The Churchill Barriers

churchill_barrier588Arrive at St Margaret’s Hope on the Island of South Ronaldsay and head North on the A961 to Kirkwall.

This drive will take you over the incredible four causeways linking the Orkney islands of  South Ronaldsay, Burray, Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm.

A total length of 1.5 miles (2.3km). The barriers were originally built in 1940 as a naval defence, sealing off the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow.


Since 1914 these eastern passages had been protected by sunken block ships, booms and anti-submarine nets, but during the Second World War, On 14th October 1939, A German U-47 entered at high tide under the cover of darkness, managed to navigate it’s way around the block ships and enter Scapa Flow via Holm Sound.  From this point she launched a devastating torpedo attack on the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak.

The great ship was sunk at it’s moorings taking with her 833 members of her nearly 1000 strong crew.  A memorial has been erected in St. Magnus Cathedral on Kirkwall.

No1 Barrier

No1 Barrier

Further measures were needed to prevent more attacks, and to this purpose, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the construction of permanent barriers.

Balfour Beatty were awarded the contract and work commenced in May 1940.

Gabions containing 250,000 tons of broken rock, quarried on Orkney, were dropped into place 59 feet deep from overhead cableways. Locally-cast concrete blocks weighing five tonnes were laid on the core followed by ten tonne blocks placed on the sides in a random pattern to limit the impact of the waves.

Building the barriers from a painting by Domenico Chiocchetti

Building the barriers from a painting by Domenico Chiocchetti

Much of the labour was provided by over 1300 Italian prisoners of war.

Captured during the North Africa Campaign, the Italians were transported to Orkney from early 1942 onwards.

800 were stationed at two camps on the Island of Burray and 550 at the famous Camp 60 on Lamb Holm.

The use of POW labour for War Effort works was prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, so the works were justified as ‘improvements to communications’ to the southern Orkney Islands.

These black and white images were taken from the many interpretation panels around the site.

The barriers were formally opened on 12th May 1945, just four days after VE day.

barrier_wreck588

Rusting hulls of WWI block ships rest in the bay

Rusting hulls and masts of the 21 block ships sunk during the First World War, can still be seen in the sound and are a popular haunt for divers in the region.

All that remains of the Italian POW camps is the breathtaking Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm.




May also be of interest:

Orkney’s Italian Chapel
Orkney Island Council Marine Services – History of Scapa Flow
Undiscovered Scotland: The Churchill Barriers
BBC Legacies: Orkney’s Architectural Heritage
The Orcadian – The Churchill Barriers