Wartime history of Orkney

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  • Churchill Barrier No. 2
    Churchill Barrier No. 2
  • The marker bouy for the wreck of HMS Royal Oak, Scapa Flow, Orkney
    The marker bouy for the wreck of HMS Royal Oak, Scapa Flow, Orkney
  • The Italian Chapel - built by Italian POW's during WW2, Lamb Holm, Orkney
    The Italian Chapel - built by Italian POW's during WW2, Lamb Holm, Orkney
  • Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm
    Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm
  • Two divers entering the water off Churchill Barrier No. 3 connecting Glimps Holm and Burray, Orkney
    Two divers entering the water off Churchill Barrier No. 3

Orkney had an important role to play in both World Wars during the 20th century.

Evocative relics of both World Wars lie both within and around Orkney, from the seven German ships sunk in the natural harbour of Scapa Flow to the Churchill Barriers with their beached blockships and the inspiring Italian Chapel.

The great natural harbour of Scapa Flow was an important base for British naval fleets and you can see the stark remains of watch towers and gun emplacements. The natural harbour is a 50 square mile expanse of deep water, which forms one of the largest, sheltered anchorages in the world and is now a graveyard of sunken ships. Many haunting ship wrecks and even an entire fleet of German World War ships lay submerged in this thin stretch of water which, combined with superb conditions and varied marine life, makes for a truly unforgettable diving experience. You can find out more in the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum which has displays and exhibits to illustrate the story of Orkney in both World Wars.

Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery on Hoy has graves from both wars, of officers, ratings and members of the land forces lost from HMS Hampshire, Vanguard, Narborough, Opal and Royal Oak. There are also graves belonging to 14 sailors of the German Navy.

You can also take a tour of Ness Battery, one of the best preserved wartime sites in Britain, used in both World Wars.

The Churchill Barriers are concrete block barriers, a series of causeways linking several of the isles and closing off the eastern approaches. The barriers were created with the assistance of Italian prisoners of war after the sinking of the battleship HMS Royal Oak in 1939 and today provide a road connecting a series of isles. Look out for the remains of blockships as you drive across these striking barriers.

During this time, the Italians requested a place of worship. Lamb Holm is home to this gentler reminder of this conflict, embodied in the fragile beauty of the Italian Chapel, which was built by the same prisoners of war. It's difficult to believe this beautifully ornate white building was once a humble nissen hut - and was it not for the dedication of Orcadians to preserve this snapshot of history, the chapel might have fallen into disrepair decades ago.

Today you can see ornate pillars, frescoes of angelic figures, stained glass windows and an altarpiece, all made from materials which were scavenged on the isle. It was a symbol of peace during times of conflict and today stands as one of Orkney’s most popular visitor attractions.