LAMB HOLM ISLAND, ORKNEY ISLES, NORTHERN SCOTLAND
By Alan Mason
As DESKARATI is fond of celebrating unusual anniversaries (see “Folly Bridge to Godstow“), I present this tribute to a splendid little building which celebrates, this year, the 70th anniversary of its foundation in 1942.
The chapel scores well on the three counts of location, architecture and history. It is in a stunning location; a low flat island in the middle of the turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth. The interior is exquisitely beautiful, despite its origins. Finally, the history of the chapel is very unusual and a heart-warming story from one of the darker periods of the twentieth century.
1. The Chapel in Summer Sunshine
This is the first of an occasional series on DESKARATI, describing buildings of interest in Britain. The Italian chapel is the most northerly of the churches in the series, as the Orkney Isles are about 550 miles (880 Km) north of London. To my surprise, I read that it receives 100 000 visitors a year. I find this rather difficult to believe, as few English people of my acquaintance have ever visited Orkney, or even know where it is. My Scots acquaintances certainly know exactly where Orkney is situated, but very few seem to have travelled there either.
The chapel (1) was begun in 1942 and finished in 1945. The reasons for its construction lie in the progress of the Second World War. The armed forces of Britain had been fighting in North Africa from 1940 onwards, originally against the Italians, and later against combined German and Italian forces under General Erwin Rommel. (3)
2. General Rodolfo Graziano (left) and General Amilcare Bergonzoli (right)
A great number of Italian prisoners had been captured, principally because their generals (2) were over-cautious, (Graziano) or incompetent (Bergonzoli). (This assessment was made by Brigadier Peter Young in his book, “World War 1939 – 1945″) It was also true that the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini was not universally popular, and Italian soldiers were unwilling to throw their lives away in an unworthy cause.
The whole North African campaign had come to an end on 4-5 November 1942, when British forces, under General Bernard Montgomery, defeated Rommel at El Alamein.
3. General Erwin Rommel (left) and General Bernard Montgomery (right)
Men who surrendered became prisoners-of-war and were transferred to prison camps on the British mainland where they were protected by the Geneva Convention. Some of these captured Italians, were taken from the sunshine of North Africa, and transferred to Orkney in this cold, wet, windy northern outpost of Britain.
Although the men were probably not happy to be on Orkney, they counted their blessings. They were alive, the British would treat them humanely, they would be properly fed and clothed, and though they were expected to work, it was not slave labour. All over Britain, prisoners-of-war were working on the land.
As a small child, sitting with my mother on a bus, I asked, “Why has that man got diamond shaped patches on his coat?” She replied, “Because he’s a prisoner-of-war.” It may come as a surprise to TV viewers of prison-camp dramas set in Germany or SE Asia, to realise that in war-time Britain, prisoners-of-war went back to their camp at the end of the day to relax and sleep, but they spent most of the day out of the camp, at work.
Why didn’t they try to escape? A small number did, but the Germans were unwilling to go home to be transferred to the Eastern Front, in the terrible fighting against Soviet Russia. Most of them, like the Italians, were glad to be alive, and happy to sit out the war until it was over. Then they could return to their families.
4. Camp 60 inmates on Lamb Holm Island
The Italian prisoners were brought to Lamb Holm, an uninhabited island, to live in Camp 60, and to work on what were later known as, “The Churchill Barriers”. These were a series of concrete causeways linking several small islands together. (5)
5. One of the Barriers Sealing Scapa Flow
The purpose was not primarily for ease of communications between the islands but to protect the great naval base at Scapa Flow. This base has been in existence since the late 19 C, as it enabled the British Admiralty to direct a battle fleet, either into the North Atlantic or into the North Sea, depending upon the strategic requirements of the time.
The fewer entries into Scapa Flow the better. The map below shows Scapa Flow as a roughly circular sea area surrounded by islands. Originally there were nine gaps leading into the Flow, but the Churchill Barriers reduced these to five. Each gap was protected by large anti-submarine nets, below the water level.
6. Scapa Flow within the Orkneys
During the course of the construction of the Barriers, the prisoners, with their priest, Father Giacombazzi, approached the Camp Commandant, Major T P Buckland, and explained that they would like to build a Catholic chapel on their island. He promised to see what he could do. At some time later, in 1942, he acquired two Nissen huts and arranged to have them bolted together to make one long building on a new concrete base.
A Nissen hut was a prefabricated construction made of strong sheet steel, corrugated, and bent into a semi-circular arch. Side walls could be bolted on to raise the roof height. The corrugations were the size of a human hand held in a curve. The name, “hut” is not appropriate because the buildings were not at all flimsy. Although they were not strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a bomb, they were designed to protect the people inside from a nearby bomb burst.
This practical, workaday building became the centre of attention for the Italians in their off-duty hours. They were fortunate in having a professional artist and church decorator among the prisoners. Domenico Chiocchetti (pronounced kee oe chet ee) produced the overall design and supervised the day to day work on the hut. He painted the Sanctuary, (the east end where the altar is situated) but left the work in the main part to the rest of his team.
The Italians had to scavenge useful materials like wooden planks, washed up on the beach below. The British Commandant tried to provide materials like cement and any other useful oddments like chicken-wire for the chapel project.
7. The Creator of the Chapel, Domenico Chiocchetti (1910 – 1999)
8. Aerial View 9. West Door and Porch
The aerial view of the chapel (8) shows its essential “Nissen Hut” basis, but extra light has been achieved by inserting two sets of dormer windows on either side of the nave, or main body of the chapel. The facade of the west end (9) is an idiosyncratic mixture of “Gothic” and Classical features. The porch has classical Doric columns, and a triangular pediment, but Gothic windows, pinnacles and crockets on the sloping gables. It has the effect of changing a hut into a church. The interior decoration of the Chapel is seen to be bright, cheerful and colourful. (10, 11)
The Italian prisoners worked steadily on the chapel as well their day work on the Barriers. A fund of good will was built up between them and Orcadians (native people of Orkney). When the war in Europe ended in April 1945 the chapel was still not finished, but the west facade was complete, as shown by the black and white photograph of the Italians in front of it. (Illustration 4)
They are mostly young men, well-fed, largely unsmiling, and all are wearing their military uniforms. Some of the older men are possibly long-serving non-commissioned officers. On the left, the older bespectacled officer is, I believe, Domenico Chiocchetti himself, the artist and leader of the chapel project.
10. View East Towards the Sanctuary 11. Roof of the Nave
The process of repatriation began immediately, the Italian prisoners said farewell to the people of Orkney, and began their long journey home to their wives and families, in the warm and sunny south, 1600 miles (2560 Km) away. Domenico Chiocchetti however, remained behind to complete the decoration of his chapel.
When it was finished, he placed a statue of St George slaying the Dragon, on the green outside. (12) Before leaving Orkney, Domenico formally handed the chapel to the Orcadian people in gratitude for their great kindness to the Italian prisoners during their wartime imprisonment.
12. St George and the Dragon
Chiocchetti returned twice more to Orkney, in 1960 and 1964 to carry out repairs to the paintwork. Further restoration took place in the 1990s but Chiocchetti, now aged 82, was too ill to attend the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1992. He died in 1999, and a full Requiem Mass was held in his memory at the Orkney Chapel.
A Chapel Preservation Committee was set up in 1958, by a group of Orkney residents to ensure that there would be a program of regular maintenance. They went further, and a twinning agreement was made between Orkney and Moena, the home village of Domenico Chiocchetti in Italy.
Today, the chapel is a popular destination for holiday visitors to Orkney. There are few Catholics in the Orkney Isles, but local couples, of any or no faith, often choose to hire the Italian chapel to marry in such a pretty building.
The Chapel is dedicated to Regina Pacis, “Our Lady, Queen of Peace”. From the war between Britain and Italy, with soldiers, and airmen killed, and seamen drowned, has come reconciliation between prisoners and their captors, ending in mutual respect and friendship.
13. The Sanctuary of the Chapel of the Regina Pacis
Orkney is a long way for a visit to this chapel. However, anyone holidaying in northern Scotland should certainly try to visit these islands. I was staying in Tongue on the north coast. I booked a day trip to Orkney, which involved a forty mile drive in the early morning, from Tongue to arrive in John o’ Groat’s by 9.00 a.m. After crossing the Pentland Firth on the ferry boat, we arrived in the Orkneys and climbed aboard our coach. There were about forty of us.
Apart from the Italian chapel, we saw Scapa Flow, the delightful small towns of Stromness and Kirkwall, the enormous St Magnus Cathedral, amazing for islands of this size, and three of Britain’s greatest Neolithic monuments. Skara Brae is a village of stone houses buried by shifting sands, looking as if the people left only a few years ago. The Ring of Brodgar is a very wide circle of standing stones, some up to fifteen feet (5 metres) high. Maes Howe is a great mound of earth covering a great stone chamber eleven feet high (4 m) inside, approached by a long stone tunnel.
14 The Chapel in its setting on Lamb Holm
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have made use of a small number of reference books.
A. “World War 1939 – 1945″ Peter Young, Barker, 1966, with maps and a few black and white illustrations. The author was a professional soldier.
B. “A Picture Guide to Orkney” The Shetland Times, 1993
C. “Exploring Scotland’s Heritage – Orkney and Shetland” HMSO Edinburgh 1985
1. The Chapel in Summer Sunshine (google images)
2. General Rodolfo Graziano (l) and General Amilcare Bergonzoli (r) (google images)
3. General Erwin Rommel (l) and General Bernard Montgomery (r) (google images)
4. Camp 60 inmates on Lamb Holm Island (google images)
5. One of the Barriers Sealing Scapa Flow (Picture Guide)
6. Scapa Flow within the Orkneys (Author, modified from Picture Guide)
7. The Creator of the Chapel, Domenico Chiocchetti (1910 – 1999) (google images)
8. Aerial View (google images)
9. West Door and Porch (google images)
10. View East towards the Sanctuary (google images)
11. Roof of the Nave (google images)
12. St George and the Dragon (google images)
13. The Sanctuary of the Chapel of the Regina Pacis (google images)
14 The Chapel in its setting on Lamb Holm (Exploring Scotland’s Heritage)