History of Self Defense: The O'Neill Combatives System – The Self Defense Company

History of Self Defense: The O’Neill Combatives System

History of Self Defense: The O’Neill Combatives System

Dermott "Pat" O'Neill - The Man Who Taught the Devil's Brigade.

Besides the fairly well-documented Judo background of Dermott O'Neill and his service with the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and as a "protege" of William Ewart Fairbairn, little else is really known about the elements that comprise his method.

Quotes like this: ".........the Office of Strategic Services(OSS) improved version of kick and poke judo. This hand to hand unarmed combat method was developed and taught by a former Shanghai police inspector, British embassy security expert, and OSS contract employee named Dermot Michael "Pat" O'Neill." Offer some insights into the man and the method.

The system that O'Neill "developed" was born during his time in Shanghai. The late Charlie Nelson related that his introduction to O'Neill's method was through a Sgt. Kelly who learned this method from O'Neill during Kelly's tour of duty in China. Since we know that O'Neill left for Japan in 1938, the "training" between Kelly and O'Neill must have occurred prior to that. So we can presume that the O'Neill method came into its own sometime during the mid 1930's.

Many reference sources containing information on O'Neills method as recalled by Forcemen of the 1st SSF refer to similar phrases as the one quoted above. Terms like "jab and kick", "gouge and kick", "poke and kick" are constantly used when describing this method. Now we KNOW what the elements of the "Fairbairn" system are (though even here there is much misconception as well) and when would be hard pressed to describe WEF's approach as "kick and poke".

Though the O'Neill method may have included elements of Fairbairn's system (though there is documentation to the contrary), it

Dermott O'Neill was a character featured in the historical based movie The Devil's Brigade.

is clear that the O'Neill method is materially different. The difference in "needs" as it relates to close combat between front line rapid assault "shock" troops like the "Devil's Brigade" and the nature of clandestine special operations as waged by the OSS and SOE explains to great degree the dis-similarity in choice of method.

Chinese foot-fighting or Chinese Boxing is mentioned in various manuals attributed to O'Neill. CHI-CHI SHU another reference to Chinese combatives is also mentioned in the AID/IPA manual. Material extant from the WWII era mentions this specifically. Charlie Nelson always said that this method was based on Chinese Guerilla warfare.

So where does the O'Neill method originate from? What may be the original source of this system?

To fully understand the possible connections to Chinese Boxing, we must FULLY understand the complete original syllabus of this method.

We will begin to discuss that aspect in Part II. Hopefully, we will also dispel "mis-informed" opinions concerning the combat validity and effectiveness of the O'Neill "method".

In the years leading up to WWII, Japan was already flexing its military might in China.

The Chinese, in addition to the growing threat from Japan, was dealing with a number of internal conflicts as well. The Nationalist movement vs. the growing Communist "revolution", and the ongoing battle to oust all colonial influence and "foreign devils".

As Japan's invasion of China grew in both size and brutality, it became obvious to western powers that Japan would in short order be a serious threat to global stability.

The Chinese for all of their "internal" battles were waging war against the Japanese on all levels. This included covert or clandestine intelligence missions. The British SIS had strong ties in Shanghai and even stronger ties with the SMP. Since the SMP had a large contingent of Chinese officers and these men were certainly involved to some degree in fighting to "protect" their homeland against the Japanese invasion, it is not a stretch to assume that the SMP "special branch", British SIS and various Chinese military and intelligence groups shared a common "working" interest.

As the Chinese did all they could to gear up for war against the Japanese, they sought to use every advantage they could. Since it was impossible to match the might of the Japanese military machine directly, the Chinese adapted highly effective methods of "guerrilla" warfare. These methods were so impressive and effective that they formed the genesis of Evans Carlson's concept for the USMC "Raiders". Though Carlson's relationship was through the Mao led "communist" People's Army, the Nationalist's under Shek were involved in similar pursuits. This point should be well taken since it shows that the "Chinese" methods of warfare were thought highly of by western military professionals.

The Chinese USED every advantage they could. This included using their cultural heritage of "martial arts". The Chinese developed "systems" of physical training and close combat based on their "rich" martial tradition.

In the book "Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods", Robert W. Smith introduces the reader to Yuan Tao, the "Guerilla General". Smith goes on to tell us that during WWII Yuan taught Nationalist troops "Yunnan Lien Pu Ch'uan" or Yunnan Consecutive Step Boxing. He goes on to tell us that this was a "standardized" form based mainly on Shaolin, but also including some "internal" influence.

In describing the elements of this "form" Smith tells us that it is an "extremely rational" method. It uses "hand, fist, elbow, and shoulder strikes; pushing; locking; and advancing and retreating methods". He goes on to tell us that it has only one "kicking" technique and that Yuan believed "kicking is only effective if done in conjunction with the hands" and that you should "retract the foot swiftly".

Dennis Rovere in an article published in "Inside Kung Fu" concerning Lien Bu Ch'uan and it's use during WWII and titled the "Chinese Commando Method" adds the following:

"To neutralize the superior strength of the Japanese forces, the Chinese army adopted a strategy of hit and run."

"........This close combat requirement dictated that troops be trained in a form of unarmed/minimally armed combat superior to those of the opposing forces. It had to be easy to learn, simple to apply, and effective and practical in life and death, close combat situations."

Further, "With no ceremonial motions, elaborate stances, and complicated techniques, all movements of this single form are for fighting."

Lastly, "Emphasizing the use of the weapons of the upper body and close quarters techniques, hands, shoulders, forearms and elbows all provide for a versatile response to a variety of situations, even when wearing full combat gear."

".....The legs are used sparingly and movement kept simple".

During his service with the 1st SSF, O'Neill made the following comment to a fellow officer. He said that though he had spent his life in "intelligence", he would only be remembered for his work in hand to hand combat.

Since O'Neill's "career" or life had been spent nearly entirely in Shanghai up to this point, we can only assume that he was referring to his duties with the SMP. This is important because it gives us a basis for explaining O'Neills involvement with various Chinese groups fighting against the Japanese.

It was in this capacity as liaison that may very well explain O'Neill's connection to the close combat methods being developed and employed by the Chinese during this period. Since he was already an avid Judoka and acknowledged protege to Fairbairn, it is natural that he would find this training of particular interest and value.

It is also very feasible to presume that O'Neill's close working relationship with the officers of the Chinese branch"opened doors to him that may not have been available to other "westerners".

Lastly, O'Neill's fellow SMP officers included John Percy Poole, a fellow member of the SMP Judo team. Poole was a yudansha like O'Neill and was of the same age. We can assume that Poole and O'Neill had a close friendship. Poole was married to a Chinese woman. This relationship may also have helped O'Neill gain access to sources native in origin.

One can conclude that even though O'Neill had an tremendous background in Judo, that his method of close combat heavily relied on the Chinese Method of tactics that promoted mobility and escape and evasion above engaging the enemy for extended periods of time with grappling methods.

We cover the O' Neill System in the Defendu program. We discovered that it is an excellent method of escape and evasion and perfect for situations where you are out numbered and out matched.

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Published by Damian (Instructor)

Founder, The Self Defense Company

Join the Conversation


  1. I have known 2 members of the original American/Canadian forces. One of them became a Medical Doctor. I was fortunate to work with him in a small hospital in MT. There was a time, while working in the E.R. when a well known street brawler made threats to the ER nurse, to me and to the Dr. Dr. sent the nurse outside and told the brawler to sit down and act like a gentleman. The brawler took a swing at the Dr. and was tipped upside down, bounced off walls, and ended up on his back blubbering like a baby. The Dr. told him, ” since you think you are so tough, just lay there while I stitch up the cut you came in with. And I’m going to do it with no anesthesia. I don’t want you to move”. He then had me hold the fellows arm as he stitched. The brawler never moved a muscle. When we were through, the Dr. told him to apologize to the nurse and to me, which he did. Later on I came in contact with the brawler. He was drunk and I told him to quiet down. He recognized me and said that if I was working with the Dr., he wasn’t going to make any more trouble and left the area. Those WW2 special forces were incredibly tough.

  2. Great info/story about O’neill… Part of the worldwife Greatest Generation .. Collectively “very tough men”…. They saved the world…. And their sons saved the world a 2nd time vs the Russians and their allies.. A forever SNAP TO AND SALUTE S) TAPS RIP TO EM ALL…

  3. Damian,
    That was a great article, I really like History and reading about things like that. I would really enjoy reading part 2 as well…

  4. I always feel so well informed after reading your information Damien and I thought I was well read ……. Thank you!

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