Monday, July 02, 2012

the sinking of the arandora star

Two years ago the freshly elected David Cameron spoke of how Britain owes so much to the USA for its military support during the Battle of Britain.

the fact is that we are a very effective partner of the US, but we are the junior partner. We were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis.

Robert Fisk writes of how, as the Iraq War began in 2003,

both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.

In fact the Americans only joined the war in December 1941. In 1940, Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Facing vastly superior weaponry the Americans expected that, like much of Europe, we would readily fall to Nazi occupation.

Knowing that the immediate future would be one of either occupation or the protracted privation of war, the British swiftly interned all German and Italian men, even those who were here as refugees from fascism, then set about deporting them.

And so it was that around 1,400 of them were crammed into a ship called the Arandora Star. On 1st July 1940 she sailed out of Liverpool and, in the early morning light 72 years ago today, appeared to the commander of a German submarine like a slow moving prize of a troop ship. After the torpedo hit there was barely half an hour before she sank, taking around 800 men to their deaths.

Towards the end of July, as bodies washed up along the Scottish and Irish coasts, only the few whose personal papers had survived weeks in the sea could be identified. Many were buried in services paid for by the communities who found them.

If you want to know more, I wrote a piece about it for the radical history calendar site On This Deity. There's also a really well-written home made documentary on Youtube in four parts starting here.

Last month I visited Islay, one of the westernmost isles off the coast of Scotland, facing out into the Atlantic.

On Islay, as all across Britain, cemeteries usually have a few military graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I was surprised and moved to find that Arandora Star passengers - civilian non-combatants and enemy nationals - are also buried in these areas. As such, their graves and headstones are tended in perpetuity out of public funds.

Both of Islay's Arandora Star passengers are Italian. The Italians had been on the lowest decks, under the most barbed wire, and a disproportionate number of them died.

Here is the grave of Andrea Gazzi, a 41 year old from Bardi in northern Italy, buried in Bowmore churchyard. He was found after more than two months in the sea on 6 September 1940. Some 48 men from his small village died on the Arandora Star, and there is now a commemorative chapel in Bardi's cemetery.

Grave of Andrea Gazzi, who died in the sinking of the Arandora Star

Down at Port Ellen cemetery there is an unknown Italian civilian. The inscription says 'Deceduto il 19 Agosto 1940' - died 19 August 1940, which is erroneous. They will have died on the 2nd July when the ship sank and, like Andrea Gazzi, the inscription should say 'rinvenuto', 'found'.

Grave of an unknown victim of the Arandora Star

They are both buried with the phrase 'morto per la patria' - 'died for their country'. This appears to be a standard motto on all Italian graves in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In the case of prisoners of war it is perhaps accurate, but here it has a sharp, almost cynical sting. They did not die fighting for anything. The Arandora Star internees - many of the Italians resident in Britain for 30 or 40 years - died for their nationality, rather than their country.


Joseph Holmes said...

Andrea Gazzi was my great grandfather. Very humbling seeing the picture of his grave. Thank you.

merrick said...

Joseph, I am very glad to have unwittingly provided this for you. his grave is in a section of war graves. Many ceneteries on the Scottish west coast have a section comprised of those who were washed up or whose planes crashed nearby.

That Andrea's grave is kept pristine out of British public funds is fitting, and I hope it is some tiny consolation to you.