The Curious Story of 
the Italian Chapel Built 
by WWII POWs 
in the Scottish Isles

The Italian Chapel.

Wikimedia commons/MichaelMaggs
The Italian Chapel.
In the northernmost reaches of the Scottish North Sea, on the small, windswept isle of Lamb Holm, sits a pristine vestry at the intersection of religion, art, and war.

In the northernmost reaches of the Scottish North Sea, on the small, windswept isle of Lamb Holm, sits a pristine vestry at the intersection of religion, art, and war.

Ian Shank

Nave of the Italian Chapel

“It was the wish to show to oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wired camp, down in spirit physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free.”

Bruno Volpi

In the northernmost reaches of the Scottish North Sea, on the small, windswept isle of Lamb Holm, sits a pristine vestry at the intersection of religion, art, and war. Sixteen feet wide and 72 feet long, the structure features all the trappings of a humble house of worship. Sunlight seeps through a quartet of stained glass windows. Bespoke lanterns dangle above hand-wrought iron and brass candlesticks. Frescoes adorn the cobblestone walls, including a highly ornate rendering of the Madonna and Child.

But look closer, for this is no ordinary chapel.

The cobblestone walls are a trompe-l'oeil, nothing more than lines of pigment on bare concrete. The stained glass, upon closer inspection, is simply painted glass. Though the lanterns and candlesticks betray long days of painstaking craftsmanship, they, too, are made from used bully-beef tins and scavenged scrap metal––the only materials available to the roughly 500 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) that inhabited this island between 1942 and 1944.

Today, the Italian Chapel (as it is now known) is among the most prominent attractions to Scotland's Orkney Islands. More than 100,000 visit each year, drawn from every corner of the globe. Some come to marvel at the ingenuity of its artistry. Others in search of grace. Yet the longer these visitors linger, the more these virtues feel one and the same.

So it was, as well, for the men who built it.

The story of the chapel begins on a moonless night in October 1939. By now Britain had been at war with Nazi Germany for just over a month, though the absence of actual combat between the two powers made it easy to trust the fragile peace that still prevailed.

All that changed on Saturday, October 14. Just past 1 a.m., a German U-boat slipped through the murky waters off Lamb Holm and penetrated the confines of nearby Scapa Flow––the historic anchorage of the Royal Navy. Gliding over the waterlogged remains of the German high seas fleet––brought to Scapa and then scuttled at the conclusion of the First World War––the U-boat promptly locked its sights on the largest vessel in the harbor: the 30,000-ton battleship HMS Royal Oak. On board, more than 1,200 sailors slept soundly, blissfully unaware of the tragedy to come.

Moments later, the muffled explosion of a torpedo pierced the calm, then three more in quick succession. The ship shuddered. Then sank. In the span of 13 minutes, 833 lives were lost. Among the dead were 126 sailors under the age of 18––some as young as 14––the greatest single loss of boy sailors in the history of the Royal Navy. When alerted of the attack the next morning, Churchill wept openly. "Poor fellows, poor fellows," the prime minister murmured to his secretary, "trapped in those black depths."

Soon thereafter, Churchill traveled to Scapa to survey the anchorage's defenses for himself. What he found did little to allay his anxiety. Though the natural harbor had long been considered impregnable by British authorities––its use as a maritime safe haven dating back to the 13th century Norse Vikings––Scapa's four easterly channels were far from secure, having been variously plugged with a hodge-podge of booms, anti-submarine nets, and "blockships" (retired vessels sunk to jam up shipping arteries).

To protect the harbor, Churchill swiftly authorized an ambitious project: the construction of four massive sea walls between several of the Orkney's easterly islands––Burray, Glims Holm, and Lamb Holm––to effectively transform them into a contiguous landmass. Forever after, these buffers would come to be known simply as the Churchill Barriers.

Seemingly overnight the population of the islands exploded, jumping from 20,000 to 60,000 as laborers and technicians rushed north to lend a hand. A stone pier was hastily constructed to expedite the transfer of materials, as was a rudimentary 10-mile railway. Yet it wasn't long before progress on the barriers began to flag.

Citing the severity of the work and weather, a number of laborers soon demanded to be transferred to more forgiving posts. A period of heavy conscription shortly followed, putting yet another drain on the supply of able-bodied men. What was needed, British administrators understood, was a workforce of capable craftsmen that wouldn't suddenly be pulled away to join the war effort. The solution, as it turned out, lay in Egypt.

By January 1941, British forces in North and East Africa had suddenly found themselves awash in Italian POWs. What had begun four months prior as an expeditionary operation to assess Italian strength had unexpectedly resulted in outright victory, prompting one officer to quip that while his unit had not yet had time to count its prisoners, they held "about five acres of officers and two hunder acres of other ranks."

Of the 73,000 Italian POWs captured that winter, 1,000 were eventually selected to complete the Churchill Barriers from twin camps on Lamb Holm (Camp 60) and Burray (Camp 34). For one of the POWs in particular––a 31-year-old artist named Domenico Chiocchetti––the move would prove providential.

Interior view of the Italian Chapel.
Wikimedia commons/Alan Jamieson

Interior view of the Italian Chapel.

Domenico Chiocchetti’s Madonna and Child.
Ian Shank

Domenico Chiocchetti’s Madonna and Child, modeled after that of a pocket-sized prayer book he carried for the duration of the war

Painted glass window in the Italian Chapel.
Ian Shank

Painted glass window in the Italian Chapel.

Inside view of the front door of the Italian Chapel.
Ian Shank

Inside view of the front door of the Italian Chapel.

Side view of the Italian Chapel, constructed from two conjoined Nissen Huts.
Ian Shank

Side view of the Italian Chapel, constructed from two conjoined Nissen Huts.

Domenico Chiocchetti (left) with camp blacksmith Giuseppe Palumbi in the summer of 1944.
Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall, Orkney

Domenico Chiocchetti (left) with camp blacksmith Giuseppe Palumbi in the summer of 1944.

Domenico Chiocchetti and his wife, Maria Chiocchetti, in 1964.
Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall, Orkney

Domenico Chiocchetti and his wife, Maria Chiocchetti, in 1964.

Domenico Chiocchetti, March 1960.
Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall, Orkney

Domenico Chiocchetti, March 1960.

Domenico Chiocchetti restores the Madonna and Child upon his first return to Lamb Holm in 1960.
Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall, Orkney

Domenico Chiocchetti restores the Madonna and Child upon his first return to Lamb Holm in 1960.

Postcard of the Italian Chapel and statue of St. George on horseback.
Orkney Library and Archive, Kirkwall, Orkney

Postcard of the Italian Chapel and statue of St. George on horseback.

Arriving in Lamb Holm in early 1942, the Moena native was hardly cheered by the first sight of his new surroundings. "The little island could hardly have appeared more desolate," Chiocchetti later reflected, "bare, foggy, exposed to the wind and heavy rain... [the] camp consisted of thirteen dark, empty huts and mud." Like his fellow POWs, Chiocchetti wore a chocolate-colored uniform with red fabric circles on his back, left arm, and right leg, designed to serve as targets for British snipers in the event of an escape.

To make matters worse, Orkney's two POW camps were soon rocked by a series of strikes when the Italians discovered that they were being asked to build a military fortification in contravention of the Geneva Convention. The work resumed when the British clarified (somewhat duplicitously) that the barriers were in fact "causeways"––intended simply to connect the islands by road––but residual resentment lingered on, compounded by the worsening news out of Italy. "We carried on as usual but with bitterness inside our souls," noted one POW. "We were very worried about our dear ones' destiny."

The turning point came in the fall 1943. Having now spent more than a year and a half moving much of the 900,000 tons of concrete and rock that it would take to complete the Churchill Barriers, the Italians were starved for anything that would allow them to escape the menial drudgery of their imprisonment. That spark came with the arrival of a camp priest known as Padre Giacomo.

Upon setting foot in Camp 60, Giacomo was immediately struck by the listless despondency of its inhabitants. "To raise the morale of the soldiers … I soon thought of providing the camp with a little church," the priest later recalled, "knowing well how in adverse circumstances faith and religion have great power to help the human soul."

Whispers of the project soon flew threw the camp. Yet its true mastermind would be none other than Domenico Chiocchetti. Having worked as a professional painter in the years prior to the Second World War––adorning local churches with frescoes of traditional Catholic iconography––Chiocchetti immediately threw himself into the task of salvaging local materials. "There was a half-sunk ship we used to get into when the tide was low," Chiocchetti later recalled, "[which] provided us with much of the iron that we used and with the wood for the tabernacle and the stones for the floor."

At first, the project proceeded in secret. That is, until one morning when the camp commandant happened to pass by the workshop where Chiocchetti was overseeing the production of a crucifix and several candlesticks. "I, who was present, was expecting a sharp rebuke followed by an order to stop everything," recalled Padre Giacomo. "[But it was] the very reverse!" Instead, the commandant offered the use of two empty Nissen Huts for the frame––half-barrel shelters otherwise used as POW sleeping quarters––and his wholehearted blessing.

“To raise the morale of the soldiers … I soon thought of providing the camp with a little church, knowing well how in adverse circumstances faith and religion have great power to help the human soul.” Padre Giacomo

Thoroughly emboldened, Chiocchetti and his fellow POWs never looked back, spending much of their remaining year on Lamb Holm perfecting the chapel. When the Italians were finally transferred to another camp in the fall of 1944––the bulk of the Churchill Barriers now largely complete––only Chiocchetti stayed behind to put the finishing touches on the holy water stoup. In many ways, however, the project has never really ended.

After the war, Chiochetti would return to Lamb Holm two more times to restore and embellish upon the chapel––once in 1964 with his wife, and again in 1970 with his children. Asked prior to his first visit how he felt about returning to the site of his former captivity, Chiocchetti replied, "When I am once again alone in the chapel at Lamb Holm with my paints and brushes, I know that I shall feel at home."

As for the hundreds of other POWs that helped bring the chapel fruition––eight of whom would return to Orkney in 1992 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their arrival––Chiocchetti's friend and fellow POW Bruno Volpi captures their association with the structure best.

"What is it that made prisoners of war work so feverishly with partially or totally inadequate means at their disposal?" Volpi later reflected. "It was the wish to show to oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wired camp, down in spirit physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free."

The author would like to thank the Stanley Graduate Award committee for supporting the researching of this piece.

About the Author

Ian M Shank

Ian M Shank holds B.A. degrees in History and Italian Studies from Brown University and is an MFA candidate in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Iowa. 

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