By Sverrir Sigurdsson
Friday, May 10, 1940, was a momentous day in the world’s history. Nazi Germany unleashed blitzkrieg attacks against France. That same day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain resigned, and Winston Churchill took his place as Prime Minister and Minister of War.
May 10, 1940, also marked a turning point in Iceland’s history. In the wee hours of that day, a British flotilla disgorged some seven hundred British marines out of a destroyer in Reykjavík's harbor. In the course of the day, the troops rounded up all Germans, seized the radio station, post office, telephone central, and telegraph exchange, rendering the island incommunicado.
Until then, Iceland had tried to stay out of the wars in Europe. Even when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, bringing the war to its doorstep, Iceland hung on to its neutrality. It rebuffed the British government’s invitation to join the UK as a “belligerent ally.”
As the military situation in Norway deteriorated, the British Admiralty concluded that the UK had to force itself on Iceland.
When my family woke up that morning, news of the occupation had spread like wildfire. My parents turned on the radio and got only static. The station had been shut down.
Icelandic authorities had been expecting aerial attacks from the Germans since their invasion of Denmark and Norway and established “home defense brigades.” My uncle Erlingur, who lived in our apartment building, was a member of our brigade. Early in the morning of May 10, he received a phone call informing him that a British invasion was underway. A while later, he ventured out and brought back a leaflet dropped by a British plane. It stated that the invaders were there to guard Iceland against the destiny of Denmark and Norway. They asked for friendly reception and help. They also temporarily imposed a total news blackout on Reykjavík.
Overall, the incursion was not violent. Physical assaults by British soldiers were extremely rare, but the emotional assault on the nation’s psyche was no less damaging. Icelanders felt unsafe and defiled, almost like rape victims. At the same time, the economy picked up. Unemployment plummeted, fish prices soared, and Icelanders loaded their catch on ships bound for food-strapped Britain. But no money could make up for the loss of dignity. The nation had lost control of their lives, the freedom to move around, act as they pleased, and speak as they pleased. Although the British occupiers had promised to stay out of the country’s internal affairs, their actions proved otherwise. They threw people into jail without due process, including Icelanders married to Germans, and members of the Icelandic political left for daring to speak out against the occupiers.
Although relations with the British improved over time, wariness of the occupiers never went away. And on the social level, the sudden influx of thousands of young men could only lead to the inevitable. Sexual liaisons, including prostitution, became a national scandal.
I was only 15 months old at the time of the invasion. My memory began to form impressions when my mother started to allow me to explore the outside world. For an Icelandic child, that age was three. Even during wartime, Iceland was a safe country. Of course, I didn’t go out alone. My cousin Agnar who lived in the same building, always accompanied me. On our way to our favorite playground, we had to walk through the British army camp with its miserable Nissen Huts.
Our playground was a horseshoe-shaped area of about four acres. It belonged to the university and was sandwiched between the army camp and the airfield. This wasteland of mud, rocks, gravel, and puddles was our paradise. Here we built roads for our toy trucks, which my father had made from scrap wood. Toys were in limited supply, so one can imagine our excitement when we uncovered our first ammunition casing. To our chagrin, our mothers confiscated it, so the next time we found such “treasures,” we kept them in a secret cache in our backyard.
Another entertainment at our playground was watching planes take off and land at the airfield nearby. Little did we know these were bombers shuttling back and forth on lethal missions. Their job was to hunt down German U-boats and destroy them before they destroyed our ships and those of the Allies.
A particular catastrophic event is forever seared into my memory. One day in April 1944, I arrived at the university playground to find an airplane engulfed in flames at the far end of the field. Fire shot into the air about twice as high as the three-story dormitory close by, filling the entire sky with black smoke. From the steps at the university entrance, I watched the crackling inferno, feeling the heat on my face and the sting of acrid smoke in my nose. Shivering with horrified fascination, it occurred to me that there were people trapped inside. I was on my own, having lost Agnar to kindergarten, a misfortune that had caused me no small amount of grief. Facing the conflagration alone was too much for my five-year-old soul to bear; I would wake up with nightmares for months after.
Reykjavík was never bombed or strafed. The real danger to Icelanders during the war lurked in the sea. Icelandic ships were bombed, strafed, and torpedoed, their crew and passengers maimed or killed. For an island nation that depended on the sea for everything from transport to livelihood, the threat was a chokehold on our lifeline.
Ordinary Icelanders did what they could to coexist with the invaders. Many worked in war-related occupations. During summer vacations, my father toiled in the local shipyard in Reykjavík. He crawled into the still-hot boilers of transiting steamships to chisel away accumulated mineral deposits. Most of these were merchant ships that had come from America and were carrying war materiel to the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front. They had crossed the Atlantic in convoys under the protection of American warships. After the stopover in Reykjavík, British warships would carry on the relay and escort the merchant vessels to Murmansk in northern Russia. If not sunk by German forces, the ships would deliver to the Russians crucial munitions and supplies for their fight against Hitler.
Other convoys assembled in Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), half an hour’s drive north of Reykjavík. During the occupation, Hvalfjörður sheltered hundreds of Allied warships and was, at times, the home port of HMS Hood, the world’s largest-ever battle cruiser, sunk west of Iceland in May 1941.
The British army was the first foreign military to arrive in Iceland, but other forces soon joined them. When Western Europe collapsed, the U.S. and Canadian governments began worrying about a German invasion of North America via Iceland and Greenland. In early July 1941, the U.S. and Canada sent troops to reinforce the British military presence in Iceland, this time with the consent of the Icelandic government. At its peak, foreign soldiers based in Iceland numbered about 50,000, more than the total number of able-bodied Icelandic men.
Amidst all the terrible war news, the Republic of Iceland was born following almost seven hundred years of foreign domination. The process started at the end of the First World War in 1918, when Iceland and its colonial master, Denmark, signed a treaty stipulating that an independence referendum would be held after twenty-five years, which was 1943. But by then, Denmark had been occupied by Nazi Germany. After a one-year delay, the Icelandic government decided to hold the referendum anyway. An overwhelming majority of Icelanders voted for independence. I participated in the celebrations on June 17, 1944, at the historic Thingvellir.
On May 9, 1945, I received another piece of good news. My mother told me about fireworks to celebrate the end of the war. The news about the war flew over my head. All I heard was that I had missed the fireworks. Filled with hope that the show would be repeated, I was allowed to stay up late the next night. My reward arrived with a boom! I ran to the window of our apartment and saw a flower of light bloom in the sky, then another and another.
The war ushered in a new era that started with the landing of British soldiers in 1940. As a result, Iceland was transformed from an obscure island dangling like a rag just off the polar circle to a strategic hub at the center of superpower attention. To counter the Soviet Union in the ensuing Cold War, the U.S. continued to develop its air station at Keflavík, expanding it into an important base for NATO. This newfound geopolitical status of Iceland brought plenty of economic windfalls, without which it wouldn’t be the prosperous nation it is today.
Sverrir Sigurdsson is the author of Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir, available at Amazon. The Icelandic translation of his book is Áveraldarvegum, available at Penninn Eymundsson. We are very glad to have Sverrir and his wife, Veronica, as volunteers on the Icelandic Roots Writing Team.