Wartime Orkney: Sunken Ships, Churchill Barriers, and a POW-Built Chapel

By Cameron Hewitt

Aside from its Old Norse heritage and its prehistoric sites, Orkney is known for its role in 20th-century military history. The islands of Orkney create a natural harbor, called Scapa Flow, that was the base for the British Royal Navy during both World Wars.

 

Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Shipwrecks

During World War I, to more completely seal off the harbor, the navy requisitioned and intentionally sank hundreds of ships in the narrow straits between islets. A century later, you can still see their rusting hulls poking up above the surf.

 

Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Barriers

In the early days of World War II, a Nazi submarine discovered a gap in the sunken-ship barriers, and managed to enter Scapa Flow and sink the HMS Royal Oak. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (just weeks before becoming prime minister) hatched a plan to build sturdy barriers between the islets. These were finally completed just a few days after V-E Day, and today tourists use them to link the WWII sights.

 

Cameron Scotland Orkney Italian Chapel Exterior

The most fascinating World War II site on Orkney — and in my mind, one of the best wartime sites in all of Europe — is the Italian Chapel. The Italian POWs who built the Churchill Barriers were granted permission to create a chapel of their own. While it looks like a pretty church from the outside, circling around back you see that it’s actually two prefab Nissen huts (similar to Quonset huts) stacked end-to-end.

 

Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Italian Chapel Interior

The POWs decorated the chapel in their free time, using whatever materials they could scavenge. The ethereal Madonna e Bambino over the main altar is based on a small votive one prisoner had brought with him to war. They used scrap metal from sunken WWI ships to create the gate and chandeliers.

 

Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Font

This elegant baptismal font’s corkscrew base is actually a suspension spring coated in concrete. Lovingly crafted details like these are a hope-filled symbol of the gentility and grace that can blossom even during brutal wartime.

Seeing the many sights on Orkney is doable on your own, but much more satisfying with a good local guide. I was treated to a great guide named Kinlay, whose company Orkney Uncovered runs tours that efficiently tie together both the prehistoric and the World War sights on this eclectic island. Thanks, Kinlay!