World War Two in Iceland: the Subject for a New Book

Whale Fjord by Michael Ridpath  A Magnus Iceland Mystery

Very few people outside Iceland realize that Britain occupied the country in 1940; I certainly hadn’t heard of it until I started writing novels set there.

Royal Marines landed in Reykjavík in May that year and they were soon relieved by the British territorial 49th Division from Yorkshire – nicknamed ‘the Polar Bears’ – and a Canadian brigade including the exotically named Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa and Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. 

At its height, at the end of 1940, there were over 25,000 British and Canadian troops defending the country. This has always seemed odd to me – I would have thought they could more usefully have defended Britain from the Germans just across the Channel. But Major-General Curtis, the commanding officer in Iceland, was adamant they were needed. No one thought to check with the Royal Navy, who were equally certain the Germans could never have transported an invading force to Iceland and, more importantly, supplied it once it had landed. 

In the summer of 1941, the Canadians and the British left for Britain, and handed over the defence of Iceland to the Americans. While the Allied soldiers never did anything more than fire at a few Luftwaffe aeroplanes flying overhead, aircraft from Iceland harried German U-boats in the North Atlantic, and Hvalfjördur was the mustering point for many of the Arctic convoys to Russia. 

Life in Iceland for the occupiers was tedious – the main enemies were boredom and the weather. But many fell in love with the country, and some fell in love with its people. 

The same troops landed in Normandy in June 1944 and fought their way through France, so in retrospect their time in Iceland was a period of peace and quiet.

The Icelanders’ reaction was mixed. No one likes to be invaded, and many were concerned about the conquest of their women, a situation known in Icelandic as “The Situation”

On the other hand, there was plenty of money to be made, especially once the Americans arrived. The occupying soldiers generally behaved well. 

Many, if not all, of the population might have agreed with the Icelandic MP Árni Jónasson when he said: ‘It was practically a unique example in history of an occupying army which was better liked on the day of its departure than on the day of its arrival.’ 

I have always wanted to write about this period in Icelandic history, but I couldn’t work out how I could link a murder in 1940 with a detective investigation in the 2020s.  Any character still alive in 2023 would have been a small child in 1940.  Very tricky.  But, after several years of mulling over various ideas, I found the solution.  And I was able to write the novel.

It’s called Whale Fjord and it’s out on 24 February.  More details later. 

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