The Churchill Barriers: Orkney in World War II

The Churchill Barriers: Orkney in World War II

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Scotland in World War II

Second World War has left its marks all over the world, Europe in particular. Everywhere you go, there’s a marker informing you about a battle or some other event that took place there; either that, or the landscape has been completely altered by the war. Scotland is no different.

Scotland was in a unique position during the war. Although they’re far away from where the main fighting took place, they sit right on the main water passage between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Not only that, but the North Sea right around Scotland is a black gold mine. The area is very rich in oil, and Scotland held massive reserves of it. So, even though Scotland wasn’t on the frontline, it still played an important role in the war. Orkney in particular served as a training area for sailors.

The Scapa Flow, nestled in among the Orkney Islands, was the hub of naval activity. Its location is fairly central to Orkney, and is both deep and contained enough for use in training exercises. As it would turn out, it was those training exercises which would cause Orkney’s landscape to be completely changed.


Orkney
Orkney

The HMS Royal Oak

On the night October 14, 1939, a Nazi U-boat made its way into Scapa Flow undetected. The HMS Royal Oak sat at anchor in the harbor, all the trainee crew asleep. The U-boat fired two torpedoes. The first one missed its target, but the second one hit home. As that U-boat slipped out of Scapa Flow and back into the North Sea, 833 of the 1200 sailors-in-training aboard the HMS Royal Oak died.

The attack was devastating for the British navy. However, it was more so for the Orkney community, from whence most of the recruits had come. It became immediately clear that something needed to be done to protect the training area from U-boats. The problem was that U-boats were difficult to detect from the surface.

The only option, then, was to stop them underwater. Winston Churchill ordered the construction of barriers between several of the Orkney islands to prevent any more U-boat excursions, and construction began in May 1940.

Scapa Flow barrier
The Churchill Barrier in Scapa Flow

The Churchill Barriers

The Churchill Barriers themselves were built using whatever was to hand. Scrap concrete, excess dirt from nearby farms, even decommissioned ships went into them. The workers were largely Italian prisoners of war, who the British government moved to Orkney for the express purpose of constructing the barricades.

Once they were finished, roads were built over the top of the barriers. This provided the British government with its official excuse for the use of POW labor for war efforts. The roads improved communication between the southern Orcadian islands.

The barrier roads are still in use today. They serve as the main thoroughfare connected Mainland Orkney, Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, and South Ronaldsay. If you take any tours of Orkney from John O’Groats, you’ll drive across these barriers on your way to Kirkwall.

If you look out the window of the bus as you go by, you might even see some eerie-looking skeletons of ships that serve as the barriers.

Scapa Flow barrier
The Churchill Barrier in Scapa Flow

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