The Orkney News is running a series of articles on Orkney’s World War II sites and wartime experiences.
It is very easy to forget in Orkney that when you drive across the various causeways to South Ronaldsay that these structures were basically part of a coastal defence system during World War II. The Churchill Barriers link Mainland to the islands of Lambs Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay and are an amazing piece of 20th Century engineering.
Scapa Flow was used during both world wars as a sheltered anchorage spot for the Royal Navy. The positioning of block ships between the small islands was thought to have made it impregnable to enemy ships and U boats. In the early hours of the 14th October 1939, when the war had only just started, that confidence was shattered when German U-boat U-47 manoeuvred its way past the block ships enabling it to torpedo and sink HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 883 lives.
The decision was taken by The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to construct permanent barriers to prevent such an occurrence ever happening again. Construction began in May 1940 with the contract being awarded to the major construction firm of Balfour Beatty.
It is thought that by 1943, 2000 workers were being employed with the construction of the barriers with 1300 of these being Italian Prisoners of War. The Italian Chapel, Lambs Holm, is another legacy of their time here. Many of the Italian POWs considered this to be work favourable to the enemy and refused to take part. They were relocated and work went on apace but it is one of the controversies of Orkney’s war time history that using POWs in the construction of the barriers can be argued to have been contrary to the principles of the Geneva Convention.
Today the causeways are known as simply the Barriers and are the main road connecting South Ronaldsay to Mainland. Often impassable during severe gales they are closed off to traffic and even the construction of a ‘Wave Wall’ has not eased the problem.
The construction of the Barriers changed the way the currents move amongst the linked islands and new beaches have formed along their edges. Soft sand dunes now rise above the shore line providing new areas for wildlife to inhabit. The beaches are extremely popular during the summer with visitors and locals alike.
Some block ships still remain. Beneath the waves divers explore their tattered remains. And above the waves they still remind us of a less peaceful time in Orkney’s recent past.
The Barriers can be viewed and explored for free but for visitors who want more information the Fossil & Heritage Centre in Burray has an excellent display of how they were constructed. The Barriers are just another example of the superb World War II sites you can visit in Orkney.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame
Fossil & Heritage Centre, Burray
Opens Friday 14 April 2017 to end September. 10am – 5pm Tel: 01856 731255
Admission – Adults:£4.50, Concessions & Children under 16:£3.50, Children under 5 : free
Tea Room and gift shop: free admission
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