Seventy years after the Arandora Star was sunk with loss of 713 'enemy aliens', the last Scots Italian survivor is able to forgive but not forget

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DURING THE 1930s, the name Arandora Star was synonymous with good living on the high seas, one of the Blue Star line's "luxury five" cruise liners. On the morning of 2 July, 1940, a U-boat's torpedo ensured that, 70 years on, the ship's name still resonates grimly in the psyche of the Italian community in Britain. So far as the Scottish Italian community was concerned, there was hardly a family who didn't lose a father, husband or brother,

• The Arandora Star in her pre-World War II days as a luxury cruising liner anchored at venice, 1930's

all of whom had been summarily interned as "enemy aliens".

Next Friday, memorial services in Edinburgh and Glasgow will mark the anniversary, the Glasgow event being held on the site of what will be the most ambitious memorial to the tragedy anywhere in the world, an enclosed Italian Cloister Garden currently under construction as part of the refurbishment of St Andrew's Cathedral. It will be an urban sanctuary, where visitors can contemplate the Italian community's inordinate contribution to Scottish life, and no doubt reflect on the madness of war, of which the Arandora Star sinking remains a salutary example.

The Arandora Star sailed from Liverpool carrying some 1,300 interned "enemy aliens", including more than 730 Italian male civilians and 479 German male civilians all destined for internment in Canada, as well as 86 German prisoners of war and a military guard of 200. Headed for St John's, Newfoundland, the vessel got no further than 75 miles west of Bloody Foreland in Donegal, when a U-boat sent a torpedo into her.

"When I heard the thump, I didn't know what it was. It was six o'clock in the morning and I was half-asleep," recalls Rando Bertoia, the 90-year-old retired Glasgow watchmaker who is now the last Italian survivor of the sinking. He had been sleeping on deck. "Some of my friends, who were from more or less the same village as me, were more wakened up than me, and one of them came through the rails, grabbed me and got me into a lifeboat."

It has been suggested that the lifeboats had been deliberately holed by the British shooting into them, to render them useless for escape.

Bertoia simply remembers his lifeboat lurching, "because it hadn't been looked after for many years, but, anyway, we landed on the sea and did our best to row away from the ship. I can still remember the terrible sight of all the wee heads bobbing up and down, and we saw the ship go under and all was quiet. Men were crying for help, although you couldn't do very much.

"And so we floated about, just the sky and the water – no land. It was quite scary."

However, the drifting, overcrowded lifeboats were spotted by a British Sunderland flying boat and they were soon picked up by a Canadian destroyer.

According to Blue Star Line figures, 805 of the 1,673 people on board the Arandora star died, including 470 Italians, 243 Germans, as well as 37 of their guards, the ship's captain, EW Moulton, and 12 officers. While a few of these "enemy aliens" would have been hard-line fascist sympathisers, most of them had no such allegiances; indeed, some had family members fighting in the British forces, while others had been active anti-fascist campaigners.

But the nightmare was by no means over for Bertoia and his fellow internees.

They were taken to Greenock, where there was a roll-call from the none-too-accurate list of the prisoners. "I had a 19-year-old cousin on board, and I heard his name called out, but there was no answer. I just broke down."

They weren't allowed to get in touch with their families, but were promptly dispatched back to Liverpool where, unbelievably, they were put on board another vessel, bound this time for Australia. The Dunera earned much infamy of its own due to the appalling way the internees were treated and also the degree of looting of their possessions by their military guard. And to cap it all, says Bertoia, just a few days out from Liverpool, "bang! we were torpedoed again. We were all thinking this would be the Arandora Star all over again, and you can imagine how we were terrified."

However, the torpedo appeared not to have done any serious damage, because the vessel sailed on, to South Africa and then Australia, where Bertoia and his fellows were interned north of Melbourne for the rest of the war.

Some of the Dunera's officers were later courtmartialled for their ill-treatment of their charges and these abuses, as well as the Arandora Star tragedy, did something to bring about an end to mass internment in Britain by 1941.

Bertoia is characteristically offhand about his own treatment on the voyage to Australia. "They told us to put all our valuables in bags and we'd get them back at Melbourne, but we never got anything back. I lost a gold watch. But it was wartimem so I never complained," he remarks. "But a few months after we'd arrived in Australia they gave us compensation forms, and we did get compensation."

Unlike many Italian immigrants to Scotland, Bertoia's family business had been in the mosaic and terrazzo work associated with their native Pordenone province in north-east Italy, rather than the fish and chips and ice-cream businesses that so many Scots Italians ran. After returning from the war, however, he joined his brother in running a watchmaker's business, which was a well-known frontage in Victoria Road, near his present southside of Glasgow home, until just a few years ago

Bertoia will be an honoured guest at the memorial service on the site of the Italian Cloister Garden emerging from building-site rubble adjacent to St Andrew's Cathedral, itself undergoing a major refurbishment. What will his thoughts be at the service? "Same as they always are," he replies, "That I was a victim of Italy's foolhardy military adventures."

He was one of the lucky ones. All along the Atlantic coasts of north-west Ireland and the Hebrides, sad little graves and plaques bearing Italian names, some juxtaposed with Gaelic scriptural quotations, testify to the grim flotsam washed up on these western shores in the weeks following the torpedoing of the Arandora Star. In the Glasgow cloister garden, designed by the Roman architect Giulia Chiarini, a marble slab on a central plinth will be inscribed with the names of more than 90 Scots Italians known to have perished in the sinking, among them names which have become familiar in Scottish public life – Angiolini, Beltrami, Crolla, De Marco, Di Luca…

Within such families, there has lingered the repressed pain of a father or brother taken away by the police after a knock on the door during the night and never seen again. According to Glasgow's Archbishop Mario Conti, the idea behind the garden "is not to open old wounds or ignite controversy. It is there to acknowledge a tragedy which had been ignored and forgotten, with the aim of healing memories".

Following the service at the Glasgow garden site on Friday, a requiem mass at St Mary's RC Cathedral in Edinburgh will also mark the 70th anniversary of the disaster. During it, two men from Edinburgh Italian families will sing a song about the sinking. One of them is Mike Maran, the Edinburgh-born, Cambridge-based writer-actor who has been bringing his minimalist musical theatre to the Fringe for decades, who wrote the song 17 years ago for one of his shows exploring his Scots Italian background, Italia 'n' Caledonia. The other is Philip Contini, managing director of Valvona & Crolla, the renowned Italian delicatessen, which becomes a Fringe venue each August.

There is a certain irony, agrees Contini, that this festival they will present a revised version of Italia 'n' Caledonia in the delicatessen which, like so many other Italian premises in Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere, had its shop front smashed during the fierce anti-Italian rioting that broke out following Mussolini's declaration of war in June 1940.

Both Contini and his wife and business partner, Mary Contini, who evokes the events of 1940 in her book Dear Olivia, never knew their grandfathers, both of whom were lost with the Arandora Star. "It was a major catastrophe," says Philip. "I was born in 1953 and when I was growing up there was this huge hurt that it had happened. My mother is in her eighties and she feels it's right to commemorate this 70th anniversary, but she's got mixed feelings about bringing it all back up again. Her father, Alfonso Crolla, who was decorated in the First World War fighting in the Italian Army alongside the British on the Austrian front, was 52 when they took him away. They all thought they'd see him shortly, but they never saw him again – no chance to say proper goodbyes."

There have been calls in the past for some form of official apology for, or acknowledgement of, the wholesale rounding-up of Italian men that dark summer of 1940, following Winston Churchill's "collar the lot" directive.

Contini, who feels this 70th anniversary is an appropriate time for him to acknowledge openly that his grandfather was the leader of the Edinburgh fascio – the local Italian fascist club, which many attended for purely social reasons – sees no grounds for official apologies now. Maran also sees nothing to apologise for – "just a series of mistakes. Whether we repeat these mistakes or not – that's our responsibility."

Bertoia, too, is philosophical about the chain of events which resulted in him drifting in an overcrowded lifeboat, watching a torpedoed ship go down with so many of his fellows. "If anyone, I think Italy should apologise," he says indignantly. "Mussolini started it."

Ten years ago, during a conference on Scottish-Italian identity, historian Dr Terri Colpi called for a motion asking the Scottish Government to tender an apology to the Scots Italian community for the internment episode. "I wouldn't say that today," she admits.

She says that when, 20 years ago, she started piecing together the casualty lists for the Arandora Star for her book The Italian Factor, "the community was still suffering from the lack of acknowledgement of that episode. Over the past 20 years there has been a healing and a coming to terms with it".

She believes that, with wider recognition and the support of Archbishop Conti, who instigated masses commemorating the victims, the episode and its legacy have been exorcised. "For 50 years it was a very hurtful issue, but I think now that enough aspects have been recognised on both sides.

"But it was the most tragic event in the history of the Italian community here. Nothing like it has ever happed to another Italian community anywhere in the world."