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Italians in Orkney - Churchill's Prisoners

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On October 14, 1939, four German torpedoes sank the HMS Royal Oak, as she lay at anchor in Scapa Flow. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister and then First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that great sea barriers would be erected to make the naval fleet safe from future attack and between 1942-1944, over six hundred Italian Prisoners of War came to be sent to the island, to work on building the barriers. One such prisoner was Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist who transformed an ordinary Nissen hut, into a sanctuary; one of the few relics of Camp 60 to remain.

Many years later, in May 1964 and times of peace, Domenico got a chance to re-visit his beloved Chapel with his wife Maria. They brought with them a personal gift of a series of fourteen, Cirmo wood, hand carved, stations of the cross. You may remember in July 2014, they made news headlines, when three were stolen from the Chapel; the missing numbers being IV, VI and X.

Domenico and Maria have now passed away, but I was particularly touched by the words read out from a letter, at a mass in their honour held at the Chapel. It stated that: ‘the Chapel should be considered a message of peace and hope, that everybody can relate to in daily living.’ In 1992, Bruno Volpi, an ex POW re-visited the island and said: “People cannot be judged by their precarious situations. Their culture, spirit and will to express themselves in creative thoughts and deeds are stronger than any limitation to freedom. This is the spirit that gave birth to the works of art on Lambholm.” For me these words ring true across so many cultures.

Nowadays when you visit the Chapel, there is a manned reception booth, paid entrance fee and CCTV cameras, I guess a testimony to the times we are living in, but the one thing I will take away from my visit, is that whilst none of us can predict what the future may hold and especially in these uncertain times; this little bit of Italy in Orkney shouts loudly as a triumph over sectarian division. Because when needs must, divisive issues can be set aside, and people can triumph together, through painful moments in history. I only hope that one day, the three stolen plaques will be restored to their rightful place within the Chapel, as a testimony to the spirit with which Domenico Chiocchetti left his legacy; one oblivious to war and personal gain.

Source material and for more information:
Churchill’s Prisoners - The Italians in Orkney 1942-1944 ISBN 0 9516200 0 2 – Printed by The Orcadian Limited, Hell’s Half Acre, Hatston, Kirkwall. www.orcadian.co.uk
Orkney’s Italian Chapel: Link text here...