25 June 2010

The Shorkneys: Orkney (and Shetland) in the World Wars; the Italian Chapel

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

Orkney is probably best known for its neolithic sites, and rightfully so--they're undeniably haunting and unspeakably old. (Don't worry, we'll get to them in an upcoming post.)

But Orkney also had a major role to play in World War I and World War II, largely thanks to Scapa Flow, the enormous natural harbor bounded by the southern islands of the chain.

(Trust me, it's a big harbor. That's not more than 1/4 of it!)

During World War I, Scapa Flow was designated the main base of operations for the British Grand Fleet. Previously, British naval forces in Europe had been based along the English Channel, across from France, Britain's traditional enemy. But as the threat of war with Germany loomed, the British decided to move their forces to the north to make it easier to patrol Germany's various routes of access to the North Sea.

In fact, after World War I, the German fleet was moored in Scapa Flow while the belligerents were negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Before the fate of the fleet was determined, however, the Germans scuttled all 78 ships, partly in protest over their extended captivity (the sailors' comrades in other branches had long since been sent home), and partly to prevent the ships from falling into British or French hands under the terms of the peace. The nine German sailors who died (under British gunfire) during the action are widely regarded as the last casualties of World War I.

Today, many of the German ships still lie on the floor of Scapa Flow, making Orkney a popular destination for scuba divers, despite the very chilly water. You can also see many of the blockships the British sunk in the approaches to Scapa Flow to prevent German raiders from entering the harbor.

For most of World War II, the British Fleet was in constant fear that a German U-boat might slip into Scapa Flow and wreak havoc on the ships moored there. It didn't take long for British fears to be realized: only a few weeks into the war, a German submarine did sneak into the harbor and sunk the HMS Royal Oak.

After the sinking of the Royal Oak, the British worked hard to seal off the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. The results of these efforts can still be seen today: the Churchill Barriers, four causeways connecting the Orkney mainland to some of the southern islands.

The Italian Chapel

But the physical legacy of WWII isn't limited to sunken ships and military architecture: the Italian prisoners of war who helped build the Churchill Barriers also built the beautiful Italian Chapel on the tiny island of Lamb Holm.

The Italian Chapel is one of those unexpectedly wonderful little human-interest stories that litter the history of the Second World War. The bones of the building are two quonset huts joined together, and from the side the building is kind of mundane.

The rest, though, is anything but. The Italian prisoners, using bits of scrap metal and various tools and paints donated by their British captors, adorned the building with an elegant facade . . .

. . . elaborate painted walls and ceilings . . .

. . . altarpieces and candlesticks . . .

. . . lanterns (from corned beef tins, seen hanging in the long photos above), and a baptismal font (built around the bottom of an oil drum and a huge spring).

The majority of the Italian prisoners were sent home before the chapel could be finished, but the primary architect and artist, Domenico Chiocchetti of Moena, stayed on to complete his work.

A Further Note: This post has been mostly about the enduring physical legacy of the wars, seen in natural features like Scapa Flow or buildings like the Italian Chapel.

But it should also be said that, in terms of lives, Orkney and Shetland also contributed more than their fair share to the wars. We haven't read anything to confirm the hypothesis, but Nana supposes this is because in-demand naval skills were simply much more common in Orkney and Shetland than elsewhere, meaning that young men from these areas were more likely to find themselves in dangerous situations.

This legacy can be seen today at sites such as the memorial archway outside St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall . . .

. . . and at the cemetery in Lerwick, Shetland overlooking the Knab.

No comments:

Post a Comment