Sunday, October 25, 2009


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.
You can read personal stories regarding the tragedy here and here. The story is also told in Mary Contini's Dear Olivia and features in a novel by Francine Stock, A Foreign Country.


Trubes said...

I read this item about The Arandora Star with gread interest,
My Grandfather, who was a Coppersmith at Camellairds shipyard in Birkenhead, helped build The Arandora Star in 1929.
When I was a child he used to talk about the great Ship and mourned the sinking of it.
He didn't speak of the passengers though. No doubt there was a news blackout.
What a tragic loss of innocent lives in such a needless operation.
My Uncle Jack, my mother's younger brother, was rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.
I wonder whether it was The Andora Star that rescued him and his comrades.
After he survived Dunkirk he went back to the War, then, was captured by the Germans off a Greek island.
He was blindfolded, trussed and shot dead. He was 21 years old.

There is a memorial plaque to the poor people who lost their lives, on The Andora Star, at the
Pierhead in Liverpool.


jams o donnell said...

It was a dreadfl incident that should never have happened. It is ironic that one of the heroes of this event was a German, Otto Burfeind, the captain of a merchantman who was one of the internees on the vessel. The comma

Worse still, the survivors were put on the Dunera. Their treatment on board was so bad that the commander of the guards, Lt Col William scott was court martialled.

I know I am digressing but I would recommed an excellent book called the Kings Loyal Enemy Aliens by Helen Fry that documents the part played by the 10,000 German and Austrian men and women who served in British forces during WWII

Back to the memorial, I think it is well worth supporting. Thanks for drawing my attention to it

jmb said...

What a sad horrible story Welshcakes.

Here the Canadians rounded up the Japanese, many of whom had been born here, and took their property and interned them.

What we do in the name of fear.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Trubes. Thank you for sharing this story of your grandfather. I'm sure you are right and there was a news blackout. Such a tragic loss, as you say. What a tragic story about your young uncle, too. War should never be glorified, in my opinion.
Hi, jams. I didn't know that the guards commander was court martialled. Thank you for the book recommendation - that sounds interesting. I think the memorial is a worthy cause, too.
Hi, jmb. I hadn't realised that the Japanese were rounded up in Canada as well as in the USA. You are right - we do terrible things when we are afraid and, as Madame Roland said on the scaffold, "O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!"

PinkAcorn said...

I'm sure this is just one of the many unforunate results of WWII. The USA, like Canada, interned many Japanese and they lived is horrid conditions.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Pink. Yes, those were dreadful events in WW11.

Whispering Walls said...

"All's fair in love and war," they say. Have you seen that a UN representative is questioning the legality of the US use of drones in Afghanistan?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, WW. No,I haven't seen that.

Claude said...

One more horror story...In those days, I was a wee girl growing up in Montreal, and I remember vividly my mother coming home, filled with anger and crying her heart out. Our good family friend (Antonio Capobianco) who had helped her to elect Prime Minister Mackenzie King, was on his way, with his whole family (children born in Canada) to a concentration camp. To the everlasting shame of my country, our Canadian Italians, Japaneses and German Jewish were incarcerated during the war, on the order of Winston Churchill. They lost all their possessions, and couldn't communicate with families in their mother countries. It took years for Canada's officials to admit and recognise the cruelty and the injustice of it all. Finally, in 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologised, in Parliament, to the survivors of our concentration camps.

As my brother (who fought in WW2) always said: Et tu, Brutus.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Claudia. Thank you for sharing this story, which I didn't know about. How dreadful. It makes me ashamed to be British.


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