Book Review: Churchill’s Prisoners

The Italians in Orkney 1941 – 1944 by James MacDonald

“One evening we were summoned to Rockworks to pick up three Italian prisoners who had just struggled across from Lamb Holm. It was the first time I had seen the causeways and I was amazed at the enormity of the works and that anyone could actually cross there.” Ron Cowsell

Review by Fiona Grahame

Officially opened on 12th of May 1985 the causeways which link Orkney Mainland to South Ronaldsay via the islands of Burray, Lambs Holm and Glimps Holm were a marvel of engineering.

Churchill Barriers B Bell

credit: Bell

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ordered the building of barriers to prevent a further incursion of German U boats after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. The sheltered, deep water of Scapa Flow was a vital Royal Navy base in both World Wars and the vessels had been protected by anti U boat nets and other defences.

Bell of the Royal Oak

The Bell of the Royal Oak, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall (photo F Grahame)

You can read about the Royal Oak in several Orkney News articles: The Royal Oak Memorial Garden, Kirkwall

The work on building the barriers was undertaken by the construction firm Balfour Beatty & Co Ltd but as the war progressed and manpower was needed Italian prisoners were shipped to Orkney to be used.

Their story is covered in this informative and treasure of a book ‘Churchill’s Prisoners’ by James MacDonald.

Churchill's Prisoners Book

The prisoners were put to work from two camps at different ends of the project: Camp 34, Burray and Camp 60, Lambs Holm.

Not long after the work started with the Italian prisoners there was trouble when a strike was initiated claiming this was war work and was against the Geneva Convention. The men were put on bread and water rations and the leaders transported to POW camps south. The remainder were persuaded that the barriers were being built to take roadways to connect up the smaller islands to Mainland.

The book covers some of the amazing technical data of the building of the barriers – the immense concrete blocks, the tremendous force of the tidal currents, the laying of railway tracks and the sheer volume of infrastructure that was needed for such a project.

Churchill Barriers Bell

photo credit: Bell

There were tragedies too as some men lost their lives during the construction.

The barriers today are a vital link with still the unsolved problem of the overtopping of waves which results in closure during very high tides and dreadful weather.

The roadway was not the only lasting legacy of the Italians in Orkney.

Something we are learning today as we deal with self isolation during the Covid19 lockdown is the tremendous creativity that people exhibit when ‘imprisoned.’ The book has many images and stories of the skilled craftsmanship of the Italians and their ability to make beautiful objects out of the most mundane of materials.

The Italian chapel

The Italian chapel,( Orkney’s Italian Chapel Appeal For Memorabilia & Artefacts) was built by the men of Camp 60. Camp 34 also had a chapel at Warebanks, Burray,  but it was demolished by salvage contractors Halcro & Norquoy. The same fate would have befallen the Italian chapel at Lamb Holm except that it was saved by P N Sutherland Graeme of Graemeshall who owned the land it was on.

St George and dragon at Italian Chapel by Anne Burgess

St George and the Dragon The statue, depicting the patron saint of soldiers slaying a dragon, which represents misunderstandings between people of different cultures. It was made from barbed wire and cement by Domenico Chiochetti, who later led the decoration of the chapel nearby. Image Anne Burgess

The chapel is a beautiful place, lovingly painted by Domenico Chiocchetti who continued to complete his work on the font after the other POWs had been sent away  in September 1944.

If you get the chance in the future to visit Orkney The Italian Chapel is one place that you would never regret visiting. And, of course, to get to it you will travel over the causeways they helped to construct.

Italian Chapel B Bell

Credit: Bell

“We had nothing but praise for the work of Domenico Chiocchetti the artist, Palumbo the blacksmith, who made the rood screen from suitable iron provided by Balfour Beatty, and Primevera who made the brass candlesticks by the altar. ” Major James Booth

Today the Italian Chapel is in the care of The Italian Chapel Preservation Committee.

Churchill’s Prisoners: The Italians in Orkney 1942 -1944 by James MacDonald printed by the Herald Printshop, Kirkwall, Orkney is available to purchase – see details below.

Churchill's Prisoners. The Italians in Orkney 1942-1944. James MacDonald

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