World War II saw the advent of modern special operations, and thus the need for special hand-to-hand fighting skills for special operators. The foremost of these units were the British Commandos, the OSS, the First Special Service Force (1SSF), Army Rangers, Marine Raiders, and Alamo Scouts. There were others, many of whom were formed ad hoc by commanders, in special situations. William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes were the founders of modern SOF hand-to-hand fighting techniques and were key players in the development of modern close-quarters combat.

Their names are often recognized in reference to the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, which they designed and was widely issued during WWII to Allied SOF units. Fairbairn and Sykes developed their expertise in hand-to-hand combat working as policemen in Shanghai in the 1920s, an overpopulated city overrun with crime and drugs. They commanded a special police unit that was tasked with riot control, Triad interdiction, and other special projects. Fairbairn and Sykes did a survey of various martial arts systems across Asia, and from that developed their own system and called it Defendu. They and their police officers tested and improved this system in thousands of documented engagements.

Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife (

The purpose of Defendu was to be as brutally effective as possible. It differed from traditional systems in that it did not require years of training to attain competency. It could be taught and mastered relatively quickly. In the early days of World War II, Fairbairn and Sykes were brought back to Britain to train British SOF commandos and operatives in Defendu. Fairbairn named it “Silent Killing Close Quarters Combat Method.” (The acronym SKCQCM never caught on.) It became the standard for all British SOF personnel and was adopted by and improved upon to meet U.S. SOF needs.

Rex Applegate and Anthony Biddle were U.S. Army officers who learned and then taught Fairbairn and Syke’s system to OSS operatives at a training facility near Lake Ontario, Canada. Eventually, Applegate’s and Biddle’s hand-to-hand training spread throughout all U.S. SOF units, particularly, in the First Special Service Force and the Army Rangers.

The OSS was unique in its hand-to-hand needs in that many of its operators were women and even many of the men were not necessarily models of fitness and strength. So, speed and brutality were crucial to success and survival. Meanwhile, traditional judo, knife-fighting techniques, and bayonet drills remained the focus of hand-to-hand training for most units of the Army and USMC.

The 1st Special Service Force, the Alamo Scouts, and the Army Ranger battalions had somewhat different training, as special operations units often do.

Numerous books describe the training environments and attitudes in these units to be very adaptive and open to ideas outside normal Army and military protocols. This was due to the special needs of their missions and to the types of men attracted to such units. One such provision was sentry removal, which required stealth and quick killing skills: Neither bayonet drills nor boxing provided insights into this. Various knife, strangling, and choking techniques were devised, probably with a fair amount of Defendu influence.

Another skillset was covert infiltration of enemy lines. This was usually done at night and in squad-sized units. It required infiltrators to kill as many enemies as possible, as quietly as possible before the shooting started and the alarm was sounded. All of this was, of course, a throwback to World War I, the lessons of which had been lost during the emaciation of the U.S. military in the two decades after that war.