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Italian Internees

On 10 June 1940 Benito Mussolini declared war on Britain.  Shortly afterwards, all Italian immigrant men over the age of 16 were declared "enemy aliens" and rounded up for internment.  Under Regulation 18b of the Emergency Powers Bill the arrest was permitted of any person, irrespective of nationality, who might be a security risk in time of war.  The catch-all nature of the law meant few Italian families were untouched.  Suddenly people who had been at the heart of their community, often in ice cream or fish and chip shops, were heading to camps on the Isle of Man or further afield

Arandora StarArandora Star - Picture Courtesy National Maritime MuseumMany Italians and people of other nationalities lost their lives on the Arandora Star which was sunk by a U-boat on 2 July 1940

My late father Roderick Reid Owens was a guard on the Arandora Star when it was torpedoed in the Irish Sea. 800 died - he was 1 of the survivors.  I believe that he was in the sea for many hours. He never could swim, so it is a wonder he survived.  My father ingested a large quantity of oil when in the sea. As a result, he developed duodenal ulceration and was operated on shortly after his return to Britain.  He had very painful trouble with his digestive system for the rest of his life.  I have a painting of the sinking of the Arandora Star. It was painted by a German survivor at 'Donaldson POW Camp' (Donaldson's Hospital, Edinburgh) in 1941.  The painting was given to my father, then a camp guard. It may be the only eyewitness record of the tragedy. - Roderick Owen of Aberdeen

Many towns, of course, did not see such a violent reaction to the announcement but the prominence of many Italian businesses made them an easy target for any unrest.  At the same time, the arrests and internments began.  "Ironically, the arresting Police Sergeant and his colleagues were frequent visitors to the 'back shop' of the family cafe in George Street."  Pierpaolo Pacitti from Glasgow said: "My father Alberto was interned for 4 years, firstly in Barlinnie, then Brixton and York before being imprisoned at Peel on the Isle of Man.  "He was Secretary of the Fascio (fascist group) in Park Circus at the time of his arrest, the day after his father, along with my mother's father, were arrested.

Internment of Italian Nationals and British Citizens of Italian parentage during WWll and the Andorra Star event was a great tragedy.  My Granddad arrived here in 1875.  I recall my father telling me of his Dad gathering all his sons together at the family home in Urquhart Road in circa 1933. The Fascists were coming to Aberdeen to spread their 'poison' and he cautioned his sons to have nothing to do with them whatsoever as they were 'evil and no good would come from them or their politics.' Three of his sons had already served in the British Army during WW1 with Guiseppe (Joe) being killed in France. It turns out that the visiting Fascists did get a fair response from the Italian Community in Aberdeen and they arranged a group photo in the forecourt of St Peters Church near the Castlegate. I have a copy of this photo somewhere and can confirm that there is not one family member present in the group though I do recognise a number of other participants some of whom were locked up I believe. Another twist is that the youngest son, my uncle Andrea ( Andrew) served with the Army as an interpreter at Peel, Isle of Man Internment Camp housing Italian detainees.  Anon

Real or perceived threat?

Internment on The Isle-of-Man

Douglas Internment CampPeterhead was enjoying a real boom in the herring trade during the 1930s and my father had risen through the ranks from cooper to curing yard manager. This was not to last for long though, and when war broke out in 1939 things changed suddenly as trade with Germany came to a sudden halt, just as it had in 1914, and, as a consequence, a massive surplus of barrelled herring was left in the quayside yards.

At the same time the government made a declaration that all German and Italian families living in Britain, people whose sympathies they feared might lie with the enemy, would be placed in secure internment camps. One of the main camps was sited in Douglas on the Isle of Man, where the sea-front hotels and guest houses were surrounded with barbed wire fences, and that's where hundreds of internees were held under guard, some for the entire duration of the war and others sometimes only for a few months while the risk they posed was assessed. As most of the herring were intended for the German market it made sense that the surplus should be used to feed the internees and my father was offered the job of overseeing the yard in Douglas where the herring would be stored for distribution around the camp in Douglas and the other, much smaller, camps at Port St Mary, Port Erin, Peel and Ramsey. It was a lucky move for my family, as dad was allowed to take my mother and I with him, away from the dangers of enemy bombing raids on Peterhead. We lived in Peel and I really enjoyed my time there. It was peaceful, I had a job as a trainee mechanic and I learned to drive. I worked at a garage in Douglas and often saw familiar faces on the other side of the big fence. There were about a dozen Italian families from Peterhead in the camp, including some lads I'd been at school with and who were no more likely to be Nazi sympathizers than I was! We stayed there for about three years before we were sent back to Peterhead. Soon after our arrival home I got my call-up papers and, after basic training, I joined the Royal Corps of Signals and was assigned to the 27th Guards Armoured Brigade.

View of Knockaloe Camp

Many Jews and others considered 'undesirable' by the Nazi government were able to escape to Britain, but at the outbreak of war in September 1939 the British government, worried by the possibility of enemy spies infiltrating, rounded up hundreds of families of German origin and sent them by boat to the Isle of Man where they were separated - men to some camps and women and children to others.

By the end of 1940, 14,000 ‘enemy aliens’ were interned on the Isle of Man . Many of them were University Professors and other professionals and the camp included such inmates as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Charles Forte, the famous artist Kurt Schwitters, and the Concert Pianists Rawicz and Landauer.

Slowly this traditional holiday island was transformed into an Internment Camp. Boarding houses became barrack blocks and internees took part in local farm work, ran their own newspapers, and even set up internal businesses.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013