Like Joseph, this book has a coat of many colours. It is by turn a history book, a travel guide and a social circular. It then progresses down a lively path of pen portraiture, offers pistol instruction, it is a martial arts guide and a ballistics reference. All this wrapped up in crime reports as a kind of police gazette. My son would call it Blue Peter for adults and if you asked me to provide a wants list for my ideal history book then this would pretty much be it. We don’t as yet give out stars, Amazon style, at WHO; but if we did this excellent book would get all five with one more for luck.

The Shanghai of William E Fairbairn was a wild sort of place that belies the gentle bespectacled features of the pistol packing, fighting knife inventor we know. In his photos he looks quite a lot like my dad, who knew where Shanghai was on the map and there the similarity ends. Fairbairn learned fast from hard experience and made sure he passed it on so hundreds benefited. Leroy Thompson is a leading authority on the kind of beat Fairbairn understood and he writes of him with clear knowledge and some reverence without resorting to any gushing nonsense because this really isn’t that sort of book.  We also meet Eric Sykes. No, not the recently departed comedy genius, but another classicist – this one known obviously as “Bill” – with firearms and offensive spirit. Together he and Fairbairn would give their name to the dagger we all know. Mr Thompson takes the time to explain how the prototypes were developed and who did what. It is genuinely fascinating stuff.

My previous outing to Shanghai came courtesy of the outstanding Empire Made Me By Robert Bickers, a Sinologist and a damned fine writer to boot who told the life of the Great War veteran Maurice Tinkler, a man who became a Shanghai cop.  You set out wanting to like him so much, but his was a soul chewed up and spat out by the Shanghailander experience and sad to say you cannot like him much at the close.  My nephew Tom works in Shanghai and I hope he may visit the grave of a punchy ex cop murdered by the Japanese in 1939.

Leroy Thompson offers a less weary view of Shanghai and isn’t afraid to shed a bit of humour on proceedings. I like it that the 4th Marines took up rugby union in the absence of American football and promptly became champs for several years. Lacking British snobbery they could date the White Russian émigré ladies the English class system scorned; a de facto stricture which crushed the spirit of poor constable Tinkler. We learn about the mounted arm of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. These chaps liked a drink and were known as the Tight Horse!

The World’s First SWAT TeamW. E. Fairbairn and the Shanghai Municipal Police Reserve Unit
The World’s First SWAT Team
W. E. Fairbairn and the Shanghai Municipal Police Reserve Unit

The city was a dangerous place. There was organised crime with racketeering, vice, kidnapping and drugs to keep the ne’er do wells busy. Sundry warlords, the communists and the nationalists had agendas a plenty and the Japanese were an ever growing menace never to be overlooked. Their time would come. Violence could flare up at any time and the propensity for shooting and the use of lethal force was everywhere.  To counter this Fairbairn set up his pioneering reserve unit, what we would now call a SWAT team, in 1925. He developed tactics and equipment which, in essence, are very much in use today. The author reminds us that the 1911 Colt he not only favoured but mastered remains the gun of choice for major US SWAT teams almost ninety years on.

It might, at a glance, be difficult to see a military connection to all this, but the Shanghai Municipal Police exported their expertise in time for the advent of special forces and spooks in World War II. The star of these must be the Irishman Pat O’Neill, a Fairbairn stalwart who, by degree, found himself in the 1st Special Service Force cutting German throats in Italy. He doesn’t feature in the silly William Holden vehicle The Devil’s Brigade, which we like nonetheless because we all know the difference between good and bad rubbish, don’t we?

Leroy Thompson’s great skill is to tread lightly with such serious stuff as deadly martial arts and close quarter pistol shooting and as an expert in these policing matters he manages to leave his anorak at home before it gets too much. American books can sometimes be very serious in tone and I often find I am being lectured in the style of the minister in The Simpsons, but not in this book. He understands the international flavour of things and a lot of authors from all corners of the globe could learn from this.

We have to finish with William ‘Dan’ Fairbairn, who, Mr Thompson reminds us, had a fully equipped van, the Red Mariah, as part of his pioneering SWAT team. It was built on a Guy lorry chassis and you can see in the photo that it came complete with the classic Indian head radiator ornament. The motto inscribed was “Feathers in Our Cap” which is just how the author can describe this book. I love it.

Mark Barnes

W.E. Fairbairn and the Shanghai Municipal Police Reserve Unit
By Leroy Thompson
Published in hardback by Frontline books £25.00
ISBN: 978 1 84832 604 0


Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.