I’m on the third draft of my second novel. It is mostly set in the women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man, which held German and Jewish women – as well as 18b British fascists – from 1940 – 1945. Today I need to rewrite the chapter about the sinking of the Arandora Star. I am clearly avoiding doing so. And in the light of comments last night about Turner Prize winner Elizabeth Price, whose piece, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, was discussed in off-the-cuff remarks from gallery visitors, maybe I am right to hesitate. In the Channel 4 news coverage, several people questioned Price’s subject matter, a furniture store fire, and whether it was right for her to “profit” from others’ tragedies. They shook their heads and tutted. And I thought – hang on, isn’t that what we do, all of us, when we look at history, to write about it or to make art? Am I right to write about this event, or any disastrous event in the first place – if it is not “mine”?
The SS Arandora Star was a Blue Star Line cruise ship pressed into service, as so many were, as a wartime transporter, evacuating troops from Norway and France. It was also used to ship internees. On 2 July 1940, the Arandora Star sailed from Liverpool toward Newfoundland, carrying nearly 1200 German and Italian interned men and prisoners of war. The ship was struck by the torpedo of a U-boat off the coast of Ireland. All power was lost and the ship sank in 35 minutes, killing more than 800. Throughout the month of August, bodies washed onto Scottish and Irish shores.
“I could see hundreds of men clinging to the ship. They were like ants and then the ship went up at one end and slid rapidly down, taking the men with her… Many men had broken their necks jumping or diving into the water. Others injured themselves by landing on drifting wreckage and floating debris near the sinking ship”
— Sergeant Norman Price, speaking in a first-hand account of war at sea, edited by Ian Hawkins.
News of the sinking was broadcast on the BBC, whose news report claimed that the death toll should be blamed on the Nazis on board who swept everyone aside in a rush for lifeboats. There were not enough lifeboats and several had been damaged in the explosion. The Daily Express stated that “the scramble for the boats was sickening”. All reports at the time led the public to believe that the Arandora Star had carried only Nazis and Italian Fascists, and it was the first that anyone had heard of the government deporting internees.
We now know that an unspecified – but significant – number of German internees onboard were actually Jewish refugees who had fled to Britain from Nazi oppression. Some of these men were husbands to the women who were interned in the Isle of Man, women who had not received any information from or about their husbands since their own internments, women who did not know that their husbands had sailed or that they had been told that their wives would be following them to Newfoundland; in fact, the wives knew nothing of the transport or the deportation at all, and had certainly not been asked to follow them. The news of the tragedy – and the government’s deceit – hit the camp and its women hard. One internee is quoted as saying, “the whole camp grieved.”
In the aftermath of the sinking, events were discussed in the House of Commons. On 9 July 1940, George Strauss, MP for Labour, asked, “Does the Minister of Shipping have any statement to make about the loss of the Arandora Star; whether the ship was convoyed and had ample lifeboat provision; how many of the Germans on board were known to be Nazis and how many came to this country as refugees; when will he 1075 be able to provide the friends and relatives in England with the names of the persons drowned; and whether it is proposed to send internees abroad without convoy?” On 23 July, MPs were still asking for the full list of names of the internees on board, to confirm the missing as dead for their families; MPs continued to ask about the percentage of Germans onboard who were Jewish refugees and to query why initial reports suggested that all passengers were Nazis and fascists. On 30 July, MPs were accusing the Minister of Shipping of having sent all survivors away so that they could not be questioned about the disaster or their treatment before, during, or after it. The 586 survivors of the Arandora Star, only days later and still in shock, had all been placed on the SS Dunera and sent to Australia, where they would continue their internment.
In August it was decided by the Camp Commandant, Dame Joanna Cruickshank, that interned wives of men interned in camps across the Isle of Man should be allowed to meet their husbands, if only to discuss and decide whether they would agree to be deported. Imagine the meeting – women putting on their finest things from the one bag they had been allowed to pack; the coach journey from Port Erin to Derby Castle in Douglas; the first glimpse of one another after two months of separation with no word, no letter, no contact. Women smuggled in any food they had; records show one entire roast chicken was confiscated from a handbag. Was there punch or dancing? Were they allowed to canoodle? There are no reports of that but, upon their return, not a single couple had agreed to be deported. The practice itself was soon stopped, but it did mark a turning point in the policy of internment.
The event galvanised liberal MPs, from Colonel Wedgwood to MP Eleanor Rathbone, to fight all the harder for the rights of internees and refugees. As for the internees themselves, never again would they be so trusting or so willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, that all mistakes and oversights would be swiftly identified and rectified. The sinking of the Arandora Star taught the internees that it was every man – and woman for herself. The bulk of the women in the internment camp were refugees themselves, having sat tribunals during “the phoney war” only to be arrested in the great panic over Fifth Columnists as country after country toppled to Nazi Germany in April and May 1940. We are all so very afraid when a war begins and escalates.
World War Two is not “my war”, though I have been writing about it for years. “My war” must be the one we are still somehow “fighting”, this “war on terror” which has suffered as much from the mistakes of racial profiling and internment as WW2. Studying what happened in 1940 makes 2001, 2004, 2012 more clear for me. I do not believe that writing about this event, or indeed any event from the internment camp or the war itself, is an attempt to “profit” from disaster. How could I? But am I kidding myself?
Artists and writers look at history and at world events. Surely it is not solely for profit, but for art’s sake, in the very human endeavour of attempting to understand the world and its people. We cannot help but look backward, to try to understand how we have moved forward – or not. I believe that I am bearing witness to an internment camp that I have studied and whose former internees, as well as those who interned them, I have met and spoken with at length. They want to understand what happened, as do I. I do not believe I am attempting to profit from their pain, but perhaps I flatter myself that I can share it, that I can ease the burden by bringing it out of a hidden past and into the light. And now, it really is time to rewrite that chapter.