These barriers are a series of four causeways which link the Orkney Mainland to South Ronaldsway via the islands of Burray, Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, a total length of 1.5 miles. They were built in the 1940’s at the instigation of Winston Churchill as naval defences to protect the naval anchorage in Scapa Flow. They now carry the A961 road from Burwick To Kirkwall.
In 1939 the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Royal Oak was moored in Scapa Flow and on 14 October she was sunk in a night time attack by a German U-boat which had entered this natural harbour through a channel between the mainland and Lamb Holm Island. 833 lives were lost and the sunken battleship is a designated war grave marked by a buoy next to Scapa Beach where there is a Memorial Garden.
Although the shallow eastern passage into Scapa Flow had been protected by sunken block ships and anti-submarine nets the U-boat was able to navigate around them at high tide and escaped the same way. The barriers were constructed using Italian prisoners of war to provide the labour. The use of POW labour for war effort work was prohibited under the Geneva Convention but their use was justified as ‘improvement to communications between the islands’ which resulted in the present day A961.
Gabions enclosing 250,000 tons of broken rock from local quarries were used as foundation and were covered by 66,000 locally cast 5 ton concrete blocks with 10 ton blocks alongside to act as wave breaks.
As a war grave, the remains of the Royal Oak are protected by a ‘cage’ and diver’s are forbidden to trespass. However a diver did recover the ship’s bell and after a period of time he handed the bell over to the authorities and it is now preserved in Kirkwall Cathedral as a memorial.
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Photo taken in Orkney, UK
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