The Sinking of Iceland´s Góðafoss, 1944


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.

german sub
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.