Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Island Paradise: Churchill Barriers

According to the undisputed and infallible source of all knowledge:

On 14 October 1939, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at her moorings within the natural harbour of Scapa Flow in a nighttime attack by the German U-boat U-47 under the command of G√ľnther Prien. Shortly before midnight on the 13 October the U-47 had entered Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound between Lamb Holm and the Orkney Mainland. Although the shallow eastern passages had been secured with measures including sunken block ships, booms and anti-submarine nets, Prien was able to navigate the U-47 around the obstructions at high tide. He then launched a surprise torpedo attack on the unsuspecting Royal Navy battleship while it was at anchor in Scapa Flow. The U-47 then escaped seaward using the same channel by navigating between the block ships.

In response, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the construction of several permanent barriers to prevent any further attacks. Work began in May 1940 and was completed by September 1944. However the barriers were not officially opened until 12 May 1945, four days after the end of World War II in Europe.
Basically, they took a bunch of Italian prisoners from the North Africa campaign, and put them to work making concrete blocks that were then dropped into the channels between various islands on the eastern end of the archipelago. One links the Orkney Mainland to Lamb Holm; the second links Lamb Holm to Glimps Holm; the third links Glimps Holm to Burray; and the final one links Burray to South Ronaldsay. Since the threat from German U-boats has declined slightly since the early 1940's, they're now used primarily as bridges. I can only imagine how restricted I would have been in my movements if Winston Churchill hadn't given the order.

Captain John first took me to see the Churchill Barriers way back in 2004, on my first full day in Orkney. I'd never heard of them, and I was amazed. This was either right before or right after we visited one of the naval artillery batteries that defended Scapa Flow. Orkney is full of history.

Scapa Flow has its own rich history, tied into the history of World War I and World War II. As mentioned above, it was the site of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in 1939. It was also the site where the German imperial fleet was interned, complete with crews, after hostilities had ended in World War I. As the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated, a failure in communication coupled with German distrust of the victors led a German admiral to order that the ships in Scapa Flow be scuttled. While the British were able to salvage a few of the ships, most were lost, and there are a number of spots where the remains are still visible. Their location next to the Churchill Barriers makes for a historical drive that you'd be hard pressed to find an equivalent to elsewhere in the world. I took these pictures on my way back from the south end of South Ronaldsay on my last day in Orkney...

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... as I was doing a sort of condensed grand tour of the islands accessible by road. While still on tiny Lamb Holm, which is probably about as big as the University of Aberdeen campus, I revisited the Italian Chapel, and that will be the topic of my next Island Paradise post.

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