An elaborate Italian chapel helped me to envision, just a little bit, what it must have been like. Today the Orkney Islands are such a quiet place, except for the wind, that it takes some work to imagine the time during World War II when the 120 square miles Scapa Flow, one of our planet’s biggest natural harbors, was alive with battleships, submarines, aircraft carriers, and sea planes. The Orkney’s Scapa Flow, in fact, was the main anchorage for the entire British fleet. Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa built the chapel while they were also building the Churchill barriers.
Two years and 2 months before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a German U47 submarine managed to sneak into Scapa Flow one night and get close enough to the British battleship Royal Oak to torpedo and sink it with a loss of 833 lives. The only object salvaged from the wreck was the ship’s bell that now hangs in St. Magnus Cathedral.
The next year, 1940, Winston Churchill ordered a permanent barrier in the form of 4 causeways that connect smaller islands to the Mainland to prevent further attacks. The 1,300 Italian prisoners did much of the work using 250,000 tons of Orkney rocks which were put in place and then covered with concrete blocks. The British also widened some the existing main roads to 2 lanes, an infrastructure update that is much appreciated today.
The Orkneys also saw action in World War I when Scapa Flow was also the main British naval base. After the conflict the German fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919. Some of the wrecks can still be seen from the causeways. A total of 74 German ships had been interned in the harbor as part of an armistice agreement. The Admiral in charge of the fleet, acting on his own, began sinking them. Most of the 52, including 3 battleships, that went to the bottom were later salvaged, but 7 remained to become popular dive sites. Diving is prohibited, however, anywhere near the Royal Oak.
The homesick Italian prisoners sought and were granted permission to remake 2 Nissan huts into a chapel on tiny Lambholm island. Using scraps of this and that, they crafted a labor of love that is now a major Orkney attraction. See photo above.
For me the Orkney’s were the kind of place where I spent a lot of time saying to Ruth, “When we come back….” Among other landmarks, I want to see the Old Man of Hoy, a scenic sea stack.