Iceland Garrison October 1940 - December 1941
THE BACKGROUND TO THE OCCUPATION OF ICELAND
Within the Military War Diaries for the period 1940 – 1941, which were studied for the purpose of this history, there were various documents, such as the Operational Orders on the Defence of Iceland, which made reference to the strategic considerations which had lead the United Kingdom to invade the island.
These can be summarised as follows:-
The invasion of Iceland actually took place on 10th May 1940, though it is expected that the news of this strategic move was sidelined by the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on the same date.
The invasion was carried out by "Force Sturges", consisting of two warships and a Battalion of Royal Marines – allegedly largely consisting of recruits.
At 2:15pm an immediate coded telegram – reference 729(R) was despatched to The Marquess of Lothian in Washington from the Foreign Office on 10th May 1940.
The telegram, which is filed within National Archives File reference WO 32/9630 read:-
“Following is substance of a communication made today to United States Charges d’Affaires.
Since the German seizure of Denmark it had become necessary for His Majesty’s Government to reckon with the possibility of a sudden German descent upon Iceland. It was clear that in the face of an attack on Iceland, even on a very small scale, the Icelandic Government would be unable to prevent their country from falling completely into German hands.
His Majesty’s Government accordingly decided to preclude this possibility, which would deprive Iceland of her independence, by themselves landing a force in Iceland: that was done this morning. They have explicitly assured Icelandic Government that they are acting solely to ensure the security of Iceland against a German invasion, that the force will be withdrawn at the end of the war, and that they will not interfere with the administration of the island. They are also prepared to negotiate an agreement on trade matters which should bring material advantages to the inhabitants.
Please inform Secretary of State.”
A diplomat – Mr Howard-Smith, who subsequently became the Britannic Minister on the island, accompanied the Force and – after having reported his arrival by telegram – sent a further telegram No 69, which can be found in the National Archives File reference WO 32/9630. The telegram was despatched at 6:06pm and was received for general distribution in London at 9:40 pm.
Following is text of Icelandic protest with regard to the happenings which have taken place early this morning:
“With military occupation of Reykjavik whereby the neutrality of Iceland was flagrantly violated and its independence infringed the Icelandic Government must recall the fact that on April 11th last they formally notified His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom through their representative in this country of the attitude of the Icelandic Government towards their proposal to offer military protection to Iceland and in accordance therewith they protest vigorously against the violation exercised by the British military forces. It will be expected that compensation for losses and injuries resulting from the infraction of the lawful rights of Iceland as an independent neutral country will be made as a matter of course.”
The file copy is annotated – by an unknown hand – with the note:-
Spoke Foreign Office (Sir John Dashwood)
Foreign Office view is that this is a formal protest to cover themselves with the Germans. Foreign Office are going to send a soothing reply, but have to consult first [about the point made on compensation].
COMMUNICATION FROM THE FORCE COMMANDER
In early 1941, having experienced their first Icelandic Winter, the General Officer Commanding Iceland (C ) Force, Major-General H.O.Curtis requested the War Office that Units in the Force be relieved on a regular basis. (It should be noted the the terminology Iceland (c) was to avoid possible confusion and typing errors in referring to Ireland).
In an exchange of messages filed within National Archives File reference WO 32/10208, Major-General Curtis’ request is denied – albeit in a personal note from the Secretary of State for War as follows:-
“To my very deep regret circumstances make it impossible to carry out reliefs in the Iceland Force for the present. Your report to V.C.I.G.S. in your 0578 of 15/2 (assumed to mean 15th February) to the effect that your troops could carry through a second winter confirms my opinion that British troops are capable of maintaining their high morale in the most trying circumstances. Please convey to all ranks the following message from me. Quote. Possibly the most trying circumstances in which an army can be placed are those where it is isolated from home and friends in a rigorous climate and confined to the monotonous role of watching and waiting. His Majesty’s Government are thoroughly aware that Iceland Force is so placed and is fulfilling its role with fortitude and cheerfulness. The security of Iceland is of the first importance and I am confident that it is placed in trusty hands. To my deep regret it is impossible to relieve units as quickly as I had hoped but arrangements are being made for leave to be granted to the UK on as generous a scale as the necessity for keeping up the strength of the garrison admits. Unquote.”
Major-General Curtis replied as follows:-
“Most grateful thanks for your personal message and for inspiring one to all ranks. All much appreciate sentiments expressed and promise of leave. May I take this opportunity to say that all ranks are grateful for equipment, the excellent clothing, accommodation and rations which helped so much towards fitness during winter.”
The Secretary of State had Major-General Curtis’ message of appreciation conveyed to all relevant Departments.
A few months later Major-General Curtis requested two additional Infantry Battalions and a Field Battery of Artillery to add to Iceland Force. This request was also refused in a message from the Secretary of State for War dated 3rd May 1941 and filed in National Archives File reference WO32/10209 – originally marked SECRET.
The additional forces had been recommended by the Joint Planning Staff and supported by the Chiefs of Staff, subject to the War Office being able to make the troops available. The War Office objection was, firstly, to the allocation of “part” units – separating Infantry from their parent Brigade and Artillery from their Field Regiment, and secondly because all UK-based Units were being allocated special roles for invasion (it was not entirely clear whether this was in respect of roles to counter German invasion or to prepare for the invasion of Europe). It was also pointed out that air resources had been increased.
The message then went on to describe the importance of aerodrome construction and the extension of the Havalfjordur Harbour and referred to Churchill’s interest in accelerating the completion of these projects, including (and this is highly relevant to 70th Brigade), expanding the number of troops employed in construction. Two further Pioneer Companies were being despatched to Iceland on 21st May 1941, with four more on standby should they be needed, dependent on a specialist survey looking at the potential use of mechanical equipment. Major-General Curtis was clearly being pressured into using a greater proportion of fighting troops for these projects – seen as vital to the Battle of the Atlantic.
At the end of November 1941 Iceland Force HQ and the HQ of Iceland Base Command (US Forces) issued a joint set of instructions on Joint Operations between US and British Forces. This “Most Secret” paper set out Missions and Tasks on dealing with potential German invasion by land, sea or air and destroying any hostile forces.
Various statements were made about the joint use of common facilities, services and instrumentalities (surely an Americanism!). This included handing over any fifth columnists, subversive elements and espionage agents to British Forces and stressed the importance of co-ordination and sharing information, partly by establishing joint command posts. United States Engineers would work on construction of docks at Reykjavik on contract to the Icelandic Government, with other projects being conducted jointly. The document represented detailed arrangements for mutual co-operation and joint working.
In June 1942 Major-General Curtis provided a lengthy paper – some four foolscap sides – summarising the occupation of Iceland and this was submitted to the Secretary of State for War. This can be found within National Archives File reference WO32/10095
The General begins by rehearsing the reasons for the initial invasion of Iceland – basically because of the threat to trade routes. He sets out a description of the country and its climate and identifies the forces used to garrison the island. In particular, the use of Canadian troops – two Rifle Battalions (The Royal Regiment of Canada and Les Fusiliers Mont Royal) and a Machine-Gun Battalion (The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa) is referred to and a slight hint given of the difficulties caused by the Canadian wish to retain their troops in self-contained Canada-only formations under Canadian command. It was the Canadian Infantry that was relieved by 70th Brigade – partly as a result of a comment by Prime Minister Churchill (referred to in his history of WW2) when he bemoaned the “waste” of these “fine Canadian troops” in such a posting and proposing that a Brigade of Second-Line Territorials would, by implication, be sufficient for what was allegedly seen as an undemanding and uncomfortable posting.
This attitude is regrettable and somewhat different from the gushing compliments from the Secretary of State for War – see below.
Major-General Curtis went on in his paper to refer to the threat from the Germans and the implications for the Battle of the Atlantic. He refers specifically to the Selfoss air attack which killed one man of 1st Tyneside Scottish and wounded another (though he does not mention the casualties, nor the Unit details).
The Iceland Force dispositions are described, as is the naval and air situation – including his positive experience of tri-service working, expanded to include allies from the USA in 1941 – identified as amicable and satisfactory in terms of disposing of the business.
Security problems were a constant difficulty, with problems with local press and pro-German attitudes on the part of some of the population. Relations with the Icelandic Government were handled formally through Mr Howard-Smith who gave the General much support, as did his Consular colleague, Mr Sheppard.
The Icelanders apparently preferred a British occupation to a German one – but would rather have not had one at all, though relationships improved as time passed – generally better in the rural farming and fishing communities as was borne out by various incidents where troops were assisted by local people. (The images of informal football matches with the children bear this out). In this context the troops were regarded as conducting themselves in the traditional exemplary manner expected from British Forces in a foreign country. Adverse incidents were small in scale and number.
Under the heading of “Administration” Major-General Curtis covers the problems of accommodation, power, health, construction work, leave, clothing and rations. Over 5000 Nissen Huts were erected, largely by the troops themselves (and a significant number remain in use, as can be seen from the modern images). The construction employed many Icelanders at fair rates of pay – an aspect of the occupation which received little publicity, but for which the Icelanders were extremely grateful, regarding the negotiation of rates and the pay systems as fair and reasonable.
Training – part of the reason the troops were there – utilised well the space and countryside available, including considerable field firing of artillery, mortars and small arms. (It is possible that the troops of 70th Brigade were among the first British Forces to experience being fired over “live” by 25pdr guns in practicing the Company in the Attack at Kleifarvatn in 1940/1941).
A Force Tactical School was established in November 1940 and proved of inestimable value.
A Winter Warfare School was established at Akureyri during the winter of 1941/1942, in line with the Prime Minister’s decision that 49th Division should become a Mountain Warfare formation. (By this time 70th Brigade had returned to the UK but continued the Winter Warfare training in Wales and Scotland, as will be seen from the War Diaries).
The General handed over command of the military forces in Iceland to his American counterpart, Major General Charles H. Bonesteel, on 21st April 1942.
In summing up the lessons of the occupation he stressed the need for a Military Commander as well as a Force Commander – given the spread and complexity of some of responsibilities which accumulated. Complex control systems were set up to cope with tri-service and two-country working – which demonstrated that such joint working could be achieved with good will.
He also argued for the use of complete formations in such roles, rather than a composite force with constant additions and subtractions. This had delayed the settling of the fighting component of Iceland Force for some time. He concluded with a plea to recognise the demand for transport which poor road conditions made on the Force – beyond the normal scale for Units of the size involved.
The Army Council received the report and responded on 13th July 1942, confirming the view that ….”the conduct of the troops during your command in Iceland ( c) in difficult circumstances has been exemplary and that this contributed greatly to the satisfactory relations which were established between the Army and the Icelandic population. They are also of the opinion that the excellent co-operation of the American Forces and of the other Services was in no small measure due to your initiative and tact.
I am to convey to you and all who served under your command an expression of the Council’s appreciation of the highly efficient and creditable manner in which the task assigned to you was carried out.”
A simple but effective summary of the scale of British military presence in Iceland can perhaps be gained by looking at the table of weapon stocks held within the Iceland Force as against its War Establishment. This is set out in a table – thought to be from November 1941 – in the National Archives File reference WO33/1695 as follows:-
WEAPON WAR ESTABLISHMENT ACTUAL HOLDING
Pistols/revolvers 2,003 1,867
Rifles 16,804 21,164
Bren LMG 655 633
Lewis Mk 1 LMG NIL 61
Vickers .303 Mk 1 48 100
Thompson SMG 502 381
Anti-Tank Rifles 337 362
2” Mortars 144 130
3” Mortars 54 69 (inc 40 in transit)
Universal Carriers 126 100
Mortar Carriers 63 NIL
O.P. Carriers 21 6
70th BRIGADE LOCATIONS IN ICELAND
In addition to setting out, in the material above, to cover the background as to why the Brigade was stationed in Iceland, the following paragraphs summarise the locations at which the various Units were stationed.
During the visit in September 2010 we were extremely fortunate to be introduced to several Icelanders who were more than happy to help with information or photographs - I do hope that I have adequately recognised their invaluable contributions.
Where contemporaneous photographs exist of the locations, they have been uploaded. In addition, photographs which I, or our guide, took of those locations during our research visit to Iceland in September 2010 have also been included.
Magnus Hafsteinsson of the Icelandic Whaling Station at Hvalfjordur, the author Fridthor Eydal and our guide, Stefan Valsson of Reykjavik Bike Tours went to considerable trouble to send me CDs of photographs they had taken, or collected. What I have tried to do is include their initials at the beginning of each photograph's description, so that they can be credited with taking or collecting that image.
In addition, I must thank the Yorkshire Post for giving me permission to use the booklet, produced by their staff on a visit to Iceland in 1941 which, while it naturally concentrates on the Yorkshire Units within Iceland Force, does include an image of 70th Brigade HQ staff, in which my late father is clearly identifiable.
Particular thanks are also due to the Chief Executive of the Iceland National Archive of Photography, who, at short notice, gave generously of her time and access to their database of images, and also to the ladies of the Borganes Library, and the staff of the Reykjavik Open-Air Museum and the Akranes Museum, who spent time assisting my researches, despite the establishments being closed for the season.
The National Park HQ at Lagafell, despite hosting a film crew making a period film on the day, allowed free access to the military section of the site. Einar Saemundsen shared his enthusiasm for Icelandic archaeology and the history of the site - while I explained what a Tyneside Scottish sangar was - of which there are remains at the site, now protected to a degree. Photographs of that visit will be included.
Each location has been set up as a separate page and the relevant photographs will be found on those pages - both period and modern.
The Units and locations were as follows:-
70TH Infantry Brigade HQ.
The role of the Brigade, after exchanging with 147th Infantry Brigade was summarised as:-
10th Durham Light Infantry
Battalion HQ from September 1940 – Borganes (PERCY, DERWENT and ZETLAND Camps), covering the area from Akranes (CLEVELAND Camp, B Company HQ ) to Blonduos (HURWORTH Camp). Includes HVITAVELLIR Bridge.
Detachment at Bordeyri (extra huts built following fires).
Coast watching post at Skagastrond.
Detachment at Reykerskoli (20 extra huts built at MORPETH Camp February onwards 1941)
Detachment at ARNARHOLT – huts improved January 1941.
Company locations at GARDAR and HVALEYRI – still no electricity in March 1941.
The Battalion was relieved by 12th Worcester Regt and moved to the SOUTH WEST Sector in June 1941 as part of the Brigade interchange. Took over defence of REYKJAVIK Aerodrome, now Reykjavik Airport .
Located in CRAVEN, HOWITZER HILL, FOSSVOGUR, and SHERWOOD Camps, and at VATNSMYRI Aerodrome.
11th Durham Light Infantry
Battalion HQ – first at Alafoss, two miles west of BRUARLAND.
Battalion moved, after the interchange of roles, to defend Hafnafjordur Sub-Sector, and provide garrisons for FORT CAMERON, FORT ROUILLE, FORT YORK (ALFSNES Peninsula Coast Watching Post), and high ground on Lagafell, GRAFARHOLT HILL, KELDNAHOLT HILL.
Based at SLINGSBY HILL, HVALEYRI RIDGE, GARDAR, MILNSBRIDGE, QUARRY and AMOTHERBY Camps.
1st Tyneside Scottish (The Black Watch) Royal Highland Regiment
Detachment at Selfoss – one man (Pte Hunter) killed here in an air attack 9/2/1941.
Coast defence Brautarholt.
After the interchange the Battalion moved to defend the Reykjavik Sub-Sector, based at SKIPTON, KEIGHLEY, BINGLEY and CRAVEN Camps and at the SKULAGATA Ice Factory (GARGAND Camp). Tented Camps set up in the summer – BALBO’s CAMP, and THORNHILL. MYRA Camp set up in the Harbour Area.
1/5th West Yorkshire Regiment
Coast defence in LAUGARNES Sub-Sector.
Small Garrison on VESTMANNAEYJR.
143rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
187th Field Ambulance, RAMC
First HQ at Alafoss, adjacent to 11th DLI.
Exchanged locations with 160 Field Ambulance in Reykjavik at the time of the interchange.
Hospital Camp Helgafell.
Exercise Locations used by the Brigade in Iceland
Field firing exercises – Kleifervatn
Anti-aircraft range – ALFTANES
LYKLAFELL, north of SANDSKEID Landing Ground.
RED HOUSE HILL.
Some remnants of occupation evidence can also be seen at FISKILOEKUR.
The majority of the casualties suffered by the Brigade and its associated units are interred at the FOSSVOGUR CEMETERY.
The assumption of Garrison responsibilities by the USA.
To view a short Pathe News clip on the takeover of garrison duties by American Forces please click here]
A page has been set up on the American Garrison to link to a collection of information sources.
To contact the author by e-mail with any queries, or to send information - click here.