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.

Camp X
Camp X (Wikimedia Commons)

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.