Published On: Thu, Jan 29th, 2015

The Arandora Star: A Forgotten Tragedy Of World War II

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The memorial plaque commemorating the sinking of the SS Arandora Star in St. Peter’s Italian Church

 

What immediately stands out, when you ascend the staircase to St. Peter’s Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road, is an awe-inspiring marble plaque covering the whole height of the wall. At the  top, a commemorative plate reads: ‘In memory of the men who perished in the sinking of the Arandora Star, 2 July 1940’. Further down, engraved in the stone, is a seemingly never-ending list of names.

One common feature: they’re all Italian. But apart from sharing the same nationality and what would become the same destiny, these names belonged to all different kinds of people. Most of them were only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t a huge difference between walking around Clerkenwell and strolling through a small town in Italy. No wonder this ancient parish of London was better known as ‘Little Italy’ back then. Here, leaving a country that was still reeling from the Napoleonic wars, a wave of craftsmen from Northern Italy started to earn a living as organ-grinders and food pedlars and, as time went by, carved a niche for themselves mainly in the restaurant industry.

Living in Britain has always offered great opportunities for Italian immigrants; that’s hardly a mystery. What is a mystery is the story of the SS Arandora Star, one of the forgotten tragedies of World War II.

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The entrance to the church on Clerkenwell Road

In the early days of Italy’s fascist regime under Mussolini, the dictator even tried to control Italian communities living abroad, including the one established in Clerkenwell. In the 1930s, Italian immigrants were, to a certain extent, forced to enrol in the governing party. “Italians had to join the Fasci if they wanted access to authorities ‘at home’,” says Michael McRitchie, a retired journalist who spent four years researching the Arandora Star tragedy. It was Mussolini’s decision to declare war on Britain in June 1940 that represented the turning point in the lives of the Italian immigrants.

What happened then was that Churchill, scared of being spied on from within, ordered to round up all enemy nationals living on British soil. If they all had been dangerous Fascists and Nazis, who posed a threat to national security, there would have been nothing to argue with. The problem is that most of them were nothing of the kind. Some internees were anti-fascists, some of their sons were enlisted in the British Army, and some of them were even Jewish refugees from Hitler’s persecution. Yet, McRitchie says that “the threat of invasion was very real. Britain was completely on its own and could not ignore what appeared to be an enemy organisation in its midst.”

To transport all the Italian, German and Austrian prisoners to St. John’s, Newfoundland, a former British colony in Canada, turned out to be the last purpose of the Arandora Star. Launched in 1927 as a first-class cruise liner, it was mainly used for pleasure trips until the outbreak of the war, when it was converted to a prison ship. The mainmast was cut out, the luxurious furniture and the palatial surroundings left room for some armaments, and her white hull and scarlet ribbon, which earned her the nickname ‘Wedding Cake’, were repainted in a battleship grey. Everything was made ready, so that the Arandora Star could set out for Canada at first light on July 1, 1940.

The Brisbane Star, another cargo liner from the Blue Star Line, which also operated the Arandora Star

The Brisbane Star, another cargo liner from the Blue Star Line, which also operated the Arandora Star

 

Dawn was breaking over the coast of Ireland, when she was spotted by a German submarine, commanded by Captain Günther Prien, on the morning of July 2. Perhaps, if a flag with the Red Cross had been hoisted on the Arandora Star, Captain Prien would have understood that it wasn’t a battleship, but rather a passenger ship. Or perhaps, if the Arandora Star hadn’t adopted a zigzag course – a tactic used to avoid torpedo attacks – the submarine wouldn’t have fired.

“Suddenly a tremor and a bang were heard, the alarm sound on that tragic day…the ship screamed from the engines, stood straight and in an instant was sucked in by the sea.” These are the words of Alessandro Edoni, a survivor of the Arandora Star tragedy. Hidden among old photographs, his son Renato found a poem called ‘A song of Two Thousands’. Written by his father in the aftermath of the tragic event, it addresses the story he never told him. “My father never spoke of the incident,” Renato says today. “It’s only the past couple of years I’ve been researching his past, that I happen to come across more information.”

That day the only order to Alessandro Edoni and his comrades from the captain was: “Now every man just for himself.” In his poem, Edoni recalls the initial stupor and the sense of fear they all experienced, followed by the horror of spotting the first corpses. Most of the passengers who stayed in the lower deck, especially the elderly and the sick, couldn’t reach the lifeboats. The ones who were able to reach them soon found they were overcrowded or rendered useless by the torpedo blast.

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The victims of the Arandora Star tragedy

The Arandora Star was carrying more than 1,500 passengers that day; 802 died in the attack. Of the victims, 446 – more than half – were Italians. “The Arandora disaster, terrible as it was, was only one of hundreds during the U-boats’ ‘happy time’ of 1940,” says McRitchie, “none of which detracts from the terrible loss to the Italian families.” In Britain, news of the sinking was overshadowed by the Royal Navy attack on Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, that sank the French fleet.

Perhaps the hardest part was the waiting, not knowing what had happened. “With hundreds of sinkings that year alone, there was no news for thousands of British families as well as the Italians,” McRitchie adds. It comes as no surprise then that the tragedy is still surrounded by considerable controversy today.

Some, as a response, decided to forget the dramatic event. This was the case in the family of Carlo Barsotti, one of the ‘lucky ones’, who survived the sinking and was taken to an internment camp in Australia. “My mum never talked about this to me,” remembers his granddaughter Brenda Little. “When I asked her about it, she just said ‘Oh yes your nonno was gone for four years’. That’s all she said. So I think this was so bad, she erased it from her mind.”

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Arandora Star tragedy. A story that reminds us of the disastrous effects of war on mankind but, at the same time, that without forgiveness there is no future. McRitchie had the opportunity to speak with the last survivor of the tragedy. “I was greatly impressed by the last survivor, Rando Bertioia, who told me that he lost many friends but bore no resentment. He said ‘the British did what they had to do’.”

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Clerkenwell used to be known as London’s “Little Italy”

 

 

A Song of Two Thousands

While the sun of July
Was not yet shining
On the soft and mute wave
The Arandora flew 

It carried the poor Italians
Torn away from their families
Into a foreign country 

In sleep or in wake
Everyone nurtured,
With badly dissimulated tears
Their own recent misfortune 

Suddenly a tremor
And a bang were heard
The alarm sound
Of that tragic day 

From decks and (stive)
In an immediate stupor
All ran with a gripped heart 

And to the lifeboats
All ran fast
And the commander said
Now every man just for himself 

On the dark and hostile wave
Every sort of relic was floating
A vast wreck of all kinds 

The ship screamed from the engines
Stood straight and in an instant
Was sucked in by the sea 

With her descended our brothers
Some praying to god, and some swearing to monsters 

And us, in the waters
Still full of doubts
The vision of corpses
Filling us with horror 

But then, like an angel
An aeroplane arrived
And our hearts blessed God 

And to repay our faith
It was the torpedo boat H 73
That got us out
It was the Canadians
That rescued and fed us
And swiftly carried us 

Forever we will carry
The memory of their generosity
And fraternal act 

Ten days suspended, then
We were embarked again
No voice left in our throats. 

Like cattle we huddled up
Below deck
To feel less pain 

And two days later
Another bang
Another storm 

Caught in a net
We thought to ourselves
Already dead 

But for the Grace of God
The ship was unscathed
And in our chest
The light of hope

Not hunger
Nor abuse
Could destroy
Our hopes in our hearts 

On the 22nd of July
The gaolers of the Dunera
Showed us their real criminal faces 

They kicked us and punched us
And took away our jewels
Laughing and bragging
They walked over our precious memories

Fifty-five days we had to endure
This cruel trip
And suffer every sort of outrage 

Then in Melbourne
The ship arrived
And then in Tatura
The train took us 

While we wait for the victory of our beloved,
We remember our dear departed
And the memory unites us. 

From below we will reborn
To salute Italia
The Empress of the Sea.

written by Alessandro Antonio Edoni at Camp Tatura, Australia

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  1. The list of names engraved on the marble is of those soldiers fallen in WW1. The names of the London Italian victims is inside the church on the rear wall. There are 242 names, a substantial amount more than shown outside.

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