Postcard from Iceland

A fat lot of help the Sultan of Oman was. About as much use as a chocolate teapot in the Al Hararis Plain during the hottest hour of an Omani desert day. Creepy sleepy sniffy Jo this, creepy sleepy sniffy Jo that, creepy sleepy sniffy Jo the other. Go tell sleepy, creepy, sniffy Jo to sort out the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Oh well, in the interests of bringing peace to a world gone mad, I suppose one must. After what happened during the last official Puffin visit to the US of A, and to prevent the good people of the swamp from thinking there may about to be another insurrection, one feels obliged to creep up on the White House from a surprise direction. We shall go by the old route and cross by an unexpected border. If we allow ourselves to be distracted en route, so much the better. First stop – Iceland.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
The transit passenger’s view from unlikely Keflavik.
© Always Worth Saying 2024, Going Postal

Puffins like me who thought Iceland’s unlikely port d’entrée at Keflavik was built as a waypoint for early passenger aircraft to hopscotch across the Atlantic are mistaken. One pictured Carry Grant, the Duchess of Windsor and accompanying VIPs boarding a Bristol Brabazon at the West London Airport. Champagne flutes in hand they bounced to Prestwich (or Shannon) then to Keflavik and on to Gander in Newfoundland before being delivered saddle-weary and piston-engine deafened to the grass beside a hut at New York’s Idlewild Field.

Not so.

Trans Atlantic waypoint?

The first successful non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was made by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown as early as 1919. They flew a modified Vickers Vimy bomber from Newfoundland, Canada, to Clifden, Ireland. Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in May 1927, flying the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris. Before fixed-wing aircraft became dominant, airships were considered a viable option for trans-Atlantic travel, with the German Graf Zeppelin conducting several successful flights in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They terminated at Naval Air Station Lakehurst which is still there. So is Idlewild Field which is now known as JFK.

In the 1930s, flying boats such as the Pan Am Clippers became the luxury liners of the air. However, their use was limited due to the need for calm water for takeoffs and landings. By the late 1930s, the Boeing Model 314 seaplane had a sufficient range to connect Europe with the United States with only one stop but the break in journey was at Gander not in Iceland. No, the reason for the existence of Keflavik and any other airfield in Iceland bigger than a mowed grass strip on a field for hardy ponies is because of the Second World War.

Neutral Iceland invaded

In May 1940, Iceland was invaded. Not by the Germans who the previous month had over-run Iceland’s colonial masters in Denmark, but by ourselves. Iceland’s strategic location in the North Atlantic made it a point of interest during World War II. It was valuable for both the Allies and the Axis powers for the control of the North Atlantic sea routes. Although having declared itself a neutral state, on May 10th 1940 a British Invasion code-named Operation Fork took place. British forces landed in Reykjavík and met no resistance. The Icelandic government protested the violation of its neutrality but cooperated.

The British military presence in Iceland included airfields and naval bases. This presence was critical in the Battle of the Atlantic, where Allied forces fought to protect convoys from German U-boats. During the occupation of Iceland, the British military constructed an airfield to serve as a base for operations in the North Atlantic. This airfield was known as RAF Kaldadarnes and is located in the south of Iceland, near the settlement of Selfoss. It was used for anti-submarine warfare patrols and as a staging post for aircraft being ferried from North America to Europe. The RAF stationed various aircraft there, including fighters and maritime patrol planes, to protect convoys and to conduct reconnaissance missions.

Even quieter than Benbeccular or Spadeadam, Kaldadarnes was abandoned after the war and is no longer used as an airfield. It is visible in the modern day from aerial photography which shows a triangular pattern of runways in the middle of nowhere. Zooming in reveals the outline of an apron connecting the ends of the runways with accompanying stands for parking aircraft.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Abandoned RAF Kaldadarnes, middle right
© Google Maps 2024, Google licence
Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Close up of abandoned RAF Kaldadarnes
© Google Maps 2024, Google licence

RAF Reykjavík was another important airfield used by the British and later by the Americans. It was situated near what is now the Reykjavík city airport. Another triangular airfield it still operates and offers about ten flights per day to six airports within Iceland. The longest of these domestic flights covers about 250 miles. At 40,000 sq miles, Iceland is about the same size as Hungary or Portugal but has a population of only 370,000 two-thirds of whom live in Reykjavík. All the destinations are on the coast with the country’s inhospitable interior being near-uninhabited.

One of these coastal towns is Akureyri in the north of Iceland which also played a role in the defense of the Atlantic convoys. There is an airport there now, grandly but justifiably called Akureyri International. Remarkably there is an Easyjet service from Gatwick to the Northern Icelandic port. Operated by an Airbus A319-111, the service is scheduled to leave Gatwick at 07:20 am on a Tuesday and arrive at Akureyri at 10:40. It then returns to London at 11:35 the same day.

Air travel had started from Akureyri as early as 1928 with Flugfélag Íslands (‘Airline of Iceland’) flying seaplanes to and from Reykjavík and landing on the fjord of Eyjafjörður on which Akureyri stands. In the modern day, a proper runway sits on reclaimed land in the fjord but during wartime, seaplanes were used there by the RAF Coastal Command. Old photographs from the Imperial War Museum show a Northrop N3P-B of No.330 (Norwegian) Squadron being readied for a patrol. A mechanic stands on one of the floats to check the running of the engine. The squadron was formed on 25 April 1941 with ‘A’ flight based at RAF Reykjavik, ‘B’ flight at Akureyri and ‘C’ flight at Budareyri which these days is known as Reyðarfjörður.

An army garrison complemented the RAF presence.

Major Sim MC’s dispatch from Akureyri

As ever, the eyewitness to historic events tells us more than the casual visitor or researcher ever can. In interview, Major John Anthony Noel Sim MC spoke of his wartime experiences at Akureyri. Born in a marquee tent in the wilds of Persia in 1920, Major Sim’s father was himself a major in the Lancs and Yorks Regiment. His mother had been ‘following the drum’ while the regiment was keeping an eye on a post-revolutionary Russia that threatened to sneak down the Persian Gulf. Cheltenham College followed prep school after which Sim completed a truncated early-wartime officer training course at Sandhurst before being commissioned into his father’s old regiment.

Keen to serve abroad, Sim volunteered for every draft and eventually found himself sailing from Greenock on a secret mission. Upon reaching Nothern Ireland, all aboard were surprised to realise a tack to the north. Perhaps they should not have been. Recently kicked out of Norway by Adolf, the emabarked 146th Infantry Brigade (which included Sim’s Yorks and Lancs Hallamshire Territorials), was still intact and was being sent to Iceland. They landed at Reykjavík and in battalion strength proceeded to northern Icleand on coastal vessels. Initially under canvas and scattered in company-sized detachments, they were tasked to deny the enemy the use of facilities such as herring factories, small airfields and any advantage a fjord might provide.

Mayor Sim reminds us that they only just got there in time with the Germans planning to invade Iceland from Norway to swing the battle of the Atlantic in their favour. Puffins who have visited the submarine pens at Lorient on the French Atlantic coast might wonder how such a thing could be built in Iceland. There would have been no need. The complex northern Icelandic coastline is a perfect place to conceal innumerable U-boats and to make the crossing of the North Atlantic by convoy an impossibility.

To start with the locals were not welcoming. Previously, the Germans had sent a ‘Strenght Through Joy’ ship to propagandise the natives. Cold-shouldered, jeered at, spat at and mocked with Hitler salutes, our soldiers were told to ignore it. One wonders what the response of the Wehrmacht would have been.

Scattered around the countryside the army didn’t see much of the Icelanders with Akureyri being just a small fishing town. Eventually, Nisson huts arrived and the Lancs and Yorks were able to build their own camp – without the aid of Sappers. The officers kept them men fit and busy. They built a football ground, rushed around the mountains and set up a ski platoon after bagsing from Blighty surplus equipment meant for the abandoned attempt to help the Finns fight the Russians.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Akureyrei and Eyjafjörður fjord.
The view of Akureyri from the top of Súlur,
Bjarki Sigursveinsson
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

In his interview, Major Sim reported no morale problems. A happy lot, officers were among the men all the time. There were no girlfriends or weekend leave. Good exercise was to be found up in the mountains. Regular company and battalion exercises were augmented by an annual exercise for the whole brigade. ‘Stick it out and listen to the news,’ was the Mayor’s stoic advice to himself. Sure enough, an alert came when it was reported the Bismark had slipped her Norwegian moorings, possibly as the precursor to an invasion of Iceland.

The routine was further interrupted when the cruiser HMS Devonshire and battleship King George V visited Akureyri harbour in May 1941 en route to engage the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in the Straits of Denmark between Greenland and Iceland. The hospital ship Leinster had been alongside at Akureyri and sailed on 24th May to care for the wounded after the sinking of HMS Hood.

Islanders began to accept Major Sim and his men although he conceded that he only went to Akureyri about half a dozen times for shopping. On one such visit in 1942, the senior officer being the last to find out, he received a rumour from the locals that the Americans were coming to relieve the British. Subsequently, he was back up in the mountains when down below a double-funnelled troopship made its way along the fjord with a cargo of American soldiers.

In the unique way that armies arrange these things, the men onboard were yokels from South Carolina used to tropical heat and equipped with nothing at all – not even soap. Informed that British Army vehicles would be made available to them, at their first parade their commanding officer barked, ‘Who can drive?’ He broke the following silence with, ‘Who wants to learn to drive?’

Forty-eight hours later their troop ship was being used to return Major Sim and his men to England. Back in Britain the now highly trained 146th were mountain and snow warfare experts with a polar bear on their cap badges. Posted to the Welsh mountains and expecting to be sent to Norway to open up a second front against the Axis, the men were disappointed to discover the plan had changed. The second front would now be in France. The 146th would be re-trained from scratch to land on sandy beaches from landing craft.

Not keen, Mayor Sim and others volunteered to the Commandos and Parachute Regiment. More of the mayor’s remarkable life well lived can be read by following the link in the further reading section below.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Akureyri war graves
© Google Street View 2024,

As we leave Akureyri and return to Keflavik we must pause on a pleasant hillside close to the fjord. One hundred and ninety-nine Commonwealth soldiers are buried in Iceland in six cemeteries cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Seventeen are interred at Akureyri. You can look around the cemetery here and along the neighbouring fjord via this link.

To be continued…

Further reading

The Occupation of Iceland
Major John N Sim MC

© Always Worth Saying 2024