Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society held its AGM and final meeting of the 2021-22 season at the North Down Museum on 14 April 2022. The Chairman thanked Heather McGuicken, the manager of the museum, for facilitating our meetings during the year. He also thanked the committee members and others who had helped with meetings. The current committee was re-elected, including Ian Wilson as chairman, Ronnie McClements as secretary and Adrianne Brown as treasurer.
The evening’s talk was given by Peter Vannucci. It was called Italians, The War and the Arandora Star from an Irish Perspective. Mr Vannucci first came across the story of the ship, the Arandora Star when he was researching his family history. The sinking of this ship had a devastating effect on Italians in the British Isles.
Many Italians had come to Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some worked in hotels while others had their own businesses. Mr Vannucci’s maternal grandfather came from Italy about 1915 and his father moved to Bangor about 1920. In the 1920s & 1930s many Italians moved back and forth between Italy and the British Isles. The rise of Mussolini to power in Italy led to local Italians taking out British citizenship. An area off York Street in Belfast was known as Little Italy. By 1932 an Italian school had been set up in Earl Street to keep the language alive. The Italians were respectable and hardworking, but some joined the Belfast Fascist group which was headed by two Italians.
In 1939 the Second World War started and then in 1940 Mussolini joined his ally Hitler in the war. Few local Italians were really fascist and some had married local girls. Over 4,000 Italian men in the British Isles were detained by the authorities and it was intended to send them to the colonies.
The women had to carry on the family businesses. There was sympathy for the plight of the Italians. Peter told the story of an incident at the Ridgeway Café in Belfast. A policeman came into the café with a list of Italians whom he had come to arrest. He left his list on the table while he went to the toilet. The café owner memorized the names and warned most of the people on the list, but they did not flee. The policeman had realized that the Italians were no threat and was giving them an opportunity to escape.
Among the Italians arrested was Peter’s uncle Remo, a boy of 16. Like many internees he was taken to the Isle of Man where the boarding houses were used as detention camps. Peter’s father was safe as he had taken out British citizenship. Remo, unlike other Italians, was not sent on the Arandora Star.
The Arandora Star was built for the London/South America route. In 1927 it started services for the Blue Star Line. It was later refitted as a luxury cruise liner travelling to Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the West Indies etc. In September 1939 it was on its way back from New York to its base at Southampton. It was then fitted with underwater nets to catch torpedoes. In March 1940 these nets were removed. The ship entered military service and rescued people from France, Norway etc. as the Germans took control of these areas. Then it was ordered to take prisoners of war and internees to Newfoundland. On board were 734 Italians and 479 Germans internees, 86 German prisoners of war, 2000 military guards and 174 crew. The ship left Liverpool early in June. It was painted battleship grey and had guns so it looked like a military ship. It had inadequate aerial support – an old plane which had to turn back.
The ship sailed out into the Atlantic. There were lookouts and the journey seemed to be going well. Then it was spotted by the German submarine U47. The submarine was on its way back to Germany after having sunk 7 allied ships on its patrol. Its captain had been responsible for sinking the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in 1939. He had received an Iron Cross from Hitler and wanted to be the most successful U-Boat commander in Germany. The submarine tracked the ship and then fired a torpedo. This struck the ship and water began flooding in. All below decks were drowned. The captain sent an SOS which was answered by Malin Head station. There had been no life boat drill and barbed wire had been put up. Panic set in. The stories of survivors varied about what happened next. Some reported that the Germans on board helped to evacuate the ship. There were 12 lifeboats and 90 life rafts. The head of the Belfast fascists was too scared to go down the rope to a lifeboat. One hour after the torpedo struck, the ship sank. 805 people died, including the captain and most of the senior officers. About 9.30 a Short Sunderland flying boat flew over and dropped food. A Canadian destroyer picked up 868 survivors and took them to Greenock. Then HMS Walker arrived to look for more survivors but could find none.
Peter then recounted the aftermath of the sinking. The captain and senior officers were awarded medals posthumously. Meanwhile many of the survivors were put on a boat for Australia. Conditions on board were bad. Some of the guards were ex-criminals who stole valuables and gave regular beatings. Meanwhile protests led to internment being confined to Britain and the internees were no longer sent overseas. The U47 was sunk on 7 March 1941, possibly by depth charges, and all the crew were lost. Belfast’s Little Italy is no more due to slum clearance. The chairman congratulated Peter on an excellent talk.
Bangor Historical Society will resume its meetings on 8 September 2022 at 8pm. The society has a new venue: the Fountain Centre on Queen’s Parade, beside the Methodist Church. There is a lift for those who prefer not to tackle the stairs up to the hall. Meetings are now open to all and no longer restricted to 40 members. Membership fees for the 2022-23 season will be collected, but visitors can pay for one meeting only if they prefer. The talk will be given by Ken Dawson and his subject is Henry Joy McCracken and the 1798 rebellion. A wide range of interesting talks has been arranged for the coming season.