From a shameful event in the story of Modica to a shameful and tragic one in British history. I am writing about this episode tonight because a friend in Wales has written to me describing her work to raise funds for a memorial to Welsh-Italian victims of the Arandora Star tragedy, in which a total of 486 Italians lost their lives.
At the outbreak of World War 11 "enemy aliens" living in Britain were divided into three categories: those in class A were deemed to represent a high security risk and were interned; those in class B were "doubtful" and were subject to some restrictions; and those in class C were thought to pose no security risk at all. However, following the Fall of France in 1940 Churchill decided, in his own words, to "collar the lot" and the majority of class B aliens were interned. When Italy declared war on Britain and France on June 10th the internment of Italian males was ordered. Many of the Germans interned had opposed the Nazis or were German Jewish refugees. Most of the Italians interned had lived in Britain virtually all their lives and many had sons who were serving in the British military. Others were in Britain because they had opposed Mussolini and later fled their country in fear of their lives. The majority of the men were detained in internment camps on the Isle of Man or Orkney, where they were treated inhumanely.
A policy of deporting internees was in place and on 1st July 1940 the SS Arandora Star, a converted cruise liner, sailed from Liverpool for Canada with 1,864 people on board. Of these 734 were Italian internees, 479 were German internees, 89 were German prisoners of war and the rest were guards and crew, 80% of the crew having been newly signed on that morning. The internees were forced to sail in appalling conditions, packed onto a ship built to carry only 250 passengers and extended, in wartime, to carry 200 more.
The ship was painted battleship grey, making her look like a troop carrier, and displayed no Red Cross flag, which would have distinguished her as a vessel carrying civilians. On her second day out from Liverpool the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the west coast of Ireland. There had been no lifeboat drills, the rafts were immovably strapped to the sides of the ship anyway, and few lifejackets had been issued. In addition, the decks and the lifeboats were separated by walls of barbed wire - a measure which the Captain had protested about before sailing. Most of the Italians did not stand a chance , as they had come from mountainous areas of Italy and had never learnt to swim. Those few who did survive the freezing sea were again harshly treated after being rescued and some were then deported to Australia.
When the British media reported the tragedy, the public were told that Nazis on board had dashed for the lifeboats knocking everyone else out of the way. No mention was made of the fact that respectable people who had made positive contributions to British society had been on board, along with refugees who had risked their lives, in their own countries, for the very freedoms the British now claimed to be fighting for.
No apology has ever been made by a British government.