Sixty years on - a symbol of peace stands
the test of time
The history of the Italian Chapel
(From The Orcadian dated March 14, 2002)


Italian Chapel (Picture: Craig Taylor)

The Italian Chapel stands today as a visible reminder of Lamb Holm's Camp 60 (Picture Craig Taylor)

Standing alone  on the little  island of  Lamb  Holm watched over by a statue of St George slaying the dragon stands  what is now known throughout the world as, simply, the Italian Chapel.

It is the  only  visible  reminder that this was  once the  site of  Camp  60   the  prisoner-of-war  camp where hundreds of Italians were housed while they worked on the nearby Churchill Barriers more than 40 years ago.

It is also a remarkable example  of how a  faith can survive in the adversity of war,  and it stands today as a symbol of peace and reconciliation after those years of conflict in World War Two.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Italian POWs in Orkney   an  event which  is being marked by a special exhibition in the Stromness Museum.

In January 1942, 1,200 prisoners  disembarked on the county's shores to work on the construction of the Churchill Barriers, the causeways that link the South Isles of South Ronaldsay and Burray to the Orkney Mainland.

They were at first defiant and hostile to their captors, while the Orcadians were afraid of
their  new  neighbours.   This attitude  was soon to change, and when most of them  left
Orkney in 1944 there were tears shed on both sides.

The Italians left behind them more than just memories.

The Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm was built with loving care and devotion by the prisoners
and has continued to be loved and cherished by the people of Orkney. Some of the Italian POWs have returned to Orkney to renew old friendships and to make new friends.

They are no longer   "the enemy"  nor were they when they left Orkney all those years ago.

Each year, thousands of visitors from throughout the world make the pilgrimage to see the chapel's astonishing beauty. Few can believe it is based on a basic Nissen hut enhanced
only by items of apparently worthless scrap.

DomChio.gif The   man who must take the  lion's  share of the credit was an Italian prisoner  Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist and sculptor.

On   his arrival,  he and his  fellow  prisoners  were  put  ashore in small boats because the steamer was too big to dock at the newly built Warebanks Pier in Burray.  They were taken to  Camp 34  on Burray, where  they  were all  initially held.

A few days later  500  prisoners were taken to the small island of Lamb Holm where Camp
60 was to be their new home.

Orkney in January could not have been more different from the climate in North Africa, as Signor Chiocchetti remembered.

The rock core of Number Two Barrier
The rock core of Number Two Barrier in place across Skerry Sound, linking Lamb Holm with Glimps Holm. The blockship in the foreground is the Lycia which provided a source of fish for the POWs. Fish became stranded in the hull of the vessel during receding tides. (Picture Orkney Library Archives)

The little island  (Lamb Holm) could hardly have appeared more desolate bare, foggy, exposed to the wind and heavy rain. The camp consisted of thirteen dark, empty huts, and mud.

Some   of  thev POWs  were  very defiant on their  arrival, singing  patriotic  songs   and shouting  their support  for Mussolini:  Viva il Duce! Viva il Camerati!

Bright red target discs,  12 inches in diameter, were sewn onto the backs of the prisoners  jackets, with two  smaller targets  over  a leg  and arm. They covered  holes in  the clothing, which prevented their removal.

When the POWs found that they were  expected  to work
on building  the barriers they refused  and went on strike. The leaders  of the two  camps explained that they  were being ordered to carry out works of a warlike nature while their close proximity to a naval  base put them in danger, both contrary to the Geneva Convention.

Both leaders  demanded  the  prisoners be  moved to  a
safe camp where no warlike work  was  being carried out.
The authorities refused, and both  camps went on  strike. They were put on a 14 day punishment diet of bread and water, with normal rations every four days.

The problem was resolved when a new camp Commander, Major T. P. Buckland, was appointed to Lamb Holm. He could speak Italian, and soon had the trust of the prisoners.

He organised a meeting with the camp leaders and the Kirkwall Provost P. C. Flett, who assured them  that  they  were  building  causeways  that  would  link  these  islands  with  the  Mainland, bringing  great  benefits  to the local people.  This was  accepted, and work resumed. The camp leaders and a few others were blamed for the trouble and removed to other camps.

The sinking of the battleship HMS  Royal Oak  by the  German Submarine U-47 on October 14, 1939 with the loss of  833  lives prompted Winston Churchill to order the permanent closure of the four channels at the east end of Scapa Flow.

The moutain of concrete blocks
A mountain of concrete blocks at the Holm Blockyard of Kirk Sound

Great barriers that would carry the  wartime leader's  name  were  planned to  close these  gaps.   Balfour Beatty  & Co. Ltd  began work in 1940, building work camps,  piers  on  the  uninhabited islands of  Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, railway lines, power stations, and the erection of huge cableways, called blondins, to carry the rocks and concrete blocks over the seas between the islands.

Wire nets were placed inside a metal box which was then  filled  with stones.   The  nets,  called  bolsters,  were taken to the cableway and hoisted over the sea and tipped out.   This process  was repeated   many tens of  thousands  of  times until a solid wall of rock was formed.   Concrete blocks were placed over the rock core to protect it from the elements. The blocks were  arranged  pell - mell over the sides to help to break up the pounding waves.

The routine of camp life was very much like normal army life, with Reveille at 6 am in summertime and at first  light  in winter.  Lights out was at 10 pm. An extra roll-call was sometimes held after work,   just to keep the prisoners on their toes,   when  British  money  and  any  weapons  were confiscated.     The prisoners were paid in camp money, tokens that could be exchanged in the camp canteen.

The prisoners used music and theatre to lift their spirits during their captivity. Camp bands were formed to play popular tunes from home. Among the prisoners were two artists, one was sent to each camp. Domenico Chiocchetti was sent to camp 60 on Lamb Holm where he designed and painted theatrical props.

An operetta,   The  Baker of Venice,  was performed, complete with moving gondolas.   Friends were invited,   including  the landowner  P. N. Sutherland   Graeme  and his family  who lived  at Graemeshall on the other side of  Kirk Sound.   They brought with them a bunch of flowers from the garden, which was used in every scene.

King Umberto and his queen
The home made theatre was overlooked by paintings of the Italian King Umberto and his queen (Picture Orkney Library Archives)

Camp  34  on  Burray  staged an  elaborate production, with scenery made to represent
a   three - storey   Palazzo.       To give  an
impression  of  height it had  windows at the
top  that  the  singers  popped  their  heads

Both camps  had  good  football  teams, and
after  the   Capitulation   a  sports  day   was
organised  in  Camp  60,  with members from Burray's Camp 34 invited.

alley.gifThe prisoners also made a  bowling  alley   out  of concrete,  as  well  as a concrete billiards  table,   complete  with concrete balls. The cushions were made of army blankets.

But despite the sport, music and theatre that the prisoners enjoyed, many wanted a church.

In a  POW  camp life  can be a dull daily routine not always improved by billiards,   table-tennis, football or amateur theatre, all things that we POWs had the strength to keep going. That wasn't enough, not for most of us at least, recalled POW Bruno Volpi.

Nights were  our worst enemy.   Long nights when thoughts went back home to those we loved. Bad  news  from home,   that  somehow reached us, was the cause of deep depression that no entertainment could ease. Only thinking of something more nobler, more elevated, could we find inner peace and hope. So the tiny chapel came gradually into existence.

-End of Part 1-