Special Operations Executive — The Baker Street Irregulars
“Just fold it diagonally until it tightens into a point, then drive it right under the chin. Simple, really.”
— Eric Sykes explaining how to kill a man with a folded newspaper — Natural Born Heroes
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in England in 1940. Its purpose was covert operations in occupied Europe and later Asia. Fairbairn and Sykes would work within this organization to train clandestine agents and commando groups in combat. They were referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars” or the “Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, which gives you some sort of idea of their purpose.
By the time the duo arrived to be trainers, they were at retirement age. Both men were in their early 60’s and were referred to as the “heavenly twins” for their serene and grandfatherly appearances. However, in action these men consistently stunned and surprised those around them.
A recruit named Henry Hall in McDougal’s book related a story where the duo met him and his training group at the top of a flight of stairs. These kindly old gentleman then tumbled down the steps, popping up in a battle crouch, each holding a dagger and pistol. The grandfatherly gentlemen then told Hall and his group they were all dead as the old men dry fired their pistols at the group. This was a common introduction by the twins to their students.
Everything the twins taught was considered highly irregular. Fairbairn had a very negative view of traditional fighting methods. Boxing and wrestling he thought weren’t natural defense methods. By this, he meant that size and strength were primary determinants in success. Anything the twins taught didn’t require size and strength to be effective.
“We were to be gangsters, but with the behavior, if possible, of gentlemen.”
— Robert Sheppard, a recruit of the SOE — Natural Born Heroes
Many of the recruits that would walk through the doors weren’t necessarily physical specimens. The SOE went out of their way to recruit those who didn’t look like traditional special agents. A grizzled and chiseled soldier type would attract too much attention from the Nazis. An ink salesman, archeologist, or female socialite were more their targets.
One of Fairbairn’s favorite lessons was teaching a recruit how to knock somebody unconscious with a box of matches. Obviously, this wasn’t the most devastating weapon one would lay their hands on. But one didn’t need such a weapon, just the proper method of using their body.
Talking about weapons, the twins also brought their own ideas on weapons to their future students. The Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife is still in use today with many militaries. As well as the Smatchet, whose wide blade made it look like something from medieval times.
Fairbairn and Sykes also their own ideas when it came to shooting. The pair taught their students not to aim and shoot their pistols in a traditional way. They taught “instinctive aiming”. Fairbairn believed that Western gunslingers were so effective because they didn’t take the time to use the sights on their guns.
In a gunfight, time is everything. You only have seconds to react. By the time you pull your weapon, get in a stance, aim it, then fire, it’s too late. The pair taught their students to aim their body at a target. The gun was only raised to navel level, however, if your body and finger aimed at a target you hit it.
Often their shooting stances and methods looked so ugly, the pair would have to demonstrate their tactics actually worked. In McDougal’s book, the recruit Robert Sheppard would recount how Sykes could regularly hit bullseyes with his back facing a target while shooting between his legs.
The training video above is an excellent summation of things Fairbairn and Sykes would teach their students. Aside from the ridiculous 1940’s structure of the video, there’s a lot to take out of it. The final section showing the gun defenses is a treasure trove if you take it apart and know what you’re looking at.
I’ve spent over 15 years taking martial arts, Krav Maga in particular. The gun defenses these men were teaching in the 1940s aren’t far from what we do right now. As I watched the video, I could easily see the similarities. The basics are relatively the same and I’d have every confidence they would work in real life.
The techniques Fairbairn and Sykes demonstrated though weren’t formulated in a martial arts class. They were formulated from battles on the street. Fairbairn and Sykes would give these techniques a name, Defendu.