What do Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, and Paul Dehn have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all writers and/or screenwriters, Fleming, Dahl, and Dehn attended a little known World War II camp known today as Camp X. It was located on the Northwestern shore of Lake Ontario and was put together in early World War II for the sole purpose of training people to go deep into enemy territory and cause as much havoc as possible.
Camp X trained spies, assassins, and saboteurs: people with the necessary skills to drop monkey wrenches into the machineries of wartime Germany. Since not only was an individual’s life on the line, the whole war was on the line, training at Camp X was as realistic as possible. Among other things, live explosives were used with and on trainees.
While the idea of people being taught to drop into Nazi Germany and really mess things up is fascinating in and of itself, it was the hand-to-hand combat training that I find most fascinating. You have to realize the modern United States military has only recently undertaken a serious martial arts program. During World War II, the hand-to-hand combat largely consisted of simple punching, stabbing with bayonets, and some easy to learn and use throws. MACP (Modern Army Combatives Program) and MCMAP (Marine Corp Martial Arts Program) were still a long way off in the 1940s. Krav Maga was still a twinkle in Imi Lichtenfeld’s eyes, even if he was field testing what would become his system using Nazis as test subjects.
But if you’re going to drop people in Nazi Germany for nefarious purposes, simple punching isn’t going to help them. You need to take all the concepts of fair fighting and throw them away. As Kelly McCann is fond of saying, the fair fight is the one you lose.
So, who was going to teach this new collection of bad asses? That would be a British gentleman by the name of William Fairbairn. If you’ve ever heard of the Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife, he’s that Fairbairn.
William Fairbairn was a scary dude. He learned his trade as a cop in Singapore in the 1930s, fighting Chinese gangsters with a Colt 1911 and his fists. At one point he was stabbed nearly 40 times and left to die in a gutter. He survived and went on to learn as much about fighting as he possibly could. He took the best of what he found and discarded the rest. If he learned something but couldn’t make it work in a fight, it was tossed by the wayside. When he was done, William Fairbairn made Chuck Norris look like a child who had found a copy of Enter the Dragon and tried to imitate Bruce Lee.
Fairbairn was a natural choice to train the new spies and miscreants that were going to be dropped into Nazi Germany. He taught what he called “Gutter Fighting”, a system of relatively easy-to-learn moves that were designed to debilitate or kill an opponent with a minimum of fuss and muss. The techniques were mean, but effective. At a time when most people were looking to boxing and Judo or Jiu-Jitsu, Fairbairn advocated fingers in eyes, punches to the throat, knees to the groin, and so on.
In other words, William Fairbairn advocated fighting dirty. Long before Kelly McCann advised us that the fair fight is the one you lose, Fairbairn was upping the ante on Western hand-to-hand combat by saying, “You either kill or get killed.” And when Fairbairn said it, it wasn’t the tagline for a Charles Bronson movie.
Now, the funny thing is, if you look at what Fairbairn actually taught – and we have a lot of records of it, there are videos of him and he wrote books on the subject – a lot of his techniques are straight out of traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts.
What makes Fairbairn’s interpretation of the techniques he chose different from what we’re doing today in the martial arts is intent. A lot of modern martial arts students have the sole intent of getting to the next belt. Fairbairn’s intent was to cause maximum damage in a minimum amount of time. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what the traditional martial arts were created to do.
Somewhere along the line a lot of martial artists and martial arts schools forgot what they were doing and decided to focus more on memorizing movements and less on the intent behind those movements. Personally, I blame lawyers. Learning a physical act like fighting is going to result in some damage. I’ve been popped in the nose, kicked in the knee, kneed in the groin, and given myself a wicked huge gash with a katana. Unfortunately, there are people out there who cannot stomach getting hurt and run to a lawyer when it happens. Lawsuits are expensive and have driven many a school out of business.
The end result? Watered down traditional martial arts or straight-up crap. In the martial arts world, we call it Bullshido.
So, what’s the solution? Unfortunately that will probably rest with the student as the schools are too worried about being sued out of existence. If you’re planning on taking up a study of fighting, that’s great. Keep at it. Just realize the effectiveness of what you’re learning rests with you. The school can teach you how to do it, but you’re the one that has to actually make it work. That means you have to cultivate a mindset that’s capable of putting your thumb in someone’s eye, punching someone in the throat, or breaking the odd bone here and there..
At Camp X they understood that intent was paramount and trained students to understand that their life could quite literally be on the line in a fight. Once students got to that mindset, everything else flowed naturally into seriously messing the opponent up. Without that intent, everything they were taught would have been useless, which is why I titled this post “absolute violence”. In a fight situation there is no room for holding back. Holding back is what gets people killed.
William Fairbairn understood that and he taught the students at Camp X that same philosophy. And that may have saved more than a few lives.