On the morning of 12 February 1942, a British detective shot dead a Jewish fugitive in a tiny rooftop flat in Tel Aviv.
The death of Avraham Stern was welcome news for the British authorities who ruled Palestine. Stern’s men had been responsible for a wave of robberies and bombings that had distracted the security forces from the struggle against Rommel’s troops menacing neighbouring Egypt. The Jews of Palestine were also relieved. In the eyes of many, Stern was little more than a gangster and his activities had brought shame on the community.
The satisfaction was short-lived. In death, Stern would prove a far more potent enemy to the British than he had ever been in life. The shots in the rooftop flat would echo down the remaining years of Mandate rule and reverberate through the titanic events that shaped the birth of Israel.
Today, Stern is honoured in Israel as one of the state’s founding fathers, with streets and even a small town named after him. Mention of his name in Britain will ring a loud and discordant bell with people of a certain age. Only last month it sounded once again when the National Archives released documents showing that the organisation he founded had planned the assassination of none other than Winston Churchill.
Yet Stern was long dead when most of the deeds associated with him were done. His killing was as controversial as almost every other aspect of his short career. By the time he was cornered, he was the most wanted man in Palestine, with a £1,000 reward on his head. A few weeks earlier, his men had lured the police into a bomb ambush that had left three officers dead — two of them Jewish.
Stern was sought for an even more heinous crime. At the start of the war, his former comrades in the Irgun underground militia had put their differences with the British aside and gone off to fight alongside them against the Nazis. But Stern refused to change his view that the British were the real obstacle to a Jewish state in Palestine.
On the principle that his enemy’s enemies were his friends, he tried to forge an alliance first with Italy, then Germany, by which they would deport their Jews to Palestine in return for behind-the-lines assistance from the Stern gang. Documents I discovered in the Haganah archives in Tel Aviv during the research for my book reveal that Stern operatives were collecting valuable information on military dispositions, apparently to be passed on to the Axis.
At first sight, the man leading the hunt had little in common with his adversary. Assistant Superintendant Geoffrey Morton was a commonsensical, middle-class South Londoner. Stern was an Eastern European-born dandy, poet and quasi-mystic. Both, though, shared a passionate belief in their own righteousness.
Morton was soon top of the Stern gang hit list. But there is evidence too that the British had decided that Stern should not be taken alive. The secret reports and memos in the Haganah archive reflect a mood that nothing should be left to chance and there is talk of “liquidating” him once he was located.
Stern was indeed shot soon after being tracked down following a cunning piece of detective work. Morton never denied killing him but always maintained he fired in self-defence after Stern made a sudden dash for what he feared was the trigger for a hidden bomb. Claims that he had been executed in cold blood were met with libel actions. Towards the end of Morton’s life, however, his story was challenged from an unexpected quarter when another British police officer who was in the room gave a very different version of events.
What seemed at the time to be a dramatic but ultimately inconsequential cops-and-robbers shoot-out was soon to take on a much greater significance. The murky circumstances of Stern’s death — combined with the continued policy of turning away refugees from Germany — helped turn moderate Jewish opinion against the British and increase support for radical action against them.
Six years later they would depart in ignominy bringing to an end one of the shabbiest and most painful episodes in the history of the empire.
‘The Reckoning: How the Killing of One Man Changed the Fate of the Promised Land’ by Patrick Bishop is published by William Collins. Bishop will be talking at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on March 19