In London’s Westminster Abby there is St. George’s Chapel, where on one of the chapel’s walls hangs the Commando Association Battle Honors flag that lists where the Commandos fought and died during World War II from 1940 to 1945.
Under the word COMMANDO in gold letters is a stylized portrayal of a singular knife – the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.
Soldiers throughout history have always carried blades as weapons and as tools. Yet, no other knife is more commonly associated with WW II elite forces or possesses more mystique than the Fairbairn-Sykes knife.
Commonly referred to as the “F-S knife” or “F-S dagger,” it is still issued to British Royal Marine Commandos, the Malaysian Special Operations Force, Singapore Commandos and Greek Raiders. In addition, the image of the knife is part of the emblem of United States Army Special Operations Command (Airborne) as well as the emblems of special forces units in Holland, Belgium and Australia.
Yet, it is a weapon born out the experience of dealing with 1930’s knife fights in Shanghai and developed by two men who had no scruples about dirty fighting. In fact, William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes taught an entire generation of warriors that one of the quickest, quietest and deadliest ways to kill Germans was cold steel thrust into Nazi vitals – preferably from behind.
“The Commando dagger would become a symbol not just to the men who were issued it, but also to British civilians at a time when Britain was on the back foot, and any deadly way to strike back at the Germans was considered a boost for morale,” wrote Leroy Thompson is his book Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Dagger.
Whether it was the Roman pugio (a short-bladed dagger that served as a legionnaire’s backup weapon), bowie knives wielded on both sides of the U.S. Civil War, or the “knuckle duster” trench knives of the Great War, soldiers have always carried blades for use in close-quarters fighting.
However, from the late 19th century until World War II many European generals thought it was unseemly for soldiers to bring personal knives into combat. Some thought it would reduce reliance on the bayonet and diminish the fighting spirit of soldiers.
Other commanders deemed rough-and-tumble knife fighting downright “ungentlemanly” – there’s a reason why betrayal is often called a “stab in the back.” Killing face-to-face with the bayonet was considered the more honorable way to dispatch the enemy.
However, the beginning of World War II reinvigorated belief in the close-combat knife as an essential weapon.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was less fussy about how British troops killed the soldiers of the Third Reich. He placed great stock in commando forces, covert operations, and what he called “ungentlemanly warfare.”
The newly created Special Operations Executive taught knife-fighting as part of agents’ training. So did the British Commandos and airborne forces.
That meant there was a demand for a specific kind of knife that would be used to quietly kill the enemy, preferably in a surprise attack.
“In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife,” Fairbairn wrote in his manual Get Tough! How to Win in Hand-to-Hand Fighting (1942). “An entirely unarmed man has no certain defense against it, and, further, merely the sudden flashing of a knife is frequently enough to strike fear into your opponent, causing him to lose confidence and surrender.”
Fairbairn would have known: During his 20-year career with the Shanghai Municipal Police, he fought in hundreds of street fights against assailants armed with knives and daggers. His friend and colleague Sykes served on the same police force and faced the same adversaries in what was at the time one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
In 1941, both men collaborated on the knife’s original design. Although the knife went through several variations during the war, it remained a double-edged stiletto well-balanced like a good sword and suited to thrusting and cutting more than slashing an opponent.
The models made by high-quality cutlers were manufactured from carbon steel so they could be honed razor sharp.
David W. Decker, a U.S. Navy veteran, knife-fighting expert, and collector of F-S knives, said a man trained in the use of the Fairbairn-Sykes knife learned confidence and aggression. In the hands of a properly-trained individual, it is a fearsome weapon.
“The knife has tremendous capacity for penetration of an enemy’s clothing, web gear and person,” Decker said. “A vital part of the training was the instruction in hitting lethal targets on the human body. Many of these targets had to be reached through the rib cage, so the slender blade was most efficient. The approximately seven-inch blade is capable of reaching all vital organs. Fluid in the hands, the grip was designed like that of a fencing foil to enhance the maneuverability of the knife.”
Another advantage of the F-S dagger was its ease of carry, said Decker, whose website chronicles the development of the knife and has photographs of many examples.
Relatively lightweight compared to other combat knives of the time, it was easily concealed or secured in a battle dress cargo pocket. Some men carried them strapped to their legs, tucked behind their pistol holster, or in a boot.
The needle-nosed point and razor-like edges of the dagger sometimes caused problems, Decker said. For example, one British commando could not pull the dagger out of the body of a German sentry because the knife was stuck in his ribs.
“At least one knife-maker was quoted as saying he made knives for stabbing Germans, not peeling potatoes,” Decker said, indicating some manufacturers made F-S knives with smooth edges so a soldier could remove the blade more easily from the enemy’s body.
Despite differences in quality and manufacture, the F-S knife gained popularity with both British and American soldiers during the war.
Members of the U.S. Army Rangers and Marine Raiders carried versions of the knife. U.S. Army Gen. Robert T. Frederick, commander of the 1st Special Service Force known as The Devil’s Brigade, based his design for the V-42 stiletto issued to his troops on the F-S knife.
Today, the F-S knife remains an iconic symbol on both sides of the Atlantic of what it means to qualify as an elite soldier.
At Fort Benning, Georgia, there is the Ranger Memorial. Behind two stone pillars holding a stylized Ranger tab are two smaller pillars and a knife sculpted in stone – a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.