My Little Italy

Tina Leonardi’s Story of Growing up  

in “Little Italy”,  Clerkenwell, London

When the dreadful  news arrived that Mussolini had declared war on Britain and the Allies Winston Churchill instructed the Home Secretary of the time, Sir John Anderson, to arrest many adult male Italians who were designated as being “enemy aliens”.  

Across Britain about 4,100 Italian men aged between 17 and 60 were arrested without any charges, under the Defence of the Realm Act Regulation 18b, and held in detention without trial.  Even the Italian priests were seized.  The internees were first put into police cells before being transported under military escort to makeshift camps, which were inadequate for the purpose, being overcrowded and insanitary and the food rations were insufficient.

Berto was sent with some of his fellow prisoners to Liverpool where they embarked on a ship “The Lady of Mann” which ferried them to the Isle of Man.  

Many of the Italian men were held on the seafront at Douglas, housed behind barbed wire in camps made up of requisitioned hotels and boarding houses.  “The Palace Camp” took its name from The Palace Hotel, which was the biggest of these hotels. Barbed wire topped fencing was used to confine the Italian prisoners, allowing them some space in which to exercise on the seafront. on what had previously been the pavement and part of the main road.

For some “dangerous prisoners” it was deemed that the Isle of Man was not a secure enough place to detain them, so a plan was forged by the British Government to deport these internees to the Dominions.  On 20 June 1940 the “SS Duchess of York”, a 20,000-ton vessel which had been an ocean going liner of Canadian Pacific Ocean Services, was the first to set sail from Liverpool, bound for Canada.  It was laden with 2,112 “Class A” internees  and 535 prisoners of war, twice the ship’s normal capacity  The prisoners had no idea where they were being transported, and the voyage to Quebec took 9 days.

Some photos of the hotels as they look today -  courtesy of  David Subacchi

On the Island there were also UK Fascists, Germans (some of which were Jewish refugees), Austrians and some Prisoners of War were also being held.

The internees had to appear before tribunals which would examine any evidence held against them and classify them according to the risk they were judged to pose to safety of Britain and the war effort.

cc photo flickr - cigcardpix

The next ship to depart was the SS Arandora Star, which had also been a luxury cruise liner in her day, and had been hastily been refitted for war.  This voyage has been well documented, due its tragic circumstances.  

She was to transport 1,562 internees, 764 of which were Italians, along with German Jewish refugees and some German prisoners of war. All the decks of the ship and all exits were barred and barricaded off with reels of impenetrable barbed wire, and guarded by sentries bearing bayonets. The top deck was also totally encircled in barbed wire, the ship had become a floating prison camp.  In the case of an emergency there were not enough life jackets and lifeboats to cover the number of people on board.  The ship’s Captain, named Moulton, was furious about this situation and protested vehemently to the authorities.

The following excerpts are taken from the book “The Lonely Sea” by Alistair Maclean:

"You are sending men to their deaths, men who have sailed with me for many years. If anything happens to the ship, that wire will obstruct passage to the boats and rafts. We shall be drowned like rats and the Arandora Star turned into a floating death-trap."   

His concerns were ignored.  The prisoners were crammed into the lower decks.  The ship finally left Liverpool on 30 June 1940 without a Red Cross to indicate that she was carrying civilians, and without a naval escort.  The ship had the appearance of a troop carrier having been painted a dull battleship grey.   On the second day of the voyage in the early hours of the morning, whilst positioned off  Ireland’s Mallin Head, the Arandora Star received a direct hit by a German U-boat’s torpedo.

“The torpedo struck the Arandora Star fair and square amidships, erupting in a roar of sound and towering wall of white water that cascaded down on the superstructure and upper decks, blasting its way through the unarmoured ship’s side clear into the engine room. Deep inside the ship, transverse watertight bulkheads buckled and split under the impact, and the hundreds of tons of water, rushing in through the great jagged rent torn in the ship’s side, flooded fore and aft with frightening speed as if goaded by some animistic savagery and bent on engulfing and drowning trapped men before they could fight their way clear and up to freedom…”

There was widespread panic as everyone tried to get to the lifeboats.  Some of the guards struggled in vain to hack away at the barbed wire fencing, but in their desperation to escape men found themselves entangled in the wire, unable to free themselves.  It took thirty-five minutes for the Arandora Star to sink.

"...but almost a thousand of its passengers, guards and crew … still lived, scattered in groups or singly over several square miles of the Atlantic...but the sea was bitterly cold. Before long the number of swimmers and those supported only by planks and benches became pitifully fewer and fewer… Their pathetic cries of ‘Mother’, repeated over and over again in three or four languages, grew fainter and fainter and gradually faded away altogether...."

Nine hours later the St Laurent, a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, arrived at the scene and successfully picked up 868 survivors, but the rest of the prisoners and crew had tragically perished.  Of the 734 Italians onboard 486 lost their lives on that fateful day, together with many Germans and members of the crew.  There was a public outcry regarding the great loss of life, however the British government stood steadfast and continued undeterred with its plan.

Head of a Drowned Man - Theodore Gericault

The next ship, the “Ettrick”, hurriedly set sail on 3 July 1940 with another consignment of prisoners, this vessel was accompanied by a Destroyer. We didn’t know it but Berto was one of the 407 Italians  onboard.  They too were treated badly, being herded like cattle into the lower decks and kept mainly below deck in overcrowded squalid and inhumane conditions, receiving only meagre rations of food and water.  Some of the prisoners nicknamed it as “Torpedo Class”!  They suffered a wretched 10 day voyage across the Atlantic before finally docking in the city of Quebec.  Here they were met by a hostile and strongly armed guard, as Canada had been forewarned to take extra precaution as  these prisoners were of a “highly dangerous nature”.

Berto and his fellow prisoners were put aboard a train to Montreal and from there they were bused to the  Île Sainte-Hélène, on the St Lawrence River. Many had had their belongings taken from them by some of the Canadian soldiers.

On the island there was an old fort which became known as Interment Camp S, later renamed Camp No. 43, under the Jacques Cartier bridge which spans the river. The camp was ill-prepared to take on this large number of prisoners and the first night the detainees were made to sit on the bare ground and were not given food nor water.  They were forbidden to speak and if a man did so he would be severely beaten.

Île Sainte-Hélène, Montreal

Jacques Cartier Bridge over the St Lawrence River

The next day they were told to strip off and take a cold shower before being issued with a uniform, each one had a number on the back so the guards could easily identify the prisoners.  Even Italian Canadians had been interned, many from Montreal itself which had a large Italian population.

Conditions in the camp were harsh and the men were forced to carry out hard labour, such as farming or lumbering.  In the bitterly cold winters the men were often kept locked up in their quarters for weeks on end.  This was just one of  twenty six main camps in Canada, mainly situated in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

A photo of  prisoners taken in the camp. Berto is in the front row, second from the left.

A wooden maple leaf made by Berto. There is a drawing of the fort and it bears the names of  some of the friends he made whilst his imprisonment in the camp.

After the “Ettrick” the next ship to carry enemy aliens  from Britain was the “SS Sobieski”, a former Polish liner, which sailed from Greenock on the 4 July 1940.

The final vessel was the “HMT Dunera” which left Liverpool on the 10th July 101940 bound for Australia, however none of the prisoners, some of which were survivors of the Arandora Star,  knew where they were heading.  It was to be a horrendous journey lasting 57 days. Firstly, on the second day of the voyage the ship was hit by a German torpedo, however miraculously it did not explode. A second torpedo was fired which narrowly missed the hull. Onboard the prisoners were brutally treated and kept below decks for most of the voyage. The woefully  inadequate sanitary conditions lead to many of the people contracting dysentery and other illnesses and two people died during the atrocious voyage.

The majority of these poor unfortunate men had no strong political affiliations, they were not Fifth columnists within the Fascist movement.  They were simply good honest law-abiding individuals, who had come to Britain in the hope of creating a better life for themselves and their children and grandchildren. They had chosen to make Britain their home.  They had integrated well into British society, many were highly thought of in their local communities, being friendly, loyal, hard working, harmless - not posing any threat whatsoever to British society.  Sadly, to date, the British Government has refrained from offering any sort of apology for the great loss of life of those poor souls who drowned in the Arandora Star tragedy. No remorse has been offered for the unjust inhumane treatment these Italian “enemy aliens” had to endure during their captivity, and no regret for the extreme suffering and anxiety caused to their families.

A bronze plaque was mounted on wall inside the porch of St. Peter's Italian Church

to commemorate the Italian men and boys of the London community who lost their lives in this dreadful tragedy.

It reads:

“In Memoria dei periti nell'affondamento dell'Arandora star 2 luglio 1940

. . . . . il ricordo che é vivo nel cuore dei parenti, dei superstiti e colonia italiana
4 Novembre 1960”

English translation:
“In memory of those who perished in the sinking of the Arandora Star,

2 July 1940

. . . Their memory lives on in the hearts of their relatives, the survivors and the Italian colony.
4 November 1960”

Langlo Italian Family History Society list of Italian Internees who were who were tragically downed aboard  this ill-fated ship.

A film :  Arandora Star - Ireland’s Legacy

An Obituary of Rando Bertoia of Scotland who was the last living survivor of the Arandora Star by Dr Terri Colpi

cc photo - flickr - alan denney

St. Peter's Italian Church, Clerkenwell - 2 July 2012

The Unveiling Of A New Memorial Commemorating By Name Each Of The London Italians Who Died On The Arandora Star

After The War

Montreal’s Hidden Past - The Secret Internment on Île Sainte-Hélène From World War II

Home         Full List of Contents         Tina’s Story - My Little Italy          A Little Clerkenwell History

St. Peter's Italian Church Clerkenwell         The Italian Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Sagra

Contact me

  Atina  & Val Di Comino Website   

The Anglo Italian Family History Association

The Internment of Italian“Enemy Aliens”

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