By Magnús Erlendsson
Magnús Erlendsson was born on 10 May 1931. He is a retired businessman and politician and an avid amateur historian with a deep interest in Winston Churchill and the Second World War.
Winston Churchill was my boyhood hero and has since become for me a lifelong character study in leadership and greatness. My early childhood was marked by the coming of the Second World War and culminated in seeing the great man in person when he visited Iceland on 16 August 1941. Since then I have read everything I could lay my hands on regarding him. First it was his memoir My Early Life, which was published in an Icelandic translation in 1944 that I read again and again. Later I read books on the conduct of the war, his friends, his foes, and the fiends that stirred up the whirlwind of 1939–45. I have done my best to promote his values and defend his legacy. From that seed the Churchill Club of Iceland was founded, now an affiliate of The Churchill Centre, which will continue to tend the flame.
No one showed up for my ninth birthday! I had managed to coax my mother to permit me to invite all of my friends on my street, but none turned up. More perplexed than perturbed, I soon found out the reason why. That day turned out to be one of the most significant in the Second World War. It was 10 May 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister of the United Kingdom and the German offensive into Western Europe began. Most importantly for us in Iceland, however, it was the day the British showed up to occupy our island.
I had an inkling that the day would be unusual. My father had been woken up by the phone ringing at 5 AM that morning. His best friend was on the line, telling him that there were unusual activities in Reykjavik harbor. A few warships had anchored during the night, and there was the sound of warplanes flying over the city. I heard my father gasp: “My God, let’s hope it’s the British.” When his friend confirmed this to be the case, he was relieved and came into my room to relay the news to my mother and me.
My friends and I would go on spending that entire day jostling about the harbor watching the British come ashore unloading men and materiel. We had never witnessed anything so dramatic. So all interest in my birthday party vanished instantly as we and a crowd of intrigued Icelanders watched in awe the British occupying forces coming ashore in droves. Little did we know until later on of the unfolding of events in Europe that very same day.
In the years leading up to the breakout of the war, my interest and awareness of the tumultuous events unfolding grew steadily. Around the age of only five years old I started noticing the news about Mussolini’s aggression in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). I remember how my sympathies lay with the local population trying to stand up to the aggression, using only spears to fight against the Fascists, with their modern military equipment. Even to a young boy the contrast was obvious. This was not a fair fight.
At age seven or eight I began to take notice of the Spanish Civil War, with Franco’s Nationalist faction vying for power, which he eventually won in 1939. All this was high drama for a little boy just starting to understand the world around him. Then came 1 September 1939. I was then eight years old and had accompanied my mother, who was visiting a woman friend of hers. The radio was on in the background, and the announcer made the dramatic announcement that Germans had invaded Poland: “Warsaw is burning,” I recall him saying. I still recall vividly how those words sent cold shivers down my spine.
That clinched it for me. From that day onwards I read all five local daily newspapers, absorbing everything. My interest in the great drama unfolding was cemented, and I started noticing a new name taking center stage in the news, that of Winston S. Churchill who, on 3 September 1939, had just been made First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time in his life. “Winston was back,” as the British Navy learned quickly.
I did not quite understand it then, but Saturday, 16 August 1941 turned out to be a most remarkable day—probably one of the most memorable in my life. Although it started out as any other Saturday would, it was clear that something unusual was in the air. No one knew exactly what, but the daily Morgunbladid carried a small story on page 3 about a “fantastic” military parade that would take place later that day. The story also stated that something “interesting” would be happening at Reykjavik harbor around 10 AM that same morning and advised readers that they might want to be there to witness it.
I left my home that morning and met a friend already out and about. Since we knew something was going on, we were excited and went as quickly as we could down to the harbor. Already there was a great gathering of curious people not knowing what to expect. We watched as a destroyer came sailing into Reykjavik harbor and docked. And there on the deck, of all people, was Winston Churchill himself, waving to the crowd and wearing the jacket and cap of the Royal Yacht Squadron.
Churchill had just concluded the monumental Atlantic Conference with President Franklin Roosevelt off the shores of Newfoundland and decided to stop over for a day in Iceland on his way back home. The Americans were taking over the military protection of Iceland to free up British troops for direct engagement with the enemy. In a symbolic gesture, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. served as his father’s emissary, accompanying Churchill as a show of support, although the US was then not yet directly involved in the war.
In July, Churchill had stated in the British Parliament: “The military occupation of Iceland by the forces of the United States is an event of first-rate political and strategic importance; in fact, it is one of the most important things that has happened since the war began….The seizure of Iceland by Hitler would be of great advantage to him in bringing pressure to bear both on Great Britain and the United States.”1
As for his own visit to Iceland, Churchill wrote in his war memoirs: “We reached the island on Saturday morning, August 16 [on board HMS Prince of Wales], and anchored at Hvals Fiord [sic], from which we travelled to Reykjavik in a destroyer. On arrival at the port I received a remarkably warm and vociferous welcome from a large crowd, whose friendly greetings were repeated whenever our presence was recognized during our stay, culminating in scenes of great enthusiasm on our departure in the afternoon, to the accompaniment of such cheers and hand-clapping as have, I was assured, seldom been heard in the streets of Reykjavik.”2
I can vouch that Churchill was right. Although I was only a ten-year-old boy, I realized something monumental was happening—at least to us, the inhabitants of Iceland. As soon as it was realized who the dignified visitor was, a jolt of enthusiasm passed through the crowd, which could not and did not want to stop cheering.
Churchill was greeted at the dock by the Prime Minister of Iceland, Hermann Jonasson, who accompanied him directly to Alþingi (the Althing), Iceland’s House of Parliament. At the capitol, Churchill met other members of government and Sveinn Björnsson, then the Regent of Iceland, who later became the nation’s first president upon the declaration of Icelandic independence on 17 June 1944. Churchill told Prime Minister Jonasson that if the Germans had been the first to occupy Iceland instead of the British, it would have been vital for the British to regain control of the island. That is how important Iceland’s geography was to the conduct of the war in the North Atlantic.
While I was waiting with my friends outside the Parliament building, a crowd started gathering. Suddenly one of my friends, whose father was working inside as a page, came bursting out of the building holding a half- smoked cigar in his hands. “Do you see this?! Do you see this?!” he repeated with unadulterated enthusiasm. He had managed to snatch the half-smoked cigar that Churchill had put away in one of the ashtrays indoors. It was like he had struck gold! It became a prized possession of his for many years to come and still is to the best of my knowledge.
Churchill’s visit to the Althing and the meeting with Iceland’s leadership lasted around half an hour, but before he left he, the Regent, and the prime minister stepped out onto the balcony of the Althing and faced a public square that was packed full of people who now fully realized the importance of the surprise visitor. Around noon, and after a brief introduction by the Icelandic prime minister, Churchill made a short speech. In the haste of his visit, no microphone had been made available, and, because Churchill was rather soft-spoken, his words could barely be heard. But his remarks survive both in the Icelandic newspapers and among his wartime speeches in. He said:
I am glad to have an opportunity to visit the nation which for so long has loved democracy and freedom. We, and later the Americans, have undertaken to keep war away from this country. But you will all realize that if we had not come others would. We will do all in our power to make sure that our presence here shall cause as little trouble as possible in the lives of the Icelanders. But at the moment your country is an important base for the protection of the rights of the nations. When the present struggle is over, we, and the Americans, will ensure that Iceland shall receive absolute freedom. We come to you as one cultured nation to another, and it is our aim that your culture in the past may be joined to your progress in the future as a free people. I have pleasure in wishing you happiness and good luck in time to come.3
I saw Churchill speak and heard him as I was standing just beneath the balcony with all my friends among the crowd of thousands of Icelanders that had gathered outside. As Churchill left the building, we all cheered and waved. As it happens, a picture was taken that shows my face in the crowd. We were jubilant beyond belief. This was such an unreal turn of events that Winston Churchill had just turned up for a visit.
Churchill had a very busy day ahead of him. Although my friends and I did not have an opportunity to witness it, there was a great big military parade where Churchill reviewed many of the troops then stationed in Iceland. Afterwards he had lunch at the British Ambassador’s residence, then at the Höfði House where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev would later come to meet at the Reykjavik summit in 1986. And it goes to show how long Churchill’s shadow is in history that even the term “summit,” I believe, was coined by Churchill in 1950 during the dark days of the Cold War.
In his Second World War memoirs Churchill writes that after the review of the joint British and American forces and lunch with the ambassador “…I found the time to see the new airfields we were making, and also to visit the wonderful hot springs and the glasshouses they are made to serve. I thought immediately that they should also be used to heat Reykjavik and tried to further this plan even during the war. I am glad that it has now been carried out.”4
In full fairness, the idea of using hot water to heat up Reykjavik had been planned by the local authorities long before the outbreak of hostilities, but the war had postponed implementation. So the running joke in Iceland has been that Churchill at least convinced himself that he had given us the idea. But of course we forgive him, as we now know how and why Churchill’s interest in geothermal energy came about: because it was true and genuine.
During 1934 Churchill went through a lot of trouble and had to dig deep into his pockets to get heating installed for the outdoor pool at Chartwell, his country home in Kent. So when he saw the hot springs at Reykir during his visit to Iceland, all he could see was “free” hot water welling up from the ground—something for which he had had to pay a lot of hard-earned money. In hindsight, it is obvious why he was so interested and wanted to make sure we Icelanders took full advantage of our natural resources.
It was late Saturday afternoon when Churchill finally departed Reykjavik harbor on the same destroyer on which he arrived, now bound back for Hvalfjord where his transport, Prince of Wales, lay anchored. I of course was not going to miss seeing the great man one final time, so my friends and I had been waiting for him to show up. As he departed, the ships in the harbor whistled out V for Victory in Morse code. Later on we learned that when he returned to Hvalfjord, Churchill visited a few other ships and addressed the sailors onboard, assuring them of the importance of their duties. Hvalfjord, just north of Reykjavik, was playing and would continue to play a pivotal part as a deep-sea harbour for Allied merchant fleets in convoy to the Russian port of Murmansk, keeping the Soviets supplied until the Allies could open up a second front, as Stalin kept demanding until the D-Day invasion in 1944.
Winston Churchill’s one and only visit to my country was short, crowded, and unforgettable. As he promised, the Anglo-American occupation was only a temporary measure in the struggle for freedom. As he wished, and thanks in no small part to his efforts, we in Iceland prosper today as a free people.
1. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 8 vols. (New York: Chelsea House, 1974), vol. VI, p. 6446.
2. Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (London: Folio Society, 2000), p. 360.
3. Speeches, p. 6472.
4. The Grand Alliance, p. 360.
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