ex-Commando’s, these are withheld for a future (pending) publication.

Check Six,
Dennis Martin
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