Traveller's tales

Monday, July 14, 2008

The beautiful Italian Chapel, Orkney - the power of faith and love and industry

Probably one of the best indications of whether a nation is civilized is how prisoners of war are treated. The Geneva Convention informs nations of the humanitarian treatment of POWs, but how many countries adhere to those Conventions?

In May, 1940, about 1,300 Italian prisoners of war captured in Libya, were taken to the Orkney islands to ‘sit’ out the war. These prisoners helped to build the Churchill Barriers on the edges of Scapa Flow. Being God-fearing men, they required a place to show their devotion. They were given permission to build a chapel – a place of worship, so the POWs got to work and built one on the soon to be connected island of Lamb Holm.

The new commander of Camp 60, Major T P Buckland, favoured the idea of constructing a chapel, which was put forward by the camp padre, Father Giacombazzi. The chapel was built from two Nissen huts joined together lengthways. The corrugated interior was then covered with plasterboard and the altar and altar rail were constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers.
Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, a POW from Moena, who stayed behind on the island to finish the chapel even though his fellow prisoners had been released shortly before the end of the war.
What Chioccetti achieved was remarkable. He constructed and painted a pedimented Italianate facade, from scrap and other simple materials and painted a representation of the Madonna and Child above the altar, and he also created a grand statue of St George slaying the dragon outside.

Of course, coming from Italy, the men inevitably suffered from the cold so far North, and being a people given to singing, they missed the opportunity to be musical. Their captors provided facilities for the men to put on shows – to participate in entertainment, and to form an audience to enjoy the shows.

After hostilities, they were repatriated, but many never forgot the kindness showed to them by the people of Orkney. Chiocchetti returned to repair the damage wrought by time and the elements. His widow communicated with the islanders until her death.

Nearer to home, Glenn Mill, on the outskirts of Oldham, housed Italian POWs, many staying behind after the war, marrying local girls and integrating fully into a community they had previously been fighting.

Churchill famously once said, “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity”. Those sentiments took us through the dark days of war, and helped us maintain our civilized stance towards those who had formerly been our enemies.
Robert L. Fielding

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