CQC History

The Source

By Peter Robins

You may well have pondered this question a thousand times in your close quarter combat training - where did this come from? What was the source? How did it come about?

Of course close combat is as old as man - from the very first we have fought each other, for food, territory or personal gain - but when did this close combat become a virtual science? This is we something we can define quite accurately.

John Kary Chin JabClose quarter combat training reached its zenith in the Second World War - beginning in 1940 when two remarkable men arrived home to their native England after long service out in China. One had been a businessman and also a police special (reserve officer) the other a regular police officer. Both had served in the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) arguably the best trained police force the world has yet seen.

Who were these men? The former was Eric Anthony Sykes, the latter William Ewart Fairbairn. Both had been in China for many years and met up in the early 1920's in Shanghai that infamous city, known as the Paris of the East. Shanghai is still regarded as having been one of the world's toughest and most dangerous cities, and in the 20's and 30's so it was. It was a unique place in that it was a foreign settlement and municipality situated next to the old Chinese city and self governing. It was home to a thriving and mixed population and also home to a seething Chinese population. The Settlement had no definite borders and so in and out flowed all kinds of problems - mostly in the form of trouble makers and criminals. Chinese gangs abounded and with them came organized crime on a huge and terrifying scale. To keep law and order in this melting pot was the SMP. They were a multi national force of Chinese, Japanese, Sikhs and "Foreign" Officers (mainly British) from all over the world. At its peak the SMP numbered about 6,000 men.

All officers were armed, with baton and pistol, and were also trained in empty hand techniques to a high degree of skill and confidence. This covered arrest and restraint techniques and also self protection, the latter is still being overlooked or ignored today! The SMP knew that the former was of little value without the latter being present. The man responsible for developing the force's skills in defensive skills was W.E. Fairbairn. He had joined the SMP in 1907 and had risen through the ranks to become by 1935 an Assistant Commissioner. He had been their Chief Instructor in close combat and firearms training. As well as this he had devised, trained and led the world's first dedicated Riot Squad called the Reserve Unit (RU) . As well as covering all riots and street disturbances the RU also were on call to attend special problems where the local station could not contain the situation. These would cover such happenings as kidnap, armed robberies and siege problems. They also acted a special guards to high risk cargoes, to high risk persons and at courts. In short they were the forerunners of all of today's SWAT, HRT and ERT teams.

E.A. Sykes had worked on the RU, with Fairbairn, as the officer in charge of a specialist sniper team. He also had extensive knowledge of unarmed fighting skills. Fairbairn had in his time in Shanghai devoted much time to training in these arts from many different sources. It was these skills that he honed to pass on to his men and to develop his own method of self protection called Defendu.

Both men retired in 1940 and returned to Britain at war, to find that it was under dire threat of invasion from Nazi Germany. Hitler had put into motion his plan called "Operation Sealion" in which he was going to invade from France and put in place a massive force to occupy and control most of Britain. The threat was in place directly after the disastrous rout of the Allied forces in Holland, Belgium and France. This culminated at a place called Dunkirk where by nothing short of a miracle Britain managed to evacuate about a quarter of a million men. They returned to our shores leaving behind a massive amount of arms and ammunition. So it was that that the Nazis were poised to invade a country with little, save courage and spirit, to defend with. While the army reformed another miracle was needed. To my mind this came about when Fairbairn and Sykes offered their unique services to the War Office. They were taken on as Captain Instructors and sent up to the newly formed Special Training Center (STC) at Lochailort in Scotland. This was to be the least known but most important battle school of all. Gathered here were the best instructors that Britain had to quickly train officers and specialist units to take the fight back to the Nazis.

It had been at last realized that the trench warfare mentality of the First World War was outdated and useless. What was needed was the mentality of attack and not defense, as had been the case in the past. To help weld together this attitude being fostered and taught at the STC, Fairbairn and Sykes were instrumental in teaching pistol and Tommy gun shooting, Knife and Unarmed Combat to all who passed through the hallowed gates. A point worth knowing is that Fairbairn was then 55 years of age, Sykes was 57! 

What must be made clear and it is something that is often misunderstood - Defendu was the system developed for the SMP and other police forces of the East; it formed the foundation for what they taught during the war, but was not the same. Defendu was for mainly arrest and restraint and self protection, albeit under often dangerous circumstances - the system(s) taught during the war were for killing and maiming in most instances. Therein lies the subtle but important difference. Many people today mix the two up!

John Kary Knife FightingTheir unique, simple, direct and devastating techniques were taught to countless men who took these valuable lessons back to their own units and passed them on. No one who attended the STC ever forgot these two men and what they gave of them selves to their classes in the way of skills and perhaps more importantly in confidence and self esteem. The mindset of Attack or at worst Counter Attack was emphasized throughout the training time allotted to Fairbairn and Sykes. It was not wasted. They taught there for two years and it could be said that close quarter combat training reached its zenith at the STC, even though they went on to teach at other establishments. Fairbairn left Britain in 1942 and traveled to Canada and the United States to work with the OSS and other units. Sykes remained in Britain traveling extensively. They left behind them a great legacy. It deserves to be carried on to the coming generations of men who will go in harm's way for the greater good of all.

Fairbairn and Sykes created different cadres of instructors in every school they went to and so built up a network of exceptionally skilled instructors to "spread the gospel". At the end of the war these men quietly went back to their families and loved ones to try to catch up with the missing years in their personal lives. Years taken away from them by the onslaught of war. It is to these specially picked men that we also owe a debt of gratitude. We also owe them a debt of honor in that any teaching or training in the name of Fairbairn and Sykes should only benefit the "good guys". In their memory I would ask you to join me in doing that - that debt is just too great to do otherwise.