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The Bachelor Invasion

By W.D. Valgardson

Photo of The Royal Marines Land in Iceland
The Royal Marines Land in Iceland

The Royal Navy and Royal Marines, who occupied Iceland on May 10, 1940, weren’t invited. They just appeared like uninvited guests who were prepared to couch surf for the entire summer, except this summer would go on for many years. It was an uneasy occupation. The British were concerned about German (Nazi) representation in Iceland and the possibility of the Germans invading. That was a huge risk to North America, supplying England with everything it needed to conduct the war.

Photo of A Fleet Air Arm Mechanic on board the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS at Hvalfjord, Iceland. Photo from the Imperial War Museum
A Fleet Air Arm Mechanic on board the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS at Hvalfjord, Iceland. Photo from the Imperial War Museum

There wasn’t anything that the Icelandic government could do. They had no army. They barely had a police force. Iceland had a population of about 120,000. In these dire days at the beginning of the war with German forces steamrolling over Europe, I don’t think anyone gave any thought to what the effect would be of bringing up to 40,000 military members to such a small, isolated country.


During this occupation, the relationship of Icelandic women with the occupying sources became a sore point. Traditional customs regarding relationships were broken. The soldiers were young, healthy, facing an uncertain future, wanted companionship and sex, and really didn’t know anything about Iceland or its history. They were also exotic, had money in their pockets, and wanted to have a good time.


Various attempts were made to keep Icelandic women and American soldiers apart.

Photo of American Marines in front of their Nissen hut encampment in Iceland. Photo from the Department of Defense (USMC)
American Marines in front of their Nissen hut encampment in Iceland. Photo from the Department of Defense (USMC)

In my novel, In Valhalla’s Shadows, on page 85, I say about the British and then American occupation of Iceland: “The women put on their best dresses, did their hair, put on makeup and went trolling. The locals, unhappy about young women being seduced and seducing soldiers, sailors and airmen, called this ástandið, the situation. In desperation, families sent girls off to stay on farms in the countryside to get away from temptations. In 1942, there was an investigation of women’s morals and a law passed that allowed women who consorted with soldiers to be locked up in one of two reformatories.”


There was lots of bitterness, but It’s hard to be judgemental with regard to the Icelanders. It was quite conceivable that the military would simply take all single Icelandic women away to America. Fathers, mothers, and relatives did what they could to keep soldiers and their daughters apart, but it was a pretty difficult task. The two juvenile delinquent facilities were found to be illegal. There was an agreement made between the government and the military to keep the populations apart, but it wasn’t foolproof. There was, I believe, a lot of anger. There were fights in bars. People threw rocks at American military vehicles. The Icelandic men felt jealous and threatened, and the Icelandic families were shamed. Until around 1975, there was a pretty cool relationship between those who left Iceland and those who stayed. First with the emigration (those who left were regarded as traitors) and then with the war brides.


Life, I think, for the Icelandic war brides was difficult. They left for America and found they needed to make many changes to fit in, everything from learning English, getting rid of their accent, changing the way they dressed, the food they ate, and the political and social attitudes of wherever they ended up. At the same time, they were isolated from Iceland. No quick flights back. If they became unhappy, I don’t think they got much sympathy from family and friends in Iceland. The attitude seemed to be; you made your bed, lie in it.


As difficult as this sudden transition was, it was being repeated in many places during the war and, later, during the Cold War.


My hometown, Gimli, went through much the same thing. Gimli, a Manitoba town of twelve hundred people, settled initially by Icelandic immigrants, was very rural, still pretty isolated. A rail line had come in 1906. The highway to Winnipeg was still gravel.


Then Jack Fowler arrives. He’s the first airman. He’s American but has left Boston to cross into Canada and join the Canadian air force because he’s fed up with America delaying their entry into the war. He’s a member of the Military Police. He’s followed by thousands more single men as the RCAF training base is built.


It didn’t take him long to marry my aunt. Eligible girls had suitors galore. The same fist fights between the local fishermen in Iceland and the military happened in Gimli. The same dynamics were at work. A way of life was being disrupted; old rules were being broken, and new rules were appearing. How, if you are a young fisherman of dating age, do you compete with pilots flying powerful planes, pilots with sharp uniforms and money in their pocket, who provide an opportunity to go to distant places?


Wedding photo of Jack Fowler and Florence Valgardson, the author’s aunt.
Wedding photo of Jack Fowler and Florence Valgardson, the author’s aunt.

The airbase didn’t shut down at the end of the war. It changed over from training pilots on Harvards to T33s. The base then trained NATO pilots. The impact on the community was huge. By the time I began high school, the air force personnel had been integrated into the community. Some families lived on the base at the PMQs (Private Married Quarters), but others bought or rented houses in town. A lot of the personnel were still young, unmarried men. They courted the local girls at dances, at the movies, in the bowling alley, in the cafes, at the beach, everywhere. This was still happening when I was in high school. My neighbour’s four daughters married airmen. My cousin married an airman. It was endless –but the difference between Gimli and Iceland was that there were a lot more Canadians than Icelanders and they were spread out from coast to coast. There was no danger that NATO pilots would steal all the marriageable women. However, our lives were altered. Daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins who would have travelled no further than Winnipeg and got a job at Eatons or Great West Life and married someone from the Icelandic community or at least from the Manitoba community, followed their new husbands to France and Germany, and other countries.


My aunt, the one who married Jack Fowler, ended up in France, then Sardinia. Then Ottawa. Then Jack retired, and she and he returned to Gimli. They had a closet full of slides of their travels aagrams (Diago) in security. He took Florence away to distant places, but she brought him back to life in Gimli with its Íslendingadagurinn, its strong coffee, its vínarterta, and its Lake Winnipeg shoreline.


W. D. Valgardson is IR# I4274040. He is an Icelandic-Canadian fiction writer and poet. He was a long-time professor of writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a professor of English at Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri. He recently was the featured author at the Icelandic Roots Book Club reading and discussing his new novel, In Valhalla's Shadow, which we highly recommend.


The Icelandic Roots Database continues to add information on all military personnel and also we have started the project of entering emigration dates and information on the Icelandic women known as the "War Brides." If you have photos or stories about your Icelandic family, please send them to us and the genealogists will attach the information to your family pages. support (at) IcelandicRoots.com

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