Wartime history of Orkney

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  • Churchill Barrier No. 2
    Churchill Barrier No. 2
  • Hackness Martello Tower and Battery, Isle of Hoy, Orkney
    Hackness Martello Tower and Battery on the Isle of Hoy
  • 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
  • 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 exist in 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.

Scapa Flow

A shipwreck sticks out of the waterA shipwreck at Scapa Flow

Most of Orkney’s World Wars legacy centres around the great natural harbour of Scapa Flow – a 140-square mile expanse of deep water, which forms one of the largest sheltered anchorages in the world and was an important operations base for the Royal Navy during both World Wars. This vast and beautiful maritime haven has a long history of naval conflict dating back to Napoleonic times.

Many haunting ship wrecks, including the remaining 8 wrecks of the scuttled WWI German High Seas Fleet, 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.

Hoy

Lyness in the south of the island became the main operations headquarters towards the latter part of 1917 for the Royal Navy. Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery is the largest concentration of war graves in Scotland. It has graves from both wars including officers, ratings and members of the land forces lost from HMS Hampshire, Vanguard, Narborough, Opal and Royal Oak.

The Hackness Martello Tower and Battery was built on Hoy between 1813 and 1815 to protect against marauding French warships as well as the United States Navy and American privateers who targeted Baltic convoys. Historic Scotland offer tours from April to October and if you take the kids along, they can dress up in Napoleonic or WWI period costumes.

Birsay

Located off the north-west coast of the West Mainland this historic area dating back to Neolithic and Viking times is also an important site for WWI heritage – especially the Kitchener Memorial which overlooks the dramatic sea cliffs of Marwick Head. The memorial can be reached via a short 20-30 minute walk to Marwick Head cliffs, which is also an RSPB Nature Reserve.

West Mainland

Skaill Bay, Orkney Skaill Bay, Mainland Orkney

Stromness

You can also take a tour of Ness Battery, one of the best preserved wartime sites in Britain, used in both World Wars. Most of what remains at Ness in terms of gun emplacements and coastal defence buildings now comes from the Second World War but much was built on top of First World War foundations. Andrew Hollinrake of Stromness Tours offers fascinating 1.5 hour guided tours of the site and the site is only accessible on foot.

Skaill Bay

Along with the more obvious legacies of batteries, buildings, block ships and the Churchill Barriers that the World Wars left behind, you’ll find less evident, but no-less important reminders of how these conflicts affected and in some instances benefited the islands. A prime example of this can be found in Skaill Bay near the iconic Neolithic village of Skara Brae, though you’ll need to don a wetsuit and breathing apparatus to learn more! In the bay, old anti-submarine/boom defence nets used in the Second World War have been subsumed by nature and become artificial reefs which support a burgeoning array of marine wildlife.

East Mainland

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm  The Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm

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. Orkney Boat Trips operate boat charters to the HMS Royal Oak wreck site following the route of the German U-boat U-47 – the submarine that torpedoed the battleship.

During this time, the Italians POWs stationed on the island who were working on the construction of the Churchill Barriers requested a place of worship. Lamb Holm is home to this gentler reminder of the conflict, embodied in the fragile beauty of the Italian Chapel, which was built by the prisoners of war. It's difficult to believe this beautifully ornate white building was once a humble nissen hut - and were 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.

South Ronaldsay

Located a few miles west of St Margaret’s Hope on the Hoxa peninsula, you’ll find Hoxa Battery, which originally dates back to 1913 and Balfour Battery dating back to 1940. These were used to guard the southerly entrance (east side) to Scapa Flow during both World Wars. The two batteries here are both accessible via a 1.5 mile circular walk with fine views over to the islands of Flotta and Hoy. This is an excellent spot to really appreciate the scale of Scapa Flow.

Stop off for a break at the Hoxa Café for delicious home-baking and dramatic views over the Hoxa peninsula and Scapa Flow. 

Find out more about the First World War at sea.

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