Get Tough by William E Fairbairn

5 minutes estimated reading time

What is Get Tough?

Get Tough is a book on hand-to-hand fighting originally published in 1942. It is important for what it represents as much as it is with regards its content.

Fairbairn as an author

By the time Get Tough was written in 1942; Fairbairn was an experienced published author. In 1926, Fairbairn wrote the book Defendu. This was a step-by-step guide to Fairbairn’s fighting system that distilled his experience in street fights, alongside the jujuitsu he learned from early Japanese teachers that went abroad. In this respect Fairbairn, was similar to the Gracie family in Brazil, Imi Lichtenfeld’s Krav Maga and the Soviet founders of SAMBO. Globalisation drove hybrid fighting styles. Something we’d later see with mixed martial arts in general.

Defendu as a title didn’t catch on that well as a title so it was republished as Scientific Self-Defence in 1931.

The second world war resulted in Fairbairn’s most prolific period as an author. He wrote Shooting to Live with a colleague and firearms expert Eric Sykes. All-In Fighting was written by Fairbairn as a manual in close quarters combat. Though a section on using firearms in a close up situation was contributed by P.N. Walbridge.

Get Tough was an American and Australian edition of All-in Fighting, but without the section by P.N. Walbridge. Where All-in Fighting was aimed at the soldiers Fairbairn and his colleagues taught, Get Tough looked to appeal to a wider audience.

Fairbairn provided an edited version of his work called Self Defence For Women and Girls, which is about a quarter of the pages of Get Tough. There was also an American edition retitled Hands-Off!

Fairbairn managed to write the book whilst training British commandos. Fairbairn and Sykes had a falling out sometime in 1942 and were never reconciled. Fairbairn took his expertise to to the US and Canada. Sykes carried on teaching in the UK.

Get Tough and colonialism

Get Tough was a distillation of experience that Fairbairn had in Korea and then later in Shanghai. As a member of the Shanghai Municipal Police he had been involved in hundreds of fights with local and international residents of the port city.

The experience led to Fairbairn to play a role in developing:

  • Anti-riot techniques
  • Police sniping techniques with Eric Sykes
  • The Defendu fighting style
  • Two types of knives. The Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. A slender but sharp double sided stiletto blade designed the weapon to strike at the vulnerable parts of an opponent’s body, especially the vital organs. The original version was known as the Shanghai knife and had a 6 inch blade. It was likely part of the cache of illegal weapons that Fairbairn and Sykes brought back to the UK from Shanghai during the war. The military versions were 1.5 inches longer, to get through winter clothing. The Smachet, a large broad knife almost like a machete or a Roman sword

Fairbairn’s work was based on the health and lives of colonial subjects. Fairbairn often enjoys exclusive credit for this work, but the reality was that it was a collaborative effort from several officers in the Shanghai Municipal Police including Eric Sykes and Dermot O’Neill. The Shanghai Municipal Police was what modern organisational theorists would have termed a ‘learning organisation’.

Part of this learning culture was forced upon them by events. The Shanghai Municipal Police killed four members of a protest in May 1925 because they didn’t have enough police on duty to manage a demonstration. This felt rather similar to the Amritsar shootings of 1919, which shattered support for British rule in India by both Indians and people in the UK.

This led to the Shanghai Municipal Police founding the first modern SWAT team called the reserve unit; this unit was also responsible for modern methods of policing riots.

The Get Tough legacy

Defendu had been taught to hundreds of policemen who rotated through Shanghai before the second world war. They then went on to work in other outposts of the British Empire in a policing or military capacity.

When Sykes and Fairbairn brought their particular set of skills back to the UK in 1940. They were put to work training commandos and and secret agents in their skills. These skills were taught to military age men and women, the women were predominantly going to be dropped by parachute into occupied Europe.

Again hundreds, if not thousands of people passed through the schools that they ran in Scotland and the south coast of England. Some of the people who went through those schools were from overseas. When they eventually went home, the ideas and training that they learned went with them and were put to use. At first trying to retain colonial rule. Then later, building up nascent special forces units including units from the US, Belgium, Holland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Over time these countries evolved their techniques to match modern war, but the principles where still there.

After the second world war, the colonial policemen of the Shanghai Municipal Police who survived scattered across the British empire. Fairbairn went to Cyprus to train police in his techniques. He then ran two sessions in Singapore for the newly formed riot squad unit.

The contents of Get Tough

Fairbairn wrote Get Tough for a wide range of readers, not just the military as Fairbairn himself said:

It is not the armed forces of the United Nations alone who can profit by learning about how to win in hand-to-hand fighting. Every civilian, man or woman, who ever walks a deserted road at mid-night, or goes in fear of his life in the dark places of a city, should acquaint himself with these methods.

Get Tough by William E. Fairbairn

The book covers:

  • Blows
  • Releases – how to get out of holds by an assailant
  • Holds
  • Throws
  • Miscellaneous advice – mostly covering improvised weapons from things at hands
  • Use of the knife – Fairbairn talks about using the Sykes-Fairbairn fighting knife
  • The Smatchet – use of a short machete type weapon designed by Fairbairn
  • Disarming an opponent of his pistol

If you’ve trained in a martial art, you’ll have done drills of some sort like katas in karate. Fairbairn’s work doesn’t have drills per se. The idea is that if you do the hold or the blow, you are unlikely to need follow up.

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