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The War Years 1939 - 1945

The Second World War came at a time when the people of "Little Italy" had built a respected community for themselves. The announcement of Mussoliniís decision to side with Hitlerís Germany in 1939 had a devastating effect. By order of parliament all aliens were to be interned, although there were few active fascists. The majority had lived in this country peacefully for many years, and had even fought side by side with British soldiers in the First World War. Some had married English women and even taken British citizenship.

Italy declared war on Ethiopia in 1935, the start of sanctions and estrangement from the allies
( click to enlarge )
Daily Sketch, Tuesday June 11th 1940. Note the heading, 'London Italians Round-Up'
This anti-Italian feeling led to a night of nationwide riots against the Italian communities. The Italians were now seen as a national security threat, and Winston Churchill instructed ďcollar the lot!Ē. Italian men between the ages of 17 and 60 were arrested after his speech.

They were transported to camps across the country. A nearby camp was Worth Mill in Bury. There was no sanitation, the roof was leaking, and no proper sleeping arrangements; according to the Red Cross it was unfit for human habitation. These internees were civillians, not military prisoners.

These men should never have been interned when they had sons and family in the British army. How could one be a good soldier knowing that your father was interned, your mother had no income to support her and there were children at home. Neither the Italian or British governments gave them anything; their businesses were closed due to internment and rationing. Families relied on their sons in the army to send some of the wages they received for fighting, but that was a pittance. The night of interment was one that many wish to forget; fathers were taken away while their wives and children looked on in tears, wondering if they would ever see their loved ones alive again.

The Very Reverend Monsignor Rossi who was interned at the Worth Mill camp: "The Italians showed amazing resourcefulness in adversity: they cleaned, they cooked, they prayed, they kept themselves occupied in many different ways and they never lost their national identity. Their allegiance was to Italy, not Fascism". Some Italians, men, women and children, were placed on the records of the British security service 'MI5' as fifth columnists due to their affiliations to political organisations and parties, even children belonging to the Balilla movement. The names of these families are still held on record today.

However there was a greater tragedy to come. On the 2nd of July 1940 the SS Arandora Star, originally a passenger liner, was sunk off the west coast of Ireland taking Italian and German internees to Canada. 470 Italians and 143 Germans and crewmembers lost their lives. The survivors were re-interned. Many of Manchesterís Italians perished on that very sad day. They were: Fr Gaetano Fracassi, Humberto Alberti, Cesare Camozzi, Eduardo Ceresa, Domenico Di Cocco, Clementino Fiorini, Onorio Forte, Carlo Frizzi, Ernani Landucci, Giovanni Longinotti, Domenico Mancini, Carlo Marre, Michelangelo Melaragni, Antonio Mittero, and Giuseppe Monti. May they all rest in peace. Monsignor Rossi had the task of sorting out the papers and personal belongings of these deceased men who only shortly before had been living alongside him. He remembered how he never forgot a comment by one of the officers at the Worth Mill internment camp: "We can afford to lose another ship".

During the war "Little Italy" was under curfew and the people had to report their every move to the police. There was a total ban on community activities; even ice cream was banned due to a shortage of raw materials. A visit to the cinema was a welcome diversion.

Nearly all the children of St Michaelís parish were evacuated to Lytham St Anneís. Most of their teachers accompanied them and their schooling continued. Those left behind had the German air raids to contend with. When bad news came the people of this tight knit community pulled together irrespectful of nationality.

Cerificates such as this were awarded to Italians abroad who contributed gold to the Italian war effort 1935
As the war wore on the Americans began arriving in Manchester. They drifted across to "Little Italy" and were welcomed into the homes of the many Italian families for a good home made plate of pasta! The American Italians thought that "Little Italy" was like those back home; it was, but without the restaurants, coffee shops and Italian clubs.

Itís sad to think that there was never an apology to those families that lost loved ones on the SS Arandora Star, and had sons serving in the British armed forces, or even those that were interned. They never received an apology or compensation for the turmoil caused to their families and businesses after the war. Even the Americans apologized to their immigrant communities for the hardships encountered through the war years. Just an apology would go along way to making us feel more British and at home! Our fathers experienced racism long before it was considered wrong to condemn anyone for their colour, nationality, sexuality or religious beliefs. I hope as a third generation Anglo - Italian that one day I, and our communities, can accept that long overdue apology on behalf of our fore fathers.

In 1945 the Germans surrendered. What a day this was! They danced and sang in the streets day and night to celebrate V.E. day, it was party time! But no one forgot those that had given their lives so freely that we could live in peace.

The Italian community of Great Britain has been an exemplary model of how immigrants should behave, and were never a security threat. They have integrated well under the stressful events of 1939/45. The Italians have been good hard working families respectful of both the country and people of Britain for allowing them to settle and prosper in their country. But Italy will never be far from our thoughts and hearts. It is, and always will be, our patria of origin.

See also:

The Arandora Star

The Campaign for the War Memorial

Monte Cassino Veterans of WW2 pay tribute at Picinisco




My paternal grandfather Marco Rea in the Italian army, First World War.
My maternal grandfather Vincenzo Schiavo(i) in the Italian army 1914 -1918
(courtesy of the Schiavo family)
My maternal grandfather Vincenzo Schiavo(i) during World War 1 (seated middle left), with other Italian men from "Little Italy"
Italian war medals, First World War
My grandfather's brother, Giovanni Rea, who emigrated to the U.S.A, in the American army, First World War
The Balilla was popular worldwide for children*
Manchester street during the Blitz, WW2*
My two late uncles in the British army during WW2, Carmen Schiavo(i) and Donato Rea
My dad in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Infantry Regiment, Second World War 1940
The SS Arandora Star commisioned to carry Italian and German internees to Canada*
Italian internees from Britain on the Isle-of-Man. My paternal grandfather is amongst this group.
My uncle Donarto, British Army, World War 2.
My uncle Warrant Officer Antonio Arcari in the Royal Air Force successfully completed 46 operational flights over Germany and received the DFC, and was also holder of the African Star.
My father Loreto with pal, British Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment Infantryman billeted in the Royal Palace, Naples.
My dad's regiment, 30th Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Infantry Regiment, which saw action in North Africa, Italy and Greece.

All text and images (unless marked *) © Anthony Rea 2010
not to be used without permission. All rights reserved