Idle hands make the Devil’s handiwork. Your grandmother’s worn-out words of wisdom ring especially true in situations of enforced confinement. I have to believe that those words were playing on repeat in the minds of British officials in charge of POWs during World War II, and the POWs were quickly assigned a different type of work than they had signed up for.
The Orkney Islands were a strategic location during WWII. From Scapa Flow, a large bay surrounded by the Orkney Islands, the British Navy could control entry to and exit from the North Sea via norther routes. As such, during both wars, Scapa Flow housed a large naval base. During WWII, Nazi U-boats continuously tried to undermine the control of the British Navy in Orkney to ease their passage into the Atlantic from the North Sea.
In 1939, a ship called the HMS Royal Oak was anchored in Scapa Flow, with a crew of 1400 men – most of whom were young men and first-time sailors, training for military service. During the night, a U-boat made its way into Scapa Flow and fired several torpedoes on the HMS Royal Oak, the second of which caused major damage, and the ship was sunk. Because it was a surprise attack on a trainee crew, most of the crew didn’t make it out: 833 men died in the attack.
In response to the attack, Winston Churchill ordered that barriers be constructed between the Orkney Islands to prevent another U-boat from getting so close into British territory. Given that it was wartime, and all able-bodied men had been shipped off to the Western Front (this was especially hard on Orkney, which had just a small community to begin with), there were very few laborers available to do the necessary work.
With no local laborers available to build the barriers, POWs were relocated to Orkney. In particular, a group of Italians who had been captured in North Africa were relocated to Camp 60 on the island of Lamb Holm to carry out the work.
These Italian POWs, far from home, subjected to what amounted to slave labor, and suffering from all the ailments that go along with unpreparedness for a cold, dark, wet, and windy climate, appealed for the right to build a house of prayer. Permission was granted, and the men set to work. But, while permission had been granted, resources had not; it was, after all, wartime Britain. So the men got creative.
They took two of the huts they had been allocated and stood them end-to-end, then covered the interior walls with plaster. They used concrete leftover from their work on the barriers to create all the interior fixtures, such as the altar and communion rail. Spam tins were re-purposed as candle holders. Stations of the Cross were carved from wood found nearby.
But, this was a chapel for Italians. These men came from the land of San Pietro, of Santa Maria delle Grazie, of Santa Maria del Fiore. No mere corrugated steel hut was going to serve as a chapel. One of the inmates, Domenico Chiocchetti, used paint to decorate the interior, make it look as much as possible with the few materials he had to hand like an Italian Roman Catholic church.
In 1944, the Italian POWs were moved from Orkney to another camp in Yorkshire, but Domenico Chiocchetti asked to remain behind, so that he could finish working on the facade of the chapel. The Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, who owned the island on which the chapel stands, promised the departing POWs that Orcadians would maintain the chapel. Well after the war, in 1964, Domenico Chiocchetti returned to Orkney to visit the chapel.
The men might all be gone, but the miracle of what they did in Camp 60 still stands on Lamb Holm.