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Churchill's Extraordinary Killing School

Of all the people who worked for Winston Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn were by far the most extraordinary.

By
Giles Milton,
March 2, 2017
Episode #040

Of all the people who worked for Winston Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn were by far the most extraordinary.

They first came to the attentions of the War Office in the summer of 1940 when they pitched up unannounced in Whitehall, having just arrived from the Far East. Both were close to retirement age and had come to offer their services in the fight against Nazi Germany. At first glance they were an unlikely couple of recruits, best suited, perhaps, to patrol duty in the Home Guard. Dressed in khaki, and striding suburbia with pitchfork and spade, they would have at least been made to feel they were playing a part in the war against Hitler.

But they arrived in London with such an incredible story (and curriculum vitae to match) that they could not be easily ignored. The first of the men, Eric Sykes, was known to his friends as Bill, a reference to Dickens’s famously shady character. He was stocky, with pebble-glass spectacles and a dimpled smile: he looked as if he couldn’t hurt a fly. One acquaintance said he had the ‘manner and appearance of an elderly, amiable clergyman’. Others were ‘lulled by his soft tones and charmed by his benevolent smile’.  But Sykes was neither benevolent nor a clergyman. He was an expert in silent killing – chilling, ruthless and clinical – and a man whose every sentence was said to end in the words, ‘and then kick him in the testicles.'

His previous employment had been in Shanghai, where he had worked as the representative of two American firearms companies, Colt and Remington. He was a crack shot, arguably the finest in the world, and his speciality was shooting from the hip. One who watched him in action was astonished to see him spin round, gun in hand, ‘with his back facing the target and hit the bull’s eye from between his legs.'

Hear more in the full episode of Unknown History in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunesStitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.

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This post was roughly excerpted from Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton. You can pick up a copy today on AmazonIndieBoundBarnes & Noble, and Booksamillion

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