Tuesday 16 January 2024

One Poem by Robina Rader



An Italian Chapel in the North Sea     


Listen now, and I’ll tell you a story

that begins with disaster and ends in glory.


Scapa Flow, a large basin in the Orkney Islands,

north of Scotland, provides anchorage and harbour,

sheltered by surrounding islands. 

It was a primary base for the British navy,

and was considered secure from attack.

But on 14 October, 1939, a U-boat,

helped by an exceptionally high tide

and a bold commander,

made its way through a shallow strait

into Scapa Flow, and torpedoed

HMS Royal Oak at harbour, with great loss of life.


The British immediately started filling

the straits and sounds between

small islands with hundreds of thousands

of tons of rock.  These “Churchill Barriers”

blocked entry to Scapa Flow from the east.


And then –


in 1942, about five hundred young men

from Italy, by way of North Africa,

ended up in Orkney on Lamb Holm, a small,

previously uninhabited, island in the North Sea.

POW Camp 60 was their home

for the duration of the war.

Their mission was to cover the Barriers

with concrete to create a causeway

linking the islands.


They gradually settled into camp life.

They had work to do, food to eat –

and they weren’t getting shot at.

For entertainment, they put on plays

and an opera, always with artistic scenery.

They played great football. 

They made a concrete billiard table with concrete balls,

and a concrete bowling alley.


Still, the routine was tedious, and any news

about Italy that got through was distressing.

They needed respite from war, bad news,

boredom and isolation.  Group leaders,

the camp commandant, and the chaplain,

appraised their resources and made a plan.


Some of the men were gifted masons who

could work wonders with concrete.

There were artists, sculptors, and other

craftsmen with a variety of valuable skills.

Given two empty Nissen huts and an endless

supply of concrete, these guys built

an amazingly beautiful chapel.


The corrugated interior was smoothed

and painted.  The altar and altar rail were

made of concrete, gracefully detailed.

The baptismal font was concrete, formed

around an old automobile muffler. 

Blacksmiths turned scrap iron into

intricate scrollwork. Chandeliers

were made of corned beef tins.

On wall and ceiling, a dedicated artist

painted an exquisite mural. 

To hide the shape of their humble hut,

they built a façade of concrete,

with towers, crosses and a belfry.


When the war ended, they went home,

except the artist, who stayed

to finish the mural, and caught up later. 


And then –


fifty years later they held a reunion.

Many of the Italians returned to Orkney,

bringing their families.  They drove across

the causeway they had built

and heard Mass in their chapel, which stands

as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.


Out of war came a place of peace and devotion

on a tiny island in that vast ocean.

Robina Rader is a retired reference librarian.  She has moved many times, living in places as distant and diverse as New Jersey and Okinawa.  She now lives in State College, Pennsylvania, where she draws on her experiences and the world around her to write poetry and short fiction in the stimulating environment of a university town.


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