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From Partisan to Policeman: Roy Farran and Carte Blanche in Western Europe and Palestine 1943-48
Matthew R. Doherty
Major Roy Farran’s military career was both colourful and controversial. At the start of his Second World War service he was posted to North Africa where he was part of initial campaigns against the Italians. Sent to Crete during the German air assault, he was captured but later escaped by sailing a caique to Egypt. Involved in the car accident which killed Major General Jock Campbell, Farran was cleared of charges and resumed his service. Wounded by a Luftwaffe attack on the retreat to Alamein, he was invalided to England but later “escaped” back to the Middle East where he fell in with the Special Air Service and began his Special Forces (SF) career.
From this point on, Farran was to fight irregular warfare, either as an insurgent or counterinsurgent. According to the late historians Richard Holmes and Sir John Keegan, this type of warfare is one in which “nice restraints are jettisoned, civilians become targets for both irregulars and their enemies, and torture and murder assume a bitter logic all of their own.”[i]
The methods Farran used in leading his SAS unit during the war were strikingly similar to how he led his policing unit during the Jewish insurgency against the British Mandate in post-war Palestine. In unleashing Farran (and other soldiers with Second World War experience) onto the scene with carte blanche to operate how they saw fit, the British turned an already hostile population even further against them. The culmination of the policy would come in the form of the Alexander Rubowitz Affair, in which Farran was accused of murder.
Second World War
Farran’s ethos of warfare is summarised in his personal memoirs: “The object of almost all military tactics is to threaten the security of the enemy’s lines of communication, those vital lifelines without which an army cannot exist. Attacks on lines of communication may be divided into two categories; the flanking movements made by large formations in the main battle area and the long range harassing attacks made by small raiding parties… independent of the main theatre of operations.”[ii] Put more succinctly, Farran argued that “our job lay behind the enemy front.”[iii] Farran was therefore a keen believer in deep penetration operations conducted by SF, carried out without strict control from command centres.
In his memoirs, Farran gives his view on being recruited into the SAS: “The morning after our last night jump, we were very proud to receive our new wings. Parachutists! We were daredevils – men playing a man’s game. Now we would have something to show the pretty girls at home.”[iv] A certain daredevil streak was always present, and he sometimes referred to his group as “pirates.”[v] Farran was to begin his new campaign on the Italian Front.
After the Italian surrender in September 1943, Farran and his group were operating behind enemy lines and discovered an enemy supply and reinforcement column:
“The squeezing of my Tommy gun trigger was the signal for the whole weight of our firepower to cut into the trucks at practically ‘nil’ range. Having once started such a colossal barrage of fire, it was very difficult to stop it in spite of the fact that the Germans were waving pathetic white flags from their bonnets. I remember screaming at a Frenchman called Durban to cease fire and making no impression on his tense, excited face until the whole of his Browning belt was finished. At last the racket stopped, and I walked down the road towards a tiny knot of Germans waving white flags from behind the last vehicle. All those in the front trucks were dead.”[vi]
Later, Farran was posted to France during the Normandy Campaign. After he linked up with a group of French partisans there were great celebrations: “many toasts were drunk, and I partly blame the actions of the next day on the quantity of the red wine consumed.”[vii] It was decided to mount a large attack on a German HQ the next morning. During the action, Farran picked up a Bren and, “balancing it on a wall, hose-piped the German column with red tracers.”[viii] Afterwards, it was claimed a hundred Germans were killed with many more wounded. Numerous enemy vehicles were also destroyed.[ix]
The constant danger of capture, torture and execution was all part of what Farran saw as an exciting game. He recounts an action in France in which his jeep squadron were cornered: “…I placed the jeeps in a hull-down position behind a small crest in the middle of the field. Suddenly, when we were about to do the Old Guard act, I noticed a gap in the southwest corner. We cut the wire and crashed through.”[x]
Farran had an insubordinate streak that bordered on recklessness. He was used to getting his own way and doing things on his terms. In 1944, when he was trying to be posted to the fighting in Greece, his commander, “strongly objected to my going. We had a heated argument over the telephone, and in the end, I defied him by catching an aeroplane the next day.”[xi]
At the start of Operation Tombola (in which SAS members were to be dropped in to organise partisan resistance in Northern Italy during 1945), Farran once again defied orders: “I decided to lead the next operation, regardless of clear orders from UK to remain in command in Florence, and not withstanding objections which would certainly be raised... at Fifteenth-Army Group. If I could not go officially, I would have to fake an accidental fall from an aircraft, making sure, of course, that I had a parachute.”[xii]
Farran thrived in the SAS, an environment where he was practically given free reign. His attitude was shared by many of his fellow operatives. Mike Lees, Farran’s liaison officer with the Italians, after being told about his refusal to stay in Florence declared: “What! You jumped without permission. Good show! Have lots of targets for you. Now we can get cracking.”[xiii]
On Tombola, Farran decided to mount a large-scale attack on a German Corps HQ. As he was planning the operation, “a runner arrived from the wireless set at Secchia, bearing a signal from Fifteenth Army Group, which ordered me not to attack. The moment, they said, was inopportune. That decided me. We would march at dusk on the morrow.”[xiv]
For his part Farran despised the rear echelon elements of the Army, calling them “pen-pushing map boys.” Writing about a night movement to attack a German position he said, “If I could not infiltrate a hundred men through a widely dispersed battalion at night, it was time I went on the staff.”[xv] His lack of regard for procedure and senior officers often landed him with a medal rather than a court-martial. This blasé attitude, combined with immense levels of personal tenacity and a genuine ability for SF warfare, made Farran supremely confident in his approach and methods. This overconfidence would lead to disaster in post-war Palestine.
A certain level of racism was present in Farran’s thinking. During Tombola he had to promote some of his private British born SAS soldiers into squad and platoon command roles over the Italian partisans. He wrote they performed magnificently and reasoned that it was, “the inborn contempt a Briton feels for all foreigners [that] made them go out of their way to demonstrate their superiority.”[xvi] These attitudes were not unusual, nor in any way limited to Farran, but would go on to color his actions against Jewish dissidents.
By the end of the war Farran was used to battalion level command.[xvii] His last major action was a ferocious attack to dislodge German positions in his operating area: “[W]ith loud cheers, we charged the Germans. It was too much for the enemy. One or two forlorn distress signals were fired into the air, then, throwing away their weapons, they bolted for the Secchia. We did not stop until we got to the river, where we had great fun picking off the Germans on their way across. The Vickers gun... did a lot of execution in the water.” Afterwards he claimed that, “it was all very exciting.”[xviii] Farran was later told his unit had been so effective that the Germans believed they were facing British tanks in the hills.[xix]
During the war, Farran was used to fighting with partisans who showed little or no mercy to the enemy and rarely behaved with restraint in moments of triumph. This is understandable, as the partisans themselves would have received no quarter from the Germans if captured. Farran was broadly comfortable with his men regularly breaking the Geneva Convention. He commented offhandedly that during one action, “four Germans were killed and two surrendered… I believe the [partisans] dealt with the prisoners.”[xx]
The men serving under Farran were opportunistic. As they were clearing enemy towns, “some of the partisans… developed a cunning technique for looting. They shouted, ‘sniper,’ and fired a fusillade of shots at the upper story of a house. They would then rush the backdoor and, within a matter of minutes, would emerge overladen with valuable things.”[xxi] Farran’s war was particularly savage, lacking the niceties of prisoners and fair treatment. This kill or be killed mentality would permeate Farran’s future approach.
All Farran’s wartime successes had been achieved with dash, speed and surprise, employing brutal levels of violence. In the context of a world war against the scourge of Nazism, this was seen as readily acceptable and praiseworthy. The highly decorated Farran was lauded as a hero. But entering the post-war world of decolonisation and low-intensity conflict, he would find it impossible to adapt. The methods he utilised as the dashing partisan in the hills of Northern Italy would contribute to the downfall of British Palestine.
After the German surrender, Farran began preparations to go with the SAS into the Pacific Theatre. He was to command a full battalion in “…the biggest guerrilla operation of all against the railway lines running through China from Manchuria.”[xxii] When Japan surrendered in August 1945, his hopes were ruined. Becoming alcohol dependant, Farran bemoaned the fact that he, “would have to make an effort to settle down or commit slow suicide as a heavy drinking, useless officer.”[xxiii]
However, the end of the Second World War did not mean the end of Britain’s imperial commitments, and Farran was soon being looked on as a potential candidate for organising counter-terrorism operations in the Near-East.
Farran’s political views on the twilight years of Britain’s Middle Eastern Empire were harsh, yet not unusual for the time. Writing on the French occupation of their colonies he stated: “Although I would hesitate to say that the Arabs are not correct to fight for their independence, as long as the French continue to show a firm hand in North Africa, they will be respected. So long as a Western Power is in charge, it is incumbent upon that Power to maintain law and order. If the British had been as firm with the Jews in Palestine, we would not now be reaping the results of a vacillating policy – the contempt of the whole world. It is pointless to argue that the French are hated everywhere. Are we any better loved for our weakness?”[xxiv]
Field Marshal Montgomery undertook a trip through Palestine after the war. He summed up his view of the situation Farran was soon to become involved in:
“The Palestine Police Force was 50 per cent below strength and it needed 3000 recruits quickly. Since the recent release of detained terrorist leaders, the general incidence of terrorist activity had increased not decreased… I challenged the existing policy in Palestine, from the point of view of the right use of the Army. The whole situation was rapidly deteriorating. A large army of 100,000 men was being maintained in Palestine; it was suffering casualties at the average rate of two per day and was not allowed to take appropriate action against its assailants. The Army was being misused, a great portion of it being employed on purely defensive tasks. The only way the Army could stamp out terrorism was to take the offensive against it, and this was not allowed. We had, in fact, surrendered the initiative to the terrorists. [I]f we were not prepared to maintain law and order in Palestine, it would be better to get out. I could not agree to a lot of young British lads being killed needlessly.”[xxv]
Even Alan Cunningham, the then High Commissioner of Palestine (and a man whom Montgomery despised) agreed, “that the Army was not able to assist the Police Force to maintain law and order because of the restrictions placed upon it.”[xxvi]
Farran also criticised the general attitude of those in charge as been one of, “Don’t let’s be cruel to the Jews. Whatever we do, we must not provoke them. Only a few of them are naughty, and in the end, provided that we are nice to them, they will all forget how much they hate us and come forward with information.”[xxvii]
The Field Marshal sent what he termed a “hot” cable to Whitehall stating that, “the whole business of dealing with illegal armed organisations in Palestine is being tackled in a way which is completely gutless, thoroughly unsound, and which will not produce any good results.”[xxviii] Eventually Montgomery got his way and the return to old-style ‘imperial policing’ methods designed for the pre-war colonial world were established. The previous restraints were lifted and men like Roy Farran were set to be unleashed. He was about to be sent into a complex hotbed of competing factions and political assassination, for by the end of December 1946, 373 people had already been killed by Jewish insurgents.[xxix]
It was recognised by the British government that, “There is in the Army a small number of officers who have both technical and psychological knowledge of terrorism, having themselves been engaged in similar operations on what might be termed the terrorist side in countries occupied by the enemy in the late war.”[xxx] Farran had such experience and would make the switch from insurgent to counterinsurgent using the same brutal methods.
Farran was recruited in March 1947 directly by the Military Secretary and was required, “…to put my knowledge of underground warfare at the disposal of the Palestine police… With the complete backing I was promised, there was a good chance that I might be able to do something to smash those ‘thugs’ who murdered innocent people for doubtful political ends.”[xxxi]
Upon arrival in Palestine, whilst in Jerusalem Police HQ, “the brief was explained to us. We would each have full power to operate as we pleased within our own specific areas. We were to advise on defence against terror and to take an active part in hunting the dissidents... It was to all intents and purposes a carte blanche and the original conception of our part filled me with excitement. A free hand for us against terror when all others were so closely hobbled!”[xxxii]
During the war, Farran had been taught specialist skills in demolition and fire-arms. “[The SAS] experimented with all kinds of sabotage devices, and close-quarters shooting was taught in a style which would have shocked old instructors in the Smalls Arms School at Hythe.”[xxxiii] Farran later adapted these methods to his own special squad in Palestine by “…teaching [his] boys to put six rounds in a playing card at fifteen yards.”[xxxiv]
The heavy-handed methods Farran used achieved fast results. Richard Clutterbuck, a British officer and military theorist, who was himself in Palestine during 1947, maintained that in six weeks Farran and his team accomplished more than a full battalion employed in the usual round-up operations.[xxxv] A comparatively large success was achieved when Farran managed to arrest a large group of terrorists in a protracted stakeout involving a disguised van.[xxxvi] Colin Mitchell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who served in Palestine but would later go on to institute controversial counterinsurgency policies in Aden during the 1960’s stated that, “the Farran team were as tough and experienced as any Jewish terrorists.”[xxxvii]
The complexities and political nuances inherent within counterinsurgency were not what Farran was used to dealing with. At one point he came across a group of moderate Jewish militia, known as the Haganah, engaged in training. He immediately placed them all under arrest, despite directives from command to leave the Haganah alone so as not to antagonise them.[xxxviii]
Farran’s approach culminated in the Rubowitz affair, in which he was accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering a sixteen-year-old Jewish boy who served as a lookout for a terrorist organisation.[xxxix] Farran confessed liability for the incident in a report made to Bernard Fergusson, who was at that time overseeing anti-terror operations in the region. Fergusson maintains, “That he (Farran) had, with others of his squad, taken the youth by car down the Jericho Road for further questioning and gone further than he should in trying to make the youth talk. That he (Farran) had killed the youth by bashing his head in with a stone and that knife wounds had been added to the body after death.”[xl]
Farrans personal defence consisted not so much of a denial of his actions, but a refusal to be labelled as anything other than an officer doing what he saw as his duty:
“And now they were accusing me of being a Fascist and an anti-Semite, forgetting the long years of battle against the Germans when we stirred ourselves up to hatred with the belief that we were fighting a crusade on behalf of persecuted Jewry. My war was against the terrorists...” He went on to say that, “I was employed by the British Government to fight terrorists and I behaved no differently than if the outrages had been committed by Arabs or Germans or Chicago gangsters.”[xli]
However, his history shows he was not above shooting surrendered enemy personnel when he felt like it. During the fighting in Crete, five Germans came out of an olive grove with their hands up, but Farran was “not in any mood to be taken in by any German tricks”[xlii] and shot them. Three dropped dead, the other two managed to crawl away wounded.
After the news of the Rubowitz murder broke a telegram sent from Arthur Creech-Jones, Secretary of State for the Colonies to Cunningham stated that, “The good name of British administration is bound to be attacked over this incident.”[xliii] Creech-Jones was correct, and by 1948 the British had withdrawn from the Mandate completely. Montgomery concluded that in the short term, “the result of being driven out of Palestine was to weaken our overall strategic position in the Middle East, and that of the Western world generally in the struggle between East and West.”[xliv]
After the Rubowitz case was quietly dropped, Farran left the army to pursue a career in politics. Though he remained angry at a society which balked at his methods, whom he dismissed as “…wordy pansies, who see both sides to every question…”[xlv]
In conclusion, the British government was aware of Farran’s heavy-handed approach, yet decided to take a risk on employing him (and men like him) in Palestine. Even in 1946, the War Office understood that, “…there is an inevitable tendency for special units to become ‘Private Armies’ and so drift away from the normal channels of command.”[xlvi] The risk ultimately backfired. Special units and their leaders are next to useless when hamstrung by close control from command centres. They operate best when given a long leash, which allows the high levels of personal initiative in the men to come to the fore. Such units were appropriate in WW2, where they had an effect out of all proportion to their small numbers. They were not appropriate in the civilian focused insurgency the British fought against the Jews. The concept of “hearts and minds” had not fully materialised in British thinking at this point (many would argue it never would). The responsibility for the Rubowitz murder therefore rests in large part with the government and their failed counterinsurgency against the Jewish dissidents.
Farran was a superb wartime officer. Exceptional at leading raiding parties and partisans, he could not adapt to the circumstances of post-war operations, which called for more subtlety in their approach. The old adage of if you kill one insurgent today, you get ten tomorrow is evident in the case of the Jewish Insurgency against the British Mandate. Farran’s actions, based so clearly on his Second World War experience, hindered the British cause in Palestine and provided for a shabby postscript to the service career of an excellent Special Forces operator.
Burleigh, M. (2014) Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World. London: Pan Macmillan.
Cesarani, D. (2012) The war on terror that failed: British counter-insurgency in Palestine 1945–1947 and the ‘Farran Affair’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 23:4-5, 648-670.
Farran, R. (1954) Winged Dagger: Adventures on Special Service. London: Fontana.
Farran, R. (1986) Winged Dagger: Adventures on Special Service. London: Arms and Armour Press Limited.
Hoffman, B.R. (1985) Jewish Terrorist Activities and the British Government in Palestine 1939-1947. (Thesis) University of Oxford. Available at:
Holmes, R. Keegan, J. (1985) Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Khardaji, N. (2007) A Measure of Restraint: The Palestine Police and the End of the British Mandate. MPhil Thesis. Available at: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~metheses/KardahjiThesis.pdf
MEC Cunningham Papers 11/2 Telegram, Creech-Jones to Cunningham, 19 June 1947.
Mitchell, Lt. Col. Colin. (1969) Having Been A Soldier. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Montgomery, B. L. (1958) The Memoirs of Field Marshal The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein K.G. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.
PRO WO 232/10B, “Report of Working Party on Control of Special Units and Organizations”
PRO CO 537/2302 “Report on the Alleged Abduction and Murder of Alexander Rubowitz, and Subsequent Police Investigation”
[i] Holmes and Keegan, Soldiers, p241
[ii] Farran, Dagger 1986, p155
[iii] Ibid, p199
[iv] Ibid, p163
[v] Ibid, p200
[vi] Ibid, p176
[vii] Ibid, p238-239
[viii] Ibid, p239
[x] Ibid, p246-247
[xi] Ibid, p252
[xii] Ibid, p263
[xiii] Ibid, p274
[xiv] Ibid, p292
[xvi] Ibid, p288
[xvii] Ibid, p286
[xviii] Ibid, p308
[xix] Ibid, p317-318
[xx] Ibid, p301
[xxi] Ibid, p339
[xxii] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p341
[xxiii] Ibid, p343
[xxiv] Farran, Dagger, 1986, p221
[xxv] Montgomery, Memoirs, p419
[xxvi] Ibid, p420
[xxvii] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p348
[xxviii] Montgomery, Memoirs, p420
[xxix] Burleigh, Small Wars, p102
[xxx] Cesarini, War on Terror, p656-657
[xxxi] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p346
[xxxii] Ibid, p346-347
[xxxiii] Farran, Dagger, 1986, p165
[xxxiv] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p347
[xxxv] Hoffman, Jewish Terrorist Activities, p124
[xxxvi] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p369
[xxxvii] Mitchell, Soldier, p61
[xxxviii] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p375
[xxxix] This essay does not purport to give a full breakdown of the Rubowitz Affair. For one of the few detailed modern takes at this specific incident see Cesarini, “Major Farran’s Hat”
[xl] “Report on the Alleged Abduction and Murder of Alexander Rubowitz.” See also Khardaji, Mesure of Restraint, p91
[xli] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p12
[xlii] Farran, Dagger, 1986, p90
[xliii] Telegram, Creech-Jones to Cunningham. See also Hoffman, Jewish Terrorist Activities, p128
[xliv] Montgomery, Memoirs, p426
[xlv] Farran, Dagger, 1954, p368
[xlvi] Report of Party