ROAD TO THE ISLES; the Churchill Barriers Were a Feat of Wartime Engineering. Yet Nobody Admitted They Were There

Daily Mail (London), May 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

ROAD TO THE ISLES; the Churchill Barriers Were a Feat of Wartime Engineering. Yet Nobody Admitted They Were There


Byline: KATH GOURLAY

WHEN retired coastguard Allan Taylor was a boy, visits to his granny on the Orkney island of Burray meant the chance to go to the pictures. He never thought there was anything unusual about enjoying films such as Champagne Charlie in a camp full of Italian prisoners of war.

'I must have been about 12 or 13, and we boys, plus the rest of the local bairns, got to sit on the floor at the front,' he recalls. 'The Italian camp at Weddel in Burray was just there. It was all part of the wartime stuff going on all around, and we were just used to it.' It was not until a couple of years later, when the war in Europe was over, that the role of the Italian POWs finally became clear.

'We now close a significant chapter in the story of the 1939-45 European war,' announced A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, as he led a cavalcade of cars across what had been dubbed 'Orkney's Great Eastern Road'.

The date was May 12, 1945, and the Churchill Barriers had officially been opened as part of the VE celebrations. In an undertaking lasting nearly five years, 500,000 cubic yards of quarried rock and 300,000 tons of concrete had been laid down across five miles of 60ftdeep sea channels separating a chain of islands.

It had been through one of these, when World War II was only six weeks old, that Commander Gunther Prien had sailed in to deal British morale a devastating blow with his U-boat attack on the British naval base in Scapa Flow. A total of 833 sailors died on board HMS Royal Oak, and the disaster sparked a national crisis.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, arrived personally to set in motion the construction of a series of barriers that would permanently seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.

'We will defend our island, whatever the cost may be,' he said later in a memorable speech as Prime Minister.

ADMIRALTY chiefs must have taken him literally, since the final bill from contractors Balfour Beatty was in excess of [pounds sterling] 2million - a phenomenal amount by wartime standards.

The same job now, with 21st-century technology, would cost around [pounds sterling]150million.

'No government would look at such a scheme in peacetime,' says Orkney Islands Council's head of service development, John Orr.

The amazing thing was that, until the official opening, most local civilians had no idea that four of their islands - Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay - had been joined to the Orkney Mainland.

'I don't remember anybody talking about the barriers during the war,' says Mr Taylor.

'Folk on the islands themselves must have known what was going on - but not a word was said about any of it.' With the British Fleet lying in Scapa Flow, thousands of troops stationed in and around Orkney, and Hatston airbase near Kirkwall carrying out flights over occupied Norway, the catchphrase 'Careless Talk Costs Lives' was taken very seriously.

' When you think of the massive undertaking that building the Churchill Barriers entailed, it's unbelievable how all that could be kept so quiet,' says Mr Taylor.

A rundown of plant and equipment included 24 cranes, 58 locomotives, 260 dumper trucks and ten miles of railway track. …

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