Arandora Star


Projecting from the sand of a remote and exquisitely beautiful beach on Mull’s south-western tip, two large iron hooks mark the last resting place of a lifeboat from a large vessel, but which large vessel? One person knows, because she was there when it came ashore.

In 1940, Bella MacLennan was seven years old and living on Knockvologan croft. Britain was at war with Germany and fear now tinged the excitement at a plane overhead or the astonishment at the barrage balloon drifting out to sea having broken adrift from its moorings in Oban. The enemy had invaded her world without setting foot on British soil.

On Tuesday 2 July that year, she heard the radio announce that a German ‘U’ Boat had torpedoed a large ship off the coast of Ireland. Ireland! She could almost see Ireland from her bedroom window! Days later her dad Evander spotted a boat drifting on to one of the small islands about a mile and a half off-shore. Jimmy Beaton, John MacDonald and some others were helping around the croft, so they and Evander left what they were doing, set out by motorboat and towed the boat to the shore. The tide being high, they beached it where it now lies.






The lifeboat in 1969
(courtesy of the Mathie family)

Bella still remembers clearly her first sight of it. “A lovely big boat … standing on the sand. You couldn’t see into it, it was so high,” she recalled. Although Bella could see no identification (a significant detail), the men knew, probably from identification inside the boat, that they had towed in a lifeboat from the Arandora Star. Jimmy Beaton’s daughter Margaret wasn’t even a glint in her father’s eye at the time, but the salvaging of the Arandora Star lifeboat was part of the Beaton family story.

What was this, claimed to be ‘the world’s most delightful cruising liner’, doing in submarine-infested waters in the middle of a war?

The Arandora Star had been commandeered in 1939 as a troopship, but early in the war, the British government began to fear that enemy nationals living in Britain could be a security threat. Tribunals were set up to investigate foreign nationals case by case, classifying them into 3 security categories, only the highest (category ‘A’) being liable to internment without trial. By early 1940, around 80,000 cases had already been determined, of which less than 1% were category ‘A’. However, when Italy under Mussolini entered the war as an ally of Germany, Churchill panicked and, famously issued the order to 'Collar the lot!' Many Italian and German men, who had been working in the UK, were rounded up and summarily interned, although, according to Richard Sonnenfeldt in his book "Witness to Nuremberg" some were actually volunteers. They were initially taken to local Police stations, then transported to army camps, hotels and holiday camps throughout the country. Wives, mothers and children were left to fend for themselves without information as to the fate of their loved ones.

A few months later the War Cabinet decided it would be safer to deport some of these internees to ‘the Dominions’. The Arandora Star, luxury liner turned troopship, was further converted to a prison ship, equipped with some armaments and finally over-painted in battleship grey (hence the lack of external identification on the lifeboat) before setting out on the first deportation run with 1500 prisoners to St. John’s in Newfoundland, adopting the zigzag course typical of a warship reducing its vulnerability to torpedo fire.

Off Malin Head, understandably or recklessly identified as a suitable target for his last shot by Submarine Captain Gűnter Prien (the same who sank the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in 1939 and was awarded the Iron Cross, by Hitler), she met her violent end at the hands of the very power with whom her passengers were believed to be sympathisers. Her Captain, E W Moulton, went down with his ship, on the bridge along with two of his officers. He was posthumously awarded the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea and the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. However, among the other 802 casualties may have been the truth about what happened next.

Many of the rescued survivors were put ashore in Greenock and some of the injured treated in Mearnskirk Hospital near Glasgow. Among these were four who produced a signed statement dated July 10th 1940 describing in appreciative detail the roles of a Royal Air force Sunderland flying boat and the Canadian destroyer HMCS St. Laurent in the work of rescue, emphasising that all the boats did their best to pick up survivors. British Destroyer HMS Walker following in the wake of the rescuing HMCS St. Laurent, was too late-arriving to find survivors or be the subject of comment, appreciative or otherwise by the ‘Mearnskirk Four’. They were, however, sufficiently aware of post-rescue events to deny reports of hostility among the internees such as carried by The Glasgow Herald on 4 July 1940.

If hostility there were, it might have been understandable under the circumstances, but there is other evidence of a much darker side to the story. It is simple history that, in order to fit the vessel for its new purpose, portholes were boarded up and decks fenced off. The lifeboats were secured behind heavy wire mesh (some witnesses specified ‘barbed wire’ and reported lacerations to survivors) and sufficient only for the original cruising complement of 400. Alastair Maclean, in his book ‘The Lonely Sea’ (Collins 1985), claimed that obstructing access to the lifeboats was ordered in spite of protests by the ship’s captain, who pointed out that it rendered the boat a death trap. Safe evacuation of prisoners in an emergency was clearly not a priority.

Cormac McGinley, writing in 2004 in the BBC on-line forum “WW2 People’s War” reports testimony to the effect that the British “shot holes in the lifeboats to stop internees from escaping”. He also unearthed the story of a chilling find on the dead calm night of the 22nd of July 1940 by Mickey O’Donnel and a crew of fishermen from Owey Island, off the north west coast of Donegal. They told of a waterlogged boat, which they towed to shore only to find that it had been shot through with bullet holes, which someone had apparently tried to plug with pieces of cloth. There were no survivors in the boat, only handfuls of empty bullet shells and a plate identifying the boat as being from the Arandora Star. The boat being unsalvageable, was broken up and its timbers put to other uses.

When Bella first saw the lifeboat her dad brought ashore, she noticed that there was ‘a big crack in her side’. Firmly rejecting other possible explanations for the damage, she is quite clear that the boat had been “rammed….hoping it would sink”. To her mind, the obvious reason was that it was a danger to shipping. That was surely true, but if McGinley’s sources are right, it may not be the whole truth. Given the British perception of the internees, the problem with drifting lifeboats may have been as much the souls they might save as the souls they might endanger. It would be a presumption too far to suggest that lives were deliberately put at risk, but undoubtedly the twin interests of maritime safety and national security would have been served by taking steps to ensure that no dangerous alien had the opportunity to float ashore ‘un-rescued’.

Could such a heartless attitude towards people who had been living and working happily for years in Britain really be true? Arandora Star researcher, Archie Lindsay claims that one other of the Arandora Star’s 14 lifeboats did come ashore intact, complete with provisions, and that it was normal practice to machine-gun drifting lifeboats after checking that they were safely empty. However Hansard, in Parliamentary answers to MP’s questions about the disaster, records the British Government’s view of the prisoners on board the Arandora Star. According to the Duke of Devonshire, they were an unwelcome drain on scarce national resources - “useless mouths” to be precise, while to Anthony Eden, then minister of State for War, they were ALL a Category ‘A’ threat to national security - the highest possible, and the only category liable to summary internment.

Perhaps extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and these after all were dangerous Nazi and Fascist sympathisers. The problem is that most of the prisoners were actually nothing of the kind. MPs on behalf of outraged communities presented Parliament with evidence that the internees were  workers in ice cream parlours, chip shops, the chocolate business and shoemakers. They even included some “very distinguished anti-Fascist Italians” and Jewish refugees from Hitler’s persecution in 1938, some of whom had been “sentenced to terms of imprisonment” or “beaten up” on account of their anti-Nazi activities. (Hansard 6/8/1940.)

Much later, writing to The Oban Times on 10 July 2009, Mrs Mairi Smith, of Achnacroish, Lismore, made the following comment on a short article on the Arandora Star:

It is with interest and much dismay that I read the article on the Arandora Star in The Oban Times.
The British government has a sin to answer for by inferring that Italians resident in this country were all Nazi and Fascist sympathisers.
Nothing could be further from the truth. They were hard working people loved and respected by their neighbours. Mr Abraseezi had a café in Pollokshaws, Glasgow from which he was taken, for no good reason and perished on the Arandora Star much to the sorrow of his neighbours of which my late husband was one.
The other café in the Shaws was owned by the Vetturini family whose son fought with and was an interpreter with the British army. His mother, affectionately known in The Shaws by everyone as ‘Auntie’ maintained her Italian citizenship and had to report weekly to the police. She was allowed to remain at home much to the amusement of all, was not allowed to own a bicycle or a radio. She was at this time in her 80s.
My late husband served with the RAF for the duration of hostilities and was regularly supplied with parcels of goodies by the Vetturini family. This letter refers to the Italians in one small area of Glasgow but the feelings will be replicated all over Glasgow and beyond."

Adding insult to injury, within days of the sinking, the survivors were re-interned or deported to Australia on board the ‘hell-ship’ Dunera, three of whose military personnel were later court-martialled for mal-treatment of their prisoners. The Dunera was the first of four ex-troopships to be converted in 1960 to floating schools by the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd. Equipped with dormitory accommodation for pupils, cabin accommodation for teachers, classrooms, a lecture theatre/cinema, a library and deck space for sports, she sailed from Greenock on educational cruises for Scottish secondary school pupils  to various ports in Western Europe and the Mediterranean  between 1961 and 1968.

A blog ( recording reminiscences of these ‘Dunera Cruises’  provides incidental corroboration of the identity of the internees. One entry, dated 20/4/06, reads, “… Jennifer emailed in with this request … I'm seeking any and all information on the trip to Austrailia with German Jewish refugees from England to Austrailia, especially photos. My Father was on that ship.”

Another, dated 17/05/06, reads, “...Fred Gillard has emailed us with this ... I am one of the ex-Austrian Jewish refugees who was "shipped" to Australia. I spent there abut 18 months before returning to England joining the British Army.” (Note: The three others were Devonia, Nevasa and finally the Uganda.)

Little wonder that an Arandora Star Campaign was set up, seeking redress from the British Government on behalf of Italian families affected by these events, and the argument has not quite gone away. Some claim that the British have nothing to apologise for, since it was the Germans who torpedoed the boat. Others exonerate  the British Government's by reference to the severe threat of invasion and the heroic attempts at rescue, suggesting that the stories from Donegal could have a tinge of Irish Republican green about them. It is probably impossible now to judge and perhaps the only honest course is to simply note the existence of very different perceptions of these sad events.

The shattered, empty lifeboat on Knockvologan beach may be a forgotten remnant of the Arandora Star tragedy but the victims are not forgotten. Of the 446 Italian victims, one in ten came from the small town of Bardi, where a memorial chapel commemorates the tragedy. Speaking in the chapel, Beppe Conti of the Arandora Star Association described the chapel as a symbol of light and hope and remembrance of this tragedy as a aid to understanding the new waves of migration into Europe. In Glasgow, memorial gardens are to be constructed beside St. Andrews Roman Catholic Cathedral. Archbishop Mario Conti, himself an Italian immigrant, launched a fund in 2008 for the purpose, commenting that the sadness “is not just one of loss, it is also over their rejection from the Scottish community.”

Rejected in life by a government in panic, in death ordinary folk welcomed them back. All along the north coast of Ireland, where hundreds of bodies were washed ashore, local people buried them among their own. In Colonsay, three of the 31 from the Italian province of Lucca are buried and included in the island’s annual remembrance of their war dead. In a moving letter of thanks to the people of Colonsay for their faithfulness to their memory, Andrea Tagliasacchi, the provincial president, referred to the need for constant remembrance in the face of a “silence, which has lasted too long”, concluding with the words, “It is in fact, only by admitting past mistakes, that we can comprehend our present and work for a future of peace. In these terms, your gesture expresses a most sincere compassion and the true meaning of brotherhood amongst nations.”

Bella explains that no survivors or bodies came ashore with the lifeboat on Mull and nothing of great significance except one intriguing item - a red lady’s shoe. Intriguing because there were no ladies on board the Arandora Star in July 1940. Only men were interned and only men crewed the prison ship. Perhaps it could have been a relic of the earlier days of luxury cruising, but what if it was from the Arandora Star’s final, ill-fated voyage? If someone took it with him and then saved it from the sinking ship, it surely had significance beyond the ordinary. Was it a keepsake, grabbed by some internee in the moments between the unexpected knock on the door and the sudden removal for interrogation and deportation? Maybe he hoped one day to be re-united with the one girl whose foot it fitted – a true Cinderella story without the happy ending.

As things stand, we will never know. On the other hand, maybe someone reading this now will come forward and say, “I know about the other shoe.”

Donald C Black 2008

Tricia Brown sent me this snippet:

Hi Donald,

 I have just read your very interesting story about the Arandora Star and with reference to your brief mention of the S.S. Uganda my family travelled home on leave from East Africa to Europe on two occasions - one of them being in 1956 (I was just six) and we were about the last ship through the Suez Canal before it closed that year and I remember all the big tankers sitting in the passing lane unable to sail any further until the Canal was re-opened.  "Ships of the Desert" my Dad told me.   We then came home finally at the very end of 1961 and again sailed in the S.S. Uganda.  When we arrived at Port Said, all the traders came aboard and set up their stalls on deck and in amongst them all were two young children, my brother and I, selling the fruit we had saved from the dining room meals!!  Very entrepreneurial!

 Just a wee snippet for you.



PS Dining room menus here, here and here.

In Memoriam

446 Italian prisoners
243 German prisoners
42 crew
97 military guards
12  officers
 Captain Moulton


Mrs. Bella Cameron (daughter of the late Evander MacLennan) and Mrs. Margaret MacDonald (daughter of the late Jimmy Beaton) for kindly granting interviews in August 2008.

Miss Margaret G Jack, of Oban for additional information from her personal research.

“Star of Shame” by Des Hickey and Gus Smith, Madison 1989 currently out of print, but excerpts viewable on . Also on the same site, ‘The Last Voyage of the Arandora Star’ by Paddy McClure of Cardonagh.

“Colonsay’s Fallen”, Allan Davis, Colonsay Books 2004.

“Witness to Nuremberg”, By Richard Sonnenfeldt.

“I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier”, by Max Perutz, CSH Press, 2003 (A selection of essays, including Ulberto Limentani’s first hand account of his rescue from the Arandora Star.)

The British Parliament and Hansard for recording and making public their proceedings.


Tony Gallo and his Arandora Star Campaign. ( )

Fraser of for meticulous information and archive of postcards and photographs.

The BBC for giving ordinary people a voice in their WW2 People’s War Stories forum. ( )

The Arandora Star section of ‘Corncrake’ on-line magazine from Colonsay. ( )

The Mathie family for the photo of the lifeboat in 1969.

Dave Black for photos of the lifeboat in 2008.

Kevin Byrne and the people of Colonsay.

Archie Lindsay for his videos posted on Youtube.

Robin Lang, who first told me the rumoured origin of the lifeboat.

Tricia Brown for snippets for the SS Uganda.

Arandora Star
draft saved at 3:38 AM
Donald Black,
Sep 16, 2014, 11:53 AM
Donald Black,
Sep 16, 2014, 11:52 AM
Donald Black,
Sep 16, 2014, 11:53 AM