Flat White

The Sword of Damocles hangs over the heads of some SAS troopers

23 November 2020

1:29 PM

23 November 2020

1:29 PM

Central to the Special Air Service badge is a dagger, surmounted by wings.

It was inspired by SAS founder Colonel David Stirling, who asked a Cairo tailor to make such a badge on which he envisaged was a symbolic sword of Damocles.

Australian World War II commando companies used a Sykes-Fairbairn fighting knife on their badges, adding postwar a boomerang.

The knife was designed by William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes, two prewar British colonial police inspectors with the Shanghai Municipal Police in Shanghai, China.

Sykes and Fairbairn were responsible for policing Shanghai’s triad gangs, where a dagger was the weapon of choice.

Based on knives they had confiscated, their model was a World War I bayonet carefully shaped into a balanced stiletto.

It was described as a sharp stabbing knife that was balanced, would not slip from the hand, penetrate deep outer covering into a rib cage, sever arteries and be easily withdrawn.


Having returned to the UK, Sykes and Fairbairn were considered past fighting age, though they were employed as Royal Marine Commando trainers.

Their design was adopted by the War Office, and made in several variations, including by Wilkinson Sword.

They were issued to a variety of troops, including paratroopers, special forces and clandestine organisations like the British Special Operations Executive.

Some legends have it that having been withdrawn, like a Gurkha’s kukri, it should not be resheathed without drawing blood.

Although its role today is usually purely symbolic, military forces still train in its use, and they are presented to those who complete special forces training.

Their fighting knife wasn’t Sykes and Fairbairn’s only legacy to despatch enemy agents.

With a personal motto of “kill or be killed” they wrote the manual Scientific Self-Defence, including how to kill a suspected Nazi agent on a train with a matchbox.

We won’t publish details here lest the kiddies read it and be encouraged to smoke.

Hand-to-hand combat is still central to special forces, though more to protect the integrity of individuals than for tactical necessity.

Mutilated bodies can be a sure sign the SAS has recently passed by. In recent years anonymity of special forces operatives has been applied to ridiculous extremes, including awards to individuals identified only by initials.

Those individuals should now be identified and, where appropriate shamed.

The sword of Damocles over their head is an appropriate symbol of their possible fates.

Ross Eastgate OAM is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and military historian who writes a weekly column on defence issues and blogs at Targets DownThis piece is reproduced with permission of The Townsville Bulletin, where an earlier version appeared.

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