Italians in Orkney - Churchill's Prisoners

On a recent trip to Orkney I took the unusual step, for me, of looking inside a place of worship. My love of all things Italian led me inside The Italian Chapel located at Lambholm. It was built by, perhaps, one of the most famous Italian Prisoners of War sent to the island and he is remembered with great affection by local Orcadians. But how did this Italian come to be there and why?
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 and 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 that 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 held in their honour 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 fees, and CCTV cameras; testimony to the times we are living in. But what I will always take away from my visit to Lambholm is that whilst none of us can predict what the future may hold, especially in uncertain times; this little bit of Italy in Orkney shouts loudly as a triumph over sectarian division. 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; 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.
Orkney’s Italian Chapel: Link text here...