Tom Conti: My dad, sent to a prison camp for being Italian

  • 27 April 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Image caption Alfonso Conti on his wedding day. His son Tom was conceived shortly after his release from internment

During World War II, the UK interned about 4,000 people of Italian origin amid general suspicion of their loyalties. Most were sent to the Isle of Man. Among them was the father of actor Tom Conti, who looks back at his parents' story.

Before I was born, my mother - a woman who had she found a half-crown on the street, would have taken it to the police station - bribed a high-ranking police officer.

It was an act of tremendous courage. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

My father, Alfonso Conti, had been arrested and imprisoned for no other reason than the country of his birth.

It was June 1940 and Benito Mussolini had declared war on Britain and France. Overnight, all Italians living in the UK were declared enemy aliens.

Alfonso was one of the many Italians who came to Britain in the early part of the century to find work. During World War I, the Italian army - then an ally of Britain - trained him in machine gunnery and barbering.

After the war, having settled in Paisley, near Glasgow, he discovered that he could make more money, and have much more fun, as a ladies' hairdresser. So he opened a salon.

Not long afterwards he met a pretty Scottish lass called Maisie who came looking for a job. Maisie was to be my mother.

Alfonso heard the news of Mussolini's war declaration with horror. He was not a fan of the fascist regime and had been in Britain for 20 years, so he was somewhat surprised now to be considered a potential fifth columnist.

Churchill apparently uttered the infamous phrase "collar the lot" that summer - a call for all enemy aliens in Britain to be locked up. Invasion seemed imminent and he was taking no chances.

In the following months, about 30,000 Germans and Austrians - including Jews who had fled the Nazis - were arrested. Also detained were about 4,000 Italians, most of whom, like my father, were ordinary men who had made Britain their home.

Many were shipped to the Isle of Man. Its large Victorian boarding houses along the seafront were ideal as makeshift internment camps.

Image caption Italians in an internment camp on the Isle of Man

Just after the war, when I was five, my father - no doubt to exorcise any remaining demons - took my mother and me back to the island. I don't remember much about it. Sadly he died when I was 20 without my ever having properly discussed it with him.

Fifty years later I returned to the island in search of information. At the Isle of Man Heritage Museum in Douglas there is a small but lovingly curated collection of documents relating to Italian internment.

I pored over a large black-and-white photo of a group of men, and several letters from wives to their husbands, but I could find no sign of my father.

I was then shown an old log book (discovered in a second-hand bookshop) of the Italians held in one of the camps. The chances of my father being in it were pretty slim.

Dozens of names and addresses were written in neat rows. Then, to my astonishment, there he was - Alfonso Conti, followed by the name of the street in which I was born.

I don't know what my father did to pass the time on the Isle of Man, but by all accounts the internees were pretty resourceful, playing sport, putting on drama performances and concerts, and producing magazines.

I saw ships in bottles made by Italian sailors and even a painting of the Madonna with the unmistakable sweep of Douglas Bay in the background. But what it was like spending months locked up behind barbed wire, I hope I'll never know.

Left alone to run the business back in Scotland, Maisie was worried. Alfonso suffered from diabetes and she was convinced the condition could prove fatal in captivity. That is why she took a suitcase containing £2,000 to the high-ranking police officer.

"This is yours if you can get my husband out of prison," she said, knowing full well that the next line might be: "Lady, you're nicked."

It was, in fact: "Thank you very much, Mrs Conti." Some months later, my father was released.

My godfather Gaetano Cibelli was also interned on the island. He was taken for interrogation and the officer in charge said: "We know that you have two sons."

"Yes, that's right," he said.

"We've found one. You must tell us where the other is. Immediately!" barked the officer.

His response was borne of both anger and pride. "Of course, I tell you. He's in the Royal Air Force."

Image caption Alfonso Conti, with an award he received after the war for his hairdressing skills

My godfather and my father's best friend Alfonso Avella were later put on a ship.

Canada had agreed to take some of the internees and on 29 June 1940, the Arandora Star, a requisitioned cruiseliner, was loaded up with 734 Italian civilians, as well as several hundred German merchant seamen.

Just over 24 hours after its departure from Liverpool, the ship was spotted by a German U-Boat and torpedoed.

My godfather, who was on deck at the time, was thrown into the ocean. He survived and spoke to me about it only once, remembering the terrible cold, the fear that the resulting oil slick would ignite, and his friend, Avella, calling to him across the water: "Cibelli, Cibelli".

About 20 minutes after the torpedo struck, the Arandora Star disappeared below the surface, taking 805 people to their death, including Avella and 469 other Italians.

Nine hours later survivors were picked up by a Canadian destroyer.

Maisie and Alfonso were married for 10 years before he was interned and had given up hope of having children.

But soon after his release in early 1941, I was conceived.

To hear the full story, listen to Archive on 4: Collar the Lot on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 27 April at 20:00 BST, or catch up with iPlayer.

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