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]
It’s well worth watching an excellent home made Arandora Star documentary in four parts on Youtube, starting here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeuZ6ft6pYw.
(In the spirit that typifies so much about the aftermath of this tragedy, these amateur historians have also done the whole film in Italian so that those who were close to the majority of victims can also see it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BbMIDxg-mI)
Thank you for bringing this to attention – I had never heard of it before. And, nothing changes – that awful ‘quiet man’ trying to build up resentment towards ‘the other’ in the last few days. When will we realise that we are all just part of nature, just animal, just human, and everybody just wants the same freedom to be themselves.
Keep up the good work on this blog all of you, I find I am learning so much from you.
During the opening stages of the Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe was targetting ships in the Channel, it became British policy to shoot down German aircraft marked with the Red Cross as it was deemed that they were using it as a cover for reconaissence and missions, having been found to be escorted by fighters and also armed. However drastic this was the British stuck to it with consistency and did not use red-cross marked units, even when it was detrimental. The first such instance of the downing of a German, Red Cross marked, sea float plane was on 1st June.
sorry, 1st July! and also 9th July.
Just read this whilst watching the bewildering reception given to the duke and duchess of Cambridge in Canada. To think 60 years ago we were sending our ‘undesirables’ to the same country, only to meet this shameful end. Thanks merrick for such a powerful piece.
As a twelve year old evacuee I sailed with my two older brothers to Canada on the Duchess of Richmond. We left Liverpool with the Arandora Star and the destroyer Wanderer which left us after we had cleared the North of Ireland. Early on the morning of July 2nd we heard the loud explosion that sank the Arandora Star. I remember women asking if we were going to pick up survivors but of course we moved away as quickly as possible. Little did we know that U 47 commanded by Gunther Prien had just one torpedo left and took off immediately after firing the fatal torpedo. It was a terrible tragedy that he killed so many Germans and Italians but if he had picked the second liner in his sights many British children would have died.
Dear Geoffrey I would be very interested to talk to you about your experience on the ship the Duchess of Richmond for a book I am writing. Please feel free to contact me via my website freewheelproductons.com
My Grandfather Dominic Pontone along with his friend Saporitti were aboard the Arandora Star when she was torpedoed, and I have been trying to find out if his body was ever recovered, and if yes, where was he buried, Have you any information on this please. Alan Duffield
Alan, all I know of is this list of Italian casualties. It lists burials where they’re known, suggesting that your grandfather’s body, like most of his compatriots, was never recovered.
Strong stuff Merrick. Thank you. And you Dorian and all contributors.
Thank you so much for this article. It is so refreshing to read a piece about the tragedy that has not been influenced by the government propaganda of the day. My great great grandad Angelo Quagliozzi was also among those men who died on the Arandora Star, he is number 344 on the list of those who persished. He had come to England when he was 10 years old with his family and when he was taken, he was a frail 62 year old family man. He was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night and my family were not told where or why he was being taken and they never saw him again. He had applied for his nationality papers years before, they had never come through, but they arrived 6 weeks after his death, nationalising him, with the new name Willis, but he had already died a Quagliozzi. He was at 62, not supposed to have even come under the decree, but he was arrested anyway. There were also many stories of men stepping forward to take the place of younger or older friends and relatives, so the arrests do seem to have been indiscriminate. Although the fact that many of the men arrested, including my great great grandad, had their businesses seized, which were then kept by the government, or given/sold to English businessmen, could have helped to decide who were allowed to stay and who were arrested. The Arandora Star, did not have a red cross, but as it was known to have been used earlier in the war to transport arms and troops, then simply bearing a red cross may not have stopped it being attacked. Also, since Churchill was holding secret talks with Hitler during the war, when British troops were fighting and being slaughtered by German troops, then before he started scaremongering and accusing anyone of betraying their country, he should have taken a good look at himself and wondered how the bereaved families of those British soldiers would have felt, knowing that he had been holding secret talks with Hitler, while their sons were dying. I think they would have felt very betrayed.
Hi micheala it is disgusting how the british goverrnment treated my great grandfather angelo quagliozzi .but an article i read said a dominic pantone was the ice cream vendor and his friend quagliozzi that was written the wrong way round angelo was the ice cream vendor i am led to believe domenic was actually his uncle .great grandad had buisnesses on middlewood rd sheffield and trade under the name willis and vera my uncle derek was nearly 12 when they took grandad away even though his sons were fighting for england.the british goverment should place themselves with hitler because what they did .
I was involved yesterday in the memorial held in Birmingham for the 75th. anniversary of the sinking of the SS Arandora Star. My Great Great Uncle (Antonio Greco/Grego) was one of the men who perished aboard the ship and whose body was never recovered.
The mass, some of which was in Italian, a nice touch I thought, brought some closure to the now elderly relatives who remember that night back in 1940. My Grandmother, Eileen Kenney, 88 years old was the niece of Antonio Greco. Marie Cerrone, his only suriving daughter, 99 years old was there also. We had many relatives there along with relatives of other Italians from Birmingham who lost their lives that night.
It’s a shame that only 4 out of the 6 men were remembered yesterday and although another nice touch was to also remember the British crew from the Midlands area who lost their lives, I do think we should have at least mentioned the Germans who pereished also, whther any of them had settled in Birmingham or not. The worst of it is that for many of these men, they had Sons who were serving in the British army. Antonio Greco had 6 children, 4 boys, 2 girls. All 4 Sons were serving for the British and yet he was seen as such a threat to the Country that his death was sealed by the British Government!
There isn’t really any animosity amongst us towards the British, but it’s a very painful reminder that racism is alive and kicking today as much as it was then. xx
I just came across your message and find it simply amazing that there are still services in honour of the Arandora star.
My father was on the ship – he was an Austrian Jewish man who had reached the UK illegally – thrown into Brixton prison and than Interned in the Isle of Man and than sent to Canada on the ship and rescued by the destroyer Laurent.
Amazing story ;-
My Father and his two brothers, all born in the UK of an English Mother and a German Father survived the sinking of the Arandora Star and found themselves on the Dunera a week later. Immediately following the armistice, All three were given the option of returning to war ravaged Britain or join the Australian Army to fight the Japanese in the Islands to our North. They chose the latter and survived that as well. It’s a remarkable tale. Could someone reading this confirm or deny the apparent British Government’s 100 year ban on any “official” release of information in respect of the sinking of the Arandora Star?
Dear Michaela Costello and Jean Pashley,
I am in Italy at the moment with my sister in law Desney Hughes. Her great grandfather was the Angelo Quagliozzi you both mention. All Des knew until recently was that he died on the Arandora Star….. but now thanks to this post and some digging we’ve been doing, we know so much more. Thank you so much. We would love to get in touch with you to find out more and share info about this tragedy that reshaped so many lives and consequently families. Early this week we visited Cassino, where he came from, in an attempt to find out more. The city was flattened by bombing in the war. We look forward to hearing from you. Claudia Cavanagh & Desney Hughes
My grandfather Frederico Borrelli was killed on the Arandora Star. My father would have been 19 at the time.
I was often told about the ridiculous events, barbed wire, testing faulty torpedos etc. That lead to the deaths of so many.