- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mickey O Donnel / Italian refugees
- Location of story:
- North atlantic/north west ireland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 May 2004
On a dead calm night on the 22nd of July 1940 Mickey O’Donnel and a crew of fishermen from Owey, (a small island off the north west coast of Donegal), were out drift netting for salmon four miles north of the island in a 24ft sailing yawl.
As the morning light began to show one of the crew spotted something floating in the water about a half a mile away. The men finished hauling the nets and went to investigate. As they approached the object they discovered that it was a lifeboat with its mast fully erect but sunk in the water, to the gunnels. Since the sea was so calm they tried to bail the water out of the boat. Failing this the men tied a rope to the stem of the boat and towed it back to shore. This was no easy task as the boat was completely waterlogged making headway difficult.
The crew beached the boat in the Spink (landing place) on Owey Island. They then proceeded to bail the water out of the boat and in so doing discovered why it had been impossible before. The hull of the boat was shot through with bullet holes and on the deck there were handfuls of empty bullet shells. On further inspection of the boat it appeared as if someone had tried to prevent her sinking by putting pieces of cloth into the bullet holes. On some of the pieces of cloth there were traces of what seemed to be blood. The nameplate on the side of the boat read “Arandora Star”.
The boat was then hauled up onto the island and, when it was decided that it could not be repaired, the islanders put this newly acquired timber to good use. The main shell was turned upside down and used as the roof of a small shed. Some wood was also taken out of her and used to make two small boats called curraghs. The people of Owey wondered how the lifeboat had come to be found off their island. They knew that there must have been a disaster aboard a large ship but had no way of verifying this. By the time the war had ended the islanders had discovered the full story of what had happened.
The Arandora star was a 15,200 tonne ship, which belonged to the Blue Star Line, a London, based company. She was a leisure cruiser before the second world war and had journeyed to almost all the oceans of the world on her many cruises, but when the war started she was taken over by the British War Ministry and used as a troop carrier and for the evacuation of civilians from Europe and the Mediterranean. In 1939 the Arandora Star evacuated a boatload of women and children from the island of Malta. She was also used to take Canadian troops to Britain to help with the war effort
The Arandora Star was on her way to Canada during the second year of the war with 1,560 Italian prisoners of war, mostly shop owners, barbers, market salesmen and such like who had been arrested by the British as they were considered a threat once Italy had allied with Germany. The ship was also carrying 400 troops to guard the prisoners and some heavy machine guns for protection.
It was the 1st of July 1940, the Arandora Star’s third day at sea and the captain was unhappy with the weather as it was flat calm and they were clearly visible to enemy ships.
Meanwhile a German U-boat captain called Prien was on his way back to Germany and not very happy either. Prien was aged just 32 and was already a war hero, but one of his students, a captain Endrass, was set to receive an award for the highest tonnage of ships sunk within that month. This obviously did not sit well with his master’s ego. Prien was on his way home with seemingly no hope of beating Endrass, as he was 5,000 tonnes short of doing so and had no deck ammunition and only one torpedo. Then on July the 1st he spotted the Arandora Star and sank her with his remaining torpedo. The Italians began clambering into the lifeboats to save themselves from drowning but the British shot holes in the lifeboats to stop them from escaping.
This all happened 400 miles west of Owey and three weeks before the lifeboat was discovered.
682 people perished including 200 soldiers. The surviving Italians were shipped back to Liverpool where they were transported to prison camps in Australia the following week.
To this day the remaining survivors of the Arandora Star gather at a small Italian church in London in remembrance of all those who died on the 1st of July 1940.
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