Friday 1 November 2019



The Isles of Orkney and the seas around Scapa Flow make a natural harbour, and have been used by sea voyagers and travellers through the ages. The scattered islands seem to circle around each other, providing bays and beaches and inlets that have been used by viking raiders, by the Earls and their descendants, by lairds and lords and by the folk of the islands.

File:Wfm orkney map.svg - Wikipedia
However, in the 1940's, a huge construction project was begun which changed the pattern of the waters and many aspects of life on Orkney.  

The Royal Navy had had reasons to worry about the wide harbour of Scapa Flow. Back in 1918, after the Surrender, the fleet of German warships was anchored there while the powers at Versailles decided their fate. 

The Fleet Commander, Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter, sent a secret message to all seventy-four German ships, giving orders for each ship to be scuttled by their crews. The date he chose was 21st June, 1919, the date then proposed for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Just after 11am on that day, all valves and sea-cocks were opened, bore-holes driven through bulkheads and portholes and doors unsealed. About an hour later, the crews on the Royal Navy guard-ships saw the captured fleet avoiding further disgrace sinking before their very eyes. Although some vessels were beached, fifty-four German ships were scuttled at Scapa Flow. This year, 2019, is the hundredth anniversary of that event.

Then, on 14th October 1939 - more than a decade later, and at the start of WWII - there was another blow to the Royal Navy's morale.  

Although Scapa Flow was considered invulnerable to submarine attack, a German U-47 submarine passed through the block-ships and torpedoed the elderly HMS Royal Oak which was anchored there. Over eight hundred sailors, including many young recruits, lost their lives.

In 1940, in response, Churchill decided that a set of concrete causeways would be built, blocking the eastern lanes into Scapa Flow and linking the islands South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm and Lambs Holm to the orkney Mainland
The Churchill Barriers were completed in 1944 and opened in May 1945. While the narrow causeways did make road travel between these islands possible, the changes to the flow of the water also damaged local fishing grounds.

Of course, Churchill's bold scheme would need a quantity of labourers, so a work force of over twelve thousand Italian prisoners-of-war was brought from the sands of the North African Campaign to the wild, wind-scoured Orkneys 

Under the Geneva convention, POW's were not supposed to take part in war work, so the barriers were described as "improvements to communications."

La capilla de los italianos | EL CAJÓN DE GRISOM
Here, amid all the seafare and warfare, is a small piece of history that I found inspiring and hopeful. 

While the men were working there as prisoners, they also built two chapels. The chapel on Lambsholm still exists: it is cared for, used for very occasional services and open for visitors.

The chapel was simply built. It was constructed from two concrete-covered nissen huts and given a bitumen coating. Only the ornate concrete facade hints at what can be found within.

In their spare time, prisoners decorated the inside of their nissen huts so that it resembled the stone, marble and mosaic interior of  their chapels and churches back in Italy.

Two men were largely responsible for the creation of the chapel and organising all the careful work. Signor Guiseppe Palumbi was the person who made the iron work and screens from whatever metals he found available. This hanging sanctuary lantern, below, is made from a bully beef tin.

Signor Domenico Chiochetti was the creator and painter of much of the artwork, especially the large mural behind the altar: a copy of "Madonna and Child" by the artist Nicolo Barabino. 

After so much about men and their machines in this post, I am glad of the fact that Chiochetti used the image from a card that his mother had given him as he left home and which he carried in his pocket throughout the war. He got home safely and he returned several times to the little chapel he had created on Lambs Holm.

After the wrecked ships and the concrete blocks and the evidence of past wars, the love spent on this tiny chapel - and the magic of the Orkney landscape and light - were things that lifted the heart.  

Penny Dolan 



Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Penny!

Sue Purkiss said...

So heartening to read this - I've seen pictures of it before and hope one day to see it for myself. And that last photograph is stunning!

Susan Price said...

Sue, I hope you do get to see it -- it's amazing! The first time I went to Orkney, I took a little tour, mainly to see several of the stone-age sites. The Italian Chapel was included but, not having a shred of christianity, I wasn't interested in seeing it. Still, when the little bus stopped there, I thought: Why not take a look? It was a chance to stretch the legs if nothing else.

I was knocked sideways, completely unprepared for how moving and admirable I found it. What got me was the dedication with which these men created their little chapel, in a place that was so far from home in every sense of the phrase, with as much beauty as they could, from the most unpromising of materials: a nissan hut, old tin cans, left-over house-paint and any unwanted materials they could scrounge from the Orcadians, who often had little enough themselves. -- It was the fact that the Orcadians helped as much as they could and then preserved the little chapel. And, of course, many of the Italian prisoners settled in Orkney and married local girls.

The Orcadians and the Italians -- neither side had much choice about being involved in a war they didn't start or choose. They could have treated each other as enemies, but they didn't. It was a place I wasn't interested in visiting but it's one of the places I remember most.