The loss of the SS Arandora Star – 2 July 1940

Richard Maddox

IT IS JUNE 1940 and Britain has started to intern ‘enemy aliens’ – people who lived in Britain but were nationals of Germany or countries that had opted to side with Germany in the Second World War.

The liner SS ‘Arandora Star‘ was part of the British Blue Star shipping line. Built at the Cammell Laird shipyards on the banks of the River Mersey the fast passenger and refrigerated cargo vessel was launched in 1927.

Sailing initially across to South America twice a month, the ship and the others in the company often carried meat to the United Kingdom. This was just one interest for the Vestey family (who owned Blue Star) as they also has a chain of around 3,000 high-street butchers, selling to the general public. (1) 77

In 1929, the ship was chosen to be converted to a cruise liner, with another refit in six years later to increase passenger accommodation.

For a decade the Arandora Star carried passengers as far away as Norway, the Mediterranean, Egypt and South Africa and the Caribbean.

As the months turned from a future worry to a real fear, to an inevitable war, the ship carried passengers away from Europe to North America in the first few days of September 1939.

Considered for service – and then rejected – as an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC), the ship would be fitted out to test a form of ‘standoff’ protection where anti-torpedo nets were strung some distance from the ship in order to detonate torpedoes before they hit the vessel.

These tests were carried out in March and April 1940. (2)

The ship then served as a troopship.

In early June 1940 the ship evacuated hundreds of British servicemen together with French and Polish troops from Norway in the face of the German invasion of the country. (3)

During the same operation the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and the destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent were lost on 8 June. (4)

The Arandora Star would also take part in evacuating civilians and troops from France (Operation ARIEL) as the Germans swept through the country. (5)

THE MEMORIAL PLAQUE to the loss of the SS Arandorra Star on 2 July 1940 on Liverpool's Pier Head. Image copyight © R. Maddox 2020 and used with permission.

THE MEMORIAL PLAQUE to the loss of the SS Arandorra Star on 2 July 1940 on Liverpool’s Pier Head. Image copyight © R. Maddox 2020 and used with permission.

The final act of the ship’s short wartime career would begin in Liverpool on 30 June 1940. That day it embarked 734 Italian and a further 479 German internees – British residents of Italian and German heritage and thus considered ‘enemy aliens’ – and 86 German prisoners of war, together with a military escort of 200 men.

They would be transfered to holding and prison camps in Canada.

A further 174 officers and men under the command of Captain Edgar Wallace Moulton made up the ship’s crew. This meant that on the evening of 1 July* when the Arandorra Star slipped its moorings and moved down the River Mersey there were 1673 people were aboard.

The next day at 0615 the ship was around 15 miles west of Bloody Foreland, County Donegal, Ireland. The ship was sailing alone at a speed of around 15 knots and adopting a zig-zag course to thwart a German submarine attack.

But it was not to be.

At 0620 a single torpedo struck the ship’s starboard side.

The engine room was flooded, the engines wrecked and – with the main and emergency generators out of action – the ship was plunged into darkness and effectively dead in the water.

Two lifeboats were damaged,the ship was taking on water and listing heavily.

And the ship’s attacker was still unseen.

The ship’s postion was noted and an emergency SOS distress message sent to be picked up the coastguard at Malin Head in County Donegal.

So soon into the voyage there had been no opportunity to carry out a lifeboat drill and with the ship listing heavily and settling deeper in to the North Atlantic, many of the internnees being elderley and everyone trying to navigate their way through the darkened and unfamiliar ship it is no surprise that chaos ensued.

The crew tried their best to get their passengers to jump for the liferafts. Most refused, clinging to the ship – or crew members – for support. This in turn hampered the crew’s efforts to launch the undamaged life boats.

The lifeboats that could be lowered were immediately filled. More liferafts were thrown into the water – and again largely ignored.

An hour after the torpedo had struck the ship was overwhelmed, losing the battle to stay afloat. It sank by the stern, its bow rising into the air before it too disappeared into the depths.

Eight hundred and five lives would be lost including that of the Captain Moulton, who had commanded the ship for over a decade. (6)

He and three of his officers – First Officer Frederick Bertram Brown, Second Officer Stanley Ranson and Fourth Officer Ralph Liddle – were awarded the Lloyds Medal for Bravery at Sea. Of these men only Brown would survive. (7)

An RAF Short Sunderland maritime patrol aircraft dropped emergency supplies and acted as a position marker for HMCS St. Laurent, a Royal Canadian destroyer that would arrive at the scene and eventually rescue more that 800 survivors. (8)

It would later emerge that the ship had been struck by German submarine U-47, commanded by Günther Prien. (9) (10)

In October 1939 Prien had managed to enter the Royal Navy anchorage at Scapa flow and sink the battleship HMS Royal Oak.

Notes

Sources disagree on the time and date that the ship left Liverpool as well the number and mix of the passengers, military and crew aboard the ship.

Imperial War Museums Sound Archives has interviews that mention the attack on the Arandora Star – one from the point of view of a German internee on the Isle of Man who had been in a holding camp at Huyton, outside Liverpool and the second from a soldier who was part of the military guard on board the ship when it was attacked.

Peter Wayne, German internee:
http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80030717 – Reel three approximately (23.25), retrieved 3 February 2020.

Richard Gwillim, British soldier:
http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80010566 – Reel one approximately (8.40), retrieved 3 February 2020.

The Warth Mills Project seeks to tell the story of one of Britain’s largest Second World War internment camps, situated at Bury in Lancashire, England. The website has interviews with two Italian internees and a British soldier who were on the Arandora Star as well as background information

https://www.warthmillsproject.com/stories/tragedy-of-the-arandora-star/ – retrieved 3 February 2020.

Details of the memorial plaque shown above can be found at

http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/62864 retrieved 3 February 2020.

Sources

(1) https://vesteyholdings.com/heritage/ – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(2) (3) https://www.clydemaritime.co.uk/the-loss-of-the-arandora-star-1940/ – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(4) http://spitfiresite.com/2010/06/battle-of-britain-hms-glorious-46-squadron.html/2 – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(5) https://www.naval-history.net/xDKWDa-Aerial.htm – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(6) https://www.clydemaritime.co.uk/the-loss-of-the-arandora-star-1940/ – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(7) https://colonsay.org.uk/sites/default/files/fileattachments/Crew%20Notes.pdf – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(8) https://colonsay.org.uk/sites/default/files/fileattachments/Arandora%20Colonsay.pdf – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(9) https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/search.php – retrieved 3 February 2020.

(10) http://ww2today.com/2nd-july-1940-the-arandora-star-torpedoed-and-sunk – retrieved 3 February 2020.