In 1939 the German U-boat U47, under the command of Lt Gunther Prien, slipped undetected into Scapa Flow. Prien launched a torpedo attack on the battleship HMS Royal Oak which was lying at anchor in Scapa Bay and instantly the huge ship sank to the bottom of Scapa Flow with 833 crew deaths. U47 slipped away undetected.
The tragic terrible loss of life and failures of the Scapa Flow defences prompted the call for a substantial eastern blockage. In March 1940 Winston Churchill approved the building of causeways, to link the south isles to Mainland Orkney and to seal off the eastern approaches to of the naval port. Work soon started but was painfully slow; a shortage of local labour was causing delays. So 550 Italian prisoners of war, captured in the North African campaign, came to Orkney in 1942. These Italian POWs were shipped in specifically to work on the huge causeway building project, known as the Churchill Barriers to the east of Scapa Flow.
Map of Scotland with Orkney Islands marked in red
As a result, camps had to be established for the Italians on the previously uninhabited island. The biggest of them was Camp 60 on Lamb Holm.
The Italians POW status changed only in Sep 1943 when Italy left the Axis Powers, and instead joined the British and their Allies. The Italian workers in Orkney were given more freedom and began to be paid properly for their labours.
The Italians needed a proper place of Catholic worship. With the help of the camp's Catholic priest Father Giacobazzi, they persuaded Camp 60’s commandant, Major Thomas Buckland, to allow them to build a chapel on Lamb Holm. Permission was granted on the condition that all work on the church would be carried out AFTER working hours on the barriers. Thus the Chapel was built by tired Italian prisoners during 1943 and 1944. Thank you to the Spirit of Orkney and to The Guardian.
The Catholic Italian Chapel was a highly ornate building, surprisingly constructed by the prisoners from very limited materials. Two Nissen huts were joined end-to-end. The corrugated interior was then covered with plaster board and the altar was constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers.
Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti (1910-99), a talented prisoner from Moena in Italy. He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel and fellow-prisoners decorated the rest of the interior. The light holders were made from food tins. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust, covered in a layer of concrete. One end of the hut was lined with plaster board to form a sanctuary; an altar, altar-rail and holy water stoop were expertly fashioned from concrete. With the success of the adornment in the sanctuary it was felt the whole chapel should be lined, then painted the walls to appear as if they had bricks, carved stone, vaulted ceilings and buttresses.
Gothic facade in front of two Nissen huts
Altar, glass panels, frescoes
The paintwork was completed with frescos of angelic figures, stained glass windows and an altar piece depicting the Madonna and Child surrounded by cherubic figures. Two painted glass panels flanked the Madonna and Child, depicting St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Siena. The Italian artist frescoed the sanctuary vault with symbols of the four evangelists; low on either side, he painted two Cherubim and two Sepraphim with a white dove in the very centre of the vault.
All the materials for the decoration were scavenged from wherever possible. Wood was sourced from a wrecked ship for the tabernacle. A rod-screen and gates enclosing the sanctuary were expertly fashioned from scrap metal. They also made two candelabras which stood on the alter.
The POWs created a facade out of concrete, concealing the shape of the hut and making the building look more like a church. Then as work progressed inside, it was decided to construct a more beautiful façade for the front of the church with pillars, Gothic pinnacles, archway and bell-tower. Directly above the door on the front of the archway, a head of Christ was sculpted from red clay, complete with thorn crown. Finally a thick layer of cement was applied to the outside walls of the Nissen huts, to protect them from the Orkney weather.
When his fellow prisoners were released in Sept 1944, Chiocchetti remained on the island for a few weeks to finish decorating the newly consecrated chapel, particularly the font. The rest of the chapel was completed after WW2 ended. Given the restrictions on time and materials, the chapel became a clear statement of dedication to the Catholic faith.
Appropriately a statue of St George was placed in the grounds of the Italian Chapel as a war memorial. It was built from barbed wire and concrete.
War memorial with a statue of St George
More mdern events
In 1958, the Chapel Preservation Committee was set up by a group of Orkney residents. In 1960, Domenico Chiocchetti returned to assist in the restoration. He returned to Orkeney a second time in 1964 with his wife. Before going back to Italy this time, he wrote a warm, tearful letter of thanks to the people of Orkney.
When some of the other prisoners returned in 1992 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their arrival on the island, Chiocchetti was too ill to travel. In 1996, a declaration was jointly signed by officials in Orkney and Chiocchetti's hometown of Moena, poignantly reinforcing the war time ties between the two places.
Sadly he died in 1999. In the same year, the Chiocchetti family attended a memorial requiem mass at the Orkney Chapel in his honour.
Today, the tabernacle is still used as a chapel and remains a popular tourist attraction, receiving 100,000+ British and foreign visitors every year. It has become one of the best-known and most moving symbols of reconciliation in the British Isles. And has a category A listing.
2014 marked the 70th anniversary of the chapel's completion and at a commemorative mass the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini read a message from Pope Francis. His Holiness said he was praying that the Chapel, built in times of terrible war, would continue to be a sign of peace and reconciliation. At that special mass in 2014, Domenico’s daughter Angela Chiochetti sang Panis Angelicus.