Born in Herefordshire, England in 1885, William E. Fairbairn illegally joined the British Royal Marines in 1901. He was only fifteen years old. He so much wanted to join the Marines that he somehow convinced his recruiter to falsify his paperwork. Upon completion of his initial training, Fairbairn was immediately sent to Korea where he got his first taste of close combat. Along with getting battle-tested in war, Fairbairn realized that his very life could depend upon his ability to defend himself with bayonet or fighting knife. He began studying martial arts disciplines that originated in Korea. It was the beginning of his effort to become a master of combat.
In 1907, the British Legation Guard seconded Fairbairn to the International Police Force in Shanghai; it was the toughest assignment a police officer could get. As a junior officer, he was assigned to one of the cities red-light districts. It was also the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the entire world.
Shanghai’s inner-city warlords controlled the gangs of outlaws; they, in turn, ran large areas within the city. These were seriously dangerous men who would brook no competition from either gangsters or police officers. The gangs ran everything illegal, from deviant behavior and opium to the kidnapping and ransom of the children of wealthy parents, to cold-blooded murder.
Not long after arriving in Shanghai, Officer Fairbairn was patrolling in the brothel district when he encountered a gang of criminals who threatened his life. They threatened the wrong man. Fairbairn attacked these gangsters, but he was quickly overwhelmed by their numbers and he received a life-threatening beating. When he woke up in the hospital days later, Fairbairn noticed a plaque near his bed advertising the services of one Professor Okada, a master of jujitsu and bone setting. Through many hours of off duty study, William Fairbairn earned a black belt in both jujitsu and judo.
Fairbairn (pictured left) served 30 years with the Shanghai police. In this time, he was involved in over 600 encounters with armed and unarmed assailants. His innate courage, determination, and acquired skillset in hand-to-hand combat always took him through to safety. On one particular evening, Fairbairn entered into another dangerous situation with a Japanese officer and fellow expert in the martial arts.
At this time, extreme hostility existed between China and Japan. As Fairbairn approached and greeted the Japanese officer, he noticed that there were around 150 Chinese men and women sitting bound on a nearby Japanese naval vessel. When Fairbairn inquired what was in the offing, the Japanese officer informed him that the Chinese persons were going to be executed. Fairbairn insisted that the Japanese officer release the Chinese at once and he would take them into custody. The Japanese officer refused.
Calmly, with a measured voice, Fairbairn warned the Japanese officer, paraphrasing: Do what you have to do, but one day we’ll meet again, and I’ll make sure you pay for this wrongdoing. The Japanese officer released all prisoners to Fairbairn.
Over many years, Fairbairn acquired practical knowledge in the field of law enforcement, self-defense, and close combat. He decided to incorporate his experiences into a new practical street defense system. He called it Defendu. He borrowed from various martial arts and included his own “down and dirty” non-telegraphic strikes that were easy to apply and highly practical and effective in real-world situations. Defendu also included various kicks, mainly designed to damage an attacker’s legs and knees.
In addition to his hand-to-hand combat skills, Fairbairn also developed new police weapons and equipment (bullet-proof vests, batons), firearms training courses, and specialized training for police anti-riot forces.
In 1939, the British Secret Service recruited Fairbairn and commissioned him as an army officer. Shortly after, with his demonstrated skills, colleagues and superiors alike began referring to Fairbairn as “Dangerous Dan.” He, along with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes, received commissions as second lieutenants on 15 July 1940. Fairbairn and Sykes trained British, American, and Canadian commando units, including American ranger forces, in such areas as close-combat, combat shooting with the pistol, and knife fighting techniques. Lieutenant Fairbairn was quite plain in his instruction: dispense immediately with any idea of gentlemanly rules of fighting. His admonition was, “Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs. There is no fair play. There is only one rule—kill or be killed.”
There are those today who never heard of William Fairbairn or Eric Sykes, but they may have heard of their most erstwhile invention: The Fairbairn fighting knife, also called commando knife … a stiletto-type dagger used by the British Special Forces in World War II. Given all his combat-related innovations, some have suggested that William Fairbairn might have been the inspiration for Ian Flemings’ Q Branch in the James Bond novels and films.
Significantly, Fairbairn also influenced training in the U. S. Marine Corps. Anthony J. D. Biddle, Sr., (1874-1948) (shown right) was a millionaire, the son of Edward Biddle II, the grandson of Anthony Drexel, and the great-grandson of Nicholas Biddle —bankers and industrialists all. His wealth enabled him to pursue the theater, writing, and Christianity on a full-time basis. A. J. D. Biddle was the basis of the book and play titled My Philadelphia Father, and the film The Happiest Millionaire. As a United States Marine, Biddle trained men in the art of hand-to-hand combat in both World War I and World War II. He was a fellow of the American Geographical Society and founded a movement called Athletic Christianity. In 1955, Sports Illustrated magazine called him boxing’s greatest amateur and a major factor in the re-establishment of boxing as a legal act and an estimable sport.
Colonel Biddle, as an expert in close-quarters fighting, wrote a book entitled Do or Die: A supplementary manual on individual combat. It instructed Marines and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on combat methods with open hand fighting, knife fighting, and bayonet fighting. Within the book Do or Die, Biddle wrote in the Imprimatur, “Now come the very latest developments in the art of Defendu, originated by the celebrated Major W. E. Fairbairn, Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and of jujitsu as shown by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel G. Taxis, U. S. Marine Corps, formerly stationed in Shanghai, who was an instructor in these arts. Following a series of conferences with Colonel Taxis, several of his particularly noteworthy assaults are described in Part III of this manual. Major Fairbairn is the author of the book, Get Tough.
Despite his lethal capabilities, Dangerous Dan was a well-mannered gentleman who never drank alcohol, never used profanity, and never boasted of his ability or accomplishments. William Ewart Fairbairn passed away on 20 June 1960, aged 75, in Sussex, England.
- Biddle, A.J. D. Do or Die. Washington: The Leatherneck Association, Inc., 1937
- Fairbairn, W. E. Get Tough. New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1942
- Fairbairn, W. E. Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1926
- Fairbairn, W. E., and Eric A. Sykes. Shooting to Live. London: Oliver & Boyd, 1942.
- Lewis, D. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops. Kindle edition online.