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18 June 2014
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Italian Chapel, Orkney
Orkney's Italian Gift

Shortly after 1.00 A.M. on the morning of the 14th October 1939, the German submarine U-47 slipped through the blockships guarding the Royal Navy's principal base, Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. The U-boat did not take long to find its target and within minutes the battleship Royal Oak was on her way to the bottom of the sea along with over 800 of her crew. The Admiralty in London were aghast that the safety of Scapa Flow had been breached and commissioned a plan to block off the Eastern approaches for good. The construction company Balfour Beatty were contracted to carry out the project of laying the four massive concrete barricades which were to become known as the Churchill Barriers.

For such an enormous project a large workforce was required, a precious commodity in wartime Britain, so Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa were brought north to Orkney to work on the barriers.

Churchill Barriers, Orkney
The POWs were told that the building of the Churchill Barriers was a civilian project with the roads used to connect the islands, as, under the Geneva Convention, prisoners are not allowed to work on any project that aids their captors militarily.

Around 1300 Italians arrived on the islands after work began in May 1940; around 800 of these men were housed in camps on the island of Burray. However, it was those 550 in the smaller Camp 60 on Lamb Holm island, arriving in January 1942, who were to leave the greatest legacy to the islands.

Statue of St George, Orkney
The camp at first consisted of around 13 drab huts, and the Italians were soon engaged in brightening up the place, digging flower beds and using left over concrete to build paths to connect the huts. Then, in a glimmer of what was to come, one artistically minded prisoner, named Domenico Chiocchetti, gained permission to erect a statue in the main square of the camp.

He created a glorious representation of St. George slaying the dragon, constructed from concrete around a base of barbed wire and wire netting - all waste products from the construction work.

The imaginative prisoners soon had other amenities for the camp underway, including a theatre and a recreation hut - which included a concrete snooker table! Balfour Beatty, whose main site office is now a hotel, also used the talents of the Italians in other ways: a Nissen hut, which can still be seen, was used as the motor transport workshop, and employed the services of two Ferrari mechanics.

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