This Commando Blade Was for Stabbing Nazis in the Back
Its real name should have been ‘the killing knife’
There’s a peculiar, green flag hanging on a wall inside St. George’s Chapel in London. Along the top of the banner, the word “Commando” wraps over a stylized portrait of a long, slender knife.
Around and beneath the dagger are the dates 1940–45 in gold letters—and the names of 38 battles British Commandos fought and died in during World War II. The double-edged blade is the most prominent feature on the flag.
This is because it’s the symbol for Her Majesty’s special operators. It’s also a symbol of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.
Soldiers have carried blades as weapons and tools for thousands of years. But no dagger is more closely associated with World War 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’s still issued to Malaysian special operations forces, the United Kingdom’s Royal Marine Commandos, Singaporean special forces and Greek raiders.
In addition, the stiletto is part of the insignia of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command, and appears on the emblems of commando units in Holland, Belgium and Australia.
It’s a weapon born out the experience of knife duels in 1930s-era Shanghai—and developed by two men who had no scruples about fighting dirty.
William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes taught an entire generation of warriors that one of the quickest and deadliest ways to kill Germans was cold steel thrust into the vital organs—preferably from behind.
Some historians have commented that the real name for the blade should have been “the killing knife.”
But from the late 19th century until World War II, many European generals thought it was unseemly for soldiers to bring personal knives into combat.
This was partly for practical reasons. Some thought short blades would discourage soldiers from using their bayonets, while diminishing their fighting spirit.
Other commanders deemed rough-and-tumble knife fighting as downright ungentlemanly. Hence why betrayal is often called a “stab in the back.” According to this line of thought, killing face-to-face with the bayonet was the more honorable way to dispatch an enemy.
The beginning of World War II quickly changed that—and reinvigorated belief in the close-combat knife as an essential weapon.
“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,” weapons instructor Leroy Thompson wrote in his book Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Dagger.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was less fussy than some generals 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 blade-fighting as part of agents’ training. So did the British Commandos and airborne forces. This boosted demand for a specific kind of knife … for quietly killing Nazis.
“In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife,” Fairbairn wrote in his 1942 manual Get Tough! How to Win in Hand-to-Hand Fighting. “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 dozens—and possibly 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 blade went through several variations during the war, it remained a carbon steel, double-edged stiletto balanced like a good sword—suited for thrusting and cutting, rather than slashing an opponent.
David Decker, a U.S. Navy veteran and Fairbairn-Sykes knife collector, said training with the blade taught confidence and aggression. In the hands of a properly-trained individual, it’s a fearsome weapon.
“The knife has tremendous capacity for penetration of an enemy’s clothing, web gear and person,” Decker told War Is Boring. “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,” Decker added.
“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.”
Relatively lightweight compared to other combat knives of the time, the F-S was easily concealed or secured in a uniform’s cargo pocket. Some soldiers carried them strapped to their legs, tucked behind their pistol holster or slipped down a boot.
Its needle-nosed point and razor-like edges sometimes caused problems, Decker said. For example, one British Commando couldn’t 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.
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 blade.
Army Gen. Robert 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.
At Fort Benning, Georgia—more than 4,000 miles away from St. George’s Chapel—there’s a monument to the Army’s elite Rangers. Behind two stone pillars holding a stylized Ranger tab are two smaller pillars and a knife sculpted in stone.
It’s a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.