Major Farran’s Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War against Jewish Terrorism 1945–1948

Colin Shindler on the reclamation of a shocking murder trial that tainted the reputation of a British war hero

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Reviewed by: Colin Shindler
Author: David Cesarani
Publisher: Heinemann
Price (RRP): £20

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Few books have been written on the British counter-war against Jewish dissident groups in Palestine after the revelations of the Holocaust. Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvati Leumi and Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi, known pejoratively as ‘the Stern Gang’, had been conducting military actions against British rule in the Holy Land. Lehi had assassinated Lord Moyne, Churchill’s man in Cairo in 1944, while the Irgun had blown up the King David hotel in 1946, killing Britons, Arabs and Jews in the process. The British responded by arresting members of the mainstream Jewish Agency for Palestine who were vehemently opposed to the dissidents. It was a tense period.

In March 1947, Roy Farran, an SAS commander, who had received the MC, DSO and the Croix de Guerre for his incredible courage behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe, made a fateful decision to place his experience of underground warfare at the disposal of the frustrated Palestine police.

Out of juvenile bravado 16-year-old Alexander Rubowitz joined a Lehi front organisation and, like many other schoolchildren, was given the task of distributing poorly produced posters and news sheets. Police patrols often picked them up and, on 6 May 1947, he was wrestled to the ground in a Jerusalem street and shoved into a waiting six seater saloon.

Some boys who had witnessed this approached the assailant who said that he was a police officer and produced his documents and a revolver. Rubowitz, however, was able to shout out his name. The car number plate, 993, was noted as was a hat left behind which bore the handwritten name inside ‘Far-an’. Hence this book’s unusual title.

Rubowitz’s captors took him to a remote location outside Jerusalem. The following morning, Farran told Lt Col Bernard Fergusson, the head of the counter-terrorist offensive in Palestine, that they had tied the 16-year-old to a tree and ‘interrogated’ him for an hour.

When the stubborn Rubowitz refused to yield, Farran said he had picked up a rock and lethally smashed it against the boy’s head several times. To cover their tracks, the corpse was stripped and stabbed to make it look as if Rubowitz had been assailed by bandits or Arab militants. This was recorded in the official report on the affair, but the defence lawyer prevented its use in the trial and dismissed the ‘flimsy’ evidence against Farran.

The prosecution inexplicably did not call Superintendent Hadingham who had conducted the official investigation into the case. The six officers took 15 minutes to acquit Farran, who returned to Britain as a conquering hero. As the Daily Mail proclaimed: “Fighting Farran is Coming Home”. In later life Farran served as a minister in the Alberta legislature in Canada and died, honoured and hallowed, in 2006.

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Cesarani has investigated every nook and cranny in this sordid story and its cover-up through solid archival research. He is to be congratulated for reclaiming this dreadful case for a new generation.