During both World Wars, Orkney was strategically important for protecting the North Sea and Scapa Flow, the massive natural harbour fringed by the south isles, was the home of the British home fleet. The eastern approaches to Scapa Flow were known to be a weak link in the defences, with the short stretches of water between the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay being vulnerable to exploitation by submarines or small warships. During World War I, attempts had been made to block Kirk, Skerry, East Weddell and Water Sounds with old rusting steamships that were requisitioned and sunk, thus forming an obstacle to any attacker.
However, by the outbreak of World War II, many of these blockships had moved and shifted in the strong tides and German aerial photo-reconnaissance had spotted a potential gap. Thus, on the night of 13 October 1939, U-boat 47, under the command of Gunther Prien slipped into Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound – the short gap of water between Mainland and the southern island of Lamb Holm. They were aided by an unusually high tide and light from the Merry Dancers – the Northern Lights.
Fortunately, most of the British fleet was away on exercise, but HMS Royal Oak was at anchor. U-47 torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, and she sank rapidly with over 830 serving men and boys losing their lives from a crew of 1200. Gunther Prien and his crew got back to German where he enjoyed a hero’s welcome and was personally decorated with the Iron Cross by Hitler himself.
This was the first great disaster of World War II and Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, personally visited Orkney and ordered that the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow be permanently blocked. Construction of what became known as the Churchill Barriers began in 1940 by the construction company Balfour Beatty but by 1942 more labour was needed to speed up the work and 1200 Italian prisoners of war were brought up to Orkney to work on the project, of whom 600 were put into a prison camp on the island of Lamb Holm.
Of course, according to the Geneva Convention, POWs’ labour should not be used to aid one’s captors militarily, and so the Italian POWs at first refused to work, but they were put on short rations for a few days until they accepted the British explanation that the barriers were being built to make travel easier for the inhabitants of Burray and South Ronaldsay. With the barriers costing a total of £2.5 million, for a civilian project, the rations surely must have been the more persuasive argument.
The prison camp on Lamb Holm was called Camp 60 and some, but not many, remains can still be seen in the fields, mainly in the form of the concrete foundations for the dozen or so huts. The POWs asked for a chapel, somewhere they might worship, and they were offered two Nissen huts which they joined together and transformed – it is these huts which are now known as the Italian Chapel or the Miracle of Camp 60 (HY488006).
One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, had worked as a church decorator before the war and his talent was known to the camp commander. Chiocchetti’s home town was Moena in the Dolomites. It was Chiocchetti who designed the interior of the chapel, but everything was made by the POWs and the ornate appearance belies the simple raw materials, mainly from scrap and salvage, with which the Italians worked.
The outside of the chapel has an elaborate red and white concrete facade with entrance pillars, but inside the huts are beautifully painted so that the interior resembles carved stonework with brick. The Italians used any materials they had available and the most plentiful was concrete, many items are cast from cement including the facade, the altar and the altar rail; this was carried out by a mason called Bruttapasta. The wood around the altar was obtained from the blockships and the candlesticks from stair-rods; the hanging lamps were made from corned-beef (“bully-beef”) tins. The iron for the altar gates was salvaged from the blockships by the smith, Palumbo, who fashioned a forge from a 40-gallon oil drum. Where these gates close together, on the floor, is set a small iron heart, because whilst in Orkney, Palumbo fell in love with a local girl but he already had a wife and family back home in Italy, so he left the heart as a permanent symbol of his affection.
The main item which was not available to the POWs was paint, so the Italians would make small items, such as models, which they traded with locals for the money to purchase paint.
This chapel is dedicated to the Queen of Peace: Regina Pacis and She is depicted on the large central altarpiece. This was painted by Chiocchetti himself with the design being based on a holy postcard, which he always carried with him, of a painting by Nicolo Barabino of the Madonna and Child. There are symbols throughout the chapel which reminds us of this dedication to the Queen of Peace: the Christ child carries an olive branch, the cherub to the right is sheathing a sword, whilst the cherub on the left holds the coat of arms of Moena: the ship shown is sailing from the dark clouds of war into the calm seas of peace; the white dove in the centre of the ceiling, above the symbols of the four evangelists, symbolises the Holy Spirit and peace.
To either side of the altar piece are two stained glass windows which are really just painted glass – but convincing as stained glass. On the right is St Francis of Assissi, and on the left is St Catherine of Siena, both are the two patron saints of Italy.
It is the altarpiece which first draws the eyes, together with an astounding sense of peace which envelops the spiritual tourist. I find this a humbling and holy place because those Italian POWs were conscripted into a war, captured in North Africa, and brought to Orkney in January. That is some contrast in weather! Now, if that had been me, I wouldn’t have built a chapel to peace, oh no, I would have been Mrs Grumpy-pants: I would have moaned and whinged and made sure everyone around me knew how miserable I was. I wouldn’t have turned defeat and forced labour into a triumph of peace like those POWs did, and because of that knowledge of my baser self, I remain humbled by their spirit.
I have resisted writing about the Italian Chapel for those stupid Mrs Grumpy-pants reasons, despite the fact that it is one of the most spiritual places in Orkney. Why? Stupid Mrs Grumpy-pants had been asked to perform a legal wedding at the Italian chapel, this would have been some three or four years ago now, and I had asked the custodians for permission and been told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t do it, it was only “recognised religions” that could use the place for weddings and other services and Paganism was not recognised – neither was Buddhism, Islam or a couple of other religions, so I was in good company, but I was so angry about this! It was illegal! It was rude! It was the worst sort of bigoted stubbornness!
So I decided to punish the chapel: I didn’t take visitors there when I took folk on the “Grand Tour” of Orkney, we’d drive straight past on our way to the Tomb of the Eagles or even worse, we’d sample some wines at nearby Orkney Wine and I’d just gesture to the chapel as an afterthought. I was being mean. I was taking my revenge. I was being resentful and taking it all out on the chapel.
And then I trained to be a Tourist Guide for Orkney and I had to learn about the chapel. I learnt about the symbolism to peace and every time I had to tell the story in training, my eyes started to well up. Even now, tears start to fall when I guide at the chapel. I cry because I am ashamed of myself in comparison to those Italian POWs, they were the real folk who triumphed after the war. I cry because despite my punishing the chapel for the past few years, the chapel still enfolds me in a sense of peace and awe when I enter. The chapel forgives and I am welcome there still, when I had assumed I was not.
Neither story ends there.
When the Barriers were finished in 1944, the POWs were sent down to another camp in Yorkshire, all then returned to Italy at the end of the war and the chapel started to fall into disrepair and was affected by damp. Chioccetti returned several times in the 1960s to repair and renovate the chapel, following a BBC television documentary which tracked him down. He then passed the chapel to the care of the people of Orkney and a lasting friendship has since been built between the people of Moena and Orkney with exchange visits between choirs and schoolchildren. The twelve wooden Stations of the Cross were carved in Moena and gifted by Chioccetti and his wife Maria. In the intervening decades, several of the POWs have returned to Orkney, with a warm welcome, but there are less of them with every passing year – although Chioccetti’s own grandchild came over in an exchange visit. The chapel is dedicated to Roman Catholicism and Mass is said on the first Sunday of every month in summer; it remains a popular place for weddings, Christian ones.
Outside, in the car park, the position of the camp square is marked by a concrete statue of St George and the dragon. This was built of barbed wire covered in cement and originally there was a roll with the POWs’ names inside the base, although this has now perished. This statue symbolises the triumph of the human spirit. Around the base is a link of chains and in the middle of each chain is a pentacle, upright, but there. This is not a modern fence because a photograph from the 1940s shows the fence and pentacles clearly there from the outset. I have been unable to find out what an occult symbol is doing in an overtly Christian place, but every time I see it, I secretly punch the air for triumph that yet again a subversive Pagan symbol has succeeded in being sneaked in: something of “ours” in one of “their places” – albeit this being far more audacious than a Green Man.
You will need to forgive me, I am still Mrs Grumpy-pants and I still haven’t fully slain my inner dragon.