Orkney in World War II: the Churchill Barriers

The Second World War has left its marks all over the world, Europe in particular. Everywhere you go, there’s a marker informing you about a battle or some other event that took place there; either that, or the landscape has been completely altered by the war. Scotland is no different.




Scotland was in a unique position during the war. While they’re far away from where the main fighting took place, they sit right on the main water passage between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Not only that, but the North Sea right around Scotland is a black gold mine – the area is very rich in oil, and Scotland held massive reserves of oil. So, even though Scotland is a ways away from mainland Europe and the Western Front, it played an important role in the war. Orkney in particular served as a training area for sailors.


The Scapa Flow, nestled in among the Orkney Islands, was the hub of naval activity. Its location is fairly central to Orkney, and is both deep and contained enough to be used in training exercises. As it would turn out, it was those training exercises which would cause Orkney’s landscape to be completely changed.




On the night October 14, 1939, a Nazi U-boat made its way into Scapa Flow undetected. The HMS Royal Oak sat at anchor in the harbor, all the trainee crew asleep. The U-boat fired two torpedoes: the first one missed its target, but the second one hit home. As that U-boat slipped out of Scapa Flow and back into the North Sea, 833 of the 1200 sailors-in-training aboard the HMS Royal Oak died.




The attack was devastating for the British navy, but more so for the Orkney community, from whence most of the recruits had come. It became immediately clear that something needed to be done to protect the training area from U-boats, which were difficult to detect from the surface. The only option, then, was to stop them underwater. Winston Churchill ordered barriers to be built between several of the Orkney islands to prevent any more U-boat excursions, and construction began in May 1940.

The barriers themselves were built using whatever was to hand: scrap concrete, excess dirt from nearby farms, even decommissioned ships. The work was done in large part by Italian prisoners of war, who had been moved to Orkney for the express purpose of constructing the barricades. Once they were finished, roads were built over the top of the barriers, providing the British government with its official excuse for the use of POW labor for war efforts: The roads improved communication between the southern Orcadian islands.



The barrier roads are still in use today, and serve as the main thoroughfare connected Mainland Orkney, Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, and South Ronaldsay. If you take any tours of Orkney from John O’Groats, you’ll drive across these barriers on your way to Kirkwall. If you look out the window of the bus as you go by, you might even see some eerie-looking skeletons of ships that were sunk to serve the barriers.



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