Interior of Ukrainian POW Chapel near Lockerbie

After All: Tiny chapel shows the spirit that sank a huge cruiser

Image credit: Peter Kormylo; Christine Bohling

Our columnist stumbles upon a small symbol of the irrepressible Ukrainian spirit in Scotland.

Bristling with gun turrets, radars and aerials, she looked like a giant porcupine stranded in the Sevastopol harbour.

With her massive grey bulk reflected in the oily waters of the port, the battleship looked twice her size – enormous and ominously threatening. ‘Slava’ (Glory) was written along the starboard, close to the bow.

It was 1987. I was on a Black Sea cruise on-board MS Tajikistan as an ‘entertainer’, i.e. enjoying a free cabin in exchange for some stand-up comedy (reading my own stories and poems). Sailing past Slava (later renamed Moskva), a 200m-long flagship of the Soviet (and later Russian) Navy, was one of the cruise’s undisputed highlights.

Not in their wildest dreams could the passengers on board Tajikistan (including yours truly) have imagined that, 35 years on, Moskva – the seemingly impregnable and unsinkable Soviet military vessel they had spotted accidentally in the Ukrainian city port of Sevastopol, later illegally annexed by Russia – would be sunk, with almost all of its 500-strong crew, by two Ukrainian R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles 62 miles from the coast of Odessa, the Ukrainian city she had been shelling since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war of 2022.

Battleships often have their own turbulent biographies, and Moskva was no exception. She was built in 1979 in Nikolaev, another Black Sea port she ended up shelling in 2022, effectively turning her guns and missile launchers against her ‘family’ – workers who had created her.

In 2008, she supported the Russian invasion of Georgia. In 2013, she was sent to the Mediterranean Sea to confront US warships along the coast of Syria. In September 2014, Moskva took part in the blockade of the Ukrainian fleet during the Russian invasion of Crimea and was famously told: “Russian ship, get lost!” (in somewhat stronger terms) by the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island.

Such a treacherous and messy life was bound to come to an unhappy (for the ship) end. Despite Russia’s continuing refusal to accept that Moskva was hit by Ukrainian missiles, the truth was as obvious as the Russian invasion itself. My friend and former colleague, now The Sunday Times’ war reporter, Askold Krushelnycky (himself a British-born Ukrainian), visited the factory in Kyiv that had manufactured the Neptune missiles. He asserted that there wasn’t a shadow of doubt about the true nature of the former Glory’s inglorious demise.

The liquidation of Moskva was necessary to stop her from further damaging Ukrainian cities and towns, where over 20,000 civilian structures have been destroyed. Significantly – and we have seen it happen many times – the moment enemy fire ceases, Ukrainians emerge from basements and other underground shelters to begin cleaning up and rebuilding. As it was put by a Ukrainian military commander: “We are not destroyers, like the Russians; we are rebuilders.”

Here I was reminded of a symbol of the Ukrainian creative spirit I had accidentally come across last year in Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland. Driving through the ill-fated town of Lockerbie, where Pan Am Flight 103 crashed in December 1988, and next to an abandoned bus depot, I spotted a signpost: ‘Ukrainian Chapel’. Intrigued, I followed the arrow and soon came to a hut, neatly assembled out of corrugated iron and roof tiles, with a large rickety cross above the entrance. The building was locked, but from a small noticeboard I gleaned that it was the ‘Hallmuir POW Chapel’.

Through a small window, I could discern an ornate church interior, with mosaics, icons and candelabras.

That evening, having made enquiries at my hotel, I was given the name Peter Kormylo, an academic and local historian of Ukrainian origins, whose father was one of the chapel’s builders. Kormylo went on to kindly send me some information about the highly unusual structure.

The story of the Hallmuir Chapel, near Lockerbie, goes back to 1947. Ukrainian prisoners of war arrived on the Clyde from Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy, where they had been interned on surrendering to the British. Miraculously, unlike hundreds of thousands of other Soviet POWs who had changed sides and chosen to fight with Germany against Bolshevism and – after the war ended – were forcibly repatriated back to the USSR, where most of them faced execution, the Ukrainians avoided that fate. To my knowledge, that was only the second post-WWII case where Soviet POWs were not handed over to Stalin by their Western captors; the first was in Liechtenstein, where over 500 Russians (who had come there from Austria) asked for political asylum in May 1945.

Over 400 Ukrainians ended up at the camp near Lockerbie and were sent to work at local farms and forests. They were granted civic status and got a three-year contract. Kormylo’s father was among them.

Since most of the Ukrainians were deeply religious, they needed a place to pray. The camp at Hallmuir had 40 single-storey huts made of corrugated iron, and Sir John Buchanan Jardine, the landowner, allocated one of them to be used as a chapel.

The Ukrainians transformed the hut’s interior with amazing hand-made objects: candlesticks, crafted of old shell casings; a large chandelier, ingeniously engineered out of coat hangers and fencing wire; hand-painted icons, among other things. The chapel is now a Grade B-listed building and regularly hosts church services attended by locals. Since the start of the Russian invasion, they have been praying for Ukraine’s impending victory and for the thousands of innocent victims of the war.

If you find yourself driving in the vicinity of Lockerbie, my dear readers, do make a detour and visit that modest Ukrainian chapel, which to me symbolises a victory of faith and creation over treachery and destruction.

Aggressive battleships are destined to sink, whereas chapels will always be there – propping up our peaceful skies with their stubborn and proud crosses.

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