70 years ago today, the Arandora Star
was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by Commander Günther Prien
, famous for sinking the HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow. Prien had taken its grey livery to mean the Arandora Star was an armed merchant ship. Instead, it was carrying Italian and German internees to be held in Canada for the duration of the war.
At the start of the war, the Home Office decided to keep tabs on Italians and Germans living in Britain, and only a few suspected of collaboration were arrested. But after Mussolini brought Italy into the war on Germany's side, Churchill issued an order to 'collar the lot'
. It was this that led to the arrest and detention of hundreds of foreign nationals living in Britain, some of whom were Nazi or Fascist sympathisers, but most of whom were 'restaurateurs, chefs and waiters
who had been living in Britain for most of their adult lives.'
The Star carried lifeboats enough only for its original complement of 400. Between the prisoners, crew and military guard there were over 1700 on board when the ship was torpedoed. Bodies, wreckage and lifeboats washed up in Donegal
, on Colonsay
and on Mull
. 446 Italians
, 243 Germans
and 97 British guards
lost their lives, along with 55 of the Star's crew
including her captain.
Although the lack of acknowledgement of the sinking has caused some ill feeling in the past, memorials to the tragedy are being constructed in Glasgow
and in Cardiff
. Some of the survivors and their relatives reminisce here
Later in the war, the policy of the Home Office changed. German and Italian nationals were no longer sent to the dominions to be interned, but instead to the Isle of Man
, in Douglas and in a camp called Knockaloe.
I have quite a personal connection to these events, because I'm from a Scots Italian family. One of my bisnonni was interned in Knockaloe, and released only when he was dying of pneumonia - he only lasted a couple of days after getting out, and never saw his family. Ironically, he was largely apolitical and didna care about the fascist party; my other bisnonno, however, was a paid-up member of the Partita Fascista Nazionale di Stirling, but nonetheless avoided internment because he was a naturalised British citizen with children serving in the Army. Looking through the list of Italian casualties, I also found a fellow I share a surname with and who comes from the same town as the Italian side of my family, so it looks like I have even more connections to it than I realised!