The legacy of Italian POWs on Orkney island

The Italian Chapel was built from two World War II Nissen huts.

 

Approximately 650,000 Italian soldiers during the Second World War ended up in concentration camps as P.O.W. (Prisoners of War). While civilized nations, like USA and England treated the prisoners with respect and humanity in accordance with the treaties and regulations of the Geneva Convention, the unfortunate soldiers that were sent to prison camps in Germany, Russia or Japan had a very rough time due to malnutrition, physical abuse, ill-treatment and excessive hard labor.
 
We will not elaborate on the drastic conditions that many POWs had to endure in Germany’s “Lagers” or in Russian “Gulags”; several prisoners were retained in the gulags as long as 15 years after the end of the war while some never came back.
 
The majority of Italian soldiers taken prisoners during the North Africa campaign, were caught by the Allies after the British surprise counterattack of El Alamein (October ‘42). The lucky ones were shipped to POW camps in the USA or in England, the less fortunate ended up in India, Australia or Morocco.
 
This article is about two thousands Italian prisoners that were sent to Camp 60, located at Lambholm in the Orkney Islands in the most northern part of England. During the first few months of the Second World War, October 1939, a German U-Boat submarine, taking advantage of an exceptionally high tide, penetrated the Scapa Flow and sank the powerful battleship “Royal Oak”, the pride of the British Navy: 833 unfortunate British sailors died. The Royal Oak was anchored off Scapa.
 More than 1,000 prisoners of war arrived in Orkney. Signor Chiochetti is in the back row, far left, outside the Italian Chapel. Image courtesy of JW Sinclair/Orkney Library and Archive.

 More than 1,000 prisoners of war arrived in Orkney. Signor Chiochetti is in the back row, far left, outside the Italian Chapel. Image courtesy of JW Sinclair/Orkney Library and Archive.

 
Having learned a hard lesson, the Royal Navy decided to seal off the channels between the islands. The operation became known as “The Churchill Barriers”. Toward the end of 1942, several hundreds Italian prisoners were sent to this location for the purpose of completing the construction of the “Churchill Barriers”. The work consisted of laying on the sea-bed of the Orkneys, between island and island, a massive quantity of large stones, rocks and concrete causeways for the purpose of closing off unwelcome enemy ships and to prevent their access to the Scapa Flow. The causeway is one and a half miles long.
 
The Italian prisoners worked very hard at this major project, they also found the time to improve the look of the camp building concrete paths and to plant all kinds of beautiful flowers. Among the prisoners there was a talented artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, who tenaciously motivated and encouraged fellow prisoners to do their best to make the place look pleasant and cheerful. Domenico was a native of Moena, a village in the Dolomite mountains, only 15 miles south-east of Bolzano.
 
Putting his ingenuity to work, so typical of Italian artists, Chiocchetti utilized worthless scrap and very simple material. Utilizing some barbed wire that he covered with cement, he made the frame of a statue of “St.George slaying the dragon”, symbolical of the triumph of the prisoners’ spirit over defeat. Still something was lacking: most prisoners missed a place where to isolate themselves, kneel down and pray to feel closer to God and to their own families. It was very hard for them to be separated for years from their beloved ones. The most fortunate prisoners had managed to keep one or two photos of their wives, their mothers, their children: it seemed that just glancing at those faded and worn out snapshots, they would get new strength and be able to cope with the hardship of homesickness and of being so far-away from home.
 
Domenico was probably one of the most fortunate: he had succeeded in saving a sacred image, a small ‘santino’ of the “Madonna and Child” that he carried with him through the war. During the toughest moments of the battle and later of his captivity, it was that holy picture that gave Chiocchetti the courage that enabled him not to give up and hope in a better tomorrow; every time the situation seemed most desperate he pulled out his precious ‘santino’ from a hidden pocket of his pants and just stared for a few moments at the divine Mother holding the Baby Jesus in her arms. The Baby seemed so fragile and helpless but at the same time peaceful and confident. Domenico too, just looking into Her eyes felt reassured as he knew in his heart that She would take care of him as She always took care of all Her children who turned to Her.
 
At Camp 60 one night Chiocchetti decided that the time had come for him to show the Blessed Mother his gratitude for protecting and comforting him when things were so desperate that he thought the end was near. Again in the silence of the cold night, he pulled out the ‘santino’ and whispered to the Madonna what he had been planning for weeks: ”Sweet Mother of God, you always answered my prayers; now more than ever I need your help to achieve my plan”.
 
Domenico realized that this time only a miracle could achieve what he so fervently implored. In his heart he knew that the commandant of the camp would never give his approval for such an “extravagant undertaking”, but his faith in the Blessed Mother gave him tranquility and the peace of mind that he needed to think clearly to the details of his ambitious project, just in case….
 
The following day he knew that Our Lady had heard his prayer when he learned that there had been some changes in the administration of the Camp: a new officer had been assigned the supervision of the prisoners. The name of the new commandant was Major T.P. Buckland. Domenico Chiocchetti, extremely excited, didn’t waste any time and went looking for the Chaplain, Fr. Giacobazzi . After explaining in details his plan to the Chaplain, they decided to have a talk together with the new camp commandant.
 
Upon his arrival to Lambholm the major had visited the camp and had been really impressed with the statue of St.George built by Domenico; now he listened with interest to what the two men had to say. Finally he smiled and asked them where they planned to get all the material needed to erect the building. When Chiocchetti assured the officer that the building of the chapel would require no new material, but will be built utilizing discarded and useless material, the same way the statue of St.George had been built, Major Buckland became rather receptive and promised to help whatever way he could. Among the prisoners Domenico found bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, metal workers, even a smith and a plumber. To construct the building he utilized all kinds of worthless scraps, including material obtained from a wrecked ship. The amazing fact is that each prisoner did his part in this project, contributing personally in many different ways, but always happily and enthusiastically.
 
While they concentrated in the new project, time went by faster; not only their hands and their minds were constantly busy doing something worthwhile, their morale was high, they were smiling more often and they appeared to be less homesick.
 
In the meantime Chiocchetti was concentrating in the blue-prints and in the various drawings which he kept reviewing and discussing with Fr.Giacobazzi. What a blessing it was that Major Buckland took over the camp at the time he did when Domenico was getting frustrated after his numerous unsuccessful attempts to have his plan approved. Since the new commandant was so understanding and agreeable, Chiocchetti became more relaxed while new ideas flooded his mind continuously. During the night he would wake up and jot down a few notes. He was so happy for having a chance to do something for the Blessed Mother who was always there for him when he needed help, reassurance and comfort.
 
High above the altar was Chiocchetti’s masterpiece, the Madonna and Child, that he skillfully reproduced from the ‘santino’ he had carried with him all through the war.  What was meant to be a simple chapel became a full size church.
 
On June 1945, right after the end of the war, as the prisoners left the island, Domenico remained behind to complete the baptismal font. Although the Italian prisoners used their church only a short time, what they had accomplished left an indelible mark in the memory of all the Orcadians, of the British officers who came in contact with the prisoners and all the tourists that visited the island and learned the history of the chapel.
 
In leaving the Orkneys, Domenico Chiocchetti wrote a touching letter to the people of the island: “Dear Orcadians: the chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality, I shall remember always, and my children shall learn from me, to love you.”
 
Today, after almost 70 years, the Chapel and the statue of St.George slaying the dragon, are object of admiration by tourists and visitors from all over the world. The Chapel built with feelings and enthusiasm by a group of Italian prisoners, has become a place of pilgrimage. People of all races and nationalities, visiting the Italian Chapel are overwhelmed by feelings of respect and amazement for those young men who considering the circumstances, could have chosen to lie sluggishly around and wait for the end of the war; instead they proved to the world that, although forced to fight in the wrong side of a despicable war, they were nevertheless decent and honorable human beings. What the prisoners of Camp 60 in the Orkney Islands did is an invaluable lesson to those nations that in all wars treat prisoners in an uncivilized, ruthless and barbarous way.
 

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