Major Wise: Britain's dodgy Head of Intelligence in Iceland in World War II


Major Wise, Britsih Head of Intelligence in Iceland in World War II
Those of you who have read my recent novel, Whale Fjord, will have come across an unpleasant character named Neville Pybus-Smith, the head of British military intelligence in Iceland during the British occupation in 1940-41.

Well, Pybus-Smith is loosely based on a real character named Major Wise.

One of my most fortunate discoveries when researching Whale Fjord, was an Icelander named Jökull Gíslason. Not only is Jökull one of Iceland's leading experts on the country's history in World War Two, he is also a police inspector. And helpful. The perfect source for me!

He has written an excellent book, Iceland in World War II, which I referred to frequently while writing Whale Fjord. He also wrote a fascinating article, entitled Spymasters, about the dodgy Major Wise. He has permitted me to reproduce it here.

"Major Alfred Roy Wise was the British spymaster in Iceland. He is a confusing character, described by his subordinates as pleasant and amiable while he was considered aloof by Icelanders. He was certainly a product of the old British Empire. His father was a judge for the Supreme Court of Hong Kong. He went to public schools in England and then was Assistant District Governor in Kenya.

When Wise returned to England he was a staunch conservative and a member of the Carlton Club. He was elected a member of Parliament for Smethwick in 1931, the seat previously filled by Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Initially part of the appeasement group he later joined Churchill's dissenters.

When war came Wise joined the Army and was commissioned as a captain even though he had no special training or qualifications other than being upper class. Wise was sent to serve with the British garrison in Iceland in command of the Intelligence section. In this capacity managed public relations between the British Army and Icelanders and dealt with matters of espionage.

Jón Múli Árnason, then 19 years old, was a translator for Major Wise. In an interview, he mentioned that not only did Wise have him translate his conversations with Icelanders, but he also had Jón translate conversations with British soldiers who spoke with working-class dialects, especially those from the north.

Wise dispatched his duties in an overzealous manner. He arrested and deported several Icelanders to England on charges such as owning wireless sets and the like. Wise even decided that one person, although he had done nothing wrong, exhibited behaviour that could lead to espionage and should be detained. Wise screened the passengers of the Esja, a ship carrying Icelandic refugees from Denmark, and took an active part in the arrests of the members of the left-wing newspaper Pjódviljinn.

Wise saw potential spies in every corner, even going so far as suspecting the Reykjavik chief of police. In fairness, the chief of police had been the guest of Heinrich Himmler in Germany in the years leading up to the war.

Many British were terrified that there were fifth columnists in Iceland. They blamed the disastrous campaign in Norway in part on Norwegian Nazi sympathizers – Quislings – and expected the same to be true of the Icelandic population. They also seriously overestimated the ability of the Germans to invade Iceland. In reality, there were very few Nazi sympathizers in the Nordic countries.

Major Wise's approach made him few friends in Iceland and his ambitions were too great for this posting. Wanting to do his part in the war, he only secured a minor role, and that he was ill-suited to. His overzealousness would have dire consequences for Icelandic-British relations."

Jökull says that Major Wise's successor, the affable American of Icelandic heritage, Lieutenant Colonel Dori Hjalmarson, was much better liked and consequently much more effective.

It's difficult to get hold of Jökull's book outside Iceland, but if any of you are interested, there is a great Webinar on YouTube featuring Jökull on the subject of Iceland in World War Two.  Otherwise, you could try this link for the Reykjavik Grapevine.  It may/should work! 

Whale Fjord's sales have been pleasing. Thanks to all of you who bought a copy of the book, especially those who reviewed it on Amazon or Goodreads. On Amazon, the book has 217 reviews, with 4.5 stars, which makes me happy. Not that I look at reviews, of course!

If you haven't yet read it yet, and would like to, here is a link.

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