The Sinking of Iceland´s Góðafoss, 1944

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On November 23, the Icelanders of Victoria club showed the Icelandic film, Árásin á Góðafoss. The Góðafoss was an Eimskip ship that was torpedoed and sunk during 1944 by a German Uboat.

If Western Icelanders want to understand their Icelandic cousins, they need to know historical events like these. Although, only twenty-four people were killed in the attack, it is important to remember that Iceland’s population at the time was around 120,000. Because of the small population, nearly everyone in Iceland was related . The loss was a shock to the entire nation.

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The Góðafoss was a cargo and passenger ship. Iceland, in spite its occupation by Allied forces–British, Canadian and American–was neutral. It had no army, navy or air force. It had declared war on no one. Once the occupation took place, in spite of assurances from the military, control of Icelandic affairs was largely by the occupiers.

There was no need for them to point a gun, or drop a bomb. Along with having no way of defending its territorial integrity, Iceland was dependent on imports of oil and coal. Without oil the fishing fleet could not have operated. Without coal, the Icelanders would have suffered from the cold. They were no longer living in huts made of turf and lava. Geothermal energy was not yet fully developed. They were also heavily dependent on imports for other necessities. Their only market for their fish was England.

The Góðafoss was described as a steam merchant of one thousand, five hundred and forty-two tons. It was build in nineteen twenty one. The owner was Eimskipafélag Islands. Western Icelanders had a particular interest in the Eimskip ships, not just because family and friends owned them and worked on them but because money had been raised in Canada and the USA to help establish the company.

The ship was carrying forty-four people plus survivors from an oil tanker that had been torpedoed. It was also carrying twelve hundred and forty tons of cargo. It had traveled with a convoy from New York to Loch Ewe, Scotland. From there, it led a convoy toward Iceland.

Bad weather caused the convoy to break up and, after holding its place during the night, the Góðafoss and the oil tanker Shirvan continued toward Reykjavik. First, the Shirvan was torpedoed. It exploded and its cargo caught on fire. The captain of Góðafoss, Sigurður Gíslason, ignored standard military orders to ignore survivors.  He stopped to pick up the sailors from the tanker. This gave the German submarine captain, Fritz Hein, of U-300 an opportunity to attack the Góðafoss.After the torpedo struck, it only took seven minutes for the Góðafoss to sink.

During those seven minutes, there were attempts to get lifeboats and rafts into the water. However, because of the explosion, it was only with great difficulty that two lifeboats and one raft were released. One lifeboat that fell into the water was upside down.
Although there were many people in the sea, the navy made no attempt to rescue them. They even set off depth charges close to them that may have killed some of those who had survived the sinking.

An interesting note in the film was that the twenty-three year old submarine captain was ordered back to his base where he faced a court martial for sinking a ship from a neutral country. He was absolved of the charge because the Góðafoss was traveling in a military convoy and so was partially responsible for its fate.

The movie is in two parts, the first ending with the sinking of the Góðafoss. The second part is mostly interviews with survivors, including two German sailors who talked about their role in the sinking. One said that he was only seventeen when he joined the German submarine corp.

The first part of the movie is put together with Icelandic, Allied and German historical clips, with sections on the search for the wreck of the Góðafoss linking them . The film does an excellent job of showing something of what life was like in Reykjavik during the war. There is also a good depiction of what life was like for German submariners.

The second half of the film grips the heartstrings for it shows the outcomes for various people aboard the Góðafoss. There is the terrible fate of the  people who survived the explosion and clung to the overturned lifeboat until they lost consciousness and slipped into the ocean. The two women who were still on the hull when it was bumped during the rescue effort and one of them was knocked into the water and disappeared.

Such deaths are always tragic but the most tragic story of all has to be that of Dr. Sigrún Briem and her husband Dr. Friðgeir Ólason. They were returning to Iceland with their three childrenÆ Óli, 7, Sverrir, 2, and a baby, Sigrún. Sigrún and Friðgeir were returning to Iceland after completing their medical studies at Harvard. All were lost.
Ellen Ingibjörg Wagle Downey had married an American serviceman and was returning to Iceland with her three year old son, William. They both died. Ellen´s husband was fighting at the Battle of the Bulge but received permission to go to Iceland to be with Ellen´s family for a short time.

There were survivors. Somehow, miraculously, among the wreckage, some lived. One was Áslaug Sigurðardóttir. She is among those interviewed.

The story of the master of the ship, Sigurður Gislason, he who stood on the deck as the ship sank but was cast up by the rushing water instead of being drawn down, is, in itself, fascinating. He is interviewed.

And, finally, as it should, the film tells us the fate of the U-300 and its crew.

No one wins in war. The armies destroy each other but what they destroy more is the civilian population. In working on a different article about Iceland in 1944, I came across a quote from an American senior officer who said to an Icelander something like, “You are very fortunate that we got here first because if the Germans had got here first, we’d have rooted them out without worrying about the people of Iceland.” It is a brutal but straightforward statement. Today, we see it in many parts of the world. The combatants war against each other but the greatest casualties are the innocent civilians.

If your club hasn’t shown this film, ask for it to be shown. It’s nice to go around grunting like a Viking and all that with all the horror and tragedy washed away by time but if you really want to know about Iceland and Icelanders, it is more recent history that needs to be observed.

The film has an English voice over when Icelanders and Germans are being interviewed.

Oversexed Soldiers in Iceland

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The Brits came in the night, landed at Reykjavik with no fuss, no bayonets, no shots fired. They arrived to occupy Iceland because the Nazis had been sending delegations, were showing great interest in Iceland. Their interest was understandable since Iceland was like a great aircraft carrier in the North Sea. It provided a critical link in the supply route from North America to England.

Iceland has never had an army, navy or air force, no experience of warfare and, for centuries were forbidden to carry weapons, so the arrival of the British army occasioned a great deal of curiosity. Efforts were made on both sides to make the occupation as conflict free as possible. There were restrictions on when armed forces personnel could leave their base, on their behavior when off the base.

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The problem, however, was that first the Brits and then the Americans arrived in large numbers for such a small country. The soldiers were young, male, had some money to spend, were different. It was inevitable that there would be clashes between young Icelandic men and the soldiers. It was equally inevitable that many of the Icelanders would resent the occupation and the disruption of their lives.

Daisy Neijmann gave a talk at the University of Victoria (sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust) during the Learneds on the way that British and American soldiers have been portrayed in Icelandic fiction.

She pointed out that the soldiers were seen by some as engaged in trangressive behaviour exploiting women and children. The victims of this behaviour were women and children. The occupation was described as a fairy tale, a fantasy realm where monsters violated social order. It’s not surprising that some writers saw the soldiers as monsters. They were not “us” but “other”. They had uniforms, their behaviours were strange, they carried weapons, they spoke a language few Icelanders spoke and they didn’t speak Icelandic. With Iceland just emerging from a Middle Aged society, there was no previous experience of how to behave toward an occupying force.

Because the soldiers came in such large numbers, they were seen not as individuals but as indistinguishable from one another with references to them not with names but as the soldier, the major, with dark skins, moustaches, sharp facial features. They seemed to have no individuality. Given the number of soldiers, the uniforms, the military behavior, it is not surprising that they were seen that way.

The general attitude toward the soldiers was summed up by the Prime Ministers telling the people to avoid the soldiers as much as possible but to be polite.

Daisy gave examples from numerous books. In some of them the soldiers are seen as made of steel. In another, the lack of individuality of the soldiers is compared to the individuality of the Icelanders and the military ability of the soldiers is mocked.

Some of the books, Daisy mentioned were “Lover’s Gifts” (1955), “Jon the Cobbler”(1940), “Dancing by Daylight(1947), “North of War”(1971).

Through everything there is sexual tension. How real it was can be ascertained by the fact that women found consorting with soldiers were forcibly removed to the countryside away from temptation.

In “Her”(1968), there is this little dialogue.
“Hev jú sister?”
“Jes.“
“Is sí bjútifúl?“
“Jes.“

Those few lines capture the attitude about the soldiers. Oversexed, predatory, interested in nothing but seducing Icelandic women.

In “Lover‘s Gifts“ there is this line. “And these soldiers, well, they have nothing else to do but sleep with girls.“

What surprised me was not the attitude toward the soldiers. I‘d seen the same thing toward all the single airmen at the Gimli airbase. There was many a fist fight over some local girl. The local boys didn‘t like the competition by guys in snazzy uniforms who represented exotic places far away.

What did surprise me is that the writers repeatedly express contempt for women. And, more difficult yet, that the few women who wrote stories that included soldiers were just as contemptuous of women. It is as if women were the enemy.

However, in 1955, in a novel by Svava Dún, the main character says ‚ ”It had never been as fun to live in Reykjavik as these past days.“ The arrival of the soldiers is seen as very positive and life as better.

Daisy finished by saying that Indridason in one of his recent novels portrays an American soldier in a very positive light. The soldier is kind, empathetic, and protects a brutally abused Icelandic wife from a dreadful, violent Icelandic husband. This is a reversal of the way that the soldiers have been portrayed in the past.

Not many people of Icelandic descent in North America know much about the early occupation of Iceland by the British and then the Americans. It was interesting to hear how that era was experienced and reported by Icelandic authors.

Which Is The New Iceland?

When I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, that is, the capital of New Iceland, Iceland was a distant and storied place. During the war years, 1939-45, Iceland was an important strategic location, a permanent battle ship and aircraft carrier in the North Sea. Travel there was restricted largely to the military, first the British and then the Americans.

After the war, there were a few Icelanders who came to New Iceland. There were regarded as rather exotic creatures, sort of the way polar bears are when they drift onto land on ice floes.

A lot of people, including many of my relatives, spoke Icelandic. However, the tight, insular world of New Iceland, had started to break down. People who weren’t of Icelandic extraction lived in Gimli, Arborg, Riverton. WWII had brought the air force training base to Gimli and as a child, I was much more used to seeing and hearing pilots from many different countries than I was to seeing Icelanders. When I was in high school, two young airforce men from England taught us ball room dancing. They both had won dance contests in England. We heard French pilots in the bakery. We snuck onto the base so we could go to the rec centre to play basketball, swim in the pool, play badminton and floor hockey. When we became too noticeable, we’d be expelled. We’d wait a week or so, then walk the two miles to the PMQs, go from there through a hole in the perimeter fence, and make good use of the rec centre.

We grew up taking good Cantonese food for granted. Sam Toy provided excellent Cantonese food at prices we could afford.

Our classmates were German, Polish, Ukrainian, Irish, English. My father hired seasonal fishermen. Many of those were aboriginal.

However, there in the background, over coffee at Aunty Vi’s or at Dolly and George’s, at Grandma Bristow’s, there was Icelandic spoken. There were pictures of Iceland, post cards from Iceland, all those names ending in –sson but never –dottir since we’d stopped naming girls after their father’s, Helgisdottir or Ragnarsdottir and, instead, had adopted family names. We’d dropped the Icelandic letters. Valgarðsson had, in two generations, become Valgardson. Gottskalksson had become Olson.  And, perhaps more to the point, Gottskalksdottir had become Bristow and produced thirteen children who now traced their lineage not just to Iceland but to Oxford, England.

The Gimli Lutheran church had ministers from Iceland. The two seemed synonymous, Lutheran and Icelandic, as if all those German, Norwegian, Danish, American Lutherans, didn´t exist. Gradually, though, in Winnipeg and in Gimli, the services changed to English, the relationship between Icelandic and Lutheran faded. Having an Icelandic minister was no longer necessary.

We had some teachers of Icelandic background in elementary school but I don´t remember any difference that it made. In grade four we had Miss Greenberg, in grade five and six, Mr. Roal, in grade seven, Mr. Susky, in grade eight, Johnny Gottfried. None of them were of Icelandic background.

In high school, we had Miss Stefansson. The rest of the  high school teachers were a kaleidoscope of changing ethnicities.

We had the Icelandic Celebration. It was a party. A family party for a long time. A party about us, although I, for one, never learned anything about that Usness beyond seeing the Fjalkona on her podium, hearing some speeches in Icelandic which I didn´t understand. The speeches in English were filled with platitudes, no information. For me the Icelandic Celebration was about relatives swarming in through the door, lots of conversation, lots of food, and the occasional dollar slipped into my hand by happy visitors.

Today, we´ve got a viking statue that everyone loves in spite of his horned helmet, the local museum, the continuing Icelandic Celebration. The Icelandic language has mostly disappeared although a determined group meets at Amma´s Cafe regularly to practice speaking Icelandic. Icelandic desserts continue to be eaten but not baked sheep´s heads or dried cod.  

When a friend of mine went to Iceland some years ago and gave her name at a hotel, a name ending in –sson, which meant she was someone’s son, she got an odd look. Nowadays, no one would bat an eye. As a recent Icelandic visitor said to me, “That’s the way the spell Icelandic words in North America.”

Iceland is the New Iceland, no longer the poorest country in Europe, no longer rural, no longer isolated and New Iceland, well, it’s Canada.