Review: Major Farran’s Hat

David Cesarani: commendable

David Cesarani: commendable

By David Cesarani
William Heinemann, £20

On May 6 1947, Alexander Rubowitz, a teenage member of “Lehi” — “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”, — was abducted in Jerusalem by a “special squad” of the Palestine Police, led by Roy Farran, who later interrogated and murdered him.

To this day, Rubowitz’s remains have never been found. Farran — on secondment from the British Army — was, after much delay (occasioned partly by his escape to Syria), brought before a court martial. But his confession, made while he was in detention, was ruled inadmissible; witnesses to the abduction failed to identify him; and the presence, at the abduction site, of a felt hat bearing his name was deemed a wholly insufficient piece of circumstantial evidence. And so he was acquitted.

Roy Farran was no ordinary policeman, or soldier. He was one of the most decorated British servicemen of the Second World War, recipient of the DSO and three Military Crosses, hero of numerous tank battles and SAS escapades of extraordinary bravery. The Times, in its obituary of him (2006) described him as “a soldier of exceptional courage, daring and imagination”. So he was.

In 200 or so tightly written and commendably referenced pages Professor David Cesarani tells the tragic story of Rubowitz and the equally tragic story of Farran, against the dreadful backcloth of the last, bloody years of the Palestine Mandate.

Lehi was a terrorist organisation of limited competence, specialising in indiscriminate murder both in Palestine and Europe; a “revenge” parcel bomb, meant for Roy Farran, was wrongly addressed, and killed his brother Rex instead. We shall probably never know exactly why Roy Farran murdered Rubowitz, whose role in Lehi seems to have been restricted to the distribution of seditious posters. But, as Cesarani reminds us, Farran boasted of his “pitiless attitude towards enemies”.

That is how wars are won. That was how the British conquered the Boers, overcame the Kaiser, and, after a couple of false starts, subdued the might of Nazi Germany. Farran’s battle tactics differed little from those of the notorious “Black and Tans” — the ragbag army of irregulars that brought the IRA to its knees in 1921: shoot first; ask questions later — if at all. This was the brutal policy that had suppressed the Arab Revolt (1936-9).

Farran’s tragedy was that he and his military superiors failed to detect a sea-change in the relationship between Britain’s military strategy and its political objectives in Palestine as the Mandate drew to a close.

Clement Attlee’s government did not believe in any “imperial mission”. Its goal was to shut down the Empire in as orderly a fashion as it could. The disappearance and murder of Rubowitz, Farran’s escape to Syria, and his eventual trial and acquittal, were inevitably exploited by the Zionists and their supporters in the USA. “The scandal,” Cesarani rightly concludes, “helped strip away whatever claims Britain had to continue governing Palestine.”

An anthology of Geoffrey Alderman’s JC columns will be published later this year. David Cesarani will speak about ‘Major Farran’s Hat’ at JBW 2009 on March 1

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011