On this day in 1940, Benito Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. The Brits and French had been trying to get the Italian dictator to join their fight against the Germans, and he almost did. But after Paris was occupied by the Germans, he had second thoughts, mainly that he didn’t want to stand by and watch one country conquer the entire European continent.
About the Italians joining their side, Hitler groused that, “First they were too cowardly to take part. Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils.” Mussolini explained that he wanted to join the fight before the complete capitulation of France, because fascism “did not believe in hitting a man when he is down.” Right. They were famous for that, as I recall.
Anyway, Britain responded to this by rounding up Italian residents between the ages of 16-70 who had been in the country less than 20 years and putting them in internment camps. Kinda like what the U.S. did with their citizens of Japanese descent, no? Only without all the recriminations and apologies for years thereafter.
When the war began in 1939, the British set up tribunals across the country, 120 of them in all, to evaluate resident aliens and classify them into three categories based on what kind of threat they seemed to represent: Category A meant internment, Category B was no internment but subject to restrictions, and C was no internment or restrictions. By February, 1940, all 73,000 or so cases had been evaluated, with about 66,000 designated as Category C.
In May, the Brits interned another 8000 Germans, and, after Mussolini made his choice, went to work on the Italians. The British internment camps were filled up, so Canada and Australia generously offered to take some of the internees. 7500 of them were shipped oversees, using a fleet of five passenger liners, including the SS Arandora Star.
On Tuesday, July 2, 1940, the Arandora Star was torpedoed and sunk, while en route to Canada, by a German U-boat, 75 miles west of the Irish coast.
According to this Wiki, the ship carried “734 interned Italian men, 479 interned German men, 86 German prisoners of war and 200 military guards. Her crew numbered 174 officers and men”. 805 people lost their lives before the Canadian destroyer, HMCS St. Laurent, arrived on the scene and rescued 868 survivors, of whom 586 were detainees. About a month later, bodies from the tragedy began washing up on the shores of Ireland and Scotland, and were buried there.
This account of the sinking begins by vilifying the British for their “callous disregard” of people based on their nationality, though it doesn’t mention the callous disregard of the Nazis who torpedoed a ship carrying civilian detainees who were allegedly their sympathizers. It notes that the loss of life, about half that of the Titanic sinking,
…”has no place in our common historical consciousness. It is, however, well known among the British-Italian population, and among the Scottish and Irish communities who tend the graves of the dead to this day.”
“Despite the impoverishment of their communities, over and over again these remote coastal villages paid and organised to bury the victims as if they were their own. In Scotland, these were not only enemy nationals but ones singled out for vilification by the government, but no matter; they were given the same reverence and respect as anyone else.”
This article on the sinking provides interesting background on the British internment policy as well as the sinking.
As the Germans often noted, krieg ist krieg.