The presence of a huge naval base in Scapa Flow during both world wars presented an irresistible target to the Germans, and protecting the fleet was always a nagging problem for the Allies. During World War I, blockships were sunk to guard the eastern approaches, but just weeks after the outbreak of World War II, a German U-boat managed to manoeuvre past the blockships and torpedo the battleship HMS Royal Oak, which sank with the loss of 833 lives.
The sinking of the Royal Oak convinced the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, that Scapa Flow needed better protection, and in 1940 work began on a series of barriers – known as the Churchill Barriers – to seal the waters between the Mainland and the string of islands to the south. Special camps were built to accommodate the 1700 men involved in the project; their numbers were boosted by the surrender of Italy in 1942, when Italian POWs were sent to work here.
Besides the barriers, the Italians also left behind the beautiful Italian Chapel on the first of the islands, Lamb Holm. This, the so-called “miracle of Camp 60”, must be one of the greatest adaptations ever, made from two Nissen huts, concrete, barbed wire and parts of a rusting blockship. It has a great false facade, and colourful trompe l’oeil decor, lovingly restored by the chapel’s principal architect, Domenico Chiocchetti.