Orkney’s Importance in the World Wars

If you have ever visited Orkney, you will have seen the signs of World War I and II all around the islands.  There are dozens of artillery batteries, air raid shelters and even the remainders of ships off shore.

Orkney battery

Ness battery, taken from nessbattery.co.uk

In World War I the British army moved their fleet of ships from the south of England to Scapa Flow in Orkney, mainly as it was an impressively large natural harbour and would give the fleet a quick route to intervene any German ships moving from the Baltic.

Scapa Flow map

Map of Scapa Flow, credit to Wikipedia

As the harbour had no initial defences, one of the first major tasks was to fortify any gaps to prevent German ships entering the harbour.  The navy used merchant ‘block ships’, which they purposely sank in areas where U-boats could potentially enter Scapa Flow.   This combined with submarine nets was their defense plan.

Sunken block ship Scapa Flow

Sunken block ship, credit secretscotland.org.uk

Although there were 2 unsuccessful attempts by U-boats in WWI, in WWII a U-boat did manage to slip through a gap between the islands and block ships and sunk the HMS Royal Oak killing two thirds of the crew on board.  The ship has been left as a war grave.  It was after this tragedy that the British navy decided to fortify the gaps between the islands further by building ‘Churchill’s barriers’, barriers of rock joining the southern islands (South Ronaldsay, Burray, Lambs Holm and Glimps Holm) of Orkney to the main island.  Many of the islander’s didn’t think this would work and that the tide would wash away the stones, but slowly the barriers appeared and the islanders could get to the main island much quicker using the newly created road on top of the barriers.

Churchill's Barrier

One of Churchill’s barriers, taken from undiscoveredscotland.co.uk

The barriers are well used today and an important life line for those who live there.  The barriers have also changed the landscape by allowing the build up of sand, creating new and larger beaches.  One beach in particular, at barrier 4, has accumulated so much sand that the block ships that were sunk in the water are now completely covered in sand.

sunken block ship in 2016

At the beach at barrier 3 you can look out to the sunken block ships just offshore, beside the barrier.  It’s definitely a strange site for visitors, but commonplace to locals, having sunken boats just beside your island!

Italian Chapel

One of the small islands, Lambs Holm, that was originally uninhabited, was turned into an Italian POW camp in WWII, for the main purpose of building the barriers.

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

The Italians were treated quite well and even created their own chapel by connecting two Nissen huts end to end and using concrete (in plentiful supply from constructing the barriers) to create an amazing chapel.  One of the POW’s, Domenico Chiocchetti, was an artist with great skill and he created amazing work inside the chapel.

Italian Chapel

The chapel was only in use for a very short time before the barriers were completed and the POW’s shipped out, however Choicchetti stayed behind for an extra two weeks to finish the remainder of work.  Both he and several other Italian’s from the camp returned to Orkney after the war was over and spoke fondly of their days there.  The Italian Chapel is still there today and is quite impressive, even to those who are not religious.

There are also many other areas of Orkney with reminders of the past wars, including Kirkwall airport, which was originally RAF Kirkwall during WWII and although it has been changed for domestic use, it is still the same (now extended) landing strip.

The Kitchener memorial stands in remembrance of HMS Hampshire, which was sunk shortly after leaving Scapa Flow, after hitting a mine.

St Magnus cathedral Orkney

Poppies in memory of the battle of Jutland, at St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall

When the allies won WWII, the German fleet was sent to Scapa Flow and then there was to be a decision as to whether to sink the ships or redistribute them to the allied countries.  Unfortunately this decision was taken out of their hand as the German’s sunk their own ships, almost simultaneously.  The fleet is still in Scapa Flow today and is a famous diving area for those who wish to dive down to the wrecks.

Although our personal preference in Orkney was for the neolithic history, you cannot avoid the effect of the world wars on these islands and it is quite interesting to find out just how important they were for both the navy and RAF.

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Orkney war

J x


  1. July 9, 2016 / 9:27 pm

    Wow! I had no idea about any of this. I love that chapel. It’s so pretty from so much tragedy in WW2.

  2. July 9, 2016 / 11:56 pm

    Wow I had no idea about all of this.

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