Tuesday 12 May 2020

The Churchill Barriers 75 Years

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the opening of 
the Churchill Barriers.
They were officially opened by First Lord of the Admiralty 
Albert Victor Alexander on the 12th May 1945.  

The Churchill Barriers are a series of causeways built to block the eastern approaches to Orkney's large natural harbour, Scapa Flow, which was being used as a base for the British Fleet in World War II.  In October 1939 German submarine U47 found a way through the existing blockships in one of these approaches, named Kirk Sound, and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow. The battleship sank with the loss of over 800 lives. In response, the First Lord of the Admiralty Mr Winston Churchill instigated the design and building of the barriers and personally visited the site on the 9th March 1940. They are now road links to the islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm, Lamb Holm and the Mainland of Orkney. 
Barriers looking south-west from Kirk Sound 

Though built as Barriers during a war, they have always brought people together. 


Construction: The design and construction of the barriers brought together the great civil engineers of the time. Experiments were carried out at Whitworth Engineering Laboratories at Manchester University, led by Professor A H Gibson. "The Scheme was designed and supervised by the Civil Engineer-in-Chief of the Admiralty, Sir Arthur Whitaker, K.C.B.. M.Eng., M.I.C.E. and was carried out under the direction of Mr H. B. Hurst, M.I.C.E., until succeeded by Mr C. K. Johnston-Burt, B.Sc., M.I.C.E., Dr Herbert Chatley, M.I.C.E. and J. A. Seath, B.Sc, M.I.C.E. 
Mr E. K. Adamson, M.I.C.E., was Resident Superintending Civil Engineer from April 1940 until March 1942, when he was succeeded by Mr G. G. Nicol, D.S.O., M.I.C.E., who was in charge until completion... Mr S.C.Doughty, A.M.I.C.E., who was Assistant Resident Engineer from the end of 1941 until completion." 
The firm of Balfour Beatty & Co. were contracted to build the barriers. "Mr A.M. McTaggart, Director of Civil Engineering Works, Mr Alexander Ross, M.I.C.E., and Mr A. B. Sharp, jun., M.I.C.E., who was agent in charge from May 1942." written by J. A. Seath, B.Sc., M.I.C.E in 1946

"The force of the currents which prevail even in the unobstructed portions of the Sounds are too great for the adoption of methods involving divers work and the nature of the bottom precludes work being done from piled structures. Further the contours of the sea bed and the small range of tide in the Orkneys renders impracticable the use of prefabricated structures floated and sunk into position. There remains, therefore, as the only permanent and practical method capable of ready adoption, the construction of tipped stone or concrete block embankments
written by Arthur Whitaker, Civil Engineer-in-Chief, 12th March 1940

The three designs adopted, figure (a) in 1940, very little of the filling had been placed when labour and material difficulties made it essential to seek a more economical section, but by that time it had been decided to adopt the "bolster" as a method of placing rock fill, see figure (b) . The causeways were more or less built to this design, except that the embankment was heightened, narrowed, and provided with a roadway at 10 feet above High Water of Spring Tides, see figure (c).
"Time and the urgency of the work did not permit of the fabrication of cableways specially designed for the work and recourse had of necessity to be made to existing equipment. Four electrically-driven cableways which had been in use on the construction of the Kut barrages across the Tigris in Iraq were obtained and a steam-driven cableway was procured from a bridge construction work at Dornie in Scotland." written by James A Seath, B.Sc., M.I.C.E. in 1946.

Cableway across Kirk Sound, August 1943.
Orcadian Memories: "They started to put them up in 1942 from then on they used to sling stuff between the two uprights on the various islands and dump it in the sea." Bill Hewison, Orkney Sound Archive

Orcadian Memories: "As you go past Burray you'll see huge stone structures there. These were the foundation posts for the stone crushers. There were huge mixing units for concrete. There was a lot of machinery there to make and build up the blocks." Sandy Wylie, Orkney Sound Archive. 

Orcadian Memories: There were 10 ton blocks and 5 ton blocks and these were stocked very high up like pyramids for the causeway when the rubble had been planted.
Sandy Wylie, Orkney Sound Archive. 

Orcadian Memories: "Gradually they spread out and gradually the work began to take shape. Number 3 was a steam cableway, it came up to us complete and all we had to do was erect it. The other 3 cableways were electric and had to be adapted before they could be erected so No. 3 got away to a jolly good start and that causeway began to appear above the water. You could go across it when I left in '42. You couldn't cross No. 1 or No.2 and 4 hadn't started." 
Henry Ridelaugh, Orkney Sound Archive
Weddel Sound Causeway - well advanced 1943
View of Kirk Sound Causeway with temporary works traffic road at right and water supply main to Lamb Holm in centre. Note the rock filled bolster nets. October 1943.

Labour: As there was no spare labour force on Orkney, Balfour Beatty had to bring workers up from south and find accommodation for them. The first 230 men arrived on 12th May 1940 on board the liner Almanzora along with machinery and other supplies. The ship was then used as accommodation for six months until camps could be built in the islands. Many of these men did not like working in Orkney in the harsh weather conditions and were transferred back south. By the end of 1941 the project needed many more men if it was to be completed quickly. Thanks to the progress of the war in North Africa, there was soon a large number of Italian prisoners of war available. 

At first there was a problem. The Italians felt that this was war work. According to the Geneva Convention of 1929 relating to POWs, they should not be compelled to contribute to it. It was finally ruled that because the causeways would be of service to the community after the war, it was not war work.

 Roads Executive Committee, Item 11
Rock Works: There was submitted letter (1106) from the Deputy District Commissioner asking that the County Council should consider making representations in connection with the Admiralty Scheme at Rock Works to the effect that the barrage should have a sufficiently wide top or a sufficiently well finished top above water so that it would be possible to construct a road from the Mainland to South Ronaldshay." 
Orkney County Council Minutes 14th July 1942.

Italian POWs: "On February 23rd 1942 we were allocated to Orkney Islands and sailed from Aberdeen to reach that destination. Five hundred POWs were assigned to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, five hundred and fifty three to Camp 34 on Burray. Immediately after our arrival, the workers teams were set up starting to work, alternatively during the day at Causeways Transport Road Construction as part of original Project about the linking of four small islands as military defence of 'Scapa Flow Bay' against Enemies Submarine actions.
"The statue of St George was built first. It shows the patron saint of soldiers ready to kill the dragon. It is a concrete representation of the desire to eliminate all evil, all wars that cause pain and injustice to so many people. It is the symbol of a will to "kill" all misunderstandings among people of different culture.
"After a short transient period characterised by few incomprehensions a real cooperation among the British Staff led by Colonel Buckland, the Balfour Beatty Building Company Technical Representatives and Sergeant Major G Fornasier and Sergeant Bertone (respectively Commandants of 60 and 34 Camps) started and lasted for the remaining period of permanence of POWs on the Islands. 

"The POWs carried on their jobs seriously and productively even if the job itself and living conditions were not so easy. Many subjects fell ill with psychological problems, some due to homesickness and difficulty to get used to the different weather conditions, some due to both conditions. To make their recovery easier the other POWs got conscious of a deeper spiritual involvement for them, this is the true reason of the Italian Chapel building standing on Lamb Holm Island.

The artwork in the Chapel was designed and painted by Domenico Chiocchetti
"When the POWS left in September 1944, the major part of the work was completed, only asphalting and guard rails were missing on the constructed roads." 
Quotes from Bruno Volpi, Secretary of the Ex POWs Association in 1995. 

Orcadian Memories: "I had rings and things that were made by the POWs. There was one ring that was made out of half of a crown. And there was another made out of a piece of brass, and there was ML on it, that's my initials. And another thing that is history, one day in 1942, I got a bit o cardboard stuck under me door. And i wondered what it was. And I picked it up, and do you know what was written on it? 'I love the little blond, one million of kiss. Thank you of the smiles'. It was from one of the Italians.
Mima Louttit was head cook in the Mess Tent at St Mary's Camp

The card, left at Mima's door, which she kept all her life.

Roads Executive Committee, Item 22
Road at Graemeshall"Mr P N S Graeme intimated that the present method whereby material is tipped into hoppers on the roadway between St Mary's and Graemeshall was dangerous to the public using the road and it was agreed that the Surveyor should be instructed to make sure that the notice boards at either end of the road advising the public that they should use the road at their own risk are in proper order, and that a further advertisement in this connection should be placed in the local press.Orkney County Council Minutes, 9th August 1942.

Orcadian Memories:"The Italians were very temperamental, very romantic they missed their womenfolk terribly. They were home loving chaps with bairns at home and we used to hear about them and through the Red Cross they got packages, they were very happy when they heard from home. I've often seen them make spaghetti, they'd get some flour meal rolled it out, cut it up in strips and dried it out in the sun or near the fire and they made coffee. They were allowed coffee ad lib but we were not allowed any coffee during wartime it was in short supply, but it was the Italians main drink.   
On one occasion they wanted to start an orchestra and they couldn't get any instruments to buy, so they appealed to me could I get something, so I had 2 violins at that time, so I sold them one just to make them happy." Sandy Annal, Orkney Sound Archive 

Roads Executive Committee, Item 5 
Barrier Roads: "The Chairman intimated to the Committee that the Agreement between the Council and the Admiralty with regard to the future maintenance of the barrier roads had been completed." 
Orkney County Council, 8th May 1945 

The Opening Ceremony took place on the 12th May 1945
One of the completed barrier roadways

After officially opening the Barriers, Mr Alexander was given a commemorative brochure to keep.

First impressions
County Home Outing reported in Orkney Herald, 7th August 1945

Roads Executive Committee, 27th June 1947, Item 1 Barrier Roads: 
"The Surveyor reported that the Superintending Civil Engineer, after consulting with the Admiralty, had decided that works of a major nature would be required immediately on No. 1 Barrier between St Mary's and Lamb Holm while works on the other barrier roads would also be required. 
These works would make it necessary to close No. 1 Barrier for a period of three months, but it was hoped that arrangements might be made to allow foot passengers to cross the barrier at their own risk outwith working hours." 
Orkney County Council Minutes

Roads Executive Committee, Item 10 Barrier Roads: 
"With further reference to the closure of the barrier roads for major repairs, the County Surveyor reported that it had now been arranged that there should be a weekly sailing from Scapa to St Margaret's Hope for the purpose of conveyance of goods and stock. In addition the proprietor of the bus service operating the route had made arrangements to carry on his service as usual and had made provisions for a motor boat to convey passengers between St Mary's and Lamb Holm."
Orkney County Council Minutes, 1st July 1947

The roads continued to be closed during the summers of 1948 and 1949 while major repairs were carried out to each of the barriers. 
Causeway Opening Times from Orkney Herald, May 1949.

Lectures: In the 1950s Mr G Gordon Nicol embarked on a Lecture Tour talking about the building of the Barriers. He was Superintending Civil Engineer on the project for the Admiralty from March 1942 until completion. It is his photographs (with accompanying notes) which are shown in this blog. 

New Connections: In the Fifeshire Advertiser, 4th August 1956 the Reverend Mr Johnston praised Orcadians at a Kirkcaldy Rotary Talk, "As a result of his industry the Orcadian has become a comparatively well-off person. As a result of the war the roads have been greatly improved and the various smaller islands have been given access to the main island by the Churchill Barriers which have been built after a German submarine managed to enter Scapa Flow and sink one of our ships. These barriers have made a tremendous difference to the people living in the smaller islands. Previously, in order to to Kirkwall to transact business, they had to make the journey by boat and this took a whole day. Now they can travel to Kirkwall by bus in about an hour so that they could go to the pictures or a dance and home again with ease. This has brought them into contact with the life and social activity of the main island."

Officially named by the Ordnance Survey, 4th June 1957 as the Churchill Barriers

Orkney County Council Minutes

Preserving the Chapel: A few years after the war, realising that the Italian Chapel was a real work of art, an Orkney Committee was formed by the Sutherland Graeme family to carry out some restoration work and, through a programme on the BBC Italian Service, it was possible to establish contact with some of the Italians who had taken part in the building of the church.  In the 1960s, some of these Italians returned to complete and repair work on the Chapel, including Domenico Chiocchetti. He and his wife, Maria, were given a civic reception in 1964 by Kirkwall Town Council. 
The altar in the Italian Chapel

Connection with Caithness?: A new ferry service was proposed from Burwick to Caithness in 1969. 

Aberdeen Press & Journal 28 February 1969


However the proposal was turned down by the Orkney County Council  eventually in 1972 as the councillors favoured the further development of the Stromness-Scrabster link.

More repairs
A brief note in the Aberdeen Press & Journal, 27th February 1977


Chapel Remembrance: "The 50th Anniversary of The Chapel (3rd- 6th June 1992) was recently marked by an historic pilgrimage of eight ex-prisoners and their families, a group of 18 people who journeyed from Italy to visit the site. Domenico Chiochetti, now 83, was unable to travel but was represented by his daughter Letizia.
The purpose of their presence was to build...the now famous Churchill Barrier. Anyone who has driven from Kirkwall to St Margaret's Hope cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of the engineering feat.. It is an historic drive of breathtakingly scenic yet macabre proportions
Quoted from article by Terri Colpi, in Rivista, the Journal of the British-Italian Society, published in August 1992

Barriers Remembrance: The 50th Anniversary of the Barriers was held in Holm Parish Church on the 12th May 1995.  The people came together to celebrate Causeways Linking Communities led by the Reverend Joan H Craig, who also wrote a poem for the occasion. Bruno Volpi contributed to the Order of Service saying "Today we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Causeways opening. While we voice our happiness for the participation in the Ceremony, we wish to proclaim ourselves to be very proud of our contribution to Orkney's increasing economy. Many years have passed since then. Political and social conditions evolved in both our countries. We hope that the evidence of our cooperation carried on during those difficult years should become an example to be followed by next generations."


Photo of Barrier taken in 2014

Recognition and the Future: "Two of the four of the Churchill Barriers have been listed by Historic Environment Scotland for the first time. They will be listed at Category A - the highest status for listing. This means that they are recognised as being of national or international importance. Only around 8% of Scotland's 47,000 listed sites are recognised at this category. 
Following a period of consultation and assessment by HES barriers No. 3 and No. 4 are now listed. Because of longstanding development proposals affecting primarily barriers No.1 and No. 2, HES did not consider it appropriate to list these two structures. 
James Stockan, chair of Orkney Island Council's Development and Infrastructure Committee, said, "The Churchill Barriers are as important today as when they were first built, providing lifeline links between three of our inhabited islands.
They are recognised worldwide as unique monuments that serve as a powerful reminder of Orkney's wartime past. Barriers No.1 and No.2 are, of course, equally important. It is welcome that we have time to explore interest among developers in the two barriers forming part of a tidal energy generation project, along with ways to address wave over topping during severe winter weather."
 The Orcadian newspaper 25th November 2016.

Sources used:
CO3/1/10-13; CO3/1/24 Orkney County Council Minute Books;   
D1/167/1 Report on the closing of the Eastern Sounds of Scapa Flow by F.A. Whitaker [ADM1/10643]; 
D52 The Gordon Nicol Papers; 
D1/349/2 Italian Chapel papers; 
OSA/RO7/248 & 249 Transcription of Radio Orkney Programme Famous Orkney Landmarks featuring Bill Hewison, Sandy Annal, Sandy Wylie and Henry Ridelaugh. 
Acc2269 The papers of Mima Louttit. 
Bolsters, Blocks, Barriers by Alastair and Anne Cormack, 1992 (Orkney Room Ref:627 Y)
Causeways Closing Scapa Flow, two papers presented to the Institute of Civil Engineers by Jack Allen and J A Seath in 1946. (Orkney Room ref: 627 Y)
Orkney Herald newspaper
The Orcadian newspaper
Aberdeen Press & Journal newspaper


  1. There's a wide range of possible reaction between 'delighted' at one extreme and 'revulsed' (an illicit union between revolted and repulsed?) at the other. If you want a one-word response, I'll go for interested, informed, intrigued or something like that.
    Well done to those who put it all together.

    1. Many thanks for your kind words. I am very pleased with the response, and hope to add more information in the future.

  2. I missed this post until now. I'm sorry--that's what happens when one's living room is turned into one's husband's office. I was fascinated by this article. The church is stunning. I can imagine what a help it was to the Italians. They really must have struggled, coming from Italy to Orkney, yet they were also glad to have survived. A complex mix of emotions, to be sure. The Barriers were and are an amazing engineering feat. Mixing in the quotes from Orcadians is a deft way to bring the story to life. How fortunate we are that those recordings exist. Thanks, Dusty, for yet another interesting glimpse into the history of Orkney. Hope you and your friends are all well.

    1. Thanks, Sue, for your comments. I'm always eager to hear what you think of our posts. This was a complex one to do, but since the events are not too old, we have plenty of Archive sources to draw from. The sound archives (which have also been transcribed) were a godsend and really helped to balance the tone of the piece.
      We're all fine here, getting used to working from home and now thinking about how to open up again to the public and how best to arrange the searchroom in the safest way for our researchers.


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