THE CHURCHILL BARRIERS
I will now go back the the earlier part of our day. When we first started out, all along the fields near the sea, which is probably almost all the fields on the whole of South Ronaldsay, were huge flocks of geese, who on the approach of such a large and stripey thing took to the wing with one accord, which alarmed the feeding flock in the next field and so on till we nearly reached St. Margaret's Hope (isn't that a lovely name for a town)
We flanked this little port and climbed the hills behind it, and then, as the view opened out beneath us was the first of the Churchill Barriers. I come from a generation which was just too young to know anything of the Second World War, and when I was growing up, although the war was only a few years distant, somehow it was something no-one wanted to speak about. My history lessons at school revolved around the Agricultural Revolution (perhaps because it was a farming county) and the first three Georges, so it is only the last few years when the First and Second World Wars have featured strongly in various television programmes that I have learnt anything of the history of the twentieth century, and until I intended to visit Orkney I knew nothing of the history of what the Churchill Barriers were, or really anything about Scapa Flow, so in case like me, it is something new to you I have raided Wikipedia for some info which I hope you will find interesting.
Scapa Flow is one of the world's great natural habours and anchorages, covering around one hundred and twenty square miles, most of it about thirty meters deep. There is sufficient space to safely hold a number of Navies, and it was the chief naval base for Britain during both the First and Second World Wars
Historically British naval bases were located near to the English Channel to better face England's old enemies of France, Spain and the Netherlands. But in 1904 as the German fleet was being built up it was decided a northern base was needed to control the entrances to the North Sea. Various places were mooted, but nothing serious done, and on the outbreak of war there was nowhere suitable but Scapa Flow, even through that too was unfortified.
The Admiral of the Fleet was perpetually nervous about the possibility of German attack on Scapa Flow, either by destroyer or submarine, so in 1914 the base was reinforced. In fact only two attempts were made on the harbour, both by German U-boats and neither was successful. The first being spotted and rammed by a trawler before fleeing, and the second, just before the war ended was detected by the hydrophones, by then installed as defences, and was destroyed by shore-triggered mines.
In 1916, in order to lure out the British Fleet from Scapa Flow the German navy started attacking merchant shipping between Denmark and Norway west of Jutland. Steaming out of Scapa Flow to confront them the British Fleet lost 14 ships and over 6000 men in the Battle of Jutland, but this was a decisive naval battle, and after this the German Fleet saw little action.
After the ceasefire in 1918 seventy four ships of the German Fleet were interned in Gutter Sound at Scapa Flow, pending a decision on their future. But in June 1919 the German officer in command at Scapa Flow decided to scuttle the German Fleet rather than have it fall into British hands. So, having waited for the bulk of the British Fleet to leave on exercises, he gave orders for the scuttling of the fleet, which was helped by the fact that during the months of internment the German crews had welded open the bulkhead doors and laid charges in vulnerable parts of the ships, plus removing vital keys and equipment so valves could not be shut. Although the Royal Navy made desperate efforts to save the doomed ships fifty two were sunk.
Many of the larger ships were sunk in relatively deep water, though some were left with their superstructure or upturned bows still protruding from the water, or lay just below the surface posing a severe hazard for navigation, and the small boats of the area regularly became snagged on them
Initially the Admiralty declared there would be no attempt at salvage, probably because of the vast amount of scrap available following the end of the First World War, but by the early 1920's there was once again a demand for scrap metal and tenders were invited for the salvage contract. And so began what was possibly the greatest maritime salvage operation of all time, though few thought it would be possible
Over a period of eight years divers, engineers, and labourers engaged in the complex task of sealing the multiple holes in the wrecks and welding huge steel tubes to the hulls to allow compressed air to be pumped into the ships to raise them. First the relatively small destroyers were brought to the surface and sold for scrap to help finance the operation, then the bigger battleships and battlecruisers. Cox, the successful salvage tenderer, endured bad luck and frequent fierce storms which often ruined his work, swamping and re-sinking ships which had just been raised. At one stage, during the General Strike of 1926, when the salvage operation was about to grind to a halt due to a lack of coal to feed the boilers for the water pumps, Cox ordered that the abundant fuel bunkers of the sunken battlecruiser Seydlitz be broken into to extract the coal with mechanical grabs, thus allowing work to continue.
Although he ultimately lost money on the contract, Cox kept going, employing new technology and methods as conditions dictated. By 1939 he had successfully raised 45 of the 52 scuttled ships. The last, the massive Derfflinger, was raised from a record depth of 45 metres just before work was suspended with the start of World War II.
Primarily because of its great distance from German airfields, Scapa Flow was again selected as the main British naval base during WWII But the strong defences built during WWI had fallen into disrepair, defence against air attack was inadequate, and the blockships sunk to stop U-boats from penetrating had largely collapsed. While there were anti-submarine nets in place over the three main entrances, they comprised only single-stranded looped wire, and there was also a severe lack of the patrolling destroyers and the other anti-submarine craft that had previously been available. Belated efforts began to repair peacetime neglect but were not completed in time to prevent a successful penetration by enemy forces.
On 14 October 1939, around midnight a U-boat entered Scapa Flow and sank the WWI–era battleship HMS Royal Oak anchored in Scapa Bay. After firing its first torpedo, the submarine turned to make its escape; but, upon realising that there was no immediate threat from surface vessels, it returned for another attack. The second torpedo blew a 30-foot (9 m) hole in the Royal Oak, which flooded and quickly capsized. Of the 1,400-man crew, 833 were lost.
So new blockships were sunk, booms and mines were placed over the main entrances, coast defence and anti-aircraft batteries were installed at crucial points, and Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of causeways to block the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.
A project of this size required a substantial labour force, which peaked in 1943 at over 2,000, and much of the labour was provided by over 1300 Italian prisoners of war who had been captured in the desert war of North Africa, and who were transported to Orkney from early 1942 onwards. As the use of POW labour for War Effort works is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, the works were justified as 'improvements to communications' to the southern Orkney Islands
The prisoners were accommodated in three camps, 600 at Camp 60 on Little Holm and the remaining 700 at two camps on Burray. Those at Camp 60 built the ornate Italian Chapel (More of that later)
Work on the Churchill Barriers began in May 1940 and was completed by September 1944. However they were not officially opened until 12 May 1945, four days after the end of World War II in Europe.
The bases of the barriers were built from gabions enclosing 250,000 tons of broken rock, from quarries on Orkney. The gabions were dropped into place from overhead cableways into waters up to 59 feet deep. The bases were then covered with 66,000 locally cast concrete blocks in five-tonne and ten-tonne sizes. The five-ton blocks were laid on the core, and the ten-tonne blocks were arranged on the sides in a random pattern to act as wave-breaks.
So after that interesting little excursion into history, back to today and our approach to the first of our Churchiill Barriers, I stopped on the brow of the overlooking hill to take some photos. The sky was almost an impossible blue, which relected in the waters beneath, and with the windows tight shut against the wind you could have been somewhere in the Mediterranean.
So down the hill to the first causeway, to see the stern warning notice
NO STOPPING ON THE CAUSEWAY - DRIVERS CROSS AT THEIR OWN RISK
This notice was repeated at each causeway, though with the addition at one of
BEWARE LOW FLYING AIRCRAFT,
and at another
RISK OF CROSS WINDS AND WAVE ACTION,
and there certainly was wave action, I took heed of the driving technique of the locals, which was to keep a weather eye on the big waves coming in from the sea, and time it to get through when only the smaller ones were breaking on the barrier, hence getting soaked, rather than washed away.
And then we came to the turning for the Italian Chapel .....
The First of the Churchill Barriers