The emotional story of an unusual wartime chapel on Orkney reveals a different type of heroism… and hope. (A ten-minute read, 1400 words).
(Above: the waters of Scapa Flow have not always been so calm…)
Shortly after midnight on the 14th October, 1939, a German U-boat, U-47, passed unseen into the vast and hitherto safe waters of Orkney’s Scapa Flow, the base of the British Fleet, and sank the Battleship HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 834 men. So convinced were the navy that Scapa Flow was impregnable, that over an hour passed before it was realised that the attack had come from the water…
(Above: the doomed HMS Royal Oak. Source Wikipedia, Public Domain)
“The place where the German U-boat sank the British battleship Royal Oak was none other than the middle of Scapa Flow, Britain’s greatest naval base! It sounds incredible…” William L Shirer, journalist, 18 October 1939.
Until that point, the great internal seaway of Scapa Flow had been considered safe waters for the fleet, its narrow entrances already reinforced with an assortment of deliberately sunken, retired merchant ships known as ‘Blockships’. Winston Churchill, soon to be Prime Minister, visited Orkney to inspect the defences in the light of their failure. His naval engineers determined that the integrity of the waters of Scapa Flow could not be guaranteed without a process of sealing off the eastern entrances of the waterway.
(Above: even stranger craft now occupy the centre of Scapa Flow)
The Admiralty concluded that, to make Scapa Flow safe as a continued refuge and harbour for the fleet, they would have to seal off the open waterways between the Orkney ‘mainland’ and the southern islands of Burray and South Ronaldsway. The causeways or ‘Churchill Barriers’ required were the subject of a major civil engineering project awarded to Balfour Beatty.
(Above: the early stages of one of the main ‘Churchill Barriers’ shows the severity of the working conditions. The water was freezing and could be up to 70ft deep. An enormous degree of land and sub-sea engineering was required. A private railway line was constructed to supply the massive project)
At first, the contractor’s own workers were employed, but the terrible conditions caused most of them to leave. It was proposed that Italian men from the two local Prisoner of War (POW) camps would be commissioned to take over. This was not without its legal (human rights) difficulties and the Italian POWs only agreed on the basis that it would benefit the local people, many of whom had been kind to them and regularly purchased the trinkets and jewellery they made from scrap materials.
(Above: this and other b/w pictures are from the site’s information board)
The Italians were resourceful men. Many had been captured at the British desert victory at Tobruk, and were engineering-trained tank commanders and crew. They missed their homes and felt deeply isolated so far north. They constructed a small concert stage, on which they would entertain locals and other POWs from afar with their own band.
(Above: a wise and considerate Major Buckland eased the Italian POWs into their hard roles as constructors of the Churchill Barriers. Granting them their own chapel was a major part of that agreement)
(Above: a wartime photograph shows how primitive was the accommodation within the Italian POW camp. Despite this, a magnificent place of worship was created)
When, despite the horrific working conditions, the Churchill Barrier project was seen to be progressing, the Italian men asked to be able to construct their own chapel. The British POW Camp Commandant, Major T.P. Buckland, spoke Italian and had formed a good working relationship with his charges. He agreed to supply them with two Nissen huts, originally on the basis that one would become a school, the other their chapel. In the event, the church became so well attended that both huts were used in its enlarged construction.
(Above: the front of the Italian Chapel. From here, we can show modern images in colour, for the Orcadian authorities, and the people of this beautiful archipelago, honoured their pledge to look after the beloved chapel, in perpetuity)
On September 30, 1943, the Italians got their own priest. Padre Gioachino Cobazzi of the Order of Little Brothers, arrived at the camp to take up the role. One of the POWs, Dominico Chiochetti, an artist, became a leading light in the design of the new chapel.
His first project, which had preceded the chapel, had been to construct a statue of St George Slaying the Dragon, which presided over the POW camp’s ‘square’.
He gathered together a team of craftsmen and began work on a sanctuary–the first stage of the church.
It was at this point that local people began to refer to the emerging building as ‘The miracle of Camp 60’. They watched, emotionally involved, as Chiochetti’s creative magic began to transform the ugly piece of land in which the POWs lived.
As each new section of the emerging chapel was erected and decorated, so the remaining space looked drab – and more and more volunteers arrived to speed up its completion. Soon it was decided to beautify the whole of the interior.
(Above: how to beautify a plain ceiling)
The ceiling features painted relief work and wonderfully rendered Evangelists’ symbols of the Four Holy Creatures: Here are to be seen the Holy Bull (St Luke) and Holy Eagle (St John). The other side of the ceiling show the Holy Man (St Matthew) and, finally, the Holy Lion (St Mark).
Overhead in the east of the chapel (below) is a symbol familiar to mystics as ‘The ascending consciousness of God working through Mankind’.
The Italians’ attitude to such ‘creativity in adversity’ is best described by a fellow prisoner:
“It was the wish to show to oneself first, and then to the world, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed-wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free…”
And then this key sentiment:
“The statue of St George was built first. It shows the patron saint of soldiers ready to kill the Dragon…”
Here the speaker pauses in saying what ‘the Dragon’ symbolised to the POWs and why its slaying was so important to the men imprisoned in the camp.
Chiochetti supervised all the pictorial and decorative work. He also designed the altar, tabernacle, candlesticks, lamps, rood-screen, windows and coloured glass, plus the ornamental woodwork.
All of the work was carried out using the simplest materials, including scrap wood from a wrecked ship. The men also utilised the sculpting of reclaimed concrete!
(Above) The altar is Chiochetti’s masterpiece. It is based on Niccolo Barbino’s Madonna of the Olives, from a small picture given by his mother which he carried with him throughout the war.
Sadly, after such an heroic effort, the chapel was in full use for only a short time. Italy surrendered to the Allies, then, having ousted Mussolini, switched sides in the war. In May 1945, their status being changed, the prisoners were moved to Skipton in Yorkshire for repatriation back to Italy.
Only Chiochetti stayed behind…to finish the font; the final piece on which he was working.
After the war, he returned with his wife to show her the Italian Chapel. Descendants of the Italian POWs still visit and contribute to the church with donations and new objects, such as the stations of the cross, above.
(Above lower) A picture of Chiochetti and his wife visiting the church in 1960. What a moment that must have been for them both…
It is fitting that Orkney has protected and preserved the Italian Chapel. Long before it became a tourist destination, it symbolised the human spirit’s determination to rediscover the core values of love, tolerance and compassion. Orkney stands apart from the rest of Scotland. It is ancient and understands isolation, just as it understood the creation of the Italian Chapel.
The Italian prisoner – quoted in a previous section – finished his sentiments about the statue of St George Slaying the Dragon with the following words:
“It is the symbol of a will to kill all misunderstandings among people of different cultures. As the St George monument was built to express the physical and psychological pain, so was the chapel conceived to meet a spiritual need.”
In a world now ravaged by a different kind of war, I can’t think of a kinder nor more fitting sentiment.
This is part of a series of ‘betweens’ from the Silent Eye’s recent workshops in the Scottish Highlands and Orkney.
©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.
Notes: Original colour photos by the author. Black and white historic images photographed from the Information Boards at the sites, unless otherwise stated.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of The Silent Eye, which offers a distance-learning course to deepen the personality and align it with the individual Soul.