Italian Scottish women on the Home Front in World War Two

21 October 2014
Historian and author Dr Wendy Ugolini explores the lives of Italian women in Scotland at the outbreak of World War Two. ...

The declaration of war on Britain by Italy on 10 June 1940 had significant consequences for Italian immigrants and their families, many of whom had been living in Scotland for decades. By the outbreak of World War Two, there were an estimated 5,000 Italian immigrants settled in Scotland, not including their British-born children. My book, 'Experiencing War as the "Enemy Other". Italian Scottish experience in World War II', explores the impact of the conflict on members of the Italian diaspora, focusing on the second generation who were born and raised in Scotland but had dual nationality.

In June 1940, the British government implemented a policy of internment and deportation of thousands of Italian men who were defined as ‘enemy aliens’ but whilst this story is increasingly well known and commemorated, the experiences of Italian Scottish women remain underexplored.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Italian Scottish wartime experience is the enforced relocation of Italian women and their children from coastal protected areas. Under the Aliens (Protected Areas) (No.5) Order 1940, Italian nationals in Scotland who had not been interned were issued with relocation notices ordering them to remove themselves twenty miles inland within 72 hours. 

The government’s policy of relocating Italian women away from the ‘protected’ coastal strip meant that in cities such as Edinburgh, only second generation women, as British subjects, were permitted to stay in their homes (their male counterparts generally being conscripted into the armed forces, interned or detained under Defence Regulation 18B). 

These women took on the burden of familial responsibilities at a very young age, running shops and cafes and attempting to keep businesses operating, at a time when many premises had been severely damaged during the vicious anti-Italian riots of 1940.

This was a period of intense anxiety, loneliness and isolation for many second generation Italian women, their employment in the catering trade – such as cafes and fish restaurants - making them particularly vulnerable to attack and abuse, especially from drunken customers.

Women who were interviewed for my book recalled incidences of being hit by stones, being spat at or simply being shunned in communal areas on account of their national origin. Indeed, for female interviewees, one of the most destabilising aspects of this time was the fact that it was people that they knew -  school friends, neighbours and customers - who often turned against them. Overall, their experiences contributed to a heightened sense of being ‘Italian’ and of being pushed to the boundaries of the British national imaginary at a time of war.


Italian Scottish women also served in the essential industries or the women’s auxiliary services in significant numbers. Amongst those I interviewed were former Land Girls, a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and women who had served in war factories and shipyards.

However, even for those who enjoyed their wartime service, they still often experienced a rupture between the supposedly unifying discourse of ‘doing your bit’ and the complex reality of their distressing family circumstances, when their fathers could be interned and their mothers relocated. Indeed, those interviewed about their time as ‘war workers’ still foregrounded the sense of being treated as second class citizens. It is also significant that a small number of women of Italian origin in Scotland also attempted to register as conscientious objectors on the grounds that they ‘did not want to be involved’ in a war against Italy.

Overall, there was an inability amongst Italian Scottish women interviewees to provide much detailed information about their day-to-day existence during this traumatic wartime period and the desire to blank out memories from this time appears quite widespread amongst this group. Perhaps, here, we are witnessing ‘wounds in the tissue of memory’ as identified by Luisa Passerini in her work on Fascist Italy?

About the author

Dr Wendy Ugolini is the author of Experiencing War as the ‘Enemy Other’. Italian Scottish experience in World War II, published by Manchester University Press. The book considers how wartime events affected the construction or Italian identity in Britain. It makes a groundbreaking and original contribution to the social and cultural history of Britain during World War Two as well as the wider literature on war, memory and ethnicity. It will appeal to scholars and students of British and Scottish cultural and social history and the history of World War Two.

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