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The Arandora Star 1940

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  • The Arandora Star 1940

    I got this story from an e-mail newsletter. Well done to the researcher.

    Arandora Star: a long-forgotten tragedy off the Irish Coast – Michael McRitchie

    Shortly after finishing photographing the 575 casualties in Belfast City Cemetery (report, Summer 2009 Newsletter) I had a call from Alan Davis of Newcastle, who contacted me via the Project. Could I go to Rathlin Island off the North Antrim coast and photograph the grave of Giuseppe Capella? Why not, I replied, I can try my shiny new travel pass on the ferry. But what’s this all about?
    Until then I had never heard of a ship called the Arandora Star. Its story would take me to Donegal and Mayo in the west of Ireland, to the Italian communities in England, Scotland and south Wales, and finally to the mountain village of Bardi in Tuscany, where our story begins.
    In the 60 years between 1880 and 1940 some 150,000 Italians emigrated to Britain. Many were from the mountainous regions of northern Italy such as Tuscany, where the peasant economy could not support them. Despite their agricultural traditions these industrious people set up a catering industry all of their own.
    In South Wales their cafes became known as bracchis, after one of the first families to go there from Bardi. Their temperance cafes were a welcome alternative to the pubs for many working families all over Britain, and the Italians became a much loved part of the communities they served. All this would be changed with the outbreak of World War Two.
    By June 1940 Norway, France and the Low Countries had fallen. Britain had been lucky to get its army home from Dunkirk, and now stood alone against Nazi Germany
    At sea the U-boats were strangling the lifeline to America. More than 60 ships were sunk in June alone. On June 10 Italy declared war on Britain, and began bombing the British island of Malta the following day…In this desperate and chaotic situation all enemy nationals were arrested and interned, even though some of their sons were serving in the British Army. With starvation a real possibility, the government ordered that these internees be shipped to Canada. On July 1 the former cruise liner Arandora Star left Liverpool with a crew of 200, carrying 1200 German and Italian prisoners, guarded by 200 soldiers.
    At about 8.30 next morning, 75 miles northwest of Ireland, she was torpedoed by U-47. The Arandora Star sank in half an hour. There were not enough lifeboats to begin with, and two were destroyed in the explosion. That afternoon many were rescued by a Canadian destroyer which answered the ship’s distress call. But more than 800 of the 1600 men aboard lost their lives. Of the 446 Italians who perished, one in nine came from South Wales. For weeks the bodies of Italians, Germans, the British seamen and the Army guards were washed ashore along 600 miles of coastline from the Western Isles of Scotland to Co. Mayo on the west coast of Ireland.

    Perhaps because so many terrible events were to follow, the Arandora Star was soon forgotten except by its grieving, bereft families. Indeed a book on the disaster was called Una Tragedia Dimenticata. A forgotten tragedy.
    So it was in Ireland, even though it remains one of the worst disasters off the Irish coasts. I was intrigued by the story, and wondered if there could be any references in the newspapers of the time and I was amazed at the detail in the 1940 reports. Forgotten for decades and unknown to the Italians both here and in Italy, here was the story of Ireland’s sad legacy from the Arandora Star.
    The Western People newspaper reported that on July 30 1940, exactly four weeks after the sinking, one of their reporters had identified the body of Giovanni Marenghi of Bardi on a sandy beach on the remote Erris peninsula in Co. Mayo. Signor Marenghi was 43, he had owned a cafe in Pontypridd, and he was identified by a membership card from the Pontypridd Bowling Club and a food ration book. The Marenghi family was able to have his body returned and in Feb 1941 he was laid to rest in Pontypridd Cemetery.
    For most of the Italian families all over Britain, and their kinsfolk back in Italy, the wait would be a long one, and many would never find out what happened.
    In early August a north-westerly gale brought a terrible harvest to the Irish coast. One hundred dead bodies in the sea off Iniskea, read the headline in the Western People. They were believed to have come from the Arandora Star, but few could be recovered due to the ferocity of the storm. Near Annagh Head, local youths waded into the raging surf with ropes to bring the bodies ashore. Among them was Private William Chick of the Dorsetshire Regiment. The Western People reported that onlookers were reduced to tears when they found a photograph of a girl, perhaps sister or sweetheart, tucked inside his pay book, which showed that he was only 19. He was buried in Kilcommon Erris cemetery, with three of his comrades.
    On the same day, over 100 miles north in Donegal, the body of Ernesto Moruzzi was found on a beach near Dungloe, and the body of Luigi Paretti was washed onto Tory Island off the north Donegal coast. Signor Moruzzi was 61 and had emigrated from Bardi. He had owned a cafe in Neath, where his family still lives. Cesare Camozzi and Giuseppe Ferdenzi were among those buried in Co. Donegal. Their grandchildren knew where they lay, but from the 1940 inquest reports I was able to tell them how and where they had been found and identified.
    On August 17 the Donegal Vindicator reported that nine bodies from the Arandora Star had been recovered along the coast. Some were those of soldiers, some were unidentified Italians, some could not be identified at all.
    On August 24 the Donegal Democrat reported that the body of a soldier was washed up on a beach; the body of an unidentified seaman and a lifeboat from the Arandora Star were washed up on an island, two unidentified bodies were buried on an island where they were found, and by the evening the shores of Loughros Bay on the western coast were strewn with wreckage..
    In those days the west coast was a very isolated Irish speaking area reached by gravel roads normally used by donkey carts. Only a few professional people like doctors had cars, and petrol was rationed. Very few people had telephones. So it was difficult to assemble the coroner, his staff and a twelve-man jury for so many inquests along 200 miles of this wild coastline. As the scale of the disaster unfolded, it was agreed that local doctors could authorise the interment of war victims.
    By late August there were so many bodies that the councils had to re-open old graveyards, some of which had not been used since the Irish famine almost 100 years before, and there was real concern about the cost of dealing with so many casualties. The Donegal Board of Health was told that 33 bodies had been washed ashore during the previous week, and that funeral expenses had been paid by Board officers out of their own pockets.
    In County Mayo there was one body for every kilometer along the Erris coastline, and the Board of Health became very concerned at the cost of so many funerals with coffins costing £2.10 shillings each. That’s around £350 in today’s money. And these were the poorest areas in Ireland.
    More than 90 of the Army guards also drowned. Many were from the Devonshire Regiment which had escaped from Dunkirk, and inquests were told that some still had French coins in their pockets.

    Say NO to violence against Women

    Originally posted by hedgehog
    My favourite moment was when the
    Originally posted by hedgehog
    red headed old dear got a smack on her ginger head

  • #2

    A dozen soldiers were identified through their Army identity discs, but the civilians had only a fewpapers which seldom survived five weeks in the ocean. I noticed that the newspaper reports stated the cemetery in which both soldiers and the many unidentified bodies were buried. When I checked the cemetery burial registers, they named the soldiers, who all have CWGC headstones, but there is no reference to other casualties. Where were all these graves?
    Gradually I realised that the grassy spaces around the headstones were graves of the unknown victims. On Rathlin Island Giuseppe Capella, who had been a waiter in the Savoy Hotel in London, is listed in the burial register; but I was lucky to find a 1940 coastguard record which noted that another body found on the same day, August 10, was buried alongside him. Sure enough, there is a grassy space beside the Capella grave.
    Finally my theory was confirmed by Eugene Forde of Easkey near Sligo. He is now 84, and as a teenager he had watched as the bodies of several Italians were recovered from the rocky shoreline near his home. They were buried alongside a soldier, Private Owen Mitchell, and the whole village attended the funerals. But the burial register refers only to the soldier.
    My wife and I took our videocam to Rathlin. Like most islands it’s not the easiest place to get to and we thought the Capella family might like to see something of the journey and the little churchyard where their grandfather is buried. Then we decided to spend a week visiting the lonely cemeteries around the wild Atlantic coasts of Donegal and Mayo.
    One thing leads to another ... after a couple of years we ended up with a 40-minute documentary which has been viewed by thousands of people on Youtube, bringing us emails from all over the world. Then we had a crash course in Italian so we could produce an Italian version which we presented to the people of Bardi when we at last visited the region we had read so much about.
    On the 70th anniversary of the Arandora Star disaster, the Welsh Italians dedicated a memorial in St. David’s Cathedral to 54 of their relatives who were drowned. It’s been our privilege to meet many of the families.
    The Irish people did incredibly well in the face of this awful tragedy but we shall never know the identities of most victims or the exact location of their graves. Had it not been for that phone call passed on via the Project, Ireland’s unknown Italians might have been forgotten forever.
    Say NO to violence against Women

    Originally posted by hedgehog
    My favourite moment was when the
    Originally posted by hedgehog
    red headed old dear got a smack on her ginger head


    • #3
      Hi all,
      I have a book about it somewhere. One of the radio officers was a Jim Cronin, from down Wexford direction, who survived.

      there was some real pettiness by the State about bearing the costs of the funerals, alluded to in the above article.The standing army of bureaucrats always won!
      Last edited by GoneToTheCanner; 5 April 2010, 17:58.