It is also a difficult task to preserve the memory of both those who died and who survived. First, the families heard the destiny of their loved ones often only later, sometimes at the end of the war, or never. Small cemeteries in Ireland still hold bodies that washed ashore after the disaster, and were never identified. These are strange, foreign graves, partly in Gaelic, partly in Italian.
Furthermore, there are only a few, fragmented oral memories of the survivors of the tragedy, none of whom are alive anymore. There is only one, rare, written account that is quite complete; the diary of, Vittorio Tolaini entitled “Voyage of an Alien”. After months of searching we found a copy in a so-called bookshop, which was actually the converted living room of an apartment. Tolaini’s booklet was there, on a shelf next to a sofa: to hell and back, by a guiltless prisoner.
His story begins when Vittorio had already been imprisoned. He is in Warth Mills, an old cotton factory, slightly adapted to host Italian and other internees. He describes the place as a nightmare of mice, broken windows and barbed wire. However, Tolaini is youthful and carefree, and this seems nothing but another adventure to him. He congregates with other young men of his age in a small group, calling themselves “the street boys.” The boys keep the old men awake with jokes and songs all night, until finally, the aged prisoners are so exasperated they take all the boys’ candles, hoping to silence them. These “street boys” try nonetheless to help the other prisoners, stealing and looking for other rations to share. One day, they find an entire box of cigarettes seized by the guards: they take and distribute them to everyone. The following night, a dense and artificial fog will surround Warth Mills.
The “street boys” spend three weeks there, finally managing to arrange that almost all of them are destined to the same place, on the same ship. They are innocent civilians, who have no fear to go to a new and perhaps promising land, so they do not much care. They have no clue of what will actually happen, and that the ship which will transport them is the Arandora Star.
Of all the “street boys”, it will be only Vittorio and his best friend, Nicola Cua, who survive.
Once a beautiful cruise ship, before the war, The Arandora Star had often visited Venice and other Italian ports.
When Vittorio and Nicola went on board, the ship was moored at the main pier in Liverpool, still floating elegantly with her graceful profile. She had been disfigured by the war: the elegant halls had been levelled to make way for hundreds of prisoners. On the bridge, an anti-submarine gun was surrounded by rounds and rounds of barbed wire. A flag with a swastika fluttered astern, indicating that the ship was carrying German prisoners. In vain.
At seven in the morning on the second of July 1940 the windows blow, cutting faces and bodies. The ship violently lurches to starboard, and then begins to tilt, sinking so fast it will disappear into the ocean in less than half an hour. Günther Prien, a famous U-Boat ace, fatally targeted and hit the Arandora Star.
Panic breaks out.
British officers do their best to save the prisoners, while the sailors try to lower the lifeboats, many of them already rendered useless by the listing angle of the ship. Life jackets are abandoned in the halls and anyone can grab one. Many don’t know how to tie them properly and their necks are broken by the impact of the cork when they dive into the sea. Others slide down ropes that burn their hands as they try to reach the water. Some are swallowed by the whirlpool produced by the sinking ship. Trapped inside the cabins and originally from mountain villages with no experience of the sea, in the total chaos the Italians are doomed to the worst fate.
Vittorio Tolaini was saved from the splinters of the windows by the table under which he and his friend were sleeping. He woke Nicola and together they run for the bridge to dive into the water. They found two old men who had made their way up from the dark corridors of the cabins thanks to a candle. The four continued upwards together while many of the other “street boys” were running back in the opposite direction, to find brothers, fathers, relatives. None will come back. Vittorio and Nicola finally jumped overboard just as the supports holding the gun give way and it crashes into the sea dragging with it a tangle of soldiers, prisoners and barbed wire.
They saw the funnels of the Arandora dying out in the waves, the cries of the victims slowly disappearing. The heads of the survivors floated following the motion of the sea, silently. After six hours a RAF seaplane arrived and dropped a message: rescuers were coming.
In the late afternoon a Canadian destroyer arrived and saved them. Shaken, covered in the ship’s oil and half naked, Vittorio received a glass of rum and a cigarette. He was so scared he asked a Canadian sailor if there was any chance they would be hit again.
«Do not worry about that, my friend. If we were hit by a submarine, you would not feel anything. You are lying on an ammunition box».
Hope filled their hearts as they arrived at Greenock, not far from Glasgow. The two old men thanked Vittorio and Nicola for saving them, even if this did not happen on the ship. The old men were those who had stolen their candles at Warth Mills to keep them quiet, and it was these very candles that saved them, lighting the way up in the Arandora black-out.
Their journey did not end there, though. After the Arandora Star tragedy the survivors were sent to Australia; experiencing another infernal journey in unacceptable hygiene conditions. They suffered so much abuse and mistreatment that the British officers responsible faced court martial shortly after landing.
During these years and as the situation gradually improved friendships grew stronger; especially between Vittorio and Nicola, and the other Italian prisoners but also with the British soldiers. Side by side, the two friends fought the sand storms of the Australian desert that wiped out their camps, produced bootleg alcohol, tried an improvised escape and worked in the camp kitchens alongside the best Italian chefs in the UK. The quality of food was so good that the British officers and soldiers ended up having their meals with the Italians. In 1945, when Vittorio married a girl of Italian descent in Melbourne, Noemi Vendramini, Nicola was there. In 1946 they all came back to England, where together they opened the Sanremo Restaurant in the Tooting area in London. Vittorio’s tale ends in that moment, when they have all re-joined that life, community and relationship with the UK, which not even the horrors and fears of war could destroy.
Nicola died on the 30th of September 1992, and at his funeral Vittorio said he was expecting to leave shortly after. Indeed, he died a few months later, on the 2nd of July 1993. On the same day that the Arandora Star sank, 53 years before.
— Photo: Rosaria Crolla, member of a famous family of Italo-Scottish restaurant owners, in front of the plate commemorating the Arandora Star tragedy in Liverpool. In the sinking also her uncle lost his life.