The War Years In Clerkenwell’s Little Italy

I was 18 years old, when on the 3rd September 1939 we sat huddled around our crystal radio set in Little Saffron Hill, in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy. It was two days after Hitler’s armies had invaded Poland.  Anxiously we listened to Neville Chamberlain’s sober speech, as he declared that “Britain was at War with Germany”.

Minutes after the speech air raid sirens were sounded, but there was great confusion as no-one knew just what we were supposed to do. Eventually the sirens sounded the “All Clear”.  Clouds of barrage balloons filled the London skies. This was going to be a horrendous war for us Londoners, especially within the Italian community.  By this time many of the Italians immigrants had lived in Britain for a significant amount of time. Many had children that had been born in Britain, indeed in some cases there were families with several generations of British born offspring. These British born sons of Italians were soon faced with National Conscription, and were required to “fight for their country”.  Many went readily to serve what they considered to be their country, proud to be British citizens.

Barrage Balloons Floating Over London During The Second World War


However, my brother Berto was not called to serve as he had in fact been born in Italy and had arrived in London aged just 6 months old.  My parents had never thought it necessary to apply for British citizenship.

Preparations For The War

The Govenment ordered us make preparations for the war. In case of poisonous gas attacks, we has all been issued with gas masks which came in flimsy cardboard boxes.  We were told to always have them with us and drilled on how to use them. They were dreadful things to wear, awfully claustrophobic and they had a repulsive smell of rubber. Thank goodness the gas attacks never came about.

Then we were supplied with leaflets with instructions on how to put sticky tape across our windows in a diagonal cross cross pattern, to stop the glass panes shattering in the event of a blast. And then of course there was the blackout, which was intended to make night bombing by the Germans more difficult, if they were unable to make out certain well known landmarks.   At night all windows and doors had to be covered up by thick black curtains.  Every area had an ARP man who would roam the streets checking for any chinks of light showing from people’s houses. If you did not take heed, you could get severely fined. Even striking a match outside at night was an offence. Vehicles were only to travel at a snail’s pace, and their headlights had to be masked so as to deflect the beam downwards.  On the streets it was terrible trying to find your way around in the dark, I’d be forever stumbling or bumping into people and lamp posts. Thankfully, however, my boss would let us leave work a little early on winter evenings so we could find our way home before dusk.

St. Peter’s school, at the top of our road, shut down as many of the young children were evacuated to Wootton Basset in Wiltshire. It was an extremely sad time for many mothers. After the children had gone it was disconcertingly quiet in Little Saffron Hill without the sound of their cheerful voices and peals of laughter.

Our family wasn’t issued with a Morrison shelter and an Anderson shelter was out of the question as we didn’t even have a garden to put it it.  The basement cellars of St. Peter’s Italian church were cleared out in order to provide us all with an air-raid shelter, in the event of attack. The School hall was also fortified to house families if they were bombed out.

This period became known as the “Phoney War” as the apparent threat of German air strikes had not materialised.  Before long, many of the evacuated children felt homesick and families decided to bring them back home.

I was happily employed worked as a dressmaker. Each day I travelled to Tottenham Court Road to a fashion house run by an Italian boss, who at times was a hard taskmaster, but I enjoyed my work and was proud to be able to earn a living and help support my family. However, food was becoming scarce because of German U-boat attacks on merchant shipping in the Atlantic – fresh fruit such as oranges, lemons and bananas vanished from the shops.  We were issued with a ration book and had to register with a local grocer and butcher.  We would have to patiently queue for ages before getting served and we would then hand over our coupons to purchase our meagre food allowance.

Concetta Leonardi of Clerkenwell London
                                       Me – Tina

Yet, prior to the war the Italian shopkeepers had stockpiled supplies of foodstuffs. British people started frequenting these shops to try and buy extra supplies and I suppose this was how they started experimenting with pasta and Italian food, asking how to prepare  it.  How things have changed over the years. However eventually even these additional stocks began to run low.

In 1939 Italy had invaded Albania, Mussolini had amassed a huge army and still had designs to further enlarge his own empire.

Shortly after this event Italy had signed “The Pact of Steel”, otherwise known as the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy”. It was a declaration of continuing trust and co-operation between the two countries.

After Hitler invaded Poland he fully expected Mussolini to back him and join in the war.

The Pact of Steel Pact or Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy


However, despite all his stirring speeches and bravado, Mussolini chose to hold back and watched from the side lines.   Mussolini wanted himself to be seen as an an equal partner of Hitler so eventually he decided to join forces with the Germans.

Hitler and Mussolini


Hitler and Mussolini




Italy Declares War on Britain

Finally came the dreadful news at 4.45pm 10 June 1940 that Italy had declared war on Britain and the Allies.

The Italian community in Clerkenwell were still not fully aware what a drastic effect this was to have on their lives.

You Tube Video of Mussolini’s speech (with English subtitles) Declaring War on Britain and France

That night, in some parts of Britain there was anti Italian rioting and many Italians had their windows smashed and business premises ransacked and looted, while generally the police stood by and did little to protect them. Italians had to endure heckling and name calling such as  “I-ties – Why don’t you go back home?”

British Pathé Film Clip – Italy Declares War June 1940

Enemy Aliens

For some time Britain’s MI5 had been secretly gathering a list of names of Italians in Great Britain, who had shown any connection with the Italian Fascist party or its groups and clubs. It was deemed that such “dangerous individuals” men could pose a serious threat to national security.

Winston Churchill instructed the Home Secretary of  the time, Sir John Anderson, to arrest any adult male Italians, who from now on were designated as being “enemy aliens”.  The police were directed “to take steps to intern all residents of Italian origin whose activities have given grounds for the belief or reasonable suspicion that they might in time of war endanger the safety of the State or engage in activities prejudicial to the prosecution of the war.”

Winston Churchill defended this policy by claiming that is was necessary to “collar the lot”.

Then in the dark early hours we suddenly awoke to hear pounding on our front door.  It was two burly policemen, who declared they had come to arrest my brother Berto.  He was taken from his bed and ordered to hurriedly bundle a few belongings into a case.  They threatened that they would be back to arrest my father.

It seemed so unjust.  Berto was only 6 months old when he arrived in London so England was all he knew. At this time Berto was 29 years old, Papa was 54 and they had both lived in London for the past 29 years and had always been good law abiding citizens.  Mamma was distraught as she saw her son being lead away without explanation.

Roberto Leonardi of Clerkenwell
However across Britain about 4,100 Italian men were detained without any charges under the “Defence of the Realm Act Regulation 18b” and were to be held in detention without trial.  Even the Italian priests were arrested.

You can follow what happened to Berto here – Internment of Italian Enemy Aliens

We were left shell shocked, having had our world tumultuously tipped upside down.  Loving families had been torn apart, heartbroken women had been deprived of their husbands and sons who were also their bread winners. Some women struggled to keep their family businesses running, but many were forced to close them down and relinquish their livelihoods, leaving them with no income and with no possibility of any social assistance. Some families had some of their sons on the battlefields fighting in the British Army, while their other Italian born sons were been arrested as Enemy Aliens.  These were terrible times indeed, especially for the womenfolk.  In some places Italians found themselves shunned by their neighbours and had to endure racist taunting as they walked along the streets, yet we found in general that our true friends stuck by us and remained loyal throughout.

We had no idea where Berto had been taken until we received a letter to say he was being held on the Isle of Man which had been transformed into a huge internment camp.  Fortunately the policemen did not return to arrest Papà, however all through the war he found it impossible to find work.  I was the only member of our family earning any money, so I had to support my parents and sister as best I could.

Those Italians who had not been interned, were required to register with the local police.  A curfew was enforced between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am, and Italians were not allowed to venture further than a 5 mile radius of where they lived.  Any change of address or employment had to be reported to the police.  All guns, ammunition, short-wave radios, cameras and signalling devices were outlawed.

However, the irony of it was, that I was born in London, and was therefore classified as a British Citizen.  I pluckily went to the police station and doggedly put forward my case.  Eventually they reluctantly relented and allowed me to keep a radio, but I was ordered on no account to allow my sister and parents or any other Italians to listen to it!

The Sinking of the Arandora Star

Then came the terrible news about the sinking of the “Arandora Star”, which had been carrying numerous Italian internees.  Desperate Italian families rushed to see if any of their family members names were recorded on the “Dead or Missing List”.  We could not find Berto’s name, but we recognised many of the names of fine honest men from our Italian community.  Their families  were left mourning for the loss of their loved ones.  Of the 734 Italians on board the ship, 486 died; of the 479 Germans, 175 were lost.  We still had no idea where Berto was, we just hoped and prayed that he was alive.  It all seemed so terribly wrong and unjust.

Italian Heart

Images marked * are in the Public Domain.

All other photos belong to my family