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PostSubject: W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews   W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews Icon_minitimeThu 06 Aug 2015, 11:17

William Ewart Fairbairn

The Legend

28 February 1885 – 20 June 1960


A few years ago most persons in Combatives circles would have shaken their head at the mention of his name. A little later some of them would nod but the knowledge was limited. Now it seems that the world and his brother is quoting Fairbairn chapter and verse (often wrongly) in order to further their own goals, some of them completely at odds with what the man himself tried to achieve.

The mans name is bandied about on e-mail lists, internet forums and his “thoughts” used to promote systems or ideas he was neither involved or would be interested in if he was still around to argue.

Some of the very people who “use” him in this manner cannot even spell his name correctly: here’s a hint - it should read “Fair Child” not “Fair Stream”.

A lot of different people have given their input in this subject. As with everything else I have written I have only included what I myself can prove from my own findings, my suppositions are marked as my own and as with every article I have proof of my research .

That and I got bugged to death to write this.

Take care,

Phil M - thebristolbloke

Copyright - 2007


In the following work I will not go over old ground or rehash the past as others have attempted to do, Peter Robins expert work “The Legend of W.E Fairbairn – Gentleman and Warrior” has the best researched information on the man's birth and early upbringing. Anyone wishing to learn more on this period of Fairbairn’s life is strongly advised to purchase the above book, for me to attempt to retell in depth the origins of Fairbairn would be as ludicrous as it would be unseemly – buy Peter’s book.  

William Ewart Fairbairn was born in Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, his father (George) was originally from Liverpool and was employed as leather cutter. His mother (Laura Kemp) was from Mile End in East London and as one of fourteen children young William was part of a large family of limited means.

Early tales of Fairbairn were that he used to read newspapers to a blind man and that his first employment was originally as an apprentice leather worker. Finding this employment unfavourable and desiring to see the world in 1901 he joined the Royal Marines as an under-aged recruit. I know of two sources that have provided this information to later researchers, both of them are now dead. Another has provided the same but he is on the verge of being incarcerated, suffice it say that I have no information to disprove these events.

Passing his basic training Fairbairn was posted to a number of bases in Britain before he joined the Royal Marines Legation Guard in Korea. I believe that it was whilst serving there that the basis for his double-handed stick method was first developed. He certainly used his time there to his advantage and was part of a team which competed against members of the Japanese Armed Forces in the then popular sport of Bayonet fighting.

In 1907 Fairbairn left the Royal Marines to take up service as a Police Officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police. Posted first as an ordinary constable he rose through the ranks and served as a Training Officer instructing in Drill, Musketry and Self Defence. The picture below shows a typical scene from an SMP self defence class of that time.

Many things have been written about Shanghai from that period, the crime rate was one of the highest in the world and violent offences were the majority rather than the exception. The criminal elements were organised, tough and determined - they were also armed with the latest weaponry of the time.  

The Shanghai Municipal Police was comprised of individuals from many nations, each playing their part in combating the criminal elements. It was one of the first Police Forces to have a systemised Defensive Tactics course for it’s officers. This system found favour in other Police forces in countries such as Sweden, Hong Kong and Singapore and later was also shown to Law Enforcement Officers in the United States.

The principles of the Defensive Tactics system were codified into an SMP manual simply entitled “Manual of Self-Defence” in 1915.


W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews Wef-4            

Leopold MacLagen had in 1914 given a 12 day course of instruction to the SMP and it has been noted by the researcher Harry Cook that the techniques (depicted in their written works) are remarkably similar to Fairbairn’s.

Fairbairn however had been training in Jiu-Jitsu with a Professor Okada since 1908, training in Kodokan Judo followed that with an Inspector Ogushi of the SMP from 1916 onwards. As an early cross-trainer we know that he also had knowledge of
French Savate, Cornish Wrestling and English Boxing. He also trained in what was then termed “Chinese Boxing” (Kung Fu) under one Tsai Ching Tung who he wrote was an Instructor to servants of the Chinese Empress.



He codified his instruction into one of the first modern Police Defensive Tactics Systems which he named “Defendu”, a manual of which was published in 1926 and then updated and re-released as “Scientific Self Defence” in 1931. Both manuals have now been reprinted by Paladin Press and are recommended.

A note must be made here as to the question of the schools (Ryu) his teachers (Okada and Tung) belonged to.

In the past it has been the case that some researchers have made connections with certain Jiu-Jitsu and Kung Fu schools and W.E Fairbairn, in particular Shin-no-Shindo Ryu and Pa Kua (Bagwa). Unfortunately any connection made is tenuous at best and often originate from sources with a vested interest in those same arts. Please let me state for the record that no independent research has verified any connection to Fairbairn and these schools. Unfortunately some researchers have let supposition replace fact; this “fact” becomes accepted as “truth” as time passes. We know that Fairbairn studied Jiu-Jitsu and Kung Fu, we do not know which schools he studied – that is fact.

Until someone can provide definitive and independently verifiable evidence to the contrary it remains fact and nothing can change this (see notes).

Fairbairn did excellent work both as a Trainer and Operative for the SMP; he went on many hazardous assignments and helped create the first “Reserve Unit” which was one of the first SWAT type units.

Detachments from the United States Marine Corps were also stationed in Shanghai and many of its personnel also received tuition from the SMP. Fairbairn made many close and long lasting friendships with some Corps officers such as the “Three Sams”.

These connections ensured that his methods of Defendu were exposed to Col A.J Drexel-Biddle who was the main USMC Instructor for close combat, some methods were included in his second edition of “Do or Die” and Fairbairn referenced. Otherwise Biddle’s methods were all of his own compiling and are remarkably unique.

Working with his like-minded friend E.A Sykes he designed and created innovative “House of Horrors” pistol shooting ranges, he also created many drills and techniques which would lay the foundations for what would later become standard operational procedures for Law Enforcement and Military.

Ever conscious for the safety of his people he also designed new weapons such as knives and truncheons (batons). Another example of his ingenuity and passion in the area of Officer Protection was his work with bullet proof vests and shields, several were designed by him and a film was produced to illustrate their efficiency.  

[W.E Fairbairn on right]

On call for most of his career to deal with riots, kidnappings and violent crimes he made his way through the ranks and eventually finished as Assistant Commissioner of the force. Along the way he had made many friends from all nations, close to retirement the threat of war was however preparing to destroy everything he held dear.

The Japanese army had long been occupying the area of Manchuria (Manchukuo) and had been battling the loyalist Chinese forces of General Chiang Kai Shek since then. The communist forces of Chairman Mao fought them both and for variety local Warlords allied themselves with the organised crime syndicates and switched sides often. War had long ravaged the area’s outlying Shanghai and vast numbers of refugee’s had fled to the city, crime was more prevalent than ever and aerial bombardment from the Japanese stretched the thin blue line of the SMP further and further.

Fairbairn was 55 but the writing was on the wall, another great war was coming and with Shanghai so blighted he wanted to be a part of the fight.  He was at retirement age but wanted to do everything he could to aid his country, with his friend E.A Sykes he sought out opportunities for “Special Duty” in the Far East. Unfortunately Special Operations were still in their infancy and he retired from SMP and returned to the United Kingdom in 1940.



(A note here must be explained about something which is quite fundamental; in 1940 Britain had no Commando or Paratroop units. Special Operations were in their infancy and units to do these jobs were just being started up. Unfortunately sometimes a publisher’s zeal for marketing has led later researchers astray from the facts; I only deal in facts - no matter how unpopular it makes me)

Returning to Britain he and Sykes were commissioned as Captains in the British Army (general list) through the Offices of Section D, they were retained as Special Instructors in Close Combat to the many fledgling Special Forces which were being raised. His relationship with Sykes was good; both of them were considered a pair in terms of training. Unfortunately this friendship wasn’t to last the strain of war.

Section D was one of the earliest official Special Operations organisations in wartime Britain, already they had attempted to setup sabotage and resistance organisations in Europe before it was occupied but unfortunately the start was too late. Pre-empting the Auxilary Units they organised Caches of arms and explosives in England and created the first Special Duties training schools. Fairbairn and Sykes were in the thick of it going around to various training centres at Lochailort, Aston House (Station 12), Inverailort, Auchinraith and other schools. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was fighting a losing battle in France and Dunkirk was yet to happen, Britain was woefully unprepared but ready to fight.

Fairbairn and Sykes first wartime syllabus is generally agreed to be the “Unarmed Combat” course taught at Inverailort in July of 1940, they were also halfway through a course in Auchinraith House training an Instructor Cadre in the same month.

The Inverailort syllabus is arguably more Fairbairn’s work than Sykes, this can be seen by the fact that some of the techniques were ones he had already put into books he had compiled but not yet had published.

Unarmed Combat, Knife, Umbrella/Cane and Baton were taught in a series of four progressive lessons; although it was simply entitled “Unarmed Combat” they really covered a lot of ground in this course.

Created in July it was later revised in November of 1940, the following excerpt is quite interesting:

“To avoid accidents in practice, great care must be used with all holds, throws, blows and counters underlined. The “Japanese Strangle”, the ‘edge of the hand’ blow and the “arm throw” require extreme care.

On NO ACCOUNT should the Chinese “rock crusher” be practiced over the heart”

Training evolved and was tailored to the needs of the men and units they belonged to. For example courses for the Home Guard could only be conducted over a weekend, training in Explosives and Demolition, Ambushes and shooting techniques was crammed into only two days. “Close Combat” taught by Captain Fairbairn was allotted to the Sunday evening lecture period between the hours of six and seven, there was so much to learn and so little time.

The “Specialist Close Combat” course was designed by both Fairbairn and Sykes early in 1941 and taught at the Special Training School (STS) at Lochailort, this was defined as follows:

“Close Combat means fighting an enemy hand to hand or within 20 yards range”

This course was mainly for servicemen from regular units and lasted for two weeks, the first week was designed purely for Instruction in Unarmed Combat, Bayonet Fighting, Boxing and sighted and point shooting methods for Pistol, Rifle and Submachine Guns. In the second week the students were expected to give classes themselves and were watched for their ability as Instructors, the course ended with an examination which the students had to pass before they could return to their units as instructors themselves. Interestingly for the original course there was a separate examination for the Unarmed Combat programme. This course (in a modified form) was still being taught at Achnacchary until the wars end.

Fairbairn and Sykes’s trainee’s included Regular Army (including elements of the Independent Companies), Navy, Local Defence Volunteers (Home Guard), Auxilary Unit and Secret Service personnel. Although their main place of Instruction was the Special Training Centre (STC) at Inverailort both Fairbairn and Sykes travelled throughout the length and breadth of the country. As Instructors they mainly trained personnel who would later train others, it was a lot of hard work.

In 1941 the British Army published a manual which included some of the techniques that had been taught by Fairbairn and Sykes. Replacing the previous World War One manual it moved the emphasis firmly from “defence via unarmed combat” to one of “attack via unarmed combat” techniques.

Development continued and it was in Aston House (Section D’s and later SOE’s research and development station) that Fairbairn participated in designing last ditch or hideout weapons such as the Lapel dagger.

A training film for the Home Guard was also produced at this time and showed Fairbairn in the starring role.

[Fairbairn on left performing the Chin Jab]

W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews Home%20guard_zps3dpx45sk

1941 was a busy year for Fairbairn, he was working hard (with Sykes) travelling to various training schools and giving instruction but also he was at work compiling or finishing not one but three instructional books!

Published in 1942 the books were “All-In Fighting”, “Self Defence for Women and Girls” and “Shoot to Live” (co-authored by Sykes). Although the latter two had been begun in Shanghai they were unfinished,

W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews Women_zpsvzzj5vjo
[Den's copy of this rare book]

Fairbairn reworked them into a publishable format whilst he was in England where they were released by Faber and Faber. (All-In Fighting was published near Bristol oddly enough!)

In the United States the publishers D. Appleton-Century Company released the first two above books as “Get-Tough” and “Hands Off!” respectively.

“Get Tough” was essentially the same as “All-In Fighting” but lacked the final chapter entitled “The Rifle in Close Combat”. This was written by a Captain Walbridge who was a Weapon Training Officer at the STC; I believe it was left out of the American version because the threat of Invasion (and subsequent Guerrilla warfare) wasn’t considered so much of a problem – I could be wrong.

All of the above works are available from Paladin Press – they are recommended reading.


The duplication of roles for some Special Forces meant that a reorganisation was underway. Section D was to be merged with the newly created Special Operations Executive (SOE) both Fairbairn and Sykes were to join this new force as Instructors.

A point of interest is that Fairbairn’s MI5 Security clearance was conducted only when he joined SOE, Sykes had already been cleared prior to this.

1942 was the year that Fairbairn joined SOE but there are many differing viewpoints as to just how long he was there. Some researchers give the impression he was there for a number of years but this we know to be wrong. Others claim that he was officially employed for two months by SOE before being transferred to STS 103 in Canada, this seems reasonable to me but his own personnel record states that he was employed by SOE to go straight to STS 103.

We know that Sykes joined SOE in January and that he joined the organisation first, we have many reports from trainee’s and researchers alike that Fairbairn trained the SOE. What is definite though is that in March 1942 Fairbairn was stationed as an Instructor in STS 103 (Special Training School 103) otherwise known as Camp X in Canada.

STS 103

The training school in Canada was setup because the Americans had no organised training centres of their own. The commanding officers of the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were among the first students there. Much has been written about the centre but unfortunately most of it mistaken. Using experienced SOE Instructors it was a minor stop-gap solution until the OSS training centres could be setup. Tales of trainee’s being instructed in a small BSC office in New York can be discounted immediately. STS 103 was open for less than two years and less than 400 trainees were processed through it for SOE, its importance was quite minor in the grand scheme of things.

In Canada Fairbairn was teaching his own methods that he had developed from his programme at Inverailort, an example of which is below:


The Handshake hold was standard in Fairbairn’s programme of instruction (POI), this technique variant (with a knife drawn from a concealed left pocket during the execution) was taught by him throughout the duration of the war.

Another point of note is the blade that Fairbairn is using in this picture, please forgive the lack of fine detail but I’m a researcher and not an image manipulation specialist!

W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews Knife%20detail_zpsfa6cufhi
[Another close up of the knife]

It has been suggested in the past that this blade is an example of a Shanghai Knife of the type Fairbairn carried when serving with the SMP, it has also been suggested that it is a standard Sykes-Fairbairn blade. Looking at it closely we appear at first glance to see the recurve of an S-shaped quillion and a flat tablet near the handle; this would suggest a first pattern Sykes-Fairbairn. The blade however appears to be quite a bit shorter than we would expect for this type, almost as if it were only as long as the handle. It may be a personal modification but I have no further information on it.

Fairbairn trained potential agents in Canada in his system but after only a month was sent on a short term loan to the OSS training camps which had just been created. After only a month away from STS 103 he was replaced by George De Relwyskow who then taught the standard SOE Silent Killing Syllabus created by Sykes (more on this later).

Future leaders of the CIA were some of his students in STS 103, one later recalled that Fairbairn had “an honest dislike of anything that smacked of decency in fighting”, another said of training: “Within 15 seconds, I came to realize that my private parts were in constant jeopardy!”

His recommended technique of dealing with hysterical women would ensure a speedy (if brutal) supplication.

OSS Years

        [ Fairbairn in the OSS]      

     [Fairbairn and Applegate]

The loan to the Schools and Training (S&T) branch of the OSS wasn’t considered a long term affair but due to his personality and knowledge he was held in very high esteem by the staff.

It was here that he first met Rex Applegate and a lifelong friendship began, later the student would appear as Fairbairn’s opponent in an OSS Training Film which was directed by Hollywood’s John Ford.

Other researchers have stated that the two didn’t in fact get along; I’d like to see some hard facts to prove that. Applegate later went to the United Kingdom where he attended the Commando Training Centre, he also trained extensively with E.A Sykes and the two of them became friends also. Neither Fairbairn nor Sykes would talk of or refer to the other with him, the falling out between the two was that bad.

Fairbairn himself was responsible for training the OSS Close Combat Instructors throughout all of the camps they had. He also taught some selected students his methods, it was at this time he changed the name of his system. Going far beyond the Police Defensive Tactics that were the remit of “Defendu” he now taught what he himself termed the “Fairbairn System”.

The Fairbairn System was a complete system of Unarmed Combat, Knife Fighting, Knifing, Stick, Spring Cosh and the use of the Pistol, Carbine Rifle and Submachine gun.
Fairbairn was by now a Major and still nominally under control of the SOE, as a British officer he wasn’t under the command of local Embassy or Army staff. The then head of the OSS (William Donovan) composed a letter to his SOE counterparts asking for both a promotion and additional pay for Fairbairn. The letter also mentioned about a situation that had arisen over his taxes and saying that his duties were comparable to a Lieutenant Colonel. This from one of the most powerful people in the free world!

Fairbairn was officially seconded to the OSS in October of 1943, he also got his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.

Rising from a mere instructor Fairbairn ended up actually commanding some of the OSS training camps, in his training duties he was ably aided by both the Scandinavian Hans Tofte and the white-Russian Serge Oblensky.

The OSS training film I have already referenced showed some of the techniques of the Fairbairn system in terms of Unarmed Combat, Knife, Cosh and Pistol. The film was only ever meant as a propaganda or educational tool and wasn’t intended to be used as a training device.

In terms of written works perhaps the best to showcase his techniques are his “Notes for Instructors in Close Combat”. This was a nineteen page document which was designed as an aide-memoir for Instructor students who had already passed his course; it shows the majority of the techniques of the Fairbairn system. Aside from this he also produced more in depth and specific training manuals (and lessons) on subjects such as ‘Disarming’, ‘Knife Fighting’, and “Sentry Killing”.

Another term Fairbairn used to describe his system was “Gutterfighting”, this because it was ‘fighting without rules’, four training films were planned to show this method of fighting but only three were ever produced.

[Fairbairn in a Gutterfighting film]

The four Gutterfighting films were as follows:

Gutterfighting: Fighting Unarmed
Gutterfighting: The Fighting Knife
Gutterfighting: The .45 Pistol
Gutterfighting: Gadgets

Each film was around 11 minutes long and was shot in black and white film; I’ve been told that the films were “made for export” to Partisan’s in occupied Europe (Quite how the Maquisard’s could obtain a reel projector in the mountains I don’t know). I have also been told that the reels were produced in the Greek, Czech and Yugoslav languages. I have the transcripts of the films but not the films themselves; through another researcher I was once lucky to have viewed the first two.

The film transcripts are almost perfect in that if you read the peoples lips then you can follow everything that is being said/done on the tape (except how the actual techniques themselves were performed!).

The films were made when Fairbairn would have been in his late fifties; the first three films depict his programme of instruction perfectly. The last (Gadgets) never made it into production but shows his idea’s on small concealable weapons for Special Operatives, this includes a spiked necklace which is strongly reminiscent of the “Anti-Garrotting” equipment of the latter 1800’s.


It must be said that Fairbairn truly excelled in the use and instruction of the Fighting Knife in the same way that Sykes excelled in firearms. The OSS produced their own version of the Sykes-Fairbairn knife which was known as the “OSS Stiletto”, larger than its British counterpart it also had a metal “pancake” sheath instead of the original leather one.

W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews FS%20variations_zps5jcdurgx
[Rare variations of F-S knives. Photo copyright DM]

Fairbairn didn’t only train the OSS during his tenure in America, he also taught elements of the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The latter also produced their own “Raider Stiletto” based on the Sykes-Fairbairn knife and another (not as popular) stiletto which had the unusual feature of having an aluminium handle. The Army in their “First Special Service Force” already had what was known as the “V42” knife, this design was contributed to by Dermot O’Neil a former pupil of Fairbairn. As training progressed idea’s were filtered down to instructors in other areas, one only has to look at the differences between books on US close combat work (official and civilian) published before and after 1942 to see the Fairbairn influence.

One official publication which stands out in this regards is the US Army “Training Bulletin: Disarming and Hand To Hand Combat”, another is the quasi-official “Dirty Fighting” by Lieutenant Morrah. Both show the clear influence of the Fairbairn System in their teachings.

Another work which shows an influence from Fairbairn is the book “Hand To Hand Combat” by the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics, this excellent work is also known as the “V5 manual”. This was published in 1942 and most likely the compilers (Wesley Brown et al) had read one of Fairbairn’s published works before it was produced.

The US Navy was certainly aware of him and in the OSS training school at “Area F” Fairbairn showed his system to Officers from the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics in a number of three day courses. This began in December of 1944 and a letter in my possession not only thanks Fairbairn for conducting the training it also asks if he would be willing to produce a training film for Naval personnel. I have no information as to whether or not it was made.

The Naval connection didn’t end there though; in 1943 Bernard Cosneck a pre-war wrestler who taught Hand To Hand Combat to the US Coast Guard (alongside the Boxer Jack Dempsey) was also in contact with him. Cosneck had invented a Close Combat weapon he named the “Armette” which he described as a type of ‘Knife Gauntlet’ – a bizarre contraption of hacksaw blades designed to be attached to a soldiers arm. Offered in two versions (one fixed and one manoeuvrable) it promised to be both cheap to manufacture and easy to use. Although the letter to OSS procurement from Fairbairn was a flat denial of its practicality he requested one or two for his own "bag of tricks".

Politics and Pressure


As I have hinted earlier when I wrote about Donovan’s letter to SOE not all were as impressed by Fairbairn as others.

When the books “Get Tough” and “Hands Off!” were released in the United States a letter of complaint was sent by the New York Police Department to the headquarters of SOE.

The NYPD didn’t like the fact that their own criminals were “able to learn these methods”.

SOE didn’t like it because the books were available to the neutral countries of Sweden and Portugal - therefore (in theory) they were able to be picked up the Nazi’s.

In retrospect (considering the trouble that was to ensue) maybe Fairbairn thought his publisher’s full page advert in the New York Times wasn’t such a great idea?!

The Police Departments claim has some merit. Peter Robins once stated that Police Officers in the United Kingdom went on the first Commando courses to learn what was being taught, this in case the same skills were used for nefarious ends after the war was over.

In a similar vein after the war the Los Angeles Police Department produced a training film on Defensive Tactics. What made it so remarkable (to me) was that it contained a section on “dealing with persons who had special training in Unarmed Combat during the war”. Johnny Ramensky aside it is an avenue I believe few have ever researched...

For the SOE it seemed the opportunity they had been waiting for to censure or remove Fairbairn. In this they weren’t aided by his controller (SOE codename of “U”) who attempted to protect him. In the face of accusations and demands from the Chiefs of the Department he tried to play down the situation and said that “if anything it served to further his (Fairbairn’s) name”.

Paradoxically All-In Fighting” was on the recommended reading list for SOE agents, along with “Scouting for Boys” and the “Thirty Nine Steps” – it looked like SOE wanted it all their own way…

He wasn’t popular in SOE’s eyes but the OSS wouldn’t hear a bad word about him, I shall come back to the issue of books later.

In April of 1945 Fairbairn left the United States and went back to what the OSS termed ‘ETO’ (European Theatre of Operations), in this he was to assist a Major Shine in his work there. The courses he had setup in the OSS training areas were still being conducted by the men and women he had trained and were still thriving until the organisations closure, he had performed his job well.

Apart from conducting his own classes and training programmes Fairbairn also designed a number of weapons for the OSS, the large knife known as the “Smatchet” had been designed in the UK but became a standard item in the OSS inventory. He also designed its replacement which he termed the “Fairsword” but with the war almost at a close and so many Smatchets un-issued it wasn’t taken up by OSS procurement. The Fairbairn-Millison knife I haven’t the space to discuss here.

With his expert knowledge of living in Shanghai Fairbairn helped in the Georgetown University panel lectures on China, this hoped to provide a solution for that beleaguered country after the wars end.

After the war was over he was released from service and was a civilian again, he once again trained Police and Soldiers in his system in both Cyprus and Singapore (1951 and 1956 respectively) but this I will leave for a second article if there is interest.

A quote from the official OSS history can sum up Fairbairn’s wartime efforts far better than I can:

“His ability in handling men (and women) as well as weapons made him one of the most popular members of the Schools and Training Staff.”

I am unaware of any decorations being offered to Fairbairn for his services by the United Kingdom. The United States however awarded him with one of their highest honours – the Legion of Merit.



[Pictures Copyright James Farthing @]

William Ewart Fairbairn died on the 20th of June 1960, his son John and daughter Dorothea surviving him.

A legend in Close Combat training had passed away but his legacy still survives to this day, his lifelong hard work is not forgotten.

More to come in the future.

Copyright 2007 – Phil M (thebristolbloke)

Thanks (in no order)

Special thanks are owed to James Farthing for his help and assistance not only for this essay but throughout the years. An extremely knowledgeable bloke with an extensive collection behind him he is also a very hard trainer and a thoroughly good guy!
James Farthing (on right) with Si Squires

Also special thanks to Paul Gerasimczyk for his help and assistance throughout the years. Paul is a certified Instructor under the late Charles Nelson and a twenty year veteran of the New York Police Department. An acknowledged authority on Close Combat my life is also richer for knowing him  
[Paul Gerasimczyk of New York]

Also Thanks (In no order) to the following for their help:

Dennis Martin of CQB Services
W.E. FAIRBAIRN- THE LEGENDARY INSTRUCTOR. By Phil Matthews Den%20F-S%20fighting%20stance_zpsierjkzmn
[Den with original F-S dagger]

Ed A of the USA
Carl P. Cestari
Ralph Grasso of the NY/NJ Close Combat Association
Kirk Wayne-Simmons
Steve Brown
Lynn Philip-Hodgeson
John W. Brunner
David L. Kentner
Rickard Gustassafason

Also a special thanks to the late Peter Robins of CODA

Please buy Peter’s well researched work on the life of W.E Fairbairn entitled “The Legend of W.E Fairbairn – Gentleman and Warrior” it is part one of a series which deals with the man’s early life and times. It’s the culmination on Peter’s research and his passion, I can’t recommend it enough and believe it to be the best researched work on Fairbairn to date – it is sure to be a collector’s item.

Notes and Clarifying Thoughts:

Some of the above work needs further clarification so I have included it here.

Books and Sensationalism

In the past some persons have claimed that Fairbairn’s works were sensational (I think the exact wording was “gory names for unworkable techniques”) and that he “cashed in” or “banked” on his reputation as a “Commando/Special Forces trainer” etc, etc to sell his books.

“Gory” in this case could actually mean ‘eye-catching’; it also means that people were more likely to remember them. Those persons who decry those same techniques certainly remember them so it certainly worked! Former trainees may not remember the names of the techniques but they still remember how to perform them which really is all that counts. As for “unworkable” see my notes on “technique” later.

As regarding “Cashing in” consider this fact – relying on his Pension wasn’t an option.

Fairbairn had retired from the SMP, the colony was overrun by the Japanese shortly after and was held until their surrender. After the war Shanghai was united with Communist China and as such the SMP ceased to exist, this meant Fairbairn had no income coming from his SMP pension at all.

The clue’s were already there in the times leading to his departure, mass demonstrations and terrorist activity to “drive the foreign devils” out combined with the forces of Mao Tse Tung were a part of daily living.

SOE only existed as a temporary wartime department, it was created purely as a means to an end. Again I suspect that Fairbairn had realised this, although pensions were promised to its staff after the organisations closure MI6 (the arch-enemy of SOE) took over the SOE pensions. One only has to look to what happened to the late Gavin Maxwell (SOE weapons Instructor) to know that pensions for former SOE Instructors or Operatives weren’t really a priority for SIS. Sad to say but that was the fate for many of the people who served.

The Sykes-Fairbairn knife which bore his name had been mass produced by Britain, the United States and many other countries (along with variations), neither of the men who designed it received a penny in royalties for their selfless contribution.


An instructor of mine is famous for one of his sayings which is “Do your own damn research”, people wont learn though. Other “researchers” still rehash the same old rubbish which is based on others misconceptions, lies and outright fantasies. Unfortunately for them things aren’t quite as simple as they would want or would like us to believe.

Let me make this incredibly simple then.

Fairbairn and Sykes both taught different syllabuses.

These programmes of instruction had a shared beginning but evolved into completely different systems which were (on some points) completely at odd’s with the other.

Shocking to some but true – no matter what others would have us believe.

Fairbairn’s studies into self protection evolved into “Defendu”, it then progressed further into “Close Combat”. This was then later refined into the “Fairbairn System” or “Gutterfighting” during wartime.

Some core techniques were retained throughout, a fact is that they were not the same as the ones E.A Sykes’s was instructing to SOE’s recruits.

The first available copy we have of Sykes’s programme of instruction is SOE’s “Close Combat” syllabus (the Silent Killing Course) which was first released in June of 1942. Please bear in mind that prior to this date he had taught students with Fairbairn for two years, he had also been with SOE for less than five months.

Below are some comments he wrote about two core techniques of the Fairbairn system:

“Difficult to apply unless your opponent has lost his senses”

and more pertinently:

“Why bother?”

These are comments he made about two techniques which were retained throughout the evolution of Fairbairn’s systems. This is in no way meant to cast any aspersions as the physical veracity of Fairbairn’s techniques; it is included simply to show that the two systems were very different from one another.

To quote another of my instructors “In the trade, this is known as a clue”

Sykes’s syllabus was constantly revised and kept up to date until the end of the war, mainly from the experiences and information from operatives in the field. Simply put some of the techniques may have been the same but the emphasis was completely different. I may enlarge upon this in a further work.

Shin-No-Shindo Ryu and Pa Kua

In case anyone thinks I have a vested interest or a personal axe to grind in this matter please let me refer you to the following quote from Fairbairn in his book “All-In Fighting”.

“The methods described in this book I have carefully worked out and developed over a period of many years. They owe something to the famous Japanese judo (jiu-jutsu), and something else to Chinese boxing. But, largely, they were developed from my own experience and observation of how most effectively to deal with the ruffians, thugs, bandits, and bullies of one of the roughest water-front areas in the world.”

I really have little interest in the things that Fairbairn himself rejected; the facts are really all I am concerned with.

Unfortunately just because a person wants a thing to be true doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes so. It would be nice to know what arts Fairbairn did truly study, it doesn’t mean that we should support idea’s that have no evidence.

People tell me that “they believe Fairbairn studied Bagua and Shin-no-Shindo Ryu”, to be quite honest they can believe what they want to believe - I’m a bloke who wants and demands hard evidence before I believe in it.  

Until such a time as some of the above appears (and is independently verified) we shouldn’t make assumptions or blindly follow another’s wishful thinking.


I hope this essay informs people but I am aware it may shock some others. It is but the truth as far as I can ascertain it. Some readers may now re-read old articles and thoughts by other researchers and find them lacking somehow in substance. This in truth is why I have held off of writing about this man, the most “well known” in Combatives circles for so long. Hope’s, fantasies, guesses and outright fabrications have long been this man's “official history”. Some people who should have known better have been mixed up with others who had their own agenda’s.

The truth has an awkward habit of being found out.

I started work on this essay because of many requests from other people; now that it has been done I can only offer the following advice:

“Be careful what you wish for – it may come true”
Take care,
Copyright - thebristolbloke 2007

See my Grant-Taylor article for more on this, I have a solicitor and a growing impatience with thieves..

Check Six,
Dennis Martin
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