Thursday 1 July 2010, 09:34
The sinking of the liner Arandora Star on 2 July 1940 is a story of tragedy and human folly, a disaster that need never have happened.
The Arandora Star, previously run as a cruise ship by the Blue Star Line, had been commandeered by the Admiralty in the early days of World War Two and on 1 July left Liverpool with nearly 1,200 Italian and German internees on board.
Early the following day she was torpedoed and sunk by U47 under the command of Gunther Prien, the German U Boat ace who, only the previous year, had conned his submarine into Scapa Flow and destroyed the battleship Royal Oak.
The roots of the disaster, however, go back many years. Almost every Welsh community in the 1920s and '30s had its Italian café or ice cream parlour. Most of the immigrants came to Wales from the Bardi area of Italy and were quickly integrated into Welsh society. Their cafés were places of refuge and hope, where a little warmth and comfort might be found during the dark days of the Depression.
However, when Mussolini declared war on Britain in June 1940 the Italian community - at least in the eyes of the Government - immediately became suspect. Fear of Fifth Columnists and spies meant that within days of Mussolini's declaration over 4,000 Italians, men who had spent the vast majority of lives living in perfect harmony with the people of Britain, were behind bars.
It was a harrowing experience. One young boy still remembers how his father had been arrested and interned:
"They came for him at gunpoint in the night. The policeman hammered on the door as if we were criminals. My father thought something had happened - he hadn't a clue he was going to be arrested... I was a little boy of six and that was the last time I saw my father for 11 months."
The internees were taken, first, to transit camps and then to specially prepared accommodation on the Isle of Man. The plan was that, from there, all the Italian and German aliens - the term was deliberately used - would be shipped to Canada, well out of harm's way. The Arandora Star was the means of transporting them.
The ship did not have Red Cross markings on her side - something that might have warned off any stalking U Boat - as she had previously been used as a troop ship and it is quite possible that Prien mistook her for an armed merchant cruiser. Only one torpedo was fired and the Arandora Star sank in just over half an hour.
Over 800 lives were lost, several of the lifeboats either being destroyed in the attack or jamming in the davits:
"My three uncles were all arrested together. My father went to the Isle of Man but the other three were put on the Arandora Star. Of course she was torpedoed and went down.
"The story is that Uncle Luigi jumped off the ship and survived. But either Guiseppi or Franco, I don't know which, went back to get his false teeth and the other one went with him. They both went down with the ship.
"Their families were very bitter for a long time with the British Government for allowing the boat to sail."
The bitterness was understandable. These were men who had little or no regard for Mussolini and his Fascist regime - they had far more in common with the Welsh - and were certainly not latent saboteurs or secret agents. And the decision to risk the perils of a U Boat infested Atlantic was, frankly, ludicrous.
After the disaster the plan to send internees to Canada was quickly dropped and most of them sat out the war, until the Italian surrender of 1943, on the Isle of Man.
The interning of Italians during World War Two was hardly the most glorious episode in British history. The sinking of the Arandora Star was equally as damning. July 2 2010 marks the 70th anniversary of that terrible event. It is a date we should all remember.
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