Second World War British Middle East Commando “Death’s Head” Fighting Knife. The knife has the typical thin 150mm long blade with a reversed edge, mated with the readily identifiable brass knuckle-hilt. The entire hilt is about 145 mm long (from the butt end to the blade joint), and the brass knuckle grip measures about 111 mm in length with a depth of 70 mm and a width of 10 mm. The knife is accompanied by its original leather scabbard. A superb example of type, iconic and extremely rare.
Condition: The balance of the blade is bright and shiny and has probably been lightly cleaned, there is no pitting present on the blade and only slight tarnishing from oxidised age discolouration. The brass knuckle hilt and guard has a period golden patina with a mustard undertone. The brass knuckles have a lovely smooth appearance over the portions of the hilt that were regularly handled and saw wear, but retain crude file marks in the nooks and crannies of the grip. There is brass flowing onto the ricasso of the blade at the blade junction, which is typical of genuine examples of these knives showing that the blade was cast into the hilt. The scabbard is in fine condition with some evidence of wear. Overall condition conducive with age and usage.
These very scarce knuckle knives are known as “Death’s Head” due to the glaring visage that can be seen in the design of the brass knuckle hilt. Until recently little has been known about these knives, other than they were used by the 50th, 51st and 52nd British Commando units in the Middle East during the early days of the Second World War, and were probably procured and produced in Egypt. British GHQ, Middle East Land Forces, formed these three commando units between July and November of 1940. As was normal in the British military, the men who formed these commando units were British volunteers from other British army units. Some of which has also served as volunteers during the Spanish Civil War, fighting fascist forces in Spain. According to research published by Ron Flook in British And Commonwealth Military Knives, the design of the knife was inspired by a knife in the Cairo Police Museum that was referred to as the “fanny”, although is not clear where the nickname originated. The knives were produced locally in Egypt by at least a handful of cutlers, and minor variations are observed in the extant examples. The majority of the knives have a single edged blade that is reversed in the hilt with the edge “up” when it is held properly in the users hand, instead of the traditional downward facing orientation. This allowed the user to slit the throat of an enemy from behind without changing the grip on his knife. The blade was mated with a cast brass hilt that formed a wicked set of brass knuckles, which also resembled a maniacal face, resulting in the “Death’s Head” nickname. Most examples have blades that are approximately 6” in length and have an overall length of around 11 “. Some knives were manufactured with repurposed bayonet blades, often from British Pattern 1907 bayonets. Some extant examples have a four-digit serial number stamped on the brass hilt near the blade juncture and a couple of known examples also bear an inspection mark. The unique design of the wicked looking knife was so identifiable and inspiring to the men who carried them, that the British Commando forces who were issued the knives chose to adopt a miniature version of the knife as their unit designation pin and wore it on their bush hats with pride. The Middle East Commando forces 50 and 52 were rather short lived, and in February of 1942 they were combined to make the backbone of a new, larger special operations group called “Layforce” for their commander Colonel Robert Laycock. However, the 51st commandos remained in tact as an autonomous force during this period. The units participated in most of the British Middle East campaigns during the first half of 1941, including the Raid on Bardia, the Syria-Lebanon campaign, the Twin Pimples raid and the siege of Tobruk. In August of 1941 both Layforce and the 51st
Commandos were disbanded. Some members went on to establish Mission 204, a unit that supported and trained Chinese “Surprise Troops’ who were Nationalist Chinese guerillas fighting the Japanese in their own country. Other former Middle East commandos saw service in similar roles in Burma, as well as teaching at the Bush Warfare School in that country. Many more returned to the original regiments that they had volunteered from, or went on to service in other British command units. No doubt many of these former Middle East Commandos carried their “Death’s Head” knuckle knives with them to their new units, resulting in the knives seeing use around the globe.