Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the Arandora Star – the killing of hundreds of people due to the British government’s callous disregard of their welfare simply because of their nationality. It also demonstrated the common humanity and dignity of troops from Britain and Germany in the moment of crisis. More especially, it showed the ready compassion of the British and Irish people who, finding a grim tide of bodies washing up along their shores, buried the dead among their own, finding the money for funerals from the meagre sums their rural poverty afforded.
When the Nazis rolled across Western Europe in 1938-1940 they seemed unstoppable, and the British were the last nation to make a stand. With American support a long way off and the recently independent Irish avowedly neutral, they stood alone.
As their allies collapsed in early 1940, British policy towards enemy nationals within their borders rapidly became paranoid, Churchill reportedly issuing a decree on 10th June to ‘collar the lot!’. German and Italian men aged 17 to 60 were rounded up and held in internment camps.
Much of Britain’s Italian population had arrived 30 years earlier as economic migrants and were a well settled, integrated part of society. Indeed, many had British sons serving in the forces who could have ended up guarding their fathers. The Germans had mostly come more recently, many as refugees fleeing the Nazis. They were all regarded as potential Axis agents. Foreseeing the imminent prolonged pressure on food and resources, the British decided to deport internees to Canada and Australia.
The Arandora Star was a cruise ship that, like many others, had been requisitioned by the government for war use. Painted battleship grey, she had retrieved British troops after the fall of Norway in early June 1940, and played the same role later that month after the fall of France.
She was designated to sail from Liverpool to Newfoundland, carrying 712 Italians, 478 Germans and 374 British guards and crew. Even though this was more than three times the peacetime occupancy, the number of lifeboats had not been increased. Layers of barbed wire were placed between decks. Captain EW Moulton had protested, demanding the number of passengers be halved and the barbed wire be removed, saying, ‘if anything happens to the ship that wire will obstruct passage to the boats and rafts. We shall be drowned like rats and the Arandora Star turned into a floating death-trap.’ He was overruled.
At 4am on 1st July 1940, across the river from the Birkenhead shipyard that built her 14 years earlier, the Arandora Star left Liverpool. She was unescorted, unmarked, and steamed at cruising speed. Had she been painted with a red cross it would have been apparent she was not on a military mission. As it was, she looked like what she had so recently been, a troop carrier.
At 7am on 2nd July, north west of Ireland, a German U-boat spotted her and fired. The unarmoured ship was deeply penetrated and took on water for just half an hour before sinking.
There was a scramble for the lifeboats that were held in place by stout wires and only movable with special tools. Many could not be moved, others broke as attempts were made to launch them. The British crew marshaled people as best they could, guards pulled the barbed wire with bayonets and their bare hands as prisoners wrenched at it from the other side.
In the days afterward, where it was mentioned at all, the talk in the British press was of animalistic and selfish prisoners, The Times’ headline declaring ‘Germans and Italians fight for lifeboats – Ship’s officers on bridge to End’. This is an outrageous slur on those who gave their lives for others.
Captain Otto Burfeind and his crew had been interned since their ship, the German cruiser SS Adolph Woermann, had been captured in November 1939. Experienced sailors, they knew how to evacuate effectively, a skill augmented by their ability to speak the same language as many of those they were helping. As with the British troops and crew, even as they filled the scarce lifeboats so efficiently to maximise survivors, the German seamen must have known that they were in effect denying themselves any hope of escape.
The Arandora Star’s distress call had been heard, and the Canadian destroyer St. Laurent arrived at 1.30pm, managing to rescue 850 survivors, around half of those who had been on board (no complete list of passengers had been made). The Italians had been on the lowest decks, the first to flood and with the greatest amount of wire to imprison them. Consequently, the majority of those who died – about 470 from a total of over 800 – were Italian.
Anthony Eden, Minister of War, told parliament that all internees on the Arandora Star were Class A, the highest possible threat to national security. Racism is rarely logical, and the politicians fearful of ‘the other’ readily brushed aside the Italians’ strong roots in British communities. Some, like German Jewish refugee Hans Moeller, had already been scapegoated in Germany and were now suffering it a second time. Yet this is just official designation. In the midst of the emergency itself both the British and German sailors worked together to evacuate passengers. Captains Moulton and Burfeind gave up their survival for others.
A month later, the dreadful tide began. Along the western shores of Scotland and Ireland, bodies and wreckage came in. The corpses of British troops had identifying metalwork, but most of the internees had nothing. Some were identified by personal papers, such as letters or in one case a membership card for Pontypridd Bowling Club. Despite the impoverishment of their communities, over and over again these remote coastal villages paid and organised to bury the victims as if they were their own. In Scotland, these were not only enemy nationals but ones singled out for vilification by the government, but no matter; they were given the same reverence and respect as anyone else.
This colossal maritime loss of civilian life – around half that of the Titanic that we all know so well – has no place in our common historical consciousness. It is, however, well known among the British-Italian population, and amongst the Scottish and Irish communities who tend the graves of the dead to this day. It deserves to be remembered both as a warning against racism, and as evidence that no matter what adversity or political pressure we find ourselves labouring under, compassion need never falter.
[Written by Merrick]