SAS hero’s guilty secret

Last week, a cash reward was offered relating to the murder of a boy 62 years ago in Palestine. David Cesarani reveals here how he discovered that a celebrated and ‘innocent’ British soldier — the subject of his new book — was in fact the culprit

By David Cesarani, March 26, 2009
Ussishkin Street (left), Jerusalem, where Alexander Rubowitz was abducted by the Palestine Police in May 1947

Ussishkin Street (left), Jerusalem, where Alexander Rubowitz was abducted by the Palestine Police in May 1947

In 1949, Major Roy Farran, a highly decorated 28-year-old veteran of the SAS, published his autobiography, Winged Dagger: Adventures On Special Service. It was an immediate bestseller. In vivid prose, he recounted his service as a tank commander in north Africa and Crete, where he was captured. He recalled his amazing escape from Greece to Egypt and his part in the retreat to El Alamein. The core of his story concerned his years in the SAS and a succession of daring missions behind enemy lines in Sicily, Italy and France in 1943-45.

Winged Dagger was candid and racy. Farran was rarely without female company and his mock-heroic tone made his exploits all the more endearing. The book sold 300,000 copies and inspired generations of SAS warriors. But, for all its candour, Farran’s memoir concealed a stupendous lie.

Much of it was composed in the military prison on the British army base at Sarafand in Palestine during the summer of 1947, while he awaited trial by court martial for the alleged abduction and murder of a teenage activist in Lehi, the most militant Jewish underground group. His recollections of wartime derring-do were sandwiched between an account of how he came to be imprisoned, his role in the Palestine conflict, and his trial.

After a spell in the British garrison in Palestine, Farran was seconded to the Palestine police force and tasked with setting up “special squads” that would use SAS methods against the Zionist underground. He recounted how he was recruited by Col Bernard Fergusson, another hero of special operations, who had earlier been attached to the Palestine police, and how he set up his team.

Farran described some of their operations and claimed they were on the brink of a decisive success when he was framed. The Jews accused him of abducting and killing a teenager named Alexander Rubowitz. With bitterness he alleged that the British government was prepared to make him a scapegoat so he fled to Syria and was only persuaded to return by his old regimental commander. Farran absconded from detention a second time after he was formally charged with murder and gave himself up only after Lehi gunned down several British soldiers as a reprisal.

He was eventually acquitted after a remarkable trial in October 1947 and returned to a hero’s welcome in Britain. A celebrity, he launched himself into politics and eventually settled in Canada where he served for years in the state government of Alberta.

What Farran did not reveal was that his barrister, William Fearnley-Whittingstall, got him off the hook thanks to some dubious manoeuvres. Fearnley-Whittingstall manipulated client-attorney privilege to prevent the prosecution submitting in evidence a potentially damning written statement Farran had made while in detention. The rules of a court martial also enabled Fergusson to decline to give evidence of what Farran had said to him about the incident lest he incriminate himself.

After the trial, Farran’s solicitor blackmailed the Palestine administration and police into destroying this crucial evidence. He threatened to expose the covert operations of the “special squads” unless every copy of Farran’s statement was burned. Even though the Rubowitz case was still open, the police felt forced to comply.

However, Farran’s lawyer overlooked crucial dispatches that were sent to the Colonial Office in London. These survived in the files unnoticed until they were recently released. They include the report of a statement by Bernard Fergusson that, on May 7 1947, the day after Rubowitz was abducted, Farran told him that his squad had seized the boy, whom they spotted distributing Lehi posters in a Jerusalem suburb. They had driven to a remote spot outside the city, where, in the course of “interrogation”, Farran struck the teenager on the head with a rock and killed him. The policemen had then mutilated the boy’s body, burned his clothes, and left the corpse in the desert.

The historian is always to some extent a detective, but it’s rare that scholarly research leads to the solution of an actual crime. Sadly, the proof that Roy Farran of Winged Dagger was a killer casts a pall over his glittering career.

Major Farran’s Hat, by David Cesarani, is published by William Heinemann at £20

Last updated: 11:43am, March 31 2009