William E. Fairbairn

William E. Fairbairn
OSS Schools and Training Headquarters Staff, 1945 XMAS Card.jpg
OSS Schools and Training Headquarters Staff, 1945 XMAS Card
LTC Fairbairn second from the left in third row
Born28 February 1885 (1885-02-28)
Died20 June 1960 (1960-06-21) (aged 75)
OccupationRoyal Marines, Shanghai Municipal Police, Combatives Instructor

William Ewart Fairbairn (/ˈfɛərbɛərn/; 28 February 1885 – 20 June 1960) was a British Royal Marine and police officer. He developed hand-to-hand combat methods for the Shanghai Police during the interwar period, as well as for the allied special forces during World War II. He created his own fighting system known as Defendu. Notably, this included innovative pistol shooting techniques and the development of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.

The television series Secrets of War suggested him as a possible inspiration for Q branch in James Bond.[citation needed]

Military career

Fairbairn served with the Royal Marine Light Infantry starting in 1901, and joined the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) in 1907. He served in one of the red light districts. During his service with the International Police in Shanghai, Fairbairn reportedly engaged in hundreds of street fights in the course of his duties over a twenty-year career, where he organised and headed a special anti-riot squad. Much of his body, arms, legs, torso, even the palms of his hands, were covered with scars from knife wounds from those fights.[1]:p:191 Fairbairn later created, organised, and trained a special anti-riot squad for the Shanghai police force. He also developed numerous firearms training courses and items of police equipment, including a special metal-lined bulletproof vest designed to stop high-velocity bullets from the 7.63x25mm Mauser pistol.[1]:p:191

Fairbairn William UK LtCol detailed to OSS photo from

During World War II, he was recruited by the as an Army officer, where he was given the nickname "Dangerous Dan". Together with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes, Fairbairn was commissioned on the General List in 1941. Fairbairn and Sykes were both commissioned as second lieutenants on 15 July 1940.[2] He trained British, American and Canadian Commandos and No. 2 Dutch Troop 10th Inter-Allied Commando forces, along with Ranger candidates in close-combat, pistol-shooting and knife-fighting techniques. Fairbairn emphasised the necessity of forgetting any idea of gentlemanly conduct or fighting fair: "Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs... I teach what is called 'Gutter Fighting.' There's no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed," he declared.[1]:p:192 One of his pupils was Raymond Westerling, who fought behind enemy lines in Burma and Indonesia.

For his achievements in training OSS personnel, Fairbairn eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel by the end of the war, and received the U.S. Legion of Merit (Officer grade) at the specific request of OSS-founder "Wild Bill" Donovan.

Martial arts

After joining the SMP, he studied boxing, wrestling, savate, Shin no Shinto ryu jujutsu (Yoshin ryu) from Okada-sensei[who?], Kodokan judo in which he gained a 2nd dan black belt, and then Chinese martial arts[citation needed]. He developed his own fighting systemDefendu—and taught it to members of that police force in order to reduce officer fatalities. He described this system as primarily based on his personal experience, which according to police records included some 600 non-training fights, by his retirement at age 55 from the position of Assistant Commissioner in 1940.[citation needed]

In 1951, he went to Cyprus to train police and in 1952 (and 1956) Fairbairn provided training to the Singapore Police Force's Riot Squad unit, which is now Police Tactical Unit.[3]

Weapons innovations

Together with Eric A. Sykes, Fairbairn developed innovative pistol shooting techniques and handgun specifications for the SMP which were later disseminated through their book Shooting to Live With the One-Hand Gun (1942), along with various other police innovations such as riot batons, armoured vests, and other equipment.

He is perhaps best known for designing the famous Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, or 'Commando' knife, a stilletto-style fighting dagger used by British Special Forces in the Second World War, and featured in his textbook Scientific Self-Defence.[1]:p:191 Fairbairn also designed the lesser known Smatchet, and collaborated on the design of several other combat knife designs.


  • Defendu, first published in 1926 in Shanghai by the North China Daily News & Herald Ltd. Size 7" X 10", hardcover, cloth bound with 171 pages. Reprinted by Naval and Military Press ISBN 9781783314973
  • Scientific Self-Defence, first published in 1931 by D. Appleton and Company (New York & London). Size 6 ½" X 9 ½", in hardcover with 165 pages. A slightly modified/updated version of Defendu. Reprinted by Naval and Military Press ISBN 9781783314966
  • All-In Fighting, first published in 1942 by Faber and Faber Limited (London). Size 5 ½" X 8 ¼" in hardcover with 132 pages. Reprinted by Naval and Military Press ISBN 9781783313419
  • Get Tough, first published in 1942 by (New York & London). Size 5 ½" X 7 ¾" in softcover with 121 pages. This is a modified version of All-In Fighting for the American market. Note the first edition has Fairbairn's rank as 'Captain' all subsequent (1940's) editions as 'Major'. Reprinted by Naval and Military Press ISBN 9781783313334
  • Self Defence for Women and Girls, first published in 1942 by Faber and Faber (London). Size 5 ½" X 8" softcover with 48 pages.
  • Hands Off!: Self-Defense for Women, first published in 1942 by D. Appleton-Century Company (New York & London). Size 5 ¼" X 8" in softcover with 41 pages. This is a modified version of Self Defence for Women and Girls for the American market. Reprinted by Naval and Military Press ISBN 9781783313532
  • Shooting to Live, co-authored by Eric Anthony Sykes, first published in 1942 by Oliver and Boyd (London). Size 4 ¾" X 7" in hardcover with 96 pages. ISBN 0-87364-027-6 (reprint). Reprinted by Naval and Military Press ISBN 9781783313402
  • WE Fairbairn's Complete Compendium of Lethal, Unarmed, Hand-to-Hand Combat Methods and Fighting. All six of WE Fairbairn's works in one binding to create the ultimate compendium: Get Tough, All-In Fighting, Shooting to Live, Scientific Self-Defence, Hands Off!, Defendu. Naval and Military Press 2020 ISBN 9781783317042

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Chambers, John W. (2008). OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Park Service.
  2. ^ "No. 35040". The London Gazette (Supplement). 10 January 1941. p. 237.
  3. ^ Matthews, Phil. "W.E. Fairbairn: The Legendary Instructor". CQB Services. Archived from the original on 3 March 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)


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