Trouble in Palestine

Matthew Hughes considers why British colonial forces couldn't cope with a Jewish revolt in the 1940s, prior to the foundation of the State of Israel

Major Roy Farran (seated, centre) at a press conference on his return from Palestine, 1947. (Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In British-run Palestine in May 1947, Alexander Rubowitz, a young Jewish man, disappeared. Witnesses saw him being taken away in a car, after which he was never seen again. His body was never found. Rubowitz was a Jewish activist of the Zionist terrorist group, the Stern gang, which was fighting to rid Palestine of British colonial rule. (Britain had governed the former Ottoman territory of Palestine as a mandate since 1920 as a result of the peace settlements in the aftermath of the First World War.)

Rubowitz had been spirited away by a squad of British soldiers led by a former British SAS officer, Major Roy Farran, a much-decorated veteran of the Second World War. Rubowitz died, it seems, while being interrogated by Farran and his men.

British paratroopers patrol Tel Aviv after one of their officers, Major Brett, was captured and flogged by Jewish insurgents, 4 January 1947. (Keystone/Getty Images)
British paratroopers patrol Tel Aviv after one of their officers, Major Brett, was captured and flogged by Jewish insurgents, 4 January 1947. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Under suspicion of murder, Farran was forced to flee to Syria. A Jewish revenge bomb sent to his family’s UK address killed his brother. Yet Farran was not alone. He was part of a murky group of British soldiers in Palestine that used unorthodox methods – a ‘dirty war’ – against Jewish terrorists fighting for a Jewish state in Palestine.

The Jewish insurgency in Palestine marked the start of a series of anti-colonial revolts (or insurgencies) across Africa and Asia that European colonial powers resisted with military force, employing what became known as counter-insurgency operations.

The Jewish campaign was successful and by late 1947 Britain had decided to leave the country. The following year, in May 1948, Israel was formed.

Why were Jewish irregulars so successful against the might of the British empire? One reason was the fact that the British army fought the Jews using dated counter-rebel military methods that simply weren’t suitable in Palestine in the 1940s.

Jewish emigrants disembark at Haifa, 1947. (GPO via Getty Images)
Jewish emigrants disembark at Haifa, 1947. (GPO via Getty Images)

The military tradition of the British army when it came to countering colonial rebellions was to fight the rebels in the field while exacting punishment on the civilians on which the rebels relied for support – so-called punitive measures. This is well expressed in the book written by Colonel CE Callwell in 1896 entitled Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice which describes counter-insurgency methods from places such as the north-west frontier of India, methods that the army would later attempt to employ in Palestine.

As Callwell wrote, the “adoption of guerrilla methods by the enemy almost necessarily forces the regular troops to resort to punitive measures directed against the possessions of their antagonists. It must be remembered that one way to get the enemy to fight is to make raids on his property – only the most cowardly of savages and irregulars will allow their cattle to be carried off or their houses to be destroyed without making some show of resistance.”

Collective punitive measures such as destroying villages and trampling down crops, already well established in irregular ‘small’ wars against guerrillas by the time that Callwell wrote his book, were used in the South African War (1899–1902), during the Egyptian and Iraqi revolts (1919–20), and in India and during the Irish war of independence (1919–21).

A soldier escorts two Jewish prisoners, arrested for carrying arms, through Jaffa in December 1947. (AFP/Getty Images)
A soldier escorts two Jewish prisoners, arrested for carrying arms, through Jaffa in December 1947. (AFP/Getty Images)

Captain Phillipps of Rimington’s Guides in South Africa noted how he had to go, “at the general’s bidding, to burn a farm near the line of march. We got to the place and I gave the inmates, three women and some children, ten minutes to clear their clothes and things out of the house, and my men fetched bundles of straw and we proceeded to burn it down…

“The women cried and the children stood by holding on to them and looking with large frightened eyes at the burning house. They won’t forget that sight, I’ll bet a sovereign, not even when they grow up. We rode away and left them, a forlorn little group, standing among their household goods.”

In Iraq in 1916 a British soldier operating against an Arab village on a punitive raid remembered how he and his comrades would “strafe” a village with guns – if it was the wrong village that mattered little – after which they would “wipe out all who are foolish enough to wait for us”. These nasty, extreme methods contradict the notion that British forces employed minimum force when fighting irregular troops.

When British forces in Palestine after 1944 faced Jewish resistance they tried (and failed) with a punitive method called ‘cordon and search’, used in Jewish neighbourhoods. This was harsh enough to earn global opprobrium but not harsh enough to defeat Jewish insurgents. Propaganda, global politics, lack of information and poor intelligence conspired to defeat the army.

A British poster showing ten of the most wanted men in Palestine in 1947. Among them was future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (top left). (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A British poster showing ten of the most wanted men in Palestine in 1947. Among them was future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (top left). (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Role of race

The nature of the opposition was crucial, as was the campaign being fought by them. The Jews in Palestine were articulate and vocal, had an excellent intelligence service known as the Shai, which would become Mossad after 1948. The Shai had infiltrated the British police and government, had support in the US, was largely European (namely, ‘white’) in origin, and was well organised.

Race had a part to play, not least as harsh actions outside of Europe against non-white peoples with no lobbying power or presence in Britain’s decision-making structure were bound to be treated differently when compared to, say, European Ashkenazi Jews in British Mandate Palestine in the 1940s. The Jews could not easily be treated as ‘wogs’ were across the empire – to use the contemporary racist British phrase.

Jewish fighters were a match for the British. Jewish military forces were divided into three groups: the Irgun, the Stern Gang and the Haganah.

As the largest force, the Haganah offered a home for mainstream Jewish forces which could benefit from the more extreme terrorist shock actions employed by the Irgun and Stern forces, while morally distancing themselves from such things.

The Jews targeted British intelligence officers who, for instance, spoke Hebrew, knowing these were the key link people for the British. The Jews were also attacking at a time when Britain was reassembling its Middle East strategy and considering whether it needed a base in Palestine or could make do with a base elsewhere, such as in Egypt or east Africa.

The Jewish fighters combined terrorist attacks of the spectacular sort – such as blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and executing captured British soldiers and booby-trapping their dead bodies – to giving help to Jews trying to get to Palestine from Europe.

British intelligence gathering on their Jewish opponents was poor. Headed by the Shai, the Jews built up an alternative intelligence network. Information was the key to success or failure, something that the Jews knew from early on in their struggle.

Near mutiny

In Britain’s previous campaign against rebels elsewhere, the army had employed considerable force and had been successful. The same methods didn’t work against the Jews. Thus, when in April 1946 the Stern Gang killed seven soldiers from the Parachute Regiment, provoking a near mutiny among the troops, the senior officer of the 6th Airborne Division went to the British Palestine High Commissioner to demand a collective punishment of a £1m fine, requisitioning and destruction of Jewish buildings, and closure of restaurants and businesses. The High Commissioner agreed only to the closure of restaurants.

Why was the punishment so mild? In the 1930s, the Palestinian Arabs had fought the British, and Britain’s response to any Arab terror attacks involved destruction, fining and imprisonment for the rebel forces and Arab civilians. But in Palestine after 1945 when fighting the Jews, the British had an overriding political aim of maintaining good relations with America, which was giving support to the Jews. This, combined with a vibrant local Jewish democracy and the presence of the world’s press, made Britain’s position untenable.

The last British troops in Palestine leave Haifa in 1948. Britain’s dated counter-rebel measures were no match for a well-organised and highly motivated Jewish insurgency. (Getty Images)
The last British troops in Palestine leave Haifa in 1948. Britain’s dated counter-rebel measures were no match for a well-organised and highly motivated Jewish insurgency. (Getty Images)

There were also practical problems with cordon and search. When Operation Elephant-Hippo imposed British military rule on Tel Aviv in 1947, it lasted for just two weeks because the army could not maintain the troop numbers required to contain a large urban area.

Cordon and search in Palestine found little and contained even less. It simply antagonised moderate Jews and provided good propaganda for the enemy. The response to cordon and search could also be swift. During Operation Shark, British paratroopers sealed off Tel Aviv, deploying 17,000 troops for four days to deal with an urban area of 170,000 Jewish inhabitants. During this operation, Police CID Sergeant TG Martin recognised a key terrorist suspect dressed as a rabbi. Two months later Martin was shot dead playing tennis.

By late 1947, the British had had enough and passed the problem of Palestine to the United Nations, pulling out the last of their troops in June 1948.

The British army entered the Palestine campaign ill-prepared intellectually and organisationally. The Jewish insurgency was exceptional and could not be dealt with using dated prewar methods. After Palestine, the British learned from their mistakes and fought with some success against insurgents, right up to the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and in Afghanistan today.

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Matthew Hughes is reader in the Department of Politics and History, Brunel University