Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Tuesday 9 August 2016

The Northern Garrisons - The British Army writes from Iceland, 1941

Iceland occupied Part One

During the Second World War the British Ministry of Information published a series of pamphlets called, The Army at War. These were propaganda to inform and cheer the readers in an accessible, often witty way that was meant to show that the war effort was planned and coherent. The pamphlets were designed to keep people at home in touch in an official way, with what their loved ones were involved in abroad but could not discuss in letters home.

The Ministry of Information employed talented writers and these pamphlets can be moving and poignant. The Northern Garrisons by Eric Linklater is all this about the troops based in the Orkney and Shetland Isles and gives an honest sense of the terror of sailing in the Atlantic convoys being hunted by enemy U-boats. Linklater also, I think, tried to charm angry Icelanders who were deeply unimpressed at the British occupation from 1940.

The Northern Garrisons pamphlet, published 1941

The British government had tried to recruit Iceland, "as a belligerent and an ally", from 9 April 1940 when Germany's forces under the Nazi's invaded Norway and Denmark. It said that Britain could help Iceland maintain its independence by providing an occupying force but Iceland was neutral and had just effectively declared its independence from Denmark after the Nazi's had over run Denmark, so its government refused to co-operate. That didn't stop the British Navy landing Marines in Reykjavik in the early hours on 10 May 1940.

Linklater was not in the landing force and says about his journey to Iceland, 
To travel speedily and well, one should attach oneself, if possible, to a General. There was a General, whose duty was taking him to Iceland when mine also pointed there, and being ordered to join him I crossed the Atlantic in the rapid luxury of a Sutherland flying-boat.
This journey with a three course lunch including steak and kidney pie, took six hours and 55 minutes. He notes that when Iceland Force, as the Allies named it, arrived in Iceland, "they were not received - as ingenuously they had expected - with open arms."
The Icelanders were displeased by the occupation of their country and, being unable to prevent it, they decided to ignore it. To ignore it as far as possible, that is. They assumed towards our troops an attitude of frosty indifference, and our troops, being friendly people, and so sure of the virtue of their cause that they could not see how anyone should doubt it, were sorely puzzled by this reception.
Linklater describes Reykjavik which then had a population of about 40,000 people and politely flatters the locals.
A generation ago the houses were nearly all of wood - farm buildings of turf -  but concrete has now taken the place of timber, and now there are rows of new houses all built according to modern notions of simplicity and functionalism, a rank of windowed cubes with a shelf on each to catch the sun.. There are little hat shops.. with an elegant sample or two of the latest fashions from New York; and there are book shops, half a dozen of them, that put to shame the illiteracy of many an English town of greater size; and there are flower shops where, you may discern a sheaf of roses, a pot of hydrangeas, that have been grown in greenhouses warmed by the hot springs of this icy and volcanic island.
An interesting town, with a brand new university of its own, a National Theatre - not wholly finished yet - and a statue to Leif Ericsson, the Icelander who discovered America.
The pamphlet describes Icelanders as having been flattered for some years by the attentions of German universities who studied Icelandic culture and the Sagas, For this reason, it says a previous generation of Icelandic students who studied in Germany had a nostalgic fondness for Germany with little idea of the realities of the Nazi state. The younger generation, it says, had been courted with cheaper university courses and there was a widespread admiration for German "efficiency". It is true that the relatively few Icelanders then able to go to university, considered Germany to be the European capital of culture, but most Icelanders knew precisely what the Nazi's regime was. Widely circulated leftwing Icelandic newspapers had reported the behaviour of the Nazis all through the 1930s when political polarisation meant some Icelanders admired Nazism and hoped to use it to contain Iceland's own trade unionists, socialists and Communists.

The thaw in relations between the troops and Icelanders, Linklater says, was due to the good sense of Icelanders, the good behaviour of the troops and the good market the British forces provided for Icelandic produce. Iceland had obviously lost it's European markets for fish and sheep produce and Linklater points out how much money the British Army poured into the country in one way or another, including the payment of overtime, for which Icelanders were presumably meant to be grateful.
All the local produce is bought - mutton and milk and fish - and local labour is paid high wages. In March of this year (1941) about £30,000 was paid out in wages; and like his British confrere, the Icelandic labourer is properly compensated for his wounded conscience when he agrees to work on the Sabbath day: 4.50 kronur an hour to be precise; three shillings and fourpence in English money.
This work on the army bases was known as Bretavinna - British work - although everyone agreed the money was good, it was also considered to be boring, menial and degrading to work for the occupiers. But the camp to the south east of Reykjavik was in an area where work was hard to find and people often had to take whatever work was available, even Bretavinna.

Linklater didn't see it that way as an apparent note of irritation crept in at Icelanders' lack of appreciation of the situation,
Camp after camp has been sited far less conveniently than it could have been had we shown less care and regard for the small and scanty fields of the Icelandic farmer.
Clearly, Linklater had no idea what those insignificant fields represented in years of labour, self independence and self respect to the farmers.

To combat boredom and loneliness and provided a bit of news from home, the Iceland Force bought an hour a day of its time from the Icelandic radio broadcasting service and made their own programmes. They also got the local brewery to make stronger beer for the troops. Linklater says, "Icelandic beer is the depressing sort known as near-beer", by which he meant that it was almost alcohol-free, as ordinary alcoholic beer had been illegal in Iceland since 1915. And the brewery couldn't keep up with the troops' demand.

Many members of Iceland Force would have agreed with Linklater when he described, "a fjord, bleak and barren.. and a narrow little village sitting nakedly on a hillside. The houses were white and the hill was white with snow. It all looked very cold and comfortless." An officer who had been in Iceland for nearly a year said appreciatively of the same village:
That's rather a nice little place, isn't it? It must be quite a sun-trap in summer.
 The British troops and Air Force, who were joined in July 1940 by Canadian troops, stayed until Americans troops arrived in 1941. The United States was still technically neutral until it joined the war in December 1941 but the Americans' presence in Iceland by agreement with the Icelandic government, meant that British troops were freed up to fight elsewhere. The continuing occupation divided Icelandic society politically and would, in 1948, cause an explosion of protest against Iceland joining NATO, The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

When Britain's Ministry of Information published The Northern Garrisons in 1941 it was fighting for "hearts and minds" when the Second World War was still in the balance. The German Nazi forces had stormed through Europe to the North Sea coast facing Britain and occupied the Channel Islands. The Russians had not yet beaten General Paulus and the Sixth Army at Stalingrad and it was not at all clear that the Allies would win.

The British government were trying with this pamphlet to reach a mass of ordinary people who on reading it, they hoped, would pass it on to friends and family and feel more involved. It was designed to be a morale booster for the troops in the Northern Garrisons and the British government may have hoped that English-reading Icelanders would also read it and feel part of the wider war. But Icelanders had been fighting for self-determination from Denmark and its servants for too long to be so easily reconciled to this occupation.

Inside cover of The Northern Garrisons: The Army at War