The Loss of the Arandora Star, 1940

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Photo: The SS Arandora Star at anchor. Source: Wikipedia

In 1925, the Blue Star Line of London ordered a quintet of large luxury liners, all of which fell victim to the U-Boat peril of the Second World War. These were :

Avelona Star Torpedoed by U-43 30-06-1940 South-West of Land’s End
Arandora Star Torpedoed by U-47 02-07-1940 West of the Aran Isles, Ireland
Almeda Star Torpedoed by U-96 17-01-1941 West of the Outer Hebrides
Avila Star Torpedoed by U-201 05-07-1942 North-East of the Azores
Andalucia Star Torpedoed by U-107 06-10-1942 West of Monrovia

In these five incidents alone, 1,234 lives were lost.

However, this Company lost many more of their beautiful ships during the War At Sea, in total 29 ships, and with them, 646 Company personnel including :
• 11 Captains
• 47 Deck Officers
• 88 Engineer Officers.

In addition to these outright losses, a further 16 of the Company’s owned or managed ships were heavily damaged through enemy action.

The ARANDORA STAR was built by the well-known West-Coast shipbuilder, Cammell Laird & Company Limited, of Birkenhead, in 1927. Her as-built particulars were as follows :

Yard Number: 921
Official Number: 149837
Name: ARANDORA
Owners: Blue Star Line (1920) Limited
Purpose: Fast passenger and refrigerated cargo services to South America
Net Tonnage: 7,815
Gross Tonnage: 12,847
Dimensions: 512.2 feet x 68.3 feet x 34.0 feet
Propulsion: Four steam turbines with single-reduction gearing to two shafts
Fuel: Designed for oil-burning but also carried bunkers for coaling
Design Speed: 16 knots
Launch Date: 4th January 1927
Completion Date: May 1927
Passengers: 164 First Class

Initially, the large twin-funnelled vessel was operated on a fortnightly service between the UK and River Plate, inaugurated from June 1927. By December 1928 the ship had completed eight round-trips and was at this stage withdrawn from her liner role, having been selected for a cruising role.

In early January 1929, ARANDORA arrived on the Clyde to be refitted as a Cruise-Liner, by the Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company of Glasgow, and renamed ARANDORA STAR. This work was completed on 25th May 1929.

On 15th June 1929 she sailed from Immingham on the first of many cruises in Norwegian waters and for the next decade or so cruised in many different areas including Norway, Iceland, Java, Malaya, Ceylon, Egypt, South Africa, and the Caribbean, Pacific and Mediterranean. A very popular vessel, with her white hull and scarlet ‘ribbon’, she was often referred to as the ‘chocolate box’ or the ‘wedding cake’.

In 1936, ARANDORA STAR had another refit, this time having her Mainmast removed and the accommodation extended to the Poop. In 1937, ownership was transferred to Frederick Leyland & Company Limited, with Blue Star Line Limited as Managers. The ship was by this time re-classified and registered :

Net Tonnage : 8,578
Gross Tonnage 14,694
Dimensions : 512.2 feet x 68.3 feet x 42.5 feet
Passengers : 354 First Class

ARANDORA STAR IN THE 1939-1945 WAR

On 1st of September 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland, S.S. ARANDORA STAR sailed from the UK for New York, carrying citizens of the USA anxious to return home before the onset of the war in Europe. On her return from the USA, the large vessel paid off at Falmouth after which she was laid up in the River Dart for about three months, being considered too ‘top heavy’ for the role of an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC).

At the end of December 1939 she was taken to Avonmouth, to be fitted out with experimental torpedo nets slung from booms, designed to prevent torpedoes in contacting and detonating against ships’ hulls. Based out of Southampton, she ran daily trials testing the effectiveness of these torpedo nets during the months of March and April 1940.

On completion of this important work, ARANDORA STAR discharged all her booms and other gear at Devonport, and proceeded to Liverpool around mid-May 1940, for the most active and final phase of her distinguished career. During an air-raid on Liverpool Docks in May 1940, she narrowly escaped being hit by a bomb. By the end of that month, she sailed to Greenock and then for Norway – a familiar old stomping ground for this vessel – where she met up with the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry off Narvik

This time, however, instead of embarking passengers, around 4th of June 1940 she embarked some 1,600 RAF personnel together with Polish and French troops who were fleeing the Germans. She landed the troops at Glasgow then sailed for Swansea where she brought out some more troops and refugees that were later landed at Falmouth, where she re-fuelled. She was then sent to Quiberon Bay where she evacuated about 300 people and again landed then at Falmouth. Her next assignment was to Bayonne where a further 500 or so were taken on board and landed once more at Falmouth. The last of the French ports to which she was sent was Saint-Jean de Luz where she took on board some 1,700 troops and refugees, including most of the Polish Staff and their troops who had been fighting all the way down that coast. This latest number of survivors were taken back to Liverpool on 27th June 1940, where the ARANDORA STAR lay off the Landing Stage whilst the men were disembarked.

It was there, on 29th June 1940, that the officers and crew of the ARANDORA STAR learned that they were to go alongside the following day to embark a large number of German and Italian internees and some POW’s. Following the declaration of war by Italy’s Mussolini on 10th June 1940, some 4,300 British residents of Italian extraction were taken into custody and sent to ‘holding camps’ throughout the country, where they joined Nazi sympathisers and German nationals who had already been interned. Although the Italians were not considered a threat, and indeed many had been in the UK for the greater part of their lives, the War Cabinet was unrelenting in this regard and the decision taken to deport all internees and POW’s to either Canada or Australia. The ARANDORA STAR was one of many large ships selected to take these people to Canada.

On 30th June 1940, 479 German internees, 734 Italian internees and 86 German prisoners-of -war, were taken on board the ARANDORA STAR under a military guard of 200 men – their destination - Canada.. The ship’s complement, under the command of Captain Edgar W. Moulton, comprised 174 officers and men, making a total of 1,673 souls on board the great liner when she sailed out of Liverpool on the evening of 1st July 1940, bound for St. Johns, Newfoundland.

At 06:15 hours on 2nd July 1940, in a position some 15 miles West of Bloody Foreland in County Donegal, Ireland (52’ 20” North, 10’ 33” West) and steaming at around 15 knots on a zig-zag course, the liner was struck by a torpedo, without warning, on her starboard side, in the area of her Engine Room. The engine room was immediately flooded to sea level in the devastating explosion, the main turbines wrecked, all main and emergency power generators put out of action flinging the whole ship into darkness and destroying all communications between the Engine Room, Bridge and Wireless Office. Additionally, the large vessel took on what was later reported to be a twenty degrees list. The two engineer officers and all other men down below were either killed in the blast or drowned. One starboard-side lifeboat was smashed in the explosion, with the davits and falls of another badly damaged. On the Bridge at the time the torpedo struck was Chief Officer F. B. Brown and Third Officer W. H. Tulip. Although four extra lookouts had been posted during the Watch, at no time had any sign or sight been seen of a submarine.

With the ship’s position being plotted on a chart, C/O Brown sent her position to the Wireless Room with instructions to transmit a SOS. This was duly sent out and picked up by Malin Head Radio.

With no opportunity to have conducted a Lifeboat Drill since clearing Liverpool, combined with the unfamiliarity of the ship’s layout, the darkness, the severe ship’s list, and the fact that the majority of the internees on board were either middle-aged or elderly, chaos and pandemonium broke out as the large liner settled deeper in the water. Efforts to coax many of them to jump to the life-rafts that had been thrown overboard from the upper deck were to no avail, they simply refused and clung on to whatever offered them some support. The panic amongst the passengers severely hampered the ship’s crew in their efforts to let go and lower the lifeboats.

Of the 90 or so life-rafts carried on the Upper Deck, at least half had been thrown over the side as soon as the ship lost way, however few could be persuaded to go over the side and reach these life-rafts, preferring to remain on board and try for a place in one of the lifeboats. Out of a total of twelve lifeboats, ten were lowered, but immediately crammed with swarms of prisoners who had either gone down side-ladders or the boats’ falls. The rest of the life-rafts were thrown over the side but still many of the prisoners, especially the Italians, refused to go over the side and save themselves.

The listing of the ship worsened and it was clear that she did not have long to go. At precisely 07:20 hours, 60 minutes from when the torpedo struck its penetrating and mortal blow, she finally rolled over, flung her bows vertically in the air and, going over her stern, began her last journey to the bottom of the sea, taking with her 805 souls including her Master, who had been the great liner’s Captain since 1929. The Captain, along with his Senior Officers, was last seen walking over the side as the sea came up to meet them, choosing to remain with their ship until the end.

As the commotion and swirl subsided, all that remained on the surface amongst an ever-widening patch of fuel oil was ten lifeboats, a small armada of life-rafts and the heads of many swimmers bobbing around amongst items of wreckage.

THE AFTERMATH OF THE SINKING

With Coastal Command alerted through the earlier SOS signals transmitted by the stricken ship, an RAF Sunderland Flying Boat was on the scene by 09:30 hours and dropped first-aid kits, food and cigarettes in watertight bags, and indicated that help was on the way. The aircraft circled overhead until about 13:00 hours and the arrival of the Canadian destroyer HMCS St. Laurent, under the command of H. G. De Wolf.

Over the following five hours, this valiant vessel picked up no less than 868 survivors, and although the people in boats were easily rescued, it was quite a different matter saving the many others adrift in the oil-covered flotsam or individually clinging to life-rafts, or items of floating wreckage. Few of the survivors could help themselves, being covered in oil and having been so long in the water, and sailors from the Canadian naval ship had to go into the sea themselves with lines to attach to these exhausted and half-drowned people so that they could be lifted on board their rescuer. It also required a fine sense of seamanship, judgement and skills to pick and weave a path through the mayhem on the surface without placing those in the water in danger. Including her own complement, there was over a thousand on board this brave Canadian destroyer when she had finished her work that evening and set a course for Greenock.

The well-known British destroyer HMS Walker arrived on the scene later and carried out a final search of the area, but found no more survivors from the ARANDORA STAR.

In this great disaster of WWII, the final reckoning of those who perished was as follows :

Captain Moulton together with 12 other officers and 42 crewmembers – 55 of the 174 crew
37 of the 200 military guard
470 of the 734 Italian internees
243 of the 479 German internees

Total Number Perished : 805

The Lloyd’s War Medal was awarded to :

E. W. Moulton Captain
R. B. Brown Chief Officer
S. Ransom Second Officer
R. Liddle Fourth Officer

SOME HEBRIDEAN CONNECTIONS

( Note : The following paragraph as been amended to reflect information kindly provided on 11-07-2012 by Mr. Malcolm Morrison, a nephew of Trooper John Connelly, who was known within his immediate family as 'Iain' )

Two of the military guards lost that day were Lovat Scouts. One was Trooper John Connelly (318740) who was aged 21 years. He was born on the Island of Mull and his remains were washed ashore on the coast of County Mayo, along with others from the Arandora Star. He was interred at the Termoncarragh Cemetery, near Balmullet, Mayo. His mother, Christina MacKay, was originally from Lionacleit (Liniclate), on the West side of Benbecula, Isle of South Uist. The Connelly family were raised on Mull before settling in Oban. The South Uist War Memorial, for the area of South Uist known as Gerinish, commemorates a 'Private Ian Connely Lovat Scouts' and it has been assumed that this is the same person, albeit the Christian name is not spelled in the 'Gaelic' manner, i.e. Iain, as would be expected.

The second one was Trooper William Colquhoun (409839) who was also aged 21 years. He was washed up on the Island of Barra and is interred at the Nunton Old Cemetery on the Isle of Benbecula. He was the son of Duncan and Mary Ann Colquhoun, and grandson of Catherine Mac Eachen, all of Creagorry, Isle of Benbecula, not far from his final resting place.

Note : The Commonwealth War Graves Commission record his date of death as 15th August 1940, and his memorial stone at the Nunton Cemetery in Benbecula also shows this date. It is not clear why this should be, but given the fact his remains were washed ashore on Barra it may be the date when his remains were found on that Island, some 44 days after he lost his life.

An Italian internee, Enrico Muzio, was washed up on the shores of Barra and is interred in the Eoligarry Cemetery. It is believed he may have been an opera singer whose normal residence was in London, and that he was about 46 years of age at the time of his death, and originally came from Naples.

Two other Italians are believed to have been washed ashore in the Hebrides (South Uist), namely Oreste Fisanotti and Baldassare Plescia, but no further information is available on these at this time.

Two seamen who served on board the ARANDORA STAR and had Hebridean connections were :
Neil MacLeod Bosun Luskentyre, Isle of Harris
Finlay MacKay A.B. Isle of Benbecula

A third Lovat Scout serving as a Military Guard on ARANDORA STAR was Corporal Roderick Matheson (410055), aged 24 years, a native of Baleshare, North Uist. Following the sinking, he was in the water for nine hours, clinging to wreckage, before being picked up by HMCS St. Laurent. After training in Canada, as an expert skier and Alpine Climbing Instructor, Corporal Matheson lost his life in action on 15th January 1945 whilst serving in the Apennine Mountains, near Rome. He was interred in the Rome War Cemetery.

A fourth Lovat Scout serving as a Military Guard on ARANDORA STAR was Roderick Mac Sween of Gerinish, South Uist, who was rescued.

VICTOR OVER THE VICTIM

The architect of the destruction of one of the most famous and luxurious pre-war cruise-liners in the world was none less than the German U-Boat ace, Korvettekapitan zur See Gunther Prien and his very successful U-47. This was the Commander who, on 14th October 1939, skilfully manoeuvred his U-Boat into Scapa Flow and sank the pride of the British navy, the battleship HMS Royal Oak, in what had been considered her secure and impenetrable anchorage. Avoiding the heavily defended deep entrance routes, KK Prien boldly and with great skill and seamanship took his submarine through Holm Sound and into the narrow and deliberately obstructed Kirk Sound.

It had not been thought worth placing a boom net across this sound as it was too narrow, too shallow and subject to strong and fast currents to enable submarine access. KK Prien had different views and was convinced he could negotiate this tricky passage and once inside get a bearing on the target. He privately thought there would be little chance of making good his escape afterwards, but this was of secondary importance – sinking the Royal Oak was a prize worthy of such a risk.

In the event, he succeeded beyond all expectation, the great ship sank very quickly with huge loss of life (833 lives lost) and the event became a spectacular propaganda strike for the Kriegsmarine. U-47 negotiated her way back out through the Kirk Sound and into the North Sea and safety.

This achievement made Gunther Prien an overnight hero in his native country, and humiliated British naval pride as Scapa Flow was regarded the most heavily protected British base. It earned the Commander the coveted decoration of Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – received personally from Adolf Hitler on 18th October 1939 From that time KK Prien became known as ‘The Bull of Scapa Flow’.

U-47 was a Type VIIB U-Boat, built in 1938 by Germania Werft of Kiel. Her keel was laid on 1st April 1937, she was launched on 29th October 1938, and commissioned on 17th December 1938.

The war record of this U-Boat and her skilled Commander is exceptional. In a total of ten war patrols, carried out in a 20-month period between August 1939 through March 1941, KK Prien’s actual ‘active’ time amounted to only 32 weeks. Nevertheless, in that short time, he managed to sink 30 Allied vessels, damage another six, and take out a major British battleship of almost 30,000 tons in the heart of the British Navy’s most secure harbour. Gunther Prien, in that short time, accounted for 164,953 tons of Allied shipping, a remarkable feat, and had he survived another year or so of the war there is little doubt he would have been in contention for the most successful U-Boat Commander of WWII.

On the night of 1st/2nd July 1940, U-47 was homeward-bound for her Kiel base after her 8th War patrol in an area S. W. of Ireland, during which she had sunk a further seven Allied ships amounting to 35,952 tons. Her torpedoes expended, with the exception of one that had been set aside as it was thought to be faulty, KK Prien spotted and tracked the large liner, which turned out to be the ARANDORA STAR, and wished he had one or two more torpedoes on which he could rely. He took the decision to try with the one he had in any case and gave the instruction for it to be prepared whilst he prepared his attack plan and approach.

The rest is history – the attack was a momentous success and a great ship was sent to the bottom with large loss of life, ironically many of which were German and Italian nationals. 

Angus MacKinnon

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