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Remembering the lost passengers of the Arandora Star

In graves dotted around the north-west coast of Ireland lie the victims of our forgotten wartime shipping tragedy. Now, 75 years later Michael McRitchie delves into their stories.

Far from his mountain home in northern Italy, Giuseppe Capella rests forever in the little churchyard on Rathlin Island. He was one of hundreds of victims of a forgotten wartime tragedy.

Seventy-five years ago, the liner Arandora Star was torpedoed off Malin Head with the loss of 800 lives, of which 446 were Italians.

My wife and I had never heard of the disaster until a friend asked us to photograph the headstone for the Capella family.

How sad, we thought as we stood before his grave, that this simple man should rest on a lonely island far from his family and on the ferry home we decided to find out more about the sinking.

We found nothing in the local papers of the time, so we set off for Donegal and Mayo, where we were shocked to read of the impact of the disaster on communities around the Irish coast, from Rathlin to Mayo.

Signor Capella had been a waiter in the Savoy Hotel in London and the newspaper reports led us to find the head waiter, Marco Baccanello, buried unknown to his family near Kerrykeel in Donegal, and to find dozens of Italians in unmarked graves in 29 cemeteries around the north-west coast of Ireland, some beside the British soldiers who had been their guards.

Then as now, their story began with emigration. Between 1840 and 1940, eight million Italians emigrated to escape poverty at home. Most went to the Americas and, between 1880 and 1940, some 150,000 came to Britain.

In spite of their origins, few of these Italians went into agriculture. They became street musicians, ice-cream vendors, caterers, sending money home to their families and saving every penny they could in order to start a business of their own. Northern Ireland acquired names such as Caproni, Forte, Fusco, Morelli.

Then came the Second World War and the German army raced across Europe. By June 1940, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France had fallen. Britain had been lucky to escape from Dunkirk and now stood alone against Nazi Germany. Its army was massing in the Channel ports, its invasion expected anytime.

On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain, her powerful navy a deadly threat to British interests in the Middle East and its oil supplies.

At sea, the U-boats were strangling the lifeline to America and more than 60 ships were sunk in June alone. On June 18, 1940, Churchill told the nation that the battle of France was over and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. Upon this battle, he said, depended the survival of Christian civilization.

The US Ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy, father of President John F Kennedy, wrote to President Roosevelt that England was finished and that he should start talking to Hitler.

In this desperate situation there were fears of spying, sabotage and subversion. Such had been the speed of the German advance that it was widely believed they had inside assistance.

So, all over Britain, enemy nationals were arrested and interned, even though some of their sons were serving in the British Army, some were anti-fascists and some were refugees from Nazism.

With starvation from the U-boat blockade a real possibility, the government ordered that these prisoners should be shipped to Canada

In Belfast, the RUC arrested Guiseppe Forte, who owned the Continental cafe in Castle Street and the Lido cafe in Great Victoria Street. He was the leader of the Belfast fasci, the organisation for Italians abroad, and the deputy leader was his nephew, Antonio Fusco. But the police arrested the wrong Antonio Fusco, a young man whose family had lived in Britain for almost 30 years, owning a chip shop in York Street.

On June 30, 1940, both Belfast men were among hundreds of Italians who were taken to Liverpool to board the Arandora Star.

Long afterwards, the Fusco family heard that Tony had stepped forward when he heard his name called at the docks. It was said he had volunteered to go with Signor Forte, rather than have him go alone from what had become their home city of Belfast.

Another prisoner was Angelo Morelli, of Portstewart, who was in line to board until soldiers stopped the man in front of him, saying that the ship was full.

Signor Morelli was taken to the Isle of Man internment camp in Douglas and later released to build the Portstewart business that his family continues today.

On July 2, 1940, the Arandora Star sailed with 1,200 German and Italian prisoners, guarded by 200 soldiers, and next morning she was torpedoed by a U-boat 75 miles west of Ireland.

That afternoon, hundreds were rescued by a Canadian destroyer, but more than 800 were lost. For weeks, the bodies of Italians, Germans, the British seamen and the Army guards would be washed ashore along 600 miles of coastline from the Western Isles of Scotland to Co Mayo.

On July 30, 1940 - exactly four weeks after the sinking - the body of Giovanni Marenghi of Bardi was found on a sandy beach on the remote Erris peninsula in Co Mayo. He was 43 and owned a cafe in Pontypridd, south Wales, where his family still lives.

On the same day, more than 100 miles north in Donegal, the body of Ernesto Moruzzi was found on a beach near Dungloe, and the body of Luigi Paretti was washed onto Tory Island off the north Donegal coast.

Signor Moruzzi was 61 and had owned a cafe in Neath, where his family still lives. He was buried in Cruit Island cemetery near one of the 90 Army guards who also drowned - Private Peter Clarke of the Devonshire Regiment. He was 17.

On August 12, 1940, the day Signor Capella was buried on Rathlin, Cesare Camozzi was laid to rest in Carndonagh Cemetery in Donegal. He had owned the Monogram Cafe in Birmingham and was identified by a letter from his wife.

A few miles away, Giovanni Ferdenzi was interred in Clonmany, his grave still visited by his family from London.

A few days later an Atlantic storm brought a terrible harvest to the Irish coast. Up to 100 bodies were seen floating off Co Mayo, the seas so rough that they could not be recovered.

Elsewhere, so many were washed ashore that the councils had to re-open old graveyards, some dating from the Famine almost 100 years before. It was impossible to hold so many inquests in isolated areas and local doctors were told to authorise the burial of victims.

The Donegal Board of Health was told that 33 bodies had been washed ashore during the previous week and that funeral expenses had been paid by board officers out of their own pockets.

In Co Mayo, there was one body for every kilometre along the Erris coastline west of Belmullet and the Board of Health became concerned at the cost of so many funerals, with coffins costing £2.10 shillings each. That's around £360 in today's money. And these were the poorest areas in Ireland.

After three years' research, we located the unmarked graves of 38 unknown Italians, together with those of 11 named Italians and the war graves of 17 Army guards.

Moved by the reaction of the families we contacted, we made a video in both English and Italian, a video which has had thousands of visits on YouTube and which brings emails and cards from all over the world.

As the video neared completion, Rathlin Island's oldest resident, Loughie McQuilkin, showed us a 1940 Coastguard record stating that on August 10 two bodies had been found near the West Light. One had a document in the name of Capella, the other had nothing.

Next day, two unidentified merchant seamen from the ship were buried in Bonamargy Priory, Ballycastle.

The following year, we heard from Roberto Zazzi in New Zealand: "This video is truly a beautiful thing you have done. The loss of my grandfather, Luigi Zazzi, on the Arandora Star will probably haunt me forever.

"He was last seen in the water with his boyhood friend and workmate, Giuseppe Capella. Until now, we did not know that any bodies had been recovered from the sea. Thank you for the comfort you have brought to my family."

It made our day and we were able to tell Roberto that the unknown man buried alongside Signor Capella on Rathlin might, just might, be his boyhood friend.

Now watch the video at:

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