Betrayed by Britain: Italy's wartime migrants

Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien had one faulty torpedo left aboard his submarine. The U-47 was returning home to Kiel in Germany from its most successful patrol in the Atlantic: seven freighters sunk in less than one month. Prien was keen to get one more prize to keep himself at the top of the rankings of German U-Boat aces – a contest judged simply by the tonnes of enemy shipping they had sent to the seabed. Then, early one morning off north-west Ireland, a vast and extraordinary prize loomed in his periscope: the twin funnels and elegant lines of a famous ocean liner. He decided to try his luck with the damaged weapon.

The Arandora Star was a pearl of the golden age of ocean travel. Her peacetime white and gold livery and luxury accommodation had earned her the nickname "The Wedding Cake". Prien would have known she was a civilian ship, yet in time of war she was a legitimate target. What he didn't know was that the Arandora Star was laden with men who were no threat to Germany. Eighty-six were German military prisoners, but the great bulk, more than 1,200 men, were Italian and German civilians who had been living in Britain.

Most of the men were no threat to Britain either. Some were German Jews and communists who had fled to Britain to escape Hitler. The Italians were waiters and craftsmen, restaurateurs, grocers and fish and chip-shop owners. Many had lived most or all of their lives in Britain. Judged "enemy aliens" because of their Italian heritage, they were being taken aboard the Arandora Star to internment camps in Canada.

There was not enough room for all of the passengers in the luxury cabins, which usually held 350. Many of the men spent their first and only night on the ship asleep in rows in the ballroom. Barbed wire had been spread between the decks to stop the men moving over them even though the Captain, EW Moulton, had reportedly protested that this made the overloaded ship dangerous in an emergency.

Just after 6am on 2 July 1940, U-47's last torpedo drove into the belly of the liner. Its faulty motor had functioned well enough. The weapon exploded just behind the engine room, killing all the crew there and utterly disabling the ship. Within an hour, the Arandora Star was leaning heavily to one side. The time had come to abandon ship: Captain Moulton led his officers off the bridge and into the sea. Most of the British guard made it to the few boats. But the passengers did not do so well.

Confused and frightened, some of the elderly Italians and Germans chose to stay in the cabins. Others jumped straight into the sea. At 9.15am the Arandora Star's stern dipped under the waves and she slipped straight downwards. One British guard saw men "like ants" clustering on the side of the ship, and others dead in the water, their necks broken as they jumped from the deck.

Later that day, a destroyer picked up 868 survivors. One of the lifeboats had 150 people in it. A further 805 died, including Captain Moulton and some of the officers. Most of the dead were civilians – including 486 British-Italians.

In August, bodies began to appear on beaches. Local newspapers in the west of Ireland reported hundreds floating in the sea. Two washed up on the little Scottish island of Colonsay, 200km away from the sinking. One was 30-year-old Private Jack Edmunds of the Devonshire Regiment, one of the guards. The other was Wulfrido Sagamati, also 30. On his gravestone in Colonsay's little churchyard it says "Morto per la patria" (he died for his country), which is probably not how he would have seen it. Poor Wulfrido was, after all, just a waiter at London's Savoy Hotel.

'Collar the lot'

Wulfrido's tragedy began a month earlier, when Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, decided to side with Nazi Germany and to declare war on Britain and its allies. It was a dark moment in the war. In just two months most of Europe had fallen to Hitler's armies, and the British had had to retreat in chaos from France. Churchill, just a month into his role as Prime Minister, reacted to the news from Italy by ordering the arrest of all Italians in Britain. "Collar the lot," he said.

It was a decision taken in crisis and haste, but it was deeply unjust. Many of the Italian families had arrived in Britain 50 years or more earlier; some of the older men rounded up across the country had fought on Britain's side in the First World War. The largest group, nearly 200 of the 760 internees on the Arandora Star, came from Scotland.

In Edinburgh and the towns of east Scotland, an Italian community had set up small grocery stores, fish and chip shops and ice cream stalls. Others had come after the First World War to work in the building trade. The first many of them knew of the outbreak of war between their adopted and native countries was when crowds smashed the windows of the Italian-owned shops in Edinburgh and looted their goods. A shop owner was shot dead and police had to baton charge the rioting crowds.

"Red wine, like a river of blood," flowed down Leith Walk, according to one account, after the famous delicatessen Valvona & Crolla was vandalised. McVitie's biscuit factory sacked all its Italian staff, no matter how long they had worked there. Other Scots Italians remember children throwing stones and being beaten up at school.

But worse was to come. On 10 June, the police and MI5 arrested all Italian men over 16 in the city. "Maria", the daughter of one of them, now in her late eighties, tells me of her horror as her 40-year-old father was taken away as he tried to clear up the mess left in his looted grocery shop in Leith. "They came back, a few minutes later, and I thought they'd admitted their mistake – but the police just wanted to get his ration book. They were terrible, dreadful men, the Leith police." Her father was taken to Edinburgh's Saughton Prison, then to an internment camp in the Isle of Man.

Maria was just 13, and after that morning she never saw her father again. They only found out that he had drowned by chance, when the British government gave the Brazilian consulate in Glasgow a list of names of the dead in the sinking of the Arandora Star. Still angry, 75 years on, Maria won't let me print her real name or her father's, for fear of further shame. Her life has been coloured by the disaster and the poverty that followed it. "My mother never recovered, she died in 1950. She never got over the pain." The looted shop never reopened; the family's bank account was frozen and creditors took all that remained. Maria and her sister never married.

She wipes tears from her eyes as she remembers. The irony was that she had no sense of being Italian until the morning her father was taken away. Indeed, most of her cousins, whose family still runs a famous Italian-Scots ice-cream firm, served in the British army or air force during the war.
"It was so unjust," she says.

Dear Olivia

Mary Contini and her husband Philip are fourth-generation Italian-Scots. Their great grandparents emigrated from central Italy in the early 1900s, leaving a life as poor mountain shepherds. They are now honoured members of Edinburgh's business community, inheritors of Scotland's most famous delicatessen and owners of other cafés and restaurants. They both lost grandfathers – and Mary's great-uncle – on the Arandora Star.

Mary, maiden name di Ciacca, has told the history of hers and the other families – almost all of the Edinburgh ones came from the same part of the Abruzzo – in a book, Dear Olivia. It's a remarkable, moving story. The di Ciaccas kept a fish and chip shop in the little fishing town of Cockenzie. When the men were arrested neighbours watched in silence but, in the following days, locals were kind to the family who had served their community for 20 years.

In Edinburgh, though, the looting and violence continued. Neighbours gathered in the street to shout insults as four Crolla men were taken away. A few days after the men were arrested, the rest of the families were ordered to leave Edinburgh and the port towns with whatever they could carry, on security grounds. Their homes and businesses were barred to them – even though many were British citizens.

Trying to track down their men after they'd been arrested was nerve-racking: soldiers beat some of the Edinburgh children and women with rifles when they approached the gates of a hospital where some of the internees were held. Many were only 16 – including the young Eduardo Paolozzi, later to become famous as an artist. He was held in prison for three months. But his father, grandfather and uncle, who had run an ice cream parlour in Leith, all died on the Arandora Star.

Philip Contini, whose grandfather Alfonso Crolla died on the ship, has studied the story "almost fanatically". He has a collection of memorabilia about the Arandora Star, menus and advertising from her happier days as the "Queen of De Luxe Liners". "Delightfully restful cruises in warmth and sunshine..." promises one for a trip to the West Indies. He lays these out across the desk in the Valvona and Crolla offices in Edinburgh's Leith Walk. Below is the bustling shop that was looted in 1940.

"The arrests were quite random," he says. "Boys, old men ... some with British passports. My grandfather Alfonso and his son Domenico had Italian passports but Alfonso was a naturalised British subject. His daughters and his other son had British passports. My grandfather drowned on the Arandora Star, Domenico, my uncle, who had an ice-cream shop on Easter Road, ended up being shipped to Canada – what a horrendous journey that must have been. He was interned till 1945."

Even though his father and cousin had died on the ship and his brother was interned, Mary Contini's uncle Alessandro di Ciacca came out of prison and, aged just 16, joined the British fight. He served in the RAF. Philip's grandmother and her children had to leave Edinburgh and live in a cottage on the land of a farmer who supplied their shop with milk for ice cream. Because internees couldn't own shares in companies, two Scottish employees took over the shop.

The families were not left in peace though. They were still watched by the security services. Olivia, Philip Contini's mother, remembered answering the door one evening to two policemen who demanded to search the house for radios and spies. "Witnesses have reported mumbling in Italian every evening, at six o'clock," It was the family saying their evening prayers, she said.

With little or no news of their arrested brothers and fathers, the families were horrified to read in the papers of the sinking of a ship carrying Italian prisoners. It was not until four days after the sinking that casualty lists were issued, and the extent of the tragedy became clear. More than450 Italians had died. Some Scottish families had lost as many as four men. Quick to exploit
a propaganda advantage, the newspapers reported that "big hulking brutes", Nazis, had fought with the "cowardly" Italians as they scrambled for safety. None of that appears to have been true.

'I could have been a spy'

In all, between 266 and 288 Italians were rescued by the destroyer that reached the site of the sinking hours afterwards. Most of them were quickly deported again, without an opportunity to see their families. Among these were Rando Bertoia, a 20-year-old who had come to Scotland when just six.

His father, Gildo Bertoia, was a craftsman in marble inlay; the mosaic lion on the Glasgow Rangers stadium at Ibrox was built by him in 1912. Gildo was arrested along with Rando when the order came, but he was not put on the Arandora Star, though his son and 19-year-old nephew were. Rando survived, even though he could not swim. His teenage cousin drowned.

Rando and some 200 other Italians who survived the Arandora Star were put on another ship, the Dunera, bound for internment camps in Australia. According to the men who survived, their guards robbed them of their few possessions and beat them. But the worst moment came when, while crossing the Bay of Biscay, another German U-boat attacked the ship. The men were locked below deck. Shots were fired when they tried to break out. The U-boat fired two torpedoes but, when one of them hit the Dunera Castle, it failed to explode.

"We heard the thump," said Rando Bertoia later. "We just sat there, there waiting, looking at each other, second by second, waiting for the water to come in. It was terrible waiting there." The second torpedo exploded in the water having gone wide of its target.

Rando Bertoia eventually made it home from Australia to Scotland in September 1945. He stayed in Glasgow and started a watch repair shop, married a Scottish girl and raised a family. He was the last survivor from the ship. Rando died in 2013. He had lived long enough to see memorials erected in Liverpool and at Glasgow's St Andrew's Cathedral to the victims of the Arandora Star though not to see any official apology for the mass internments. He never showed any bitterness: "It was wartime. What happened was one of the harsh realities of war," he told a journalist in 1999. "Scotland did the right thing. I could have been a spy."

The truth is that a few of the Italian-British men arrested – although not Rando – were on MI5's lists of potentially suspicious aliens. But this appears to have been because they were members of the British branch of Mussolini's Italian political party. Philip Contini explains this as no more than a patriotic club, set up because the Italian government was providing money in the 1930s to promote Italian culture among emigrants. No evidence has ever emerged that any Italian on the ship acted to harm Britain, or was likely to do so.

From early on, the British government was aware that the tragedy could have difficult political side-effects. Attempts were made to cover up the events of 2 July: the lack of lifejackets and lifeboats was masked by the stories of panic and fighting. Later, it was alleged in the House of Commons that the reason that Rando Bertoia and the other survivors had been so swiftly transferred to another ship and sent to Australia was so that their side of the story wouldn't emerge.

Under pressure, in October 1940 the government ordered an inquiry to be held. Lord Snell, who led it, concluded that "very few" mistakes had been made in identifying dangerous foreigners and that there was "no reason to question the decision" that those who were deported should have been deported. The report was not published (and remained secret until 2013). The wartime government decided to forget the affair: it put out a short summary of Snell's whitewash and repeated that the death toll on the Star had been so high because the internees and prisoners on the overloaded ship had panicked and "refused to make use of the numerous rafts". One of the surviving officers later pointed out while there was certainly confusion, no drill or instructions had been given to the passengers on what to do if there was an emergency.

July 1940 was a time of many tragedies – people did not have much time or sympathy for the British Italians. Among the yellowed cuttings that Eva, the Leith shopkeeper's daughter, brought for me to see was a "Question of the Week" from the letters page of a British paper. "Was it necessary to risk a grand ship like Arandora Star in transporting enemy aliens to a place of safety? Wouldn't some old tubs have done as well?"

'Betrayed, mortified and dead scared'

The scars have taken a long time to heal in Britain's Italian communities. "Maria" says it wasn't until she was invited to the memorial service in Liverpool for the 70th anniversary of the sinking that she began to feel at peace. (Masses to commemorate the 75th anniversary will be held in London's St Peter's Church, Clerkenwell and at St Andrew's Cathedral, Glasgow on 2 July).

Philip Contini wanted, as a teenager, to find out what had happened to his grandfather and the three uncles who spent the war in internment. "It was hardly spoken about in the family. Eventually, Uncle Victor sat me down and told me. I said, so what did you do, when you were interned on the Isle of Man? 'Well, I knew my father was dead. Two employees were running the shop. I needed to do something, so I decided then to start studying. In the camp.' He studied French, German, music, read Goethe: it was his university."

Contini himself still finds his family's experiences in 1940 harder to come to terms with. "Imagine how they felt. Betrayed, mortified and dead scared. What if it happened today? If Italy's PM declared war on Britain? I've a British passport – but so what? A wee bit of your brain says, actually you're still an outsider. Twenty years ago, when my children were young,
I used to have sleepless nights about it."

It makes him think how hard the new generations of immigrants in Britain have to work to be safe. "As an immigrant, you have to earn respect. We British have to remember that. We're migrants all over the world, after all. Do unto others as we would have done to ourselves – that's the message from this story. That's what we need to learn. If we were tested now, as a nation, would we come up trumps?"