The hidden secrets of Orkney's Italian Chapel

Thousands of service men were sent to Orkney during both World Wars, with this peaceful land playing a critical strategic role in the conflicts.

The Churchill Barriers protected Scapa Flow and were built on the orders of Sir Winston Churchill following the German submarine attack on HMS Royal Oak. Picture: Destination Orkney
The Churchill Barriers protected Scapa Flow and were built on the orders of Sir Winston Churchill following the German submarine attack on HMS Royal Oak. Picture: Destination Orkney

Looking out over the placid waters of Scapa Flow, that reflect like a mirror on a still day, it is perhaps hard to imagine that they served twice as Britain's chief naval headquarters where battleships clustered in the natural protective ring offered by Orkney Mainland and its neighbouring, smaller isles.

Among those sent to Orkney were 1,000 Italian prisoners of war who were scattered across camps in the far reaches of the north.

It was on one of these camps, Camp 60, on the then empty and desolate isle of Lamb Holm, that the prisoners found peace and created one of Orkney’s most remarkable monuments in the process.

The Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm. A symbol of hope, faith and human spirit, built by Italian prisoners of War. Picture: Destination Orkney

From the crude beginnings of two Nissen huts, the soldiers, led by the extremely talented Domenico Chiocchetti, created the Italian Chapel using concrete, wire and even billy beef cans that were fashioned to create pretty lamps at the altar.

As war had made the men fighters, the chapel, brought sanctity and a piece of home to the Italians held far from their loved ones.

“The Italian soldier is a far more spiritual being than his British counterpart. Where the English captive would build a theatre or a canteen to remind him of home, the Italians without embarrassment, with careful devout hands, erect a chapel,” a 1945 report in The Orkney Herald said.

From the outside, the chapel, which was originally fitted with a cardboard bell for effect, gleams white and red on its mound overlooking Scapa Flow. Open the thick heavy door, and all the ornate riches of a chapel appear.

Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head. A poignant reminder of the lives lost aboard HMS Hampshire after it was struck by a German mine in June, 1916. Picture: Destination Orkney

From very little, Chiocchetti created the magnificent. With plaster, he and his men smoothed the ridges of the Nissen hunt. With a paintbrush, he gave the impression of ornate stucco and intricate tiling.

At the altar, his Madonna and Child was based on a small prayer card given to him by his mother before he left his home town of Moena for war.

Chiocchetti stayed in Orkney for three weeks to finish the chapel after his fellow men returned home in 1945. He returned in 1960 to help in its restoration.

Then, in a letter to Orcadians, he spoke of his joy of “seeing the little chapel again”.

“I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart,” he wrote.

For islanders and visitors, Chiocchetti left a powerful gift of hope, faith and human spirit.

Orkney is studded with wartime stories of both tragedy and triumph, with the hardware of battle embedded all around.

Indeed, Chiocchetti and his comrades were on Lamb Holm to help build the Churchill Barriers, which provides connection to the Orkney Mainland, Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

In 1945, they were built on orders of Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, following the German submarine attack on HMS Royal Oak in October 1939.

A total of 833 men were killed after a U-Boat struck the vessel as it took shelter in Scapa Flow; the barriers, made from solid blocks of concrete dropped to the seabed, offered a new level of defence to the naval anchorage.

Today, they serve as causeways that link the islands by road.

From the Churchill Barriers, look west across Scapa Flow and another major piece of Orkney’s wartime history can be found.

Ness Battery guarded Scapa Flow from enemy vessels approaching Orkney from the Atlantic. Overlooking Hoy Sound, this was where giant coastal defence guns were mounted during both World Wars.

Today, it is considered to be one of Britain’s best-preserved wartime sites and amid the concrete remains of the gun battery you will find, in the vein of the Italian Chapel, a human touch left by the men at war.

Many of the wooden huts where the soldiers lived still stand and in the old mess hall you will find a large and moving mural depicting scenes of rural Kent in summer time. How this must have lifted spirits on those long grey days of war overlooking the vast mouth between Hoy Sound and the mighty Atlantic.

Just a mile or so on foot from Ness Battery, you’ll find Stromness Museum, an excellent trove of items and knowledge on Orkney’s role in both World Wars.

With this year marking the 100th anniversary of the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow, where the enemy vessels were brought following armistice along with 20,000 German sailors, a special exhibition reveals many of the items salvaged by divers from the enemy wrecks, many which are now protected as scheduled monuments.

Many of the objects create that human story often lost in military narratives. Mugs, beer tankards and china serving dishes are among the items recovered from the seabed, as well as a washstand and even a urinal.

Parts of the torpedo which took out the Royal Oak are also on show, as well as a collection of 78rpm Columbia records found in the wreckage of the battlecruiser.

A trip through Orkney’s powerful wartime story must also include a visit to the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, which is reached by a path to the mighty clifftops that overlook the waters where the HMS Hampshire was struck by a German mine in June 1916.

A total of 737 men were killed – including Lord Kitchener, then Secretary of State of War – who was on a mission to Russia for talks with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, reportedly with a stash of gold in order to ease negotiations.

The Hampshire went down in a force 9 gale less than two miles offshore. The people of Orkney paid for the monument to Kitchener that stands high over the sea. On the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the people of Orkney rose once again to build a memorial wall to the hundreds of ordinary men who lost their lives that night.

Each of their names is beautifully etched in a poignant reminder of this tragic event.

You’ll probably stay a while at Marwick Head, where seabirds gather on the cliff ledges and the infinite views bring home the peace that can be enjoyed following the horrors and deep losses endured by others on these islands and far beyond.

Download Destination Orkney’s new wartime itinerary and start planning your adventure today. Click here.