Part 3 – The Arandora Star Tragedy

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For many years, the people of Italy have made Swansea and other parts of Wales their home. There has always been a history of Italian migration, usually constantly in fairly small numbers, but other times, in more significant waves. There have been two major periods of immigration from Italy within the last one hundred years or so: the first in the late 1800s, when poverty and an inherent talent for enterprise encouraged many young Italians to try their fortune overseas; the second was in the 1950s, when many will remember coffee shops, Lambrettas  and Vespas, the latter ridden by exotic-looking, often very handsome young men, seemingly appearing overnight. Once again, the drive was for employment and at the time, the flourishing coal, metal and other industries of South Wales were only too happy to take them on. It was during the earlier period that my great-aunt Nasceza and great-uncle Ferdinando Pompa, left their beautiful yet remote home three thousand feet up in the southern hills of Italy to come to Wales, followed a few years later by my grandparents, the Arcaris. The Cascarinis, Pelosis, Demarcos, Grillis, D’Ambrosios, Valerios, Avos, Grecos and many other well-known Swansea names came here around that time from the same general area and beyond. Prior to this, many settled for a short time in the Kent area, but I will not go into that in detail, as it is a separate and discrete story in its own right. Most Italians of that era, including the Pompas and Arcaris, opened up cafes and ice cream parlours, or fish and chip shops. They saw a niche market and seized the opportunity. The Pompas opened their café on Morriston Cross and just a few years later, my grandparents opened their café on Woodfield Street, moving later to other premises opposite the Palace Theatre Swansea shortly after WWI.  The Italians were taken to the hearts of the Welsh people, and the cafes became popular meeting places and courting grounds for many romances.  I have always felt privileged to come from a background with one parent Welsh and the other Italian. I always say I have BOB – best of both worlds. It seemed inevitable that the Welsh and Italian people of all areas would get on well together – they share so much in common, a terrain of hills, mountains and valleys, a love of music and art, a very family-orientated culture and a natural warmth and friendliness that is endearing. The people of Swansea welcomed my family and in turn, they did their best to integrate, and to learn the languages of Wales. However, although the Italians loved their adopted country, they still felt ‘lontananza’, a word similar in meaning to ‘hiraeth’; that gnawing ache in the belly for one’s homeland,  a pain that won’t go away. To combat this, they would often meet their Italian counterparts to play cards, or chat about their homeland at the end of what were usually long, hard working days. Some formed bands – my father and two uncles were later in an accordion band with Len Demarco (another local ice cream family from Picinisco) and his brother – and would play music to entertain themselves and others.  But meanwhile, in Italy, Mussolini’s star was on the rise. He called the Italian emigrees ‘Italians abroad’, implying that although they lived a long way off, he still valued them as Italians. He funded language schools through the UK, where the children of Italians families could go to learn the Italian language; he arranged for these children to go to Summer Schools in Italy, to learn about the country and its heritage; he gave money to set up clubs, where the Italians could meet and socialise. Innocent enough on the surface, but later, with far more sinister connotations and tragic consequences. When the War broke out in 1939, Italy remained neutral. Mussolini was waiting to see how things progressed before he would throw in his lot with others. However, when it appeared that Hitler was ploughing through Europe, seemingly unstoppable, in June 1940 Mussolini decided it was time for Italy to show allegiance to Germany.  This declaration of intent by Mussolini sparked an immediate reaction from the Government, and they declared all Italians in the UK ‘enemy aliens’ who must be stopped, including of course  the large population in Swansea, Churchill sent out the order to, ‘Collar the lot!’  Every Italian male between the ages of 16 and 70 must be arrested, questioned and interned. Many who were arrested fell outside this age range, with reports of children as young as fourteen being taken in, if no documentation was available. (Note: there is some dispute about this age range, as there was so much confusion at the time, it kept changing.) Friends became enemies overnight. Police who had regularly had coffee and chats with the Italian café owners were now given the task of arresting them. Many had sympathy, realising they were simple shop keepers who had no interest in politics and even less interest in confrontation and Mussolini’s war; yet others treated these Italians with contempt, handling them roughly and dragging them from their beds and homes, in front of their weeping wives and children.   For many weeks, the families did not know where their men were or what had befallen them. Very little was being released through official channels and meanwhile, in many cases, the lives of the families were made even worse by gangs who terrorised the families and branded them ‘traitors’, before proceeding to smash windows in their shops and subsequently smashing up the shops when they had gained entry. It is said that one such gang went armed ready to destroy Miss Cascarini’s shop on Fabian Street, but a group of Dockers stood in front of her shop to protect it from the thugs. Often, when the families found out the whereabouts of their loved ones, it was too late. Many of the internees had already been taken to Huyton, near Liverpool, ready to be transferred to ships which would take them to internment camps in the Isle of Man, Canada or Australia. The internees were made to march for many miles, then kept in extremely poor conditions in insanitary, disused warehouses. They had no change of clothing, subjected to serious overcrowding and forced to sleep on concrete floors with, if they were lucky, a thin  mattress made from old sacking stuffed with straw, laid on an oil covered floor where the rats came out at night looking for scraps of food. There was no proper sanitation, so the men had to use buckets, nor were there washing facilities. Food too was minimal so it is hardly surprising that many of these men – bearing in mind some were fifteen or sixteen, or over seventy – fell ill. On July 1st 1940, the Arandora Star set sail from Liverpool for Canada, my great-uncle and many other Swansea men amongst them on board. I know there were Swansea men from the Pelosi, Demarco, D’Ambrosio and Zanetti families, to name a few. The ship was a luxury liner in peace time, but had been painted battleship grey, with barbed wire around the decks to prevent these ‘dangerous’ shopkeepers from trying to escape. There was at least three times the number of passengers than the ship had been designed to carry and many of the Italians were put in cramped conditions below deck.  Yet no Red Cross was in evidence to show this was a civilian ship; and the number of lifeboats was below the requirements for the number of passengers. Why? Early on the morning on the 2nd July came the final blow. The ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and began to sink. There was inevitably panic, and in the mad scramble to get off the ill-fated ship, many Italians were crushed as they tried to reach the main deck. Some, in desperation, tried to jump into the water, scrambling over barbed wire and each other. Yet these men were from the mountains, many could not swim.  Oil turned the surface of the water into a thick black rainbow and many people lost their sense of direction, or were hit by debris and perished. My great uncle Ferdinando Pompa died on that day, along with many of his fellow countrymen. Innocent shopkeepers who had never done anyone any harm, nor had they intended to. In most cases they had done many good things for their communities and many had made large contributions to charity.  Over the following weeks, bodies washed up on the coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Many were never recovered. There were also British (mainly military), German and other nationalities on the ship, but the greatest loss of life was from the Italian community – almost five hundred, wiping out entire families in some cases. There would have been a small number of people who were identified, after interrogation, as having sympathies with Fascism and Mussolini, and because they were seen as more ‘dangerous’ than the others, and interned taken to the Isle of Man. Should this tragedy have ever occurred? Should these simple shopkeepers have been interned in the first place? Should they have been treated so shabbily? Was the reaction by the Government a knee-jerk one, designed to reassure the population they were doing everything in their power to protect the country, to detract from other issues? Did this internment and deportation serve any purpose?  Over seventy years later, there are still more questions than answers.  I will add one more: will there ever be an official apology for this mistreatment of innocent people? Written by Anita Arcari, for People’s Collection Wales February 2020     Read Part 4 here: