Curator's Choice: The Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife at the National Army Museum

Robert Fleming interviewed by Richard Moss | 20 October 2011 | Updated: 29 May 2013
a photo of man next to a display case
Robert Fleming, curator of Fine and Decorative Art at the National Army Museum© Culture24
Curator’s Choice: In his own words, Robert Fleming, curator of Fine and Decorative Art at the National Army Museum, talks about the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife on display as part of the exhibition, Draw Your Weapons: The Art of Commando comic. (exhibition closed April 30 2012). 

"It’s extraordinarily well balanced. You can let it rest on the tip of your finger and it will just sit there perfectly. It’s hard to describe but it really does feel dangerous in your hand.

The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife was invented in the years before the war by two chaps, William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes, hence the name, and unlike earlier combat knives it was designed to be able to stab, throw and slash - so it’s more or less the perfect weapon.

Of course it’s an object of violence, but stylistically it’s a beautiful thing; it’s nicely shaped and styled. It’s also symbolic of what the Commandos came to represent - being able to sneak in and hit the enemy hard and then disappear. The knife was an essential element of that stealth - quietly being able to creep up on the enemy and get away undetected.

At first the Commandos weren’t issued with any official badges. They were operating as a unit and because they were drawn from the army and the other armed forces you would have one guy with a Tank Corps badge, one guy with a Guardsman’s badge… so they issued themselves with badges and used the dagger as their symbol.

So the Fairbairn-Sykes took on that symbolic meaning because it was the one thing that marked them out from other soldiers.

Hitler famously ordered the execution of any captured Commandos, because they were so effective, and we have oral history accounts of veterans throwing away the knife if they thought they were about to be captured.

We have several examples in the collection but the one on display in the Commando exhibition is the original Mark I with the silver blade, which matches the Commando comic artwork. But the Commandos didn’t want a glinting, clean silver blade when they were doing night raiding so they started blacking them up with boot polish. Later models were produced already blacked up.

The dagger was used well into the post war period and during the Korean war and it influenced other combat knives like the US Marine combat knife, which has a single curve and a serrated edge at the back with a pommel and handle configuration, like the Fairbairn-Sykes, so it could be used for stabbing and throwing.

Most of the knives in our collection come from serving soldiers so they have a service history with them and I suppose when you think about what they have done it’s a chilling thing. But war is a horrible business and the outcome of the Second World War rested on the endeavours of the kinds of soldiers who carried these weapons."

a photo of a metal dagger next to its scabbard
The Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife© National Army Museum
a black and white photograph of a beret with a badge bearing a dagger symbol intersecting the letters SS
The early Commando beret featuring the dagger symbol and 'SS' for 'Special Service'. The symbol was quickly substituted for Commando due to its similarity to the notorious German SS.© National Army Museum
Watch: Robert Fleming talks about the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife

Watch: Trooper Stan W Scott, No. 3 Army Commando talks about the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife.

  • Draw Your Weapons: The Art of Commando Comic ran at the National Army Museum until April 2012. Read the Culture24 review
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