What was this, claimed to be ‘the
world’s most delightful cruising liner’, doing in
submarine-infested waters in the middle of a war?
The Arandora Star had been commandeered in
1939 as a troopship, but early in the war, the British government began to
fear that enemy nationals living in Britain could be a security threat.
Tribunals were set up to investigate foreign nationals case by case,
classifying them into 3 security categories, only the highest (category
‘A’) being liable to internment without trial. By early 1940, around
80,000 cases had already been determined, of which less than 1% were
category ‘A’. However, when Italy under Mussolini entered the war as
an ally of Germany, Churchill panicked and, famously issued the order to 'Collar
the lot!' Many Italian and German men, who had been working in the UK,
were rounded up and summarily interned, although, according to Richard
Sonnenfeldt in his book "Witness to Nuremberg" some were
actually volunteers. They were initially taken to local Police stations,
then transported to army camps, hotels and holiday camps throughout the
country. Wives, mothers and children were left to fend for themselves
without information as to the fate of their loved ones.
A few months later the War Cabinet decided
it would be safer to deport some of these internees to ‘the Dominions’.
The Arandora Star, luxury liner turned troopship, was further converted to
a prison ship, equipped with some armaments and finally over-painted in
battleship grey (hence the lack of external identification on the
lifeboat) before setting out on the first deportation run with 1500
prisoners to St. John’s in Newfoundland, adopting the zigzag course
typical of a warship reducing its vulnerability to torpedo fire.
Off Malin Head, understandably or
recklessly identified as a suitable target for his last shot by Submarine
Captain Gűnter Prien (the same who sank the
Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in 1939 and was awarded the Iron Cross, by
Hitler), she met her violent end at the hands of the very power with whom
her passengers were believed to be sympathisers. Her Captain, E W Moulton,
went down with his ship, on the bridge along with two of his officers. He
was posthumously awarded the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea and
the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. However, among the other 802
casualties may have been the truth about what happened next.
Many of the rescued survivors were put
ashore in Greenock and some of the injured treated in Mearnskirk Hospital
near Glasgow. Among these were four who produced a signed statement dated
July 10th 1940 describing in appreciative detail the roles of a Royal Air
force Sunderland flying boat and the Canadian destroyer HMCS St. Laurent
in the work of rescue, emphasising that all the boats did their best to
pick up survivors. British Destroyer HMS Walker following in the wake of
the rescuing HMCS St. Laurent, was too late-arriving to find survivors or
be the subject of comment, appreciative or otherwise by the ‘Mearnskirk
Four’. They were, however, sufficiently aware of post-rescue events to
deny reports of hostility among the internees such as carried by The
Glasgow Herald on 4 July 1940.
If hostility there were, it might have been
understandable under the circumstances, but there is other evidence of a
much darker side to the story. It is simple history that, in order to fit
the vessel for its new purpose, portholes were boarded up and decks fenced
off. The lifeboats were secured behind heavy wire mesh (some witnesses
specified ‘barbed wire’ and reported lacerations to survivors) and
sufficient only for the original cruising complement of 400. Alastair
Maclean, in his book ‘The Lonely Sea’ (Collins 1985), claimed that
obstructing access to the lifeboats was ordered in spite of protests by
the ship’s captain, who pointed out that it rendered the boat a death
trap. Safe evacuation of prisoners in an emergency was clearly not a
Cormac McGinley, writing in 2004 in the BBC
on-line forum “WW2 People’s War” reports testimony to the effect
that the British “shot holes in the lifeboats to stop internees from
escaping”. He also unearthed the story of a chilling find on the
dead calm night of the 22nd of July 1940 by Mickey O’Donnel and a crew
of fishermen from Owey Island, off the north west coast of Donegal. They
told of a waterlogged boat, which they towed to shore only to find that it
had been shot through with bullet holes, which someone had apparently
tried to plug with pieces of cloth. There were no survivors in the boat,
only handfuls of empty bullet shells and a plate identifying the boat as
being from the Arandora Star. The boat being unsalvageable, was broken up
and its timbers put to other uses.
When Bella first saw the lifeboat her dad
brought ashore, she noticed that there was ‘a big crack in her side’.
Firmly rejecting other possible explanations for the damage, she is
quite clear that the boat had been “rammed….hoping it would sink”.
To her mind, the obvious reason was that it was a danger to shipping.
That was surely true, but if McGinley’s sources are right, it may not be
the whole truth. Given the British perception of the internees, the
problem with drifting lifeboats may have been as much the souls they might
save as the souls they might endanger. It would be a presumption too far
to suggest that lives were deliberately put at risk, but undoubtedly the
twin interests of maritime safety and national security would have been
served by taking steps to ensure that no dangerous alien had the
opportunity to float ashore ‘un-rescued’.
Could such a heartless attitude towards
people who had been living and working happily for years in Britain really
be true? Arandora
Star researcher, Archie Lindsay claims that one other of the Arandora
Star’s 14 lifeboats did come ashore intact, complete with provisions,
and that it was normal practice to machine-gun drifting lifeboats after
checking that they were safely empty. However Hansard, in Parliamentary
answers to MP’s questions about the disaster, records the British
Government’s view of the prisoners on board the Arandora Star. According
to the Duke of Devonshire, they were an unwelcome drain on scarce national
resources - “useless mouths” to be precise, while to
Anthony Eden, then minister of State for War, they were ALL a Category
‘A’ threat to national security - the highest possible, and the
only category liable to summary internment.
Perhaps extraordinary times call for
extraordinary measures, and these after all were dangerous Nazi and
Fascist sympathisers. The problem is that most of the prisoners were
actually nothing of the kind. MPs on behalf of outraged communities
presented Parliament with evidence that the internees were workers
in ice cream parlours, chip shops, the chocolate business and shoemakers.
They even included some “very distinguished anti-Fascist Italians”
and Jewish refugees from Hitler’s persecution in 1938, some of whom had
been “sentenced to terms of imprisonment” or “beaten up”
on account of their anti-Nazi activities. (Hansard 6/8/1940.)
later, writing to The Oban Times on 10 July 2009, Mrs
Mairi Smith, of Achnacroish, Lismore, made the following comment on a
short article on the Arandora Star:
It is with interest and much dismay that I read the article on the
Arandora Star in The Oban Times.
The British government has a sin to answer for by inferring that Italians
resident in this country were all Nazi and Fascist sympathisers.
Nothing could be further from the truth. They were hard working people
loved and respected by their neighbours. Mr Abraseezi had a café in
Pollokshaws, Glasgow from which he was taken, for no good reason and
perished on the Arandora Star much to the sorrow of his neighbours of
which my late husband was one.
The other café in the Shaws was owned by the Vetturini family whose son
fought with and was an interpreter with the British army. His mother,
affectionately known in The Shaws by everyone as ‘Auntie’ maintained
her Italian citizenship and had to report weekly to the police. She was
allowed to remain at home much to the amusement of all, was not allowed to
own a bicycle or a radio. She was at this time in her 80s.
My late husband served with the RAF for the duration of hostilities and
was regularly supplied with parcels of goodies by the Vetturini family.
This letter refers to the Italians in one small area of Glasgow but the
feelings will be replicated all over Glasgow and beyond."
Adding insult to injury, within days of the
sinking, the survivors were re-interned or deported to Australia on board
the ‘hell-ship’ Dunera, three of whose military personnel were later
court-martialled for mal-treatment of their prisoners. The
Dunera was the first of four ex-troopships to be converted in 1960 to
floating schools by the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd.
Equipped with dormitory accommodation for pupils, cabin accommodation for
teachers, classrooms, a lecture theatre/cinema, a library and deck space
for sports, she sailed from Greenock on educational cruises for Scottish
secondary school pupils to various ports in Western Europe and the
Mediterranean between 1961 and 1968.
A blog (www.dunera.co.uk) recording
reminiscences of these ‘Dunera Cruises’ provides
incidental corroboration of the identity of the internees. One entry,
dated 20/4/06, reads, “… Jennifer emailed in with this request …
I'm seeking any and all information on the trip
to Austrailia with German Jewish refugees from England to Austrailia,
especially photos. My Father was on that ship.”
Another, dated 17/05/06, reads, “...Fred
Gillard has emailed us with this ... I am one of the ex-Austrian Jewish
refugees who was "shipped" to Australia. I spent there abut 18
months before returning to England joining the British Army.” (Note:
The three others were Devonia, Nevasa and finally the Uganda.)
Little wonder that an Arandora Star
Campaign was set up, seeking redress from the British Government on behalf
of Italian families affected by these events, and the argument has not
quite gone away. Some claim that the British have nothing to apologise
for, since it was the Germans who torpedoed the boat. Others
exonerate the British Government's by reference to the severe threat
of invasion and the heroic attempts at rescue, suggesting that the stories
from Donegal could have a tinge of Irish Republican green about them. It
is probably impossible now to judge and perhaps the only honest course is
to simply note the existence of very different perceptions of these sad
The shattered, empty lifeboat on
Knockvologan beach may be a forgotten remnant of the Arandora Star tragedy
but the victims are not forgotten. Of the 446 Italian victims, one in ten
came from the small town of Bardi, where a memorial chapel commemorates
the tragedy. Speaking
in the chapel, Beppe Conti of the Arandora Star Association described
the chapel as a symbol of light and hope and remembrance of this tragedy
as a aid to understanding the new waves of migration into Europe. In
Glasgow, memorial gardens are to be constructed beside St. Andrews Roman
Catholic Cathedral. Archbishop Mario Conti, himself an Italian immigrant,
launched a fund in 2008 for the purpose, commenting that the sadness “is
not just one of loss, it is also over their rejection from the Scottish
Rejected in life
by a government in panic, in death ordinary folk welcomed them back. All
along the north coast of Ireland, where hundreds of bodies were washed
ashore, local people buried them among their own. In Colonsay, three of
the 31 from the Italian province of Lucca are buried and included in the
island’s annual remembrance of their war dead. In a moving letter of
thanks to the people of Colonsay for their faithfulness to their memory,
Andrea Tagliasacchi, the provincial president, referred to the need for
constant remembrance in the face of a “silence, which has
lasted too long”, concluding with the words, “It
is in fact, only by admitting past mistakes, that we can comprehend our
present and work for a future of peace. In these terms, your gesture
expresses a most sincere compassion and the true meaning of brotherhood
Bella explains that no survivors or bodies
came ashore with the lifeboat on Mull and nothing of great significance
except one intriguing item - a red lady’s shoe. Intriguing because there
were no ladies on board the Arandora Star in July 1940. Only men were
interned and only men crewed the prison ship. Perhaps it could have been a
relic of the earlier days of luxury cruising, but what if it was from the
Arandora Star’s final, ill-fated voyage? If someone took it with him and
then saved it from the sinking ship, it surely had significance beyond the
ordinary. Was it a keepsake, grabbed by some internee in the moments
between the unexpected knock on the door and the sudden removal for
interrogation and deportation? Maybe he hoped one day to be re-united with
the one girl whose foot it fitted – a true Cinderella story without the
As things stand, we will never know. On the
other hand, maybe someone reading this now will come forward and say, “I
know about the other shoe.”
Donald C Black 2008
243 German prisoners
97 military guards
Mrs. Bella Cameron (daughter of the late
Evander MacLennan) and Mrs. Margaret MacDonald (daughter of the late Jimmy
Beaton) for kindly granting interviews in August 2008.
Miss Margaret G Jack, of Oban for
additional information from her personal research.
“Star of Shame” by Des Hickey and
Gus Smith, Madison 1989 currently out of print, but excerpts viewable on www.inishowenonline.com/arandora
. Also on the same site, ‘The Last Voyage of the Arandora Star’ by
Paddy McClure of Cardonagh.
“Colonsay’s Fallen”, Allan Davis,
Colonsay Books 2004.
“Witness to Nuremberg”, By Richard
“I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier”,
by Max Perutz, CSH Press, 2003 (A selection of essays, including Ulberto
Limentani’s first hand account of his rescue from the Arandora Star.)
The British Parliament and Hansard for
recording and making public their proceedings.
Tony Gallo and his Arandora Star
Campaign. ( www.arandorastarcampaign.com
Fraser of www.bluestarline.org
for meticulous information and archive of postcards and photographs.
The BBC for giving ordinary people a
voice in their WW2 People’s War Stories forum. ( www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/94/a2618994.shtml
The Arandora Star section of ‘Corncrake’
on-line magazine from Colonsay. ( http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~hotel/old1/cornb32.html
The Mathie family for the photo of the
lifeboat in 1969.
Dave Black for photos of the lifeboat in
Kevin Byrne and the people of Colonsay.
Archie Lindsay for his videos posted on Youtube.
Robin Lang, who first told me the
rumoured origin of the lifeboat.