The Tragedy of the Arandora Star
The Blue Star Line was a British cargo shipping company that branched out into carrying passengers. Five liners were built, all carrying Spanish names starting with the letter “A.”
One of the so-called “Luxury Five” was at the centre of a hideous maritime disaster.
The Arandora Star
By today’s cruise ship standards the SS Arandora Star was tiny, with a gross weight of 14,694 tons. By contrast, the Symphony of the Seas checks in at 228,081 tons.
The vessel was built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead, England in 1927 as a part-refrigerated cargo and part-passenger ship. In 1929, she was refitted and turned into a single-purpose cruise liner. She had space for 354 passengers and only offered first class accommodation, which made her the choice of the rich and famous.
The SS Arandora Star sailed to Scandinavia, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, but also cruised farther afield.
She was painted white with a red ribbon around her hull giving rise to her nicknames of “the wedding cake” or “the chocolate box.”
When war broke out, the SS Arandora Star was requisitioned by the British government to be used as a troop carrier. In May 1940, she completed her first mission to evacuate troops from Norway after the German invasion of that country.
There were to be several other evacuation voyages to the west coat of France, sometimes coming under German aerial attack.
At the end of June 1940, the Arandora Star was in Liverpool taking on almost 1,300 reluctant passengers.
Internment of Italians and Germans
There was a general concern in the United Kingdom that people of Italian or German descent living in the country could be a danger.
Tribunals were set up to look into all registered aliens and decide whether or not they should be interned as long as hostilities lasted. The vast majority were found not to be a threat to national security, but several hundred were thought to be a menace and were put in internment camps.
However, the classification system was rushed and chaotic. Certainly, some die-hard Nazi sympathizers were scooped up, but there were cases of mistaken identity and guilt by association. A lot of the internees were no threat to Britain and, as noted by The Scotsman, “some had family members fighting in the British forces, while others had been active anti-fascist campaigners.”
At the time, Britain was short of food and did not need the extra burden of caring for these people. Canada and Australia reluctantly agreed to take 7,500 internees off Britain’s hands. In the early morning of July 2, 1940, the Arandora Star left Liverpool bound for St. John’s, Newfoundland with her allotted share of prisoners:
- Officers and Crew―174
- Military Guard―200
- German Interned Males―479
- German POW―86
- Italian Interned Males―734
Michael Kennedy of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland has written that the ship sailed without an escort “at cruise speed of 15 knots, painted battleship grey, and with her upper decks and twelve lifeboats festooned with barbed wire, Arandora Star zig-zagged to avoid U-boats. Captain Edward Moulton knew his ship was a death trap. If it were to sink ‘we shall be drowned like rats’ he protested before setting sail.”
The Submarine Attack
Within a few hours, the vessel was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side. The blast tore a hole below the water line that flooded the aft engine room and essentially disabled the ship.
The torpedo was fired by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. The submarine was at the end of a patrol and the captain was in a grim contest with other skippers about who could sink the greatest tonnage in a month. Prien had only one torpedo left that he thought was defective, but he decided it was worth a try anyway. Hitting the Arandora Star put him at the top of the league table and meant accolades, medals, and trophies for the captain and crew on their return to base.
On board the stricken ship there was chaos. The entire lighting system had been knocked out and many internees trying to reach the deck found their way blocked by barbed wire.
Just over an hour after the torpedo hit, the ship rolled onto her side and her bow lifted as she sank beneath the flat calm surface. Some lifeboats had been destroyed and others were launched but overloaded. Life rafts were also put into the sea.
A distress call had gone out but the sinking ship was 75 miles from the nearest land. By 9.30 a.m. a Sunderland flying boat was on the scene to drop emergency supplies and circled until HMCS St. Laurent, a Canadian destroyer arrived.
By evening, the crew of the Canadian warship had rescued 868 people; there were no more men in the sea to be saved. The disaster had taken the lives of 470 Italians and 243 Germans. Fifty-five members of the Arandora Star’s crew perished along with 37 of the military guards.
For several months, bodies washed up on the coast of northern Ireland. Many of the detainees whose lives were saved were put aboard the SS Dunera and sent to Australia.
The Cover Up
The British government trembled at the thought of how the bad news would affect public morale, as the country was in dire straights. So, it tried to create a propaganda victory out of the tragedy.
The initial story put out was that the Arandora Star was more than 200 miles farther from the Irish coast than she actually was. This was aimed at giving the appearance that rescue efforts were more difficult and accounted for the high death toll.
A story was crafted that Italian and German internees had been fighting on the deck and impeding the efforts of the ship’s crew to launch lifeboats. Meanwhile, the captain and his officers remained on the bridge and went down with their ship.
Contrasting the alleged cowardly behaviour of the internees with the bravery of the British crew was mostly hogwash. However, it had the benefit of deflecting scrutiny away from the fact that the British government had recklessly put the Arandora Star, and those aboard her, in harm’s way.
An inquiry under Lord Snell was a white-wash that cleared the government of any responsibility. Such things happen in the fog of war; terribly sad, but there’s a dreadful enemy to be defeated. So, let’s put this behind us and get on with the war effort.
It was left to historians to uncover the ugly truth.
- The place where the Arandora Star was torpedoed was 75 miles northwest of the ominously named Bloody Foreland, Donegal.
- Of the other members of the “luxury five” ships of the Blue Star line: the Avelona Star was torpedoed and sunk in June 1940; the Almeda Star was sunk by a U-boat-fired torpedo in January 1941; the Avila Star was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat in June 1942; and, in September 1942, the Andalusia Star suffered the same fate.
- Günther Prien, the captain of the U-boat that sank the Arandora Star was at the centre of one of the most audacious actions of World War II. Just a month after the start of the conflict, in October 1939, he sneaked into Scapa Flow harbour, the Scottish anchorage of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet. He torpedoed and sank the massive battleship, HMS Royal Oak; 835 men died in the attack. Prien got away unscathed, but his luck ran out in March 1941. His U-47 was detected in the Atlantic and sunk with all hands by two British destroyers using depth charges.
- “One of the Luxury Five.” Bluestarline.org, undated.
- “Collar the Lot! Britain’s Policy of Internment During the Second World War.” Roger Kershaw, The National Archives, July 2, 2015.
- “Sinking of the Arandora Star: A Donegal Perspective.” Cormac McGinley, BBC, May 10, 2004.
- “The Sinking of Arandora Star.” Michael Kennedy, the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, 2008.
- “Seventy Years After the Arandora Star Was Sunk With Loss of 713 ‘Enemy Aliens’, the Last Scots Italian Survivor Is Able to Forgive but Not Forget.” The Scotsman, June 24, 2010.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor