Updated: Jul 26, 2021
Today is a 2-part series.
The War Years in Iceland Through the Eyes of a Child with four first-hand stories shared by Bryndís Viglundsdóttir, the child in these stories.
The Occupation of Iceland During World War II - a timeline of events (click here to go to this part)
10 MAY 1940 - THE BEGINNING
The morning of May 10th 1940. It was a chilly spring morning, northerly breeze, no grass yet, just the grey gravel street, Laugavegur where we lived. I was only 6 years old and my brother 4 and we were not allowed out to play. Something was going on, our parents as well as my grandparents who lived upstairs were very quiet and serious, speaking in low voices, almost whispering. Our parents finally told us that the country had been invaded. There are many war ships in the harbour, said father who had gone to work early in the morning but was told to go home and stay inside. People were waiting to hear from the authorities over the radio. At that time the radio program began at noon, broadcasting news and some advertising besides a song before the news were read.
Finally the prime minister of Iceland, Hermann Jónasson brought the nation the news over the radio that Iceland had been occupied by British forces and that the government had protested the invasion. We didn‘t understand the words that he said such as occupation, invasion, independence, sovereignty. My parents were very quiet. At the end of the address to the nation the prime minister asked people to regard the men of the armed forces as guests and treat them accordingly. We listened with the grown ups and didn‘t understand what was going on and why people were so quiet and serious.
We were told to stay inside but disobeyed and sneaked out. Children were not supposed to be in the harbour area so we only ran down to the ocean as we wanted to see these big ships that people were talking about. Yes, we saw the big ships. We had no idea boats could be that big! What was even more surprising was seeing all these green men everywhere.
The next day the armed forces had taken for their use some of the houses in our neighbourhood. All the men wore green clothes, moss green clothes. One evening we saw through the window on the ground floor on one of the houses that a man was cutting potatoes and frying them. We ran home and told our mother that the green men fried potatoes. What nonsense, said she. Nobody would fry potatoes, you must not have seen right. We fry kleinur and parta but not potatoes! Years later on my first visit to New York City (1958) I ordered a hamburger and fries- without knowing what I was ordering and then I had fries for the first time and knew what the green men had been doing!
Reykjavík and in fact all of the country was "full of British soldiers“ and later great many Canadian soldiers joined them. Later on, armed forces from the US took over. These men brought with them new customs, new clothes, in fact brought the big world with them to our small island.
The Innocence of Children
The spring and summer of 1940 when we got all the foreign “guests“ led into fall and winter as it had always done. The children in my family were given stricter rules than before when to come in from playing outside when the dark season was upon us.
On Saturdays two things were “a constant” in my family, which is they happened every Saturday. One was that the children would go for a swim in Sundhöllin (the Swimming Hall) and secondly my mother always served salt cod with potatoes, carrots and rutabagas. All the vegetables came from my parent’s garden and my father built a sod house where they kept nicely for the winter.
We had gone swimming as usually on a rather chilly Saturday morning in February and were late home for lunch. We were supposed to be on time but we were late. We made a short cut through an alley that went through the yard of the next house to ours and led to our back door.
The woman who owned that house had a coffee shop on the street floor where she sold coffee, tea and kleinur (twists). Her customers were really only soldiers. We had seen that sometimes she would show soldiers to the back of the coffee shop where there were some small rooms or cubicles and the men would disappear into the rooms. We saw that there were girls in the rooms. We asked our parents what they were doing there and they only said that they had never been in these small rooms so they couldn‘t know what they were used for.
Our two older sisters were quicker than my brother and I getting dressed and so they went ahead of us. They didn‘t take the alley as we did but ran home the regular route. When we came to the yard of the house where the coffee shop was we saw a girl lying in the snow and a man was lying on top of her. “My goodness“, said my little brother, “The soldier must use his whole body to try to warm the girl in the snow. She must have been terribly cold. Aren‘t the soldiers good? “
We ran home shouting the news. “A foreign soldier, a guest is warming a girl in the snow over in the next yard“.
“What are you children talking about,” asked our parents.
We told them as carefully as we could what we had seen. “The man was even taking off his trousers and we were sure he was going to use them as a blanket for the girl,” said we. “Isn‘t he good?”
“Yes, you are right, so very right,” said our parents. “What you saw was a young man keeping a girl warm in the snow. That was very kind of him. Now come and sit at the table and have your salt cod.”
Mundi Saves A Life and the Canadian Soldiers Show Their Thankfulness
The Spring of 1940 was cold. When would King Winter go back to the North Pole and the Summer Maiden arrive? Our parents didn't know but told us summer would surely arrive, we only needed to wait a little longer.
When the British "guests" arrived they took such buildings as they felt they needed for their task, be it for administration or housing the troops. They took schools, theaters, halls, and private homes for their use but some fellows would have to stay in tents until barracks could be built. Camps were built at incredible speed and before long there were 80 camps in and around Reykjavík. The barracks were warmer than the tents and yet we heard that our "guests" were cold in Iceland. Maybe they didn't wear woolen underwear as we did.
Mundi's family moved from Ingjaldssandur in the West Fjords the summer of 1938. Mundi's parents rented a farm on a heath in Mosfellssveit, northeast of Reykjavík. The spring had been difficult for them as snow was still on the ground and sleet would often come down with the northern winds. The ewes were out on the heath with their young lambs trying to forage for something to eat as there was no more hey in the barn. The wool on the little lambs was not yet thick enough to protect them from the sleet and when they were cold they would lie down and often freeze to death. The mothers didn't seem to understand the danger! They certainly had a thick enough woolen coat to keep their lambs warm but for one reason or the other they didn't.
Mundi was out on the heath looking to rescue lambs and take them back to the farm. Suddenly, he saw a heap in an incline in the snow and coming closer he realized it was a man in "soldier clothes" and a fine rifle by his side. When Mundi tried to talk to the man he didn't answer and it was clear he was unconscious. Mundi, who was 18 years old, was a very well built and a strong young man. He took the sick man upon his shoulders and hurried home with him as fast as he could.
Mundi's mother nursed the man back to life. The wet clothes were pulled off him, he was covered with wool and down puffs, his body was massaged and the muscles moved very carefully until life returned. When he finally woke, he was given warm milk. When the man was being "drawn back from death," Mundi's mother didn't leave his side. She said the man had to feel or sense through his spirit that surely he was still there, that he was among the living. The man woke up and came back from the land of the dead. He spoke only English and Mundi's family spoke only Icelandic. They sent for the minister who knew English.
The man they had rescued was an officer and he had been on a field march with his regiment of Canadian Soldiers. By mistake, they hadn't been clothed correctly for the "terrible Icelandic northern sleet." He couldn't explain or understand how he lost sight of the group and ended alone somewhere on the heath. He had walked in the sleet for a long time until he was exhausted. The next thing he knew, he was waking up and seeing the kind face of a woman sitting by him and young persons standing by, staring at him.
The minister contacted the military headquarters in Reykjavík and reported what had happened. The following day, a truck crawled up to the farmhouse to fetch the Canadian officer who had been drawn back from death. When they were leaving, one of the men who had come with the truck handed an envelope to Mundi's mother and said: "We would like to leave this money here to show our appreciation."
"Thank you for appreciating our effort, but we do not accept money for helping people. Go and be blessed," she said.
Two days later the truck returned and the fellows on the truck carried sacks of flour and grain and boxes of canned goods into the farm house without talking to anyone. Three more times that summer the truck arrived bringing wonderful food from Canada to the family on the heath. "Such a blessing," said the family and they accepted the gifts with gratitude.
There was no more contact with the Canadian officer. Mundi's family heard from the minister that he had been sent with his regiment to Europe. Later they heard that their guest had served in North Africa.
MUNDI AND THE CANADIAN OFFICER
When the British had been in Iceland for only a month they were joined by troops from Canada. We heard the grown ups say that the Canadians were different from the British. We children didn't know what was different with the Canadians but we loved to watch them march and play the bag pipes in their colorful garb. A year later, they all disappeared and American armed forces arrived. My father told us the Canadians had been sent to the fight the Germans. They were in great danger. I included them in my evening prayers, asking the good Lord, our Father, to watch over them so they could soon return to their homes.