William Fairbairn: The Godfather of Tactical Training

How William Fairbairn revolutionized the way we fight!

The inventor of SWAT teams, tactical training and self-defense.

The man who cleaned out Shangai’s bloody streets and trained the early British Special Forces

William Fairbairn: The father of close quarters combat

William Ewart Fairbairn had over 600 confirmed street fights to his name in Shanghai as a member of the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) spanning a thirty-year period.

By the time he was commissioned by the British Commandos in 1940 he had many knife wounds all over his body from the various fights he had been in.

He helped train modern day commandos in close quarters combat techniques.

By the time the war ended he had been the recipient of one of the highest decorations issued by the USA.

William Fairbairn

An underaged Royal Marine

Fairbairn was born in 1885 in England and little did his parents know at the time what a name their son would make for himself.

William always had an adventurous spirit and at the tender age of 16 he persuaded a Royal Marine Recruitment Officer to forge his paperwork for him to join the Royal Marines even though he was underaged.

He was trained and shipped out to a Royal Marines Station in Korea in 1903 where he already gained some experience in Eastern Martial Arts.

Fairbairn had a reputation that he could look after himself so it was no surprise that his next assignment would be in an international hotspot, which had quite the reputation.

Streets full of blood: Shanghai in early 21st Century 

Shanghai in the early twentieth century was one of the toughest places on the planet for police to work in.

The city was ruled by gangs and money flowed in and out of the city due to the Opium trade, other business ventures and Shanghai was just a popular destination for ships in those days due to its favourable location.

Shanghai was so popular that the term Shanghaied, to be coerced or forced to work onboard a ship as a sailor, was named after the city because so many ships went there.

Then and today Shanghai is an economic hub with an incredible amount of money passing through it just like in the early twentieth century.

As you can imagine, where there is money there is opportunity and vice.

Those days you could find whatever the heart or flesh desired.

Competition between dangerous gangs was always a factor.

This was the world Fairbairn was about to enter, but as they say, smooth sailing never made for good sailors.

To become the best he had to learn in the worst place on the planet.

William Fairbairn

William Fairbairn tames Shanghai 

Fairbairn arrived in Shanghai and it did not take long before his sense of integrity and his fighting ability almost cost him his life.

He came upon a gang in the Brothel District and instead of running away as so many of the SMP did he chose to stay and fight and was almost killed, despite his fighting ability.

The story goes that when he eventually woke up in his hospital bed he saw an advert which read “Professor Oakada, jujitsu and bone setting”.

As soon as he was released from hospital he looked up the professor and was taught Jujitsu.

Fairbairn began developing his own fighting style he called Defendu.

How Fairbairn’s famous Defendu was born

This fighting style borrowed from various martial arts, but was developed to stay alive on the streets of Shanghai and in any other place where street fighting was at the order of the day.

Therefore, Defendu was about gutter fighting.

You use whatever you can to repel your attacker, immobilise your attacker and stay alive.

Fairbairn began testing his fighting style on the streets of Shanghai and it is said that in his career he was involved in over 600 street fights.

His body would carry the signs of Shanghai for the rest of his life.

It is said that he even had scars on the palms of his hands.

When he saw his fighting style was effective he taught it to every member of the SMP.

William Fairbairn Defendu Techniques

A man of honor and intregrity

Fairbairn’s reputation as somebody with integrity you do not mess with became widely known.

Closer to the war relations between Japan and China was already not that good.

This caused constant conflict between Chinese and Japanese citizens as well as to the other problems the SMP had to contend with.

One night as Fairbairn patrolled the docks he found a ship with about 150 Chinese men and women tied with their hands behind their backs on board.

He asked the Japanese Officer what was going to happen to them to which the officer replied that they would be executed.

Fairbairn asked the officer to release them.

At first the Japanese Officer refused, but when Fairbairn promised him that if he ever found him on the streets he would make him pay, he promptly released the prisoners.

Fairbairn’s new point shooting technique

Except for hand to hand fighting Fairbairn also developed the point shooting technique.

Point shooting or instinctive shooting is a method where after many hours of practice the shooter becomes accustomed to his pistol as an extension of his body.

This is known as proprioception and is the best way to engage targets when you have very little reaction time, especially when your life is at stake.

Basically, it’s like pointing your finger.

Thus, Fairbairn and the members of the SMP went from being an ineffective police force without real power against the gangs to a force which did not run away and actively engaged the criminal elements of Shanghai by means of the techniques taught to them.

Fairbairn eventually lead his own very successful anti-riot squad in Shanghai.

Modern Tactical Training US Forces

World War Two: Codename “Dangerous Dan”

Because of how effective his fighting techniques were and because he had published his own books on the technique by the time the second world war arrived the British needed somebody to teach their Commandos and the OSS methods of self-defence and silent killing and the person they chose was none other than William Fairbairn.

Fairbairn was recruited to the British Military with the codename “Dangerous Dan”.

He and his fellow instructor Eric Sykes went about training Royal Commandos and the special forces of other allied countries in his techniques.

One of the people he trained was Raymond Westerling who fought behind enemy lines in Burma and Indonesia and he trained Rex Applegate who in turn trained other allies in the art of close quarters combat.

Yet another famous practitioner of Defendu was Ian Fleming.

A six-week silent killing course

All training was done at the top-secret Commando training facility in Scotland.

Apparently the six-week silent killing part of his course was so bad-ass that it included one week where students were taught how to kill a sentry with only a stick.

Defendu includes surprise strikes that are very easy to perform.

Examples include the blow where the edge of the hand is used, similar to the Karate Knife hand.

Another blow is the chin jab where you angle your hand backward, spreading the fingers and slamming the underside of the opponent’s chin with your palm base.

Then there is the Tiger Claw is highly effective when facing a frontal attack.

This blow is carried out by curling the fingers as if holding a shot-put and striking with a straight piston-like motion.

His techniques also included numerous kicks aimed at the lower body. 

With descent funding, he and Sykes also developed the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, which up to today features in the badge of the British Royal Marines.

The knife was slim and had sharp cutting edges on both sides.

It was made for thrusting, but could also cut very well if sharpened to specifications.

It was produced by the Wilkinson Sword Company and is also known as a stiletto.

William Fairbairn’s Knife Trainings

Fairbairn’s years after the war

After the allies won world war two the US was so impressed with Fairbairn’s contributions that under with the recommendation of “Wild Bill” Donovan himself Fairbairn was awarded the US Legion of Merit.

So after the war Fairbairn left for Singapore to train the city’s special anti-riot squad and thereafter he moved to Cyprus to train the country’s SWAT force.

He was still involved in close-quarters combat training and by the time he passed away this man not only developed the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, but also the bullet-proof vest, the smatchet and helped develop various other knives, batons, etc.

William Fairbairn passed away quietly in 1960 in England at the age of 75 and will not only be remembered as the man who revolutionised close-quarters combat, but also as a man with an unwavering moral compass and as a gentleman.

It is said that in his whole career Fairbairn never swore or said bad things about other people.

William Fairbairn

Article written by Maj W.G. Klokow, SAIC


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By | 2017-07-26T16:49:31+00:00 July 26th, 2017|Categories: Tactical Training, Tactical Training - Articles|Tags: , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on William Fairbairn: The Godfather of Tactical Training
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