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Pre-war photograph of the Blue Star liner Arandora Star. - Clive Hardy

Clives Curiosities

The Loss of the Arandora Star

The September 1939 mass evacuations of UK towns and cities under Operation Pied Piper is well known. However, Benito Mussolini’s decision on 10 June 1940 to take Italy into the war on the side of Nazi Germany, led to evacuations of a different type.

By taking Italy into the war, Mussolini had instantaneously made tens of thousands of Italians living and working peacefully in the UK ‘enemy aliens.’ Putting it bluntly, the War Office panicked. Suddenly, the country was awash with fascists out to stab us in the back.

The Press, Labour and Tory parties alike had a field day, whipping up anti-alien hatred, but the reality is that amongst Italians living in the UK, sympathy for the fascist cause was thin on the ground. Many had been here for twenty, thirty, even forty years. Many had British spouses. Many had served in Britain’s armed forces during the Great War, and several had been highly decorated. Now their children and grandchildren were already doing the same.

The War Office refused to make allowances. Under the Defence Regulations, male Italians were rounded up regardless of their sympathies and herded into makeshift camps. One of the most notorious camps was the rat infested Warth Mills at Bury. Sanitation was almost non-existent, the food inedible and the bedding alive with bugs.

When completed during 1927 by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, the Arandora, a 12847 gross registered tons passenger liner, was one of five sisters built for Blue Star Line for their LondonRio di Janeiro- Buenos Aires service. As such she had accommodation for 164 first class passengers and was also fitted for carrying refrigerated cargo. Just two years later, the Arandora was taken in hand by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering, Glasgow, for conversion to a cruise liner catering for 354 first class passengers. The refit included removing most of the refrigerated cargo spaces, providing additional passenger accommodation, constructing a swimming pool, and fitting out a tennis court. The alterations increased her weight to 14694 gross registered tons. In keeping with her new role, Blue Star renamed her Arandora Star.

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On the outbreak of the second world war, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty for troopship duties. As her high speed of 16knots enabled her to outrun surfaced Type II U-boats though not the larger Type VII and Type IX types, the Admiralty could deploy Arandora Star as what was termed an independent sailer. In other words, she could sail without a naval escort and rely upon her speed to keep her out of trouble.  

On 1 July, internees from Warth Mills were among a mixed bag of enemy aliens taken to Liverpool where they boarded Arandora Star. Under the command of Capt Edgar Moulton, the liner was scheduled to sail without naval escort to St John’s, Newfoundland. From there the prisoners were to be taken to internment camps.

As well as her crew of 174, Arandora Star was carrying 200 guards cobbled together from numerous units including the Royal Dragoons, Lovat Scouts, and Devonshire Regiment. The internees comprised 734 Italian men, 479 German men (including Jewish refugees), and 86 German prisoners-of-war. In all 1673 people.

During the early hours of 2 July, at approximately 56 degrees 30 minutes North,10 degrees 38 minutes West (about seventy-five miles west of Bloody Foreland, Ireland}, her luck ran out when she was intercepted by U47 commanded by Korvetkapitan Gunther Prien.

Prien was one of the German Navy’s leading U-boat aces. He had already secured his place in the annals of naval warfare with his daring attack on the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet base Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939, during which he sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak.

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Having left Kiel on 6 June, Prien and U47 were coming to the end of their sixth war patrol. It had been a successful deployment with U47 having already sunk 55893 gross registered tons of merchant shipping. Running low on torpedoes, Prien fired just one which hit the liner on its starboard side. Initially Prien had thought the torpedo was a dud. It was not. The torpedo exploded in the aft engine room robbing the liner of all power.

Of her fourteen lifeboats, one had been destroyed by the torpedo explosion and another’s falls and davits so badly damaged that it couldn’t be launched. Of the others, two were damaged during launching, the remaining ten were launched successfully. Having been fitted out as a troopship, Arandora Star carried 90 life rafts of which about half were launched.

Among those assisting with the evacuation was Capt Otto Burfeind. Along with his crew he had been taken prisoner on 22 November 1939, when he scuttled his ship, the liner Adolf Woermann after being intercepted by the cruiser HMS Neptune. Prior to joining the Arandora Star, Burfeind and his crew had been held in a camp at Seaton.

Using emergency battery power, Arandora Star’s radio officer transmitted continuous SOS calls. At 0705hrs Malin Head radio acknowledged the distress call and relayed it to Land’s End, and Portpatrick radio stations.

Just over half an hour after being torpedoed and without power to start her pumps, Arandora Star went to the bottom taking 805 people with her. It appears there was reluctance among some of the Italians to leave the stricken ship, resulting in many needless casualties.

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By 0930hrs, a RAF Coastal Command Sunderland flying boat was on the scene dropping survival aids, provisions, and messages that help was on the way. The Sunderland continued to circle the wreck site until the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS St Laurent arrived. The destroyer rescued 868 people of which 586 were detainees.

Among those lost were Capt Moulton along with twelve of his officers, 42 crew, and 37 guards. Capt Burfeind was among the detainees who lost their lives. For some weeks after bodies washed up along the Irish coast and the Scottish island of Colonsay. Given there was a war raging its probable that not all were from the Arandora Star. Of the 213 bodies was up on the Irish coast during August 1940, 35 were identified as coming from the ship with a further 92 unidentified though thought to be from her. 

The tragic loss of the Arandora Star did much among ordinary people to generate opposition to the UK’s internment policy, even though the Press continued with its anti-alien rhetoric.

It was only when further revelations became public, such as the wholesale robbing of 2550 internees on board a liner bound for Australia by both the military escort and crew alike, that the Government were galvanized into action. Responsibility for internees was transferred to the Home Office who called a halt to internment for all except category ‘A’ Nazis and known Italian Fascist sympathisers.

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Featured Image: Pre-war photograph of the Blue Star liner Arandora Star. – Clive Hardy

Written By

Clive is our Transport and Railway writer, with years of experience he is a fount of knowledge on all things transport nostalgia.

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