A German helmet bobs in-and-out of sight as the Gestapo sentry paces the moonlit terrace. Crouching in the shadows is a British SOE agent wielding a Fairbairn Commando knife. It’s his first mission in occupied France.
As taught, he slowly approaches from behind and with his left hand strikes the German at the back of the neck and immediately covers his mouth and nostrils. Almost simultaneously, with his right hand jabs the knife to the sentry’s kidneys.
The dreaded metallic sound of failure. The knife struck the gas-mask canister. Incensed with his stupidity, he unsticks the knife and goes for the abdomen. There is no gas-mask canister there. He pulls the lifeless man downwards and backward into the shadows.
Notwithstanding the near fiasco, his CQB instructors would’ve been proud. It was, after all, his first kill.
During WWII, such missions were thought standard for the agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and their American colleagues of the Office of Strategic Service (OSS), the CIA’s famed predecessor. Mastering the dark arts of Close Quarters Combat (CQB) was therefore essential.
The selected few who underwent training had access to a committed cadre of pioneers — men such as Lt. Col. Fairbairn, AKA “The Shanghai Buster,” chief instructor and co-inventor of the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife; Sergeant-Major de Relwyskow, a two-time Olympic wrestling medallist and expert in small arms and unarmed combat; Col. Rex Applegate, allegedly the inspiration for James Bond; and Col. Anthony Biddle, an eccentric millionaire, and amateur boxer.
Training took place at Camp X near Oshawa in Lake Ontario, Canada. The facility was so secretive that not even the Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King knew about it.
A comprehensive curriculum, covering all probable contingencies, was taught. The recent declassification of the syllabus has unearthed a treasure trove of information about the evolution of CQB. Indeed, many of the CQB principles that today’s Special Operation Forces adhere to trace their lineage to that secluded camp in rural Canada.
The program embraced both unarmed and armed “Silent Killing,” a name, the instructors argued, more appropriate than “Close Combat.” Its central philosophy was straightforward: attack first and persist till the enemy is neutralized — never stop at crippling, always go for the kill. And the methods had to be simple, easily learned, and deadly.
Cruel Situations Demand Cruel Methods
Agents learned to fight dirty. To gain an advantage over their opponent, they should do everything possible: throw dirt, gravel, a handkerchief, or whatever they had, in his face to distract him, and then strike. Some officers of pedigree found this to be ungentlemanly, but, as their instructors said, “foul methods of combat are more humane because they kill quicker.”
As for the training regimen, its main philosophy was constant repetition. Trainees were drilled at the fundamentals again and again and again. Once on a mission, they should never have to stop and think. If they did, they might not survive to regret it.
When it came to the kit, the philosophy continued to be simple: train as you’d fight. This is fundamental. And it’s in the unarmed section where things get interesting.
What would you like? The Japanese Strangle, the Rock-Crusher, or the Grape Vine?
These exotic names are only a few of the holds and blows agents perfected in their unarmed combat classes.
Other blows they studied were hand-knife strikes, open-hand chin-jabs, fingertip-jabs, boxing blows, kicks, knee strikes, and head and elbow strikes.
As for the best places to hit, the back of the neck was the prime cut. Anything from the nose to the base of the throat was a good target. Either side of the head and throat would work as well. And kidney-blows always yielded tasty results.
Along with these, they practiced in attacking armed and unarmed sentries, spinal dislocations, releases from holds, disarming an enemy with a firearm, defending against a rifle butt or a bayonet, snatching prisoners for interrogation, and searching prisoners — the easiest way, instructors argued, was to kill them first!
Knife fighting was another thing they became masters of. Their staple was the Fairbairn-Sykes double-edged commando knife. They had to perpetually keep them sharp to prevent seizing and to slash effectively.
Instructors taught them how to hold it; how to pass it from one hand to another; how to feint and parry; and how and where to strike. Ambidextrous, realistic training was everything.
In case they entered a room swarmed with Germans, they should never go for the fancy stuff, rather evade and fight another day: Captain America is a comic character.
Whatever the situation, however, going to the ground was their worst choice. Doing so would restrict their situational awareness, making them more vulnerable to other enemies, and limit their attacking force.
After graduating from the unarmed section, agents advanced to the range.
The firearms regime had three principles: First, any movement must be natural and instinctive; second, a pistol is a weapon of attack, not self-defense; and last, always shoot your target twice to be sure. (This last principle the SAS had to relearn during their time in Iraq: One night, an SAS Squadron was raiding a target house, and the troopers were room-clearing when suddenly one of them was shot by what was thought to be an already dead jihadist. They never repeated that mistake. On subsequent missions, every trooper passing a “neutralized” enemy would put a shot on him, resulting in peppered bodies as troopers moved through a house.)
The agents practiced in all the firing positions imaginable. But they’d always aim for the shoulder-firing position since it was the most effective. The challenge was how fast they’d transit from the carrying position to the shoulder-firing position.
Hip-firing was discouraged (Col. Charlie Beckwith, Delta Force’s father, followed the same principle when forming his unit in the 70s).
And yet, the instructors acknowledged that it’s the situation that dictates the shooting position. Coming against a German in a trench or entering a room full of Italians, an agent would have no time to adopt the best position or to use sights. So, instinctive shooting under realistic scenarios was practiced to death.
Recruits also rehearsed grip techniques, firing on moving targets, limited-visibility firing, stress-shooting, and indoors and outdoors shooting.
As for room-clearing, the instructors preached a most unorthodox method: an agent would blow the door, his comrades would provide support crossfire aimed at the opposite sides of the room, the agent would crouch underneath their fire and engage, and then his colleagues would follow him in.
They became proficient at every type of weapon and ammunition circulating in Europe: from rusty WWI Czechoslovakian rifles to the slick STG. 44. When it came to submachine guns, the Thompson and Sten were the top choices, since an accurate single-shot was preferred to rapid-fire.
Judging from Hitler’s infamous Kommandobefehl 66, a directive secretly issued in 1942 ordering the prompt, trial-less execution of any allied commando or agents captured, the SOE CQB curriculum must’ve worked.
This article was originally published in January 2020. It has been edited for republication.