Orkney: The Churchill Barriers Part 1

 Scapa Flow is a body of water forming a natural harbour.  It is nestled in amongst several of the Orkney Islands.  During World War II it was the chief British naval base, due primarily to its being so far north and away from the reach of the German airfields.  On 14 October 1939 a German submarine, U-47, succeeded in penetrating Scapa Flow’s defences and fired three torpedos at HMS Royal Oak, one of the ships moored there.  One hit but caused only minor damage.  The U-47 turned to flee, but realising there was no immediate threat from British vessels turned back and fired another three torpedos.  These all hit their target.  The Royal Oak sank 13 minutes later, with the loss of 834 lives.

As a result of this attack, Churchill ordered that Scapa Flow’s defenses be improved.  This included the construction of four causeways linking five of the islands, barring entrance to Scapa Flow from that direction.  These “Churchill Barriers” were the object of today’s walk.

The first barrier crossing took us from the Mainland to Lamb Holm.

Churchill Barrier 1

The barriers were constructed during 1940-44, with help from some 2,000 Italian prisoners-of-war.  They were made out of thousands of 5- and 10-ton concrete blocks.  A road was then overlaid on top, allowing traffic to cross from one island to another.

Churchill Barrier 1As we walked across the first barrier we saw a number of cormorants diving under the water for fish.  All of a sudden we saw something else – a seal.  Its head bobbed upside down on the water line, before it too dived from view.

Seal

Lamb Holm is uninhabited and is only 0.15 square miles.  Its most notable feature is the Italian Chapel.

Italian ChapelThe Italian Chapel is all that remains today of Camp 60, a prisoner-of-war camp for Italian soldiers captured in North Africa.  In 1943 they were given two Nissen huts which were put end-to-end to form one long building.  One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, designed the chapel.  It included intricate designs for the altar, tabernacle, candlesticks, windows and coloured glass.  The chapel was locked when we visited, although I managed to get a picture of the inside through a window.

Italian Chapel

The chapel was in use for a very short period of time.  Even before it was finished, the prisoners were transferred to Yorkshire for repatriation.  The Lord-Lieutenant of Orkney, who also owned Lamb Holm, gave his promise that the chapel would be cherished by the Orcadians.  It remains exceptionally well maintained to this day.

Chiocchetti also designed a concrete statue which sits outside the chapel and which once presided over the camp square.  The statue is of St George slaying the dragon.  Never, in my wildest dreams, did I ever think I would come across a statue of the patron saint of England on Scottish soil!

St George Statue at the Italian ChapelAs we left, we saw a memorial to those who died in the construction of the barriers.  There were 12 names on it, 11 British and one Italian.

Churchill Barriers Memorial both sides

We walked on south across Lamb Holm, and on to the second barrier.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Churchill Barrier #1:  N 58° 53.588 W 002° 53.782
  • Italian Chapel:  N 58° 53.393 W 002° 53.360
  • Statue of St George:  N 58° 53.374 W 002° 53.435
  • Memorial:  N 58° 53.352 W 002° 53.705

Walk Statistics (the entire walk, of which this forms the first half):

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6 Responses to Orkney: The Churchill Barriers Part 1

  1. Jody says:

    How wonderful! I can’t imagine how much fun your children are having learning the history and geography of these beautiful areas!

    • Wingclipped says:

      Alas they weren’t with me for that particular trip. We are hoping to take them up to Islay this year, but in the meantime they will have to make do with all of the history from the Napoleonic era along the south coast…

  2. Jody says:

    I’ve so enjoyed your wonderful posts and photos over the past year! It’ll be fun to see what 2013 brings. Wishing you and yours a very happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year!

    • Wingclipped says:

      Thanks Jody – and to you and your family. I have also enjoyed your posts. We made the Christmas decorations you blogged about a couple of months ago and gave some of them to a couple of our guest walkers – they went down a real treat! Nic

  3. Pingback: Orkney: The Churchill Barriers Part 2 « The Coastal Path

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