Last week I went to see the latest exhibition at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre in Holborn and was amazed to learn about a little-known tragedy of the Second World War. The exhibition, “Dangerous Characters in Little Italy” is curated by Alfio Bernabei. Among its exhibits is a section on the sinking of the Arandora Star on 2 July 1940. 805 souls were lost, of which 470 were Italian. It struck me that this is an event that we should commemorate in the way of the Lusitania or other wartime maritime losses. Astonishingly, the exhibition reveals that at the time the event was hidden and little attention was paid to it in the decades that followed.
Built in 1927, the Arandora Star was originally a leisure cruiser belonging to the Blue Star Line. Recommissioned for war service in 1939, the ship served as a carrier for troops and civilian evacuees. In June 1940, she sailed from Liverpool, transport 734 Italians and 479 Germans who had been interned in Britain to Newfoundland in Canada. Also on board were 86 German prisoners of war and 174 officers and crew. Accompanying them were their guards: 200 Allied naval and military personnel. There was no supporting vessel, indicating that the ship was carrying civilians, and no Red Cross had been painted on the ship.
Around 100 miles west of Bloody Foreland, Donegal, the Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat. As the internees clambered into lifeboats, some were shot by their guards to prevent them from escaping. A Canadian destroyer rushed to the scene, managing to rescue 868 lives. In all, 713 internees and 92 guards and crew lost their lives. They included the Captain, E. W. Moulton, 12 officers, 42 crew, 37 military guards, 470 Italians and 243 Germans.
This incident and the silence that followed it, reflected the fear of Italian fascism in Britain during the war. “Dangerous Characters in Little Italy”, first exhibited by Centro Studi P. Calamandrei,Palazzo della Signoria, Jesi, Italy, highlights how fascism grew in Britain’s underground, and how many Italians sought to challenge it. The audio-visual display is based on Bernabei’s research about Italians in Clerkenwell and Soho in the period 1920-1940 and features the rise of Fascism and within the Italian community in London, as well as the activity of the Italian and non-Italian anti-Fascists to oppose it. The exhibition covers the period between the rise of Fascism in Italy in the early 1920s and Italy’s declaration of war on the side of Nazi Germany.
“Dangerous Characters in Little Italy: Fascists, Anti-Fascists, Suffragettes
and Spies” is a free exhibition at Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre, 32-38 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8PA and runs until Friday 3rd July 2015 (Opening Hours: Mon 10-6 Tues 10-6 Thurs 10-7 Fri 10-5 Alternate Saturdays 11-5).