One family's story of World War II liner tragedy

This week marks the 70th anniversary of a tragedy which deeply affected the Italian community in Wales.

A ship called the Arandora Star was sunk off the coast of Ireland. It was carrying Italians and Germans who had been arrested after the outbreak of war.

More than 800 men were killed, including the great grandfather of BBC Wales business correspondent Nick Servini. Here he tells his family's story.

The sinking of the Arandora Star touched virtually every Italian family living in south Wales, as it did so many other Italian families in London and Scotland.

After Mussolini declared war against Britain in June 1940, Churchill famously declared "collar the lot," and Italian shop, café and restaurant owners were arrested.

They included my great-grandfather, Bartolomeo Rabaiotti, who was running Rabaiotti's cafe on the high street in Pontypridd at the time.

His daughter Anna, who is now 95 and living in Italy, clearly remembers the night when her father was arrested by two local policemen who were ironically among the shop's best customers.

He was put on a converted cruise liner called the Arandora Star to be deported to a prison camp in Canada for the duration of the war.

The ship was packed with around 1,600 men, mainly made up of Italians and Germans, as well as crew and military guards.

On 2 July, 1940, it was torpedoed off the north-west coast of Ireland by a German U-boat. More than 800 men were killed, nearly 500 of them Italians.

Bartolomeo didn't stand much of a chance that day. He was 59 for a start and, like so many of the Italians who originally came from mountainous areas, he couldn't swim.

Back in Pontypridd, his wife and two of his daughters had to leave the shop as well and move to Aberdare because Italians had to live more than 20 miles away from the coast during the war.

There was one heart-wrenching moment for the family when they thought his name was on a list of survivors, only for them to later realise that the survivor was another Italian with a similar name.

Image caption Bartolomeo Rabaiotti had been running the family cafe in Pontypridd

But his daughter Anna speaks fondly of the way the people in Pontypridd treated them at the time. Unlike many other towns, the windows were not smashed in after Italy declared war on the UK.

Bartolomeo's body was never found but his photograph and name can be seen in a small memorial chapel built for the Arandora Star victims in the town of Bardi in northern Italy where he was born.


This small town was probably more affected by the tragedy than anywhere else with 48 local men among the victims.

Most of those had settled in south Wales and helped forge an extraordinary connection between Bardi and Wales.

The Arandora Star is talked about openly now in a way it never has been in the past. Two of my uncles survived after spending hours in the water but even they didn't discuss those dramatic events.

They came from a generation that was not at ease discussing difficult personal experiences and after the war ended many of them were busy rebuilding their businesses and lives rather than languishing over the past.

In 1940, most of the Italians in Britain were either in Scotland, London or south Wales.

There are already memorials in Glasgow and London so there's a sense that the memorial in Cardiff will help bring closure for many of those in Wales who are connected to the tragedy of the Arandora Star.

The memorial will be unveiled at a service at St David's Catholic Cathedral, Charles Street, Cardiff at 1200 BST on 2 July. An exhibition is at the Cardiff Story museum, Old Library, The Hayes, Cardiff, until 4 July.

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