Finding Francesco - the incredible true story of a victim of the WWII disaster that involved a ship called the Arandora Star.
In May 2023, South Ayrshire Provost, Iain Campbell, received an email from Michael Donnelly, a member of the Italian Garden Improvement Group (I.G.I.G.), seeking his help to erect a plaque at Girvan's Doune Cemetery. The plaque would honour a man called Francesco D'Inverno, who was a victim of a World War II disaster which involved a ship called the 'Arandora Star'.
Provost Campbell contacted local couple Ritchie and Lorna Conaghan, who run Girvan and District Great War Project (GADGWP). They, in turn, got in touch with Michael and Ralph Gonnella, also a member of the I.G.I.G., which maintains the Arandora Star Memorial Garden at St. Andrews Cathedral on Clyde Street in Glasgow.
This is the incredible true story that unfolded, solving an 83-year-old mystery.
The Arandora Star
Francesco D'Inverno was born in 1901 in Villa Latina, about 75 miles south-east of Rome, Italy. He worked in the hospitality industry in London and was employed at the Selsdon Park Hotel, where he was the hotel's Head Plateman. In 1939 Francesco married Ginevra Tasselli.
When Italy sided with Germany in 1940, many Italians who were living in Britain at that time were rounded up and taken prisoner as they were seen as 'Enemies of the State'. Even though some of these Italians had been in Britain for many years, they were taken to camps with a view to deporting them to Canada and Australia.
On Monday 1 July 1940, the Arandora Star set sail from Liverpool with 1,678 people on board, of which 734 were Italian. In the early hours of 2 July, she was hit by a torpedo 75 miles west of Donegal and sank, with the loss of over 800 lives - 486 were Italian.
Only 22 Italians, whose bodies were washed ashore were identified. They were all buried in cemeteries in Ireland, the Scottish Islands and the one body that washed ashore on the Scottish mainland, that of Francesco D`Inverno, was buried in Girvan.
Over six weeks after the sinking, Francesco's body was washed ashore on Tuesday 20 August 1940, near Gamesloup at Lendalfoot, south of Girvan. The local parish priest attended as he was interred in Common Ground in an unmarked grave in the town's Doune Cemetery on Thursday 22 August 1940.
Ritchie and Lorna commenced their painstaking research at the cemetery. Beginning in the general location of where they knew Franceso was buried, they photographed the headstones to try to build up a mental picture of where he could be. Next, they employed the help of Angela and the staff at Masonhill Crematorium in Ayr, where the burial records are kept. This led to them eventually pinpointing Francesco`s final resting place.
They also discovered that although Franceso was buried in Common Ground, there was no one buried in the same lair as him. This meant that rather than put up a simple plaque, a headstone could be erected to honour him.
This was wonderful news for Michael, Ralph and the members of the I.G.I.G. However, there was even more revelations to come. By pure coincidence, a friend of the Conaghan's had spoken to someone about what they were doing and urged them to get in touch with her as she knew more.
Newspaper reports of the day stated that a Girvan woman, Miss McCreath, had reported the discovery of the body to the police. This was true however, it wasn't Miss McCreath who found the body.
Franceso's body was actually discovered by a nine-year-old evacuee from Rutherglen, who turned out to be the now 92-year-old husband of the woman the Conaghan's had been put in touch with. This man had been trying in vain for many years to find out the identity of the body he found all that time ago and where he was buried so that he could pay his respects.
Finally, after all these years, Ritchie and Lorna were able to fill in the missing pieces.
Once the funds are in place, a headstone will be erected and a service in honour of Francesco and all the victims of the Arandora Star will be held.
This is just one story of life lost following the torpedoing of the Arandora Star. There were many other families from Ayr affected by this disaster too. These gentlemen also sadly lost their lives: Umberto Battistini; Luigi Biagi; Pietro Dalli; Mario Filippi ; Simone Filippi ; Giacinto Frattcroli; Francesco Gargaro; Antonio Mancini; and Guiseppe Pieroni. All of whom are commemorated on a wall plaque at the Arandora Star Memorial Garden at St. Andrews Cathedral on Clyde Street in Glasgow.
South Ayrshire Provost, Iain Campbell, said: "When I received the email out of the blue from Michael I was immediately intrigued and wanted to help. Ritchie and Lorna of GADGWP are dedicated to carrying out their wonderful research work, so I knew they would be the best people to contact to try to establish a bit more about where Francesco was buried. I was completely taken aback when the whole story began to unravel. It's been an honour to have played a small role in solving this 80-year-old mystery and now I'll look forward to being able to mark Francesco's final resting place and pay my respects."
Ritchie Conaghan said: "This has been truly humbling for Lorna and me. Just to be a tiny wheel on this juggernaut of a story and we can only begin to imagine how important this discovery has been for the Arandora Star community, and the Italian Scots Community. We feel very privileged to have been part of the 'Finding Francesco' story. A just giving page was recently launched that will hopefully help to raise the funds needed to erect a headstone for Francesco, in what will most likely be the last chance to honour a victim of the Arandora Star."
Arandora Star - a relative's story
Raffaello (Ralph) Gonnella lost his maternal grandfather in the Arandora Star tragedy and his own father was arrested and interned in 1940. Ralph is dedicated to preserving the memory of those who perished when the Arandora Star was torpedoed, and is passionate about educating people on the treatment of Italians in Scotland during World War II.
Ralph is the main historian and tour guide for the Glasgow Italian Garden and Arandora Star Memorial on Clyde Street. He is a member of the I.G.I.G. whose aim is to maintain the Glasgow Arandora Star Memorial and improve the Italian Garden. Ralph studied genealogy at Strathclyde University and is also a main historian of Scottish Italian 20th Century History, covering the main themes of emigration and immigration of Italians to Scotland pre-1945.
His main subject area of expertise is the treatment of Italians in Scotland between 1940- 1945, which includes the events that led up to the internment of "enemy aliens". This covers the tragedy of the Arandora Star, Canadian Internment (the Ettrick) and the Isle of Man and Australia (Dunera).
Ralph's maternal nonno (grandfather), Quinto Santini, died on the Arandora Star on 2 July 1940. His uncle, Raffaello Santini (also known as Ralph), died with the King's Own Scottish Borderers in Caen Northern France in July 1944. While his father, Renato Gonnella, was arrested and interned as an enemy alien in June 1940. He was then transported to Canada on board the Ettrick and spent the next four years in a prison camp on St. Helen's Island in Montreal.
Ralph said: "I'm very proud and humbled to be a small part of this project. It is so important that we raise the funds to get a gravestone memorial for Francesco. It was extremely sad to see the empty unmarked plot in the graveyard. Over 800 men died in the Arandora Star tragedy. My support and donation for the project are in memory of my maternal nonno, Quinto Santini, who was one of those men who died."
Ralph continues to raise awareness of how Italians were treated in the UK at this time - something that is not always highlighted in the history books of this era. His work has included various TV and radio appearances across the UK, Italy and Canada. He has also written and helped research numerous articles, books and productions. Most notably the Gresti/Nalin project that identifies their final resting places and his article; Italian-Scot to Scottish Italians 'Tallys', Cafes and Chippies - Their Story and Mine!
Ralph is currently working on 'Project AS94', a project where he hopes to identify and obtain photographs of all 94 Italian men from Scotland who died on the Arandora Star. The results of Project AS94 will be added to two similar projects that are being carried out in Wales and England to create a detailed record of all those Italians who perished in the tragedy.